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British Archbishop’s Syrian Visit Highlights Plight of Iraqi Refugees
By Michael Ireland
Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
DAMASCUS SYRIA (ANS) — Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has described as “heartbreaking and harrowing” a recent meeting in Syria with refugees from Iraq.
More than two hundred refugees, mostly members of Christian congregations, met Dr Williams in a Syrian Orthodox monastery at Ma’aret Sednaya, outside the Syrian capital.

According to , a British Evangelical think-tank promoting theological ideas in the public square, Dr Williams heard at first hand the plight of some of the one and a half million refugees who have fled Iraq for Syria since 2003.

Ekklesia says that many of those present at the meeting had personal stories to tell of immediate family relatives who had been kidnapped, executed or threatened with killing unless they paid ransoms or fled the country. These, they said, were typical experiences.

A report by Ekklesia staff writers says the refugees spoke of their fear and uncertainty, their maltreatment at the hands of gangs; the breakdown of the communities which had sustained them and the deprivation and suffering they had experienced since leaving Iraq .

The report state that while British politicians and the tabloid media often complain about the “burden” of asylum seekers, Syria has had to absorb more than a million Iraqi victims of war and oppression, the Anglican leader learned. Some estimates suggest half a million more, and growing.

Among the relatively small number of Iraqis seeking asylum in the UK , only around one in six is allowed to remain, according to official figures that have triggered an international row over the British government’s approach, the Observer newspaper reports today.

The United Nations is becoming increasingly critical of the UK ‘s position on asylum at a time when a growing number of Iraqis are fleeing their country.

After immense pressure, the government is now about to bow on the question of asylum for Iraqi translators and assistants to British military and operatives in Iraq , Ekklesia understands.

Among the group he encountered on his visit to the Middle East , Archbishop Williams met Areej, aged 23, who had fled with her mother and brother after her uncle was killed and their lives threatened and Bashir, a university lecturer who fled after his 19-year-old son was shot and killed. Women in Christian communities in Oraq were regularly forced to wear the hijab and were followed as they went to Church, many stayed away from church for fear of reprisals.

The refugees told Dr Williams that their circumstances were desperate and unsustainable, with no hope either of a safe return to Iraq or of citizenship in Syria or elsewhere. They were grateful for what Syria had been able to do but their long term prospects remained bleak and there were fears that Syria would soon not be able to accommodate new refugees. Embassies, they reported, were refusing to open their doors to allow them to register as refugees. The Archbishop promised to do what he could to ensure that they were not forgotten and told them his prayers were with them, particularly for their children: