The Church of England has demanded that the British government offers sanctuary to thousands of Christians fleeing jihadists in northern Iraq, warning that ignoring their plight would constitute a "betrayal of Britain's moral and historical obligations".
A number of bishops have revealed their frustration over David Cameron's intransigence on the issue, arguing the UK has a responsibility to grant immediate asylum to Iraqi Christian communities recently forced to flee the northern city of Mosul after militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) threatened them with execution, a religious tax or forced conversion.
On Monday, France responded to the so-called religious cleansing by publicly granting asylum to Christians driven from Mosul. The Anglican Church argues the UK has an even greater responsibility to intervene, citing its central role in the 2003 allied invasion, which experts say triggered the destabilisation and sectarian violence that shaped the context for Isis to seize control of much of northern Iraq.
The bishop of Manchester, the Right Rev David Walker, told the Observer: "We would be failing to fulfil our obligations were we not to offer sanctuary. Having intervened so recently and extensively in Iraq, we have, even more than other countries, a moral duty in the UK.
"Given the vast amounts of money that we spent on the war in Iraq, the tiny cost of bringing some people fleeing for their lives to this country and allowing them to settle – and who, in due course, would be an asset to our society – would seem to be minuscule." Before the allied invasion, there were thought to be around a million Christians in Iraq.
About three-quarters left amid sectarian violence and attacks by jihadists. A decade ago an estimated 60,000 Christians lived in Mosul, a number that had fallen to about 35,000 when Isis swept into the city in June. The final members of its Christian community – one of the world's most ancient – fled last month.
The Right Rev Dr John Inge, bishop of Worcester, said: "I would be very disturbed if the government refused to do anything. The situation in Iraq is absolutely horrendous. It would sit very ill at ease with our values if nothing were to be offered. I am disappointed nothing has transpired so far." The bishop of Leeds, the Right Rev Nick Baines, said:
"We have a tradition of offering sanctuary to people who are oppressed, and it's part of the Christian heritage of this country and the law we have established that puts an obligation on us. We also have an obligation to at least raise with the government the possibility that we should be offering sanctuary to Christians in Iraq who have been effectively expelled under the threat of death.
"The government cannot remain silent and you cannot just issue words – you've got to put something behind that. If we can't offer sanctuary to these people, then who will? Not doing so would be tantamount to the betrayal of our moral and historical obligations."
Many Iraqi Christians are understood to have found shelter in areas controlled by Kurdish peshmerga fighters, but they face an uncertain future. Meanwhile, reports from Mosul – Iraq's second-biggest city – have described how statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary have been destroyed, monasteries turned into mosques, and the Arabic letter "N" for nasrani (Christians) daubed on the doors of houses to show that they had been seized as the property of the Islamic state.
The bishops also said that politicians needed to think and act beyond the constraints of the immigration debate.
Walker said that prospective numbers of Iraqi Christians would be relatively modest and easily assimilated into the UK, adding that they would be welcomed in Manchester, a city "enriched for two centuries by the refugee community who have come and made their home here".
By Mark Townsend