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Church of England bishops clash with Cameron over refugees

Church of England bishops clash with Cameron over refugees

Over the weekend, a group of Church of England bishops released a letter they had sent to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, asking him to commit more resources and to more than double the number of refugees entering Europe from Syria that he had already said Britain would accommodate. From their letter:

It is a command in Judaism to “welcome and love the stranger as you would yourself because you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. Followers of Islam are obliged to provide food, shelter and safety to the traveller. Christ himself and his family were refugees at one point.

We are reminded that in the crypt of Canterbury cathedral there is a 17th-century notice which pays tribute to “the large and liberal spirit of the English church and the glorious asylum which England has in all times given to foreigners flying for refuge against oppression and tyranny”.

Such traditions and prayers must be joined with action. A moral crisis of this magnitude calls each and all of us to play our parts. We recognise and applaud the leadership you and your government are showing in this crisis, both as one of the world’s top international donors and in the recent announcement that the government will resettle 20,000 people over the next five years.

We stand ready to play our part as well. …

From what we see in congregations across the United Kingdom we are confident that the country stands ready and willing to support the government to be even more ambitious as it responds to this historic crisis.

We believe such is this country’s great tradition of sanctuary and generosity of spirit that we could feasibly resettle at least 10,000 people a year for the next two years, rising to a minimum of 50,000 in total over the five-year period you foresaw in your announcement. Such a number would bring us into line with comparable commitments made by other countries. It would be a meaningful and substantial response to the scale of human suffering we see daily.

We believe that should a National Welcome and Resettlement Board be established in response to the crisis, drawing together civic, corporate and government leadership to coordinate efforts and mobilise the nation as in times past, such an effort would not be beyond the British people. A senior bishop would gladly serve on such a board on our behalf and at your pleasure.

The letter was sent privately at first, then released by the bishops over the weekend. The Guardian published the letter on Saturday, remarking that it had been signed by “an overwhelming majority” of Church of England bishops.

On Monday, Cameron pushed back, saying that the bishops were wrong.

The prime minister came close to accusing the bishops of encouraging Syrian refugees to make the “dangerous journey” to Europe. He said that anyone advocating UK involvement in an EU quota system for refugees was encouraging the refugees to risk perilous journeys across the Mediterranean to the EU – usually to Greece. …

The prime minister told MPs that Britain was starting to accelerate the admission of Syrian refugees to Britain from camps in neighbouring countries. But he rebuked the 84 bishops for failing to acknowledge the £1bn in aid provided by Britain to Syrian refugees since 2012, which is designed to encourage them to remain in neighbouring countries rather than making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. The 20,000 refugees that will be allowed into Britain over the next five years will be taken from the camps in Syria’s neighbouring countries.

Cameron said: “We want to see 1,000 refugees brought to Britain by Christmas. We will report on that after Christmas to tell you how we have done.”

The Religion News Service reports that the bishops released the private letter, sent to the Prime Minister last month, after he failed to respond to them directly. Read more at the Guardian, including the full text of the bishops’ letter.

Photo credit: Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby speaks on Syrian refugees and counter-terrorism in the House of Lords in September. Via the website of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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