UK reputation as safe haven threatened by scandal over church visas
An editorial from the persecuted church agency Barnabas Fund last week drew attention to the disturbing story of how the Archbishop of Mosul and two other archbishops from areas of Iraq and Syria which have been seized by Islamic State had all been denied UK visas.
All three men had been due to attend the consecration of the UK’s first Syriac Orthodox cathedral by the worldwide head of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II. Prince Charles was the guest of honour at the service and personal letters were read out from both HM the Queen and the Prime Minister.
Yet this was not an isolated incident. Other Christian leaders from contexts of persecution are being denied UK visas. Earlier this year Barnabas Fund reported that they had hoped to bring Majeed Rashid Kurdi, an evangelical pastor whom they had helped to rescue from Iraq, on a UK speaking tour. Yet he was refused a UK visa, even though his family is now permanently resident in the Czech Republic. A month ago two separate cases of Protestant pastors being refused visas were reported. Both of these pastors had been persecuted by the Mugabe regime.
Nor are these the only two such cases. Just last week East Renfrewshire MP Kirsten Oswald asked the Prime Minister why UK visas have twice been refused for members of Pakistan’s Hyderabad diocese to visit the Church of Scotland presbytery of Glasgow as part of a twinning initiative.
It is not ministers, but civil servants at the UK Border Agency who make visa decisions. Yet there is clearly a problem and government ministers need to find out why this is happening and deal with it urgently. Any institutional prejudice against Christians in the UK Home Office or UK Border Agency needs to be rooted out. This is an issue that is now being talked about around the world and potentially threatens the UK’s centuries old reputation as a safe haven for victims of religious persecution overseas.