The United Nations and Western nations including Britain have been accused of abandoning Syria’s Christians in the face of widespread persecution by Islamic State and their Muslim countrymen – even within refugee camps.
Last September Britain’s then Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to take 20,000 Syrians from refugee camps in the region to aid the humanitarian effort in response to the Syrian civil war.
But figures obtained from the Home Office through a freedom of information request lodged by Christian Today has now revealed that 97.5 per cent of the Syrian refugees brought to the UK under the government’s resettlement scheme so far are Muslims, whereas Christians account for fewer than two percent.
Home Office records show that between September 7, 2015, and June 30 this year (the most recent figures available), 2,659 individuals were resettled under the government’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement (VPR) scheme.
Of those, 2,592 are Muslims whereas just 51 are Christians, four of whom are identified as Eastern Orthodox. Three Druze and 13 Yazidis were also resettled.
This is despite Syria’s Christian population before the war accounting for about ten per cent of the country’s population – and widespread acknowledgement that the Christian population in Syria is suffering extreme persecution.
Charity Open Doors, which works on behalf of persecuted Christians worldwide, reports: “Islamic State (IS) attacked 35 Christian villages in February 2015 alone, abducting over 250 people and driving 3,000 others from their homes; the militants later executed three Christian hostages. It is impossible to be a Christian in IS-controlled areas, and even in areas still controlled by the government, evangelism and conversion from Islam are illegal.”
In April, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry even went so far as to declare Islamic State as “responsible for genocide” against Christians, Yazidis and other minority groups in the territories it controls.
Despite the outflow of people from the region, there are still believed to be around 772,000 Christians remaining in the country, making up more than four per cent of the current population.
Yet the UN Agency charged with overseeing aid operations in the region, the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has been accused of marginalising Christians and other minorities, both within refugee camps in the region, and through its resettlement programmes.
According to Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer with more than thirty years’ experience behind her, the fault in the UNHCR lies at the very top.
Writing for the Wall Street Journal, she recounted an exchange she had in December with the UN’s then-high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, in which she inquired why so few Christians were being resettled abroad.
“The replies – from a man poised to be the U.N’s next secretary-general – were shocking and illuminating,” she wrote.
“Mr. Guterres said that generally Syria’s Christians should not be resettled, because they are part of the “DNA of the Middle East”. He added that Lebanon’s Christian president had asked him not to remove Christian refugees. Mr. Guterres thus appeared to be articulating what amounts to a religious-discrimination policy, for political ends.”
In January, a report by the Catholic News Service on Christian refugees in Lebanon, where the majority of Syrian refugees are encamped, stated: “Exit options seem hopeless as refugees complain that the staff members of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are not following up on their cases after an initial interview.”
The outcome for Christians in the region is disastrous.
Fearing persecution from Muslims within the refugee camps, and unsure of being resettled, many Christians are opting to stay away. Instead, they are seeking shelter in the homes of fellow Christians, even if it means sleeping 30 to a room, according to John Pontifex, head of information at Aid to the Church in Need.
He told Christian Today that the Home Office figures highlight “the degree to which Christians are being left out. They are unable to claim proper help or to seek asylum in the West.
“This is a community of suffering that has just disappeared below the radar. It is a crying shame, and these figures point to the way the crisis facing Christians, Yazidis and other minority faiths has been completely overlooked.”
A Home Office spokesperson commented: “The UK has been at the forefront of the international response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. We have committed to resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees through our Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme over the course of this parliament — we are on track to achieve that and have already provided refuge to more than 2,800 under this route.
“We are clear that the scheme will prioritise the most vulnerable refugees, which is why under the VPR scheme the UNHCR identifies refugees for resettlement using its established vulnerability criteria.”