Mary Dejevsky Guardian/UK 18 August 2014
Canon Andrew White, interviewed by the BBC about the dwindling number of Christians in Iraq, suggested that the British government should mount an airlift to bring 20,000 to 30,000 of them to safety in the UK. Local churches, he said, would support them. The arguments were set out most forcefully by the bishop of Leeds in a letter to David Cameron, which had been written, he said, with the support of the archbishop of Canterbury.
In it, the bishop contrasted the “notable and admirable” focus by politicians and media on the plight of Iraq’s Yazidi minority with the “increasing silence about the plight of tens of thousands of Christians”. “Despite appalling persecution,” he went on, “they seem to have fallen from consciousness. His observation is not wrong. Only four months ago the prime minister was saying that the UK “should be more confident about our status as a Christian country” – yet he and his ministers have been conspicuously slow to acknowledge, let alone do anything about, the expulsions of Christians from many parts of the Middle East.
And there is one obvious reason. Less than a year away from a general election in which immigration is likely to loom large and Ukip threatens incursions into hitherto safe Tory territory, the last thing a Conservative-led government needs is the arrival of tens of thousands of new asylum seekers, however valid their case for refuge might be.
This time last year, when the international outcry over Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons was at its height, the government offered no welcome for Syrian refugees, insisting that it was giving generously to provide camps in the region. A similarly hard line is evident now. Germany, France, the Scandinavian countries and even Australia are offering homes to new Iraqi refugees, but not Britain – even though our role in the Iraq war could be seen as leaving us with some moral responsibility.
There is, though, rather more in play here than raw numbers of potential asylum seekers. The prominence of the bishops, and their stress on the plight of displaced Christians, highlights something else: the competing pressures on UK foreign policy from the demographic changes taking place in Britain. It is not just migration that will be at issue in the next election, but the ability of this country – with or without Scotland – to function in the future with a single, agreed set of interests abroad.
The conflicts afflicting what might be called the greater Middle East, but not just this region, pose the question with a particular clarity. The UK t is not only a Christian country, and if persecuted Christians are privileged above other asylum seekers, how might this be interpreted by the growing non-Christian (especially Muslim) part of the population? What political or social effects might it have?
Consider also the latest fighting in Gaza. The UK has traditionally behaved as a staunch ally of Israel. This time, the government’s sympathy for Israel’s actions went too far for Sayeeda Warsi, a Foreign Office minister who is also a Muslim, who resigned from her post. Lady Warsi represents a big electoral loss to the Conservatives, who still struggle to appeal to voters from ethnic minorities.
A mixed society, in which ethnic and religious groups can have their say, is possible, and Britain has been more successful than many countries in bringing this about. But translating this into a coherent foreign policy is not so easy, as different groups, wielding different degrees of influence, want to shape it according to their own, at times mutually exclusive, interests.
This is not a uniquely British dilemma. The Turkish populations of Germany and Austria are a factor in the foreign policy decisions of those countries, and in the US anti-Castro exiles who once dictated Cuba policy are being superseded by Latin Americans arguing for easier immigration. The extent to which religious difference threatens to impinge on UK foreign policy, however, is new, and will only grow. No wonder Cameron is wary of granting the bishops’ request to save persecuted Christians before others, but his very hesitation speaks eloquently of changing times, at home as well as abroad.