Will Europe's persecuted Christian refugees be acknowledged in Jeremy Hunt's review?

Europe has accepted large numbers of refugees from war-torn countries in the Middle EastReuters

Many Christian refugees from the Middle East report facing persecution from Islamic extremists in the refugee camps and centres in Europe and converts from Islam to Christianity are in the worst danger, as they are considered apostates by the extremists.

Although protection policies exist in UN treaties and international refugee law, these protections are rarely implemented because officials fear that they will be accused of discrimination. In effect, most agencies and charities working with refugees in Europe choose to ignore the problem.

The interim report into persecution by the Bishop of Truro for the Foreign Secretary, released on Friday, also ignores the plight of Christian refugees in Europe, even when it was highlighted as part of the oral and written evidence submitted to the independent review panel in Westminster.

In fact, the report doesn't mention what is happening with Christians in Europe or Great Britain at all.

Yochana Darling, head of mission at (ICC), which manages a day centre and safe houses for Christian refugees in Greece, was one of those who gave oral evidence to the Westminster panel.

According to that evidence, Christian refugees in Athens were surrounded by Muslim extremists and shown videos of the Islamic State beheading Christians. They were told they would be next.

The review panel were told that when a family was relocated from a camp to official agency accommodation, they were attacked with knives.

An Iranian refugee in Greece suffered a heart attack when around fifty extremists surrounded their accommodation unit after he returned from church with his family. The extremists poured petrol on their temporary home and held knives to the throats of the women and children. The security guards were too afraid to intervene.

"Verbal abuse is normal," Yochana tells me. "Christians are mocked, ridiculed, and called kafirs [unbeliever]. That happens daily. More concerning though are the high numbers of regular death threats and threats of physical harm. Over the past three years, we have come across countless cases of actual physical and sexual assaults."

In 2016, both Open Doors in Germany and ICC in Greece published two separate reports on the persecution of Christian refugees. These reports were independent from each other but produced almost identical results: at the time, 87-88 per cent of respondents reported of persecution in refugee and migrant camps and accommodation. And because the persecution is ignored, it continues unabated.

"Rape is used as a punishment for conversion and a method of coercion to get apostates to repent and return to Islam," Yochana says.

"Women and children have had knives held to their throats, whilst fathers and husbands are beaten with metal pipes and other implements. Families have had petrol poured over them and threatened with burning alive, just because they were reading their Bibles together and singing some worship songs.

"Tents and accommodation have been destroyed and Christians driven out of camps and other accommodation.

"The police and camp officials don't intervene, and no protection is given."

In Greece, there have been many reports of male converts being gang-raped as punishment.

In the Moria camp, on the island of Lesvos, 95 per cent of Christian refugees told ICC it was unsafe to read the Bible. In Germany, an Afghan man was recently stabbed because of his faith. He survived but the police told him he was lying and that the attack had nothing to do with him being a Christian, so that it wouldn't be recorded as a hate crime.

Some Western Christians are sceptical about refugees converting to Christianity but the grim reality is that converting from Islam to Christianity can be dangerous anywhere in Europe. We hear similar reports of attacks on converts across Europe, including Britain.

Our contacts in Germany tell us that when Muslim converts to Christianity are attacked, the emergency services often delay their arrival. This has resulted in the death of some converts.

"It's a politically sensitive question but overwhelmingly the persecutors are fellow asylum seekers from the Middle East and from Islamic backgrounds," Yochana says.

"There are concerns about the number of extremist groups in the camps, and this is something that we are told regularly by our charity's beneficiaries, who are shocked that their persecutors in the Middle East have followed them into the camps.

She asserts that government and other official agencies "avoid looking at religion at any cost".

"The general policy is to not ask anything about religious beliefs or issues, and consequently, religious persecution is usually completely off their radar," she says.

"They fear political consequences or accusations of preferential treatment if they consider the dangers faced by Christian refugees and converts.

"People still tend to consider Europe as a Christian majority continent, and it can be challenging for people to understand that Christian refugees are a religious minority group in need of protection in certain situations."

ICC has a day centre in Athens specifically for the Christian refugees. They need to feel safe to access integration support services and other types of support, so it has become a vital hub for many of the organisation's beneficiaries.

So what does Yochana want to see happen?

"The first thing that needs to happen is recognition of the issue," she says.

"Fear of political backlash or accusations of discrimination is not an excuse to ignore serious violations of religious
freedom rights in Europe.

"More support needs to be given to this group, which is currently a hidden persecuted minority, and protection measures in camps and other accommodation need to be implemented. Currently this is not happening."

Yochana says that the wider refugee population also needs to be educated about religious freedom rights.

Many people working with refugees are willing to talk about the issue off the record but fear that talking about it publicly could endanger the important work they are doing improving the lives of the refugees. Also, they fear that the wider refugee population, who have nothing to do with the extremist groups, will be demonised and that public opinion that is often already hostile against refugees, will become even more so.

But we can't ignore these attacks any longer, she concludes.

"It would be wonderful to see the British Foreign Office take a stand in this matter and lead by example in upholding these fundamental human rights, which are currently being completely ignored for Christian refugees", Yochana says.

With the Bishop of Truro's full report due out in the summer, it will be interesting to see if the plight of Europe's Christian refugees is acknowledged then.