Seeking Asylum 

Hospitality is a Christian virtue and we find one of the earliest examples of it when Abraham offered it to the three angels on the plains of Mamre (Genesis XVIII), which is seen by many patristic writers as a symbol or prefiguration of the Holy Trinity or even a Theophany. Indeed, St. Paul writes to the Hebrews, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews XIII: 2). Hospitality to strangers is a recurring theme in the scriptures and is given particular emphasis by our Lord when speaking about the Last Judgement, “I was a stranger and ye took me in …” Nor should we forget that our Creator, Saviour and Redeemer was born in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn.

My first involvement with helping asylum seekers came within days of my return from Cairo after His Holiness Pope Shenouda had ordained me a Metropolitan. In those days it was Sudanese Copts who were having a particularly hard time but I also had my first experience of dealing with converts from Islam.

In one case a couple and their children had converted and the church had arranged for them to settle in Kenya, but not before the ‘pious’ Muslim grandmother had tried to poison them all for fear of the shame it would bring on the family. They were all taken seriously ill but one of the children suffered permanent brain damage and was thereafter confined to a wheelchair. The daughter travelled to England and I was able to assist her getting settled here. A kind Anglican priest and his wife had her living with them for several months, whilst the Barnabas Fund stepped in to offer practical support. She is now happily married to a Copt with her own family, although the family back in Kenya had its problems at that time. The homesick father, against the advice of all those who knew, decided to return to Cairo to settle some affairs and, predictably, was immediately arrested at the airport. It took almost a year before he was freed and in that time, once again the Barnabas Fund stepped in to help the family in Kenya, who had now lost its principal breadwinner.

Over the past two decades I have worked closely with the Barnabas Fund and its director, Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo, now a chorepiscopos in the Syrian Orthodox Church. I cannot speak too highly of the open-hearted way in which they have responded to the many cases I have asked them to support and the sensible practical advice and care they offer. The work of the Fund has grown enormously in this time and thousands of Christians throughout the world are being supported through its ministry.

I was particularly offended this past week to see a gratuitous attack on the Fund written by an Anglican priest whom I respect for his work supporting Christian communities in Syria. For him “the bigots of the Barnabas Fund are on the same wavelength as the jihadists in their sectarian approach and are driving a wedge between Christians and the other peoples of Syria.” Their ‘bigotry’ consists of offering financial support exclusively to Christians. Whilst I have publicly urged the British government to offer to all the victims of this civil war “strictly humanitarian aid, mediated through recognised independent agencies” and am encouraged that the UK government is doing that, I do not find it a problem that there should be Christians supporting Christians.

Of course, the Barnabas Fund has a very deep concern about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and is not always popular for highlighting the numerous instances of persecution arising from this and the need to be informed and vigilant. However, Dr. Sookhdeo has a distinguished record of upholding truth and justice from opposing neo-Nazi movements in East London; working with Dr. Zaki Badawi of London’s Muslim College to stand together against the violence being perpetrated against Muslim minorities in Bosnia; to working closely with senior Muslim clerics so that NATO forces could better provide for the needs of the Muslim communities. What the Fund is not willing to avoid is the subject of justice for faith minorities or to dismiss examples of persecution to ensure better community and race relations. It has embraced its calling as “a voice for the voiceless.”            

Another organisation I have come to work with closely and trust is United Copts of Great Britain directed by Dr. Ibrahim Habib. This is one of a number of small groups of dedicated professional people who commit their time and money to helping Copts escaping persecution as well as those who have converted from Islam. The Lord works in mysterious ways and in the network of helpers United Copts is always in the forefront offering support.

From initially writing letters of support, my involvement has steadily increased and I have been privileged to appear in person at a number of court Appeals, most of which we have won. As a senior member of the Coptic Church hierarchy I am able to speak with some authority in highlighting the concerns for the welfare of those targeted by extremists or who have risked all to convert.

With a number of formal and informal groups working in this field, many of them with expert knowledge or experience, there is always a certain overlapping of skills, so on the initiative of H.G. Bishop Angaelos, the Asylum Advocacy Group came into being. One of the practical achievements of the AAG has been to open up direct dialogue with the UK Border Agency and for us to meet some of their senior staff to voice our concerns.

The Border Agency continues to adopt a very harsh interpretation of the asylum laws and the initial interview can be a harrowing experience. Even with Copts they are subjected to quite a grilling to ascertain whether they really are genuinely Coptic Christians. The questioning is often quite appalling with the interviewer having little more knowledge of the Coptic Church than he can glean from Wikipedia. They are asked the names of the twelve apostles, the Coptic months of the year and if they make a mistake or give a variant rendering of a name – Baramouda instead of Parmouti – they can be in trouble.

On one occasion I saw a letter written by one of our bishops in Egypt in support of a Coptic asylum seeker. It spoke of the hardships he had endured and appealed in the name of God for the court’s mercy. Unfortunately such a letter was worthless because courts do not have hearts that can be moved by emotion, but require hard evidence and reason. The truth is that it has not always been easy for Coptic clergy to appear in person in courts because they have a dual role of looking after their flocks whilst retaining good relations with the embassy and consular staff. It is somewhat easier for an Englishman rather than an Egyptian to express himself more freely.

Immigration Law is very specialised and complex and is mutating with every judgement made. This ‘handbook’ bought early last year was the sixth edition but there is already an eighth edition available. We sometimes find unlikely allies in our desire for justice. In July 2010 the Supreme Court in dealing with homosexual asylum seekers unanimously rejected the UKBA’s view that it could refuse asylum if it would be ‘reasonably tolerable’ for the applicant to avoid future persecution by concealing their sexual identity in their country of origin. The implication for this judgement is also that the same must be true for those expected to conceal their religious identity in order to avoid future persecution and we are now using the same argument. 

Some of you may recall the riots in Alexandria in 2005 following the publication of an inflammatory story in a Cairo tabloid newspaper concerning a church play that it claimed defamed Islam. Another Cairo weekly, Al-Osbou picked up the theme and further fanned the sectarian flames. The play, which had been produced to combat terrorism not Islam, was about a poor Christian university student who converts to Islam after a group of Muslims offer him money to do so, was called “I was blind but now I can see”. The twist in the plot comes when the convert later decides to return to Christianity and the same Muslims then threaten him with violence. The journalist, Waleed Orabi, even claimed that CDs featuring the performance were being distributed in the neighbourhood. 

It was my privilege to appear in person for two asylum seekers who were involved in the controversial church play in Alexandria dealing with conversion, which – with God’s grace – we won. Although I had discussed the cases thoroughly, I had not been briefed as well as I should. In cross examination I was asked if I thought the appellant would be readily recognised from his acting in the film and honestly replied that I did, but the judge followed it up with, “but he was wearing a false beard at the time” to which I could only say that even such disguises were not completely effective if we knew the person already !  

The same day on which Pope Shenouda ordained me Metropolitan, he also ordained the first Eritrean bishops, so from the very earliest days the British Orthodox Church felt a special kinship with the Eritrean Orthodox community, both here and throughout the world. In his frequent absences from the UK, the Eritrean Bishop Markos asked me to give practical and spiritual support to his community here, with the result that we worked very closely with them. When their first church (a converted pub in Camberwell) was consecrated I was the only non-Eritrean cleric present to assist their bishop. Gradually news began filtering through about oppression of religious minorities. A friend, closely involved in human rights issues, asked me about my opinion of this and I told him that I could not disapprove of persecution of Orthodox Christians in Egypt and at the same time countenance the persecution of anyone for their religious beliefs anywhere else in the world: the principal was the same.

Of course the victims in Eritrea at that time were Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah Witnesses and Pentecostals – none of whom I agreed with, but who – nevertheless – had the inherent free will to choose to follow their beliefs without fear of oppression or persecution. It was also put to me that the Eritrean government had the support of the Orthodox Church in this. When I tackled Bishop Markos he airily dismissed the suggestion and shrugged it off with a joke but I wasn’t entirely happy so I sought a meeting with the then Eritrean ambassador. He received me courteously and resolutely denied any idea of persecution, at the same time extending an invitation on behalf of his government to visit the country. “Would I be allowed to visit the people alleged to be imprisoned or suffering persecution?” – I was told I would and I assured the ambassador that my desire was to verify or disprove the accounts being circulated. Of course, I heard no more about any visit and soon after news of persecutions increased.  As you will know it soon spread from the Protestant sects to other communities, even to the Orthodox who had previously seemed invulnerable.

You may recall the words of the late Dr. Martin Niemöller, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

One of those Eritrean bishops ordained with me became their third Patriarch, Abune Antonios. I remember being in Cairo a few days before Pope Shenouda was due to set off for his enthronement in Eritrea. Great friends of mine who were especially close to the late Pope, told me of how they had sat with him late into the night helping to gift wrap personal gifts he had carefully chosen for the new Patriarch. Yet only a couple of years later, because he did speak out and also refused to excommunicate brave priests of his who condemned the persecution, Abune Antonios was arbitrarily removed from office and many of those personal gifts – his crown, his pectoral ikon, his handcrosss, his pastoral staff, his vestments – were taken from him and given to a usurper.

Despite their entreaties, Pope Shenouda refused to recognise the government’s appointee and we continue to pray for Patriarch Antonios, who still languishes in prison six years later. I was also present when Pope Shenouda refused to receive Bishop Markos and told him to his face that he had betrayed his Patriarch. A little later Bishop Makarios was authorised by Pope Shenouda to care for the loyalist Eritreans and their clergy and the Coptic Holy Synod recognises only these, not the Asmara Patriarch and his ‘Holy Synod’, as representing the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Sadly, I no longer attend the church I helped to consecrate in Camberwell but with Bishop Makarios’ blessing I give pastoral oversight to the loyalist clergy and congregations here and each year stand with other human rights’ activists in prayerful protest outside the Eritrean Embassy in London.  

You will see that my activities have in fact been much wider than campaigning for the Human rights of the Copts and I make no apologies for that because whilst the Coptic Church is our Mother Church, our motivation should be to uphold truth, justice and righteousness, not merely to look after our own in a narrowly ethnic sense. I had a nasty experience once when a very respectable Europeanised Copt asked if he could meet me. I was very busy at the time and suggested he might come to the Eritrean Church where I was praying and we could chat together over lunch afterwards. He came but he was not comfortable there and afterwards asked me why I was mixing with people like these, who he obviously regarded as lacking something Copts had from birth !

I have also detected a certain ambivalence about converts from Islam. They are sometimes treated more as a victory trophy, proving the superiority of Christianity over Islam, but not always fully accepted as a true-bloodied Copt who you would want your son or daughter to marry. Although Egypt calls itself an “Arab Republic” the fact is that its population are still ethnically the sons and daughters of the pharaohs. Most of today’s Muslims – President Mursi included – are the descendants of Copts who in the centuries since the Conquest were gradually forced, cajoled or induced to convert to Islam; so when an Egyptian Muslim converts to Christianity, they are only coming home to the faith of their ancestors. They are the prodigals who return and we should be like the father, running ahead to greet them and offer them the best robe and the fatted calf. 

The Apostle St. Paul, writing to the Galatians, encourages them “to stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” (Galatians V: 1) The apostle, of course, was not speaking of civil liberties but of the contrast between the slavery of the Mosaic Law and the liberty of life in Christ, with free will as a gift from God to man. It is therefore the foundation of all human rights. If we rely on governments to grant us human rights then logically they can deny them to us when they chose.

Madeleine L’Engle said, “To take away a man’s freedom of choice, even his freedom to make the wrong choice, is to manipulate him as though he were a puppet and not a person.”

Created in the image of God, St. John says, “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God .. and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him.” (1 John III: 1-2). It is precisely because of that divinely-given vocation that a human being’s freedom is so precious and must be upheld. 

Abba Seraphim

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