In an open letter of protest signed by other concerned church men and women, London vicar Father Christopher Phillips is demanding to know why the Government refused visas to three Orthodox Christian archbishops invited to travel to London for the consecration of a new cathedral.
The Bishop of Coventry Christopher Cocksworth has also tabled a question in the House of Lords that is still awaiting a response. He has asked the Government “whether they have any plans to review why the Archbishop of Mosul, the Archbishop of St Matthews and the Archbishop of Homs and Hama were refused visas to travel to the UK from Iraq and Syria to attend the consecration of the Syriac Orthodox Cathedral in London”.
Prince Charles attended the consecration of the new cathedral last month. He celebrated the event in style, even dancing with members of the congregation after the service.
But he also acknowledged the terrible sufferings of so many Christians in Syria: “It is surely deeply encouraging, at a time when the members of the Syriac Orthodox Church in their homelands of Syria and Iraq are undergoing such desperate trials and such appalling suffering, that in Britain the Syriac Church is able to expand and gain in strength,” he said.
The Archbishop of Mosul, Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, the Archbishop of St Matthew’s in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain, Timothius Mousa Shamani, and the Archbishop of Homs and Hama in Syria, Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh, were told they could not attend.
The British Government insisted it could make no exceptions to its policy of refusing all visa applications from Syria. The archbishops were also told they did not have enough money to support themselves in the UK and they might not leave.
In his letter to Home Secretary Amber Rudd, signed by Bishop of Willesden Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Buckingham Alan Wilson and other senior clergy, Fr Phillips writes that it was “particularly pleasing” to see the support lent to the consecration of the cathedral by the Queen and the Prince of Wales.
He notes that Prime Minister Theresa May wrote a letter to be read out to the congregation, in which she spoke of “the appalling violence that has afflicted so many areas of the Middle East [which] reminds us how fortunate we are to live in a country where different religious beliefs are not only tolerated, but welcomed.”
Phillips continues: “We are therefore dismayed that the applications of the Archbishops of Mosul, St Matthew’s, and Homs and Hama for visas to attend the service should have been refused by your office. Each of the dioceses represented by the Archbishops covers territory that has been taken over by Daesh/IS, and Christians there are subject to extreme forms of persecution.
“These are respected Christian leaders, whose bona fides could easily have been checked with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office at Lambeth Palace, or with the Syriac Orthodox Church in this country.
“The reasons given for the refusal of their visa applications (either that they had insufficient funds to support themselves while in the UK, or that there was reason to be concerned that they might not leave the country afterwards) do not seem to take seriously the reality of the Archbishops’ urgent and serious pastoral responsibilities in their home countries.”
He says guarantees could easily have been found and there must therefore be “a problem with the system”.
He concludes: “We call on you urgently to investigate how such a state of affairs has come to exist, and to consider what reforms can be put into place to ensure a more equitable and compassionate system of assessment for such applications.”
Other signatories include Simon Jones, chaplain of Merton College, Oxford, Edward Lewis, Vicar of St Mary, Kenton in London and a chaplain to the Queen, Philippa White, succentor of Lincoln Cathedral Adrian Furse, succentor of St David’s Cathedral in the Church in Wales and Antony Grant of the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield.
Fr Phillips told Christian Today that it seemed an appropriate issue for him to highlight because the new cathedral is in his area of Willesden.
“Seeing recent reports about St Thomas’ and the Archbishops’ visas, I decided I could no longer remain silent and resolved to do something, however small, to try to help. I very much hope that the government will review the way that they consider visas in order to ensure that there is a sensible system of checking credentials. It is very important that respected Christian leaders from areas of persecution are able to travel freely as part of their ministry, to draw attention to the suffering of their people.”