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Lord Weidenfeld: 'A family of Christians took me in as a refugee'

As a penniless young Jewish man, the celebrated UK publisher Lord Weidenfeld fled Nazi-occupied Austria with the help of British Christians. The nonagenarian now feels it is time to repay the debt.

Saving Christian families from Syria and Iraq - that is the aim of the Safe Havens operation. British relief agency the Barnabas Fund says the number of Christians living in Iraq has dropped from 1.5 million to 300,000 in just over ten years. Meanwhile in Syria, the agency says an estimated half a million Christians out of two million have fled since the beginning of the current conflict.

DW: Earlier this year, you launched the Safe Havens project. To what extent did your own past act as a catalyst for the operation?

Lord George Weidenfeld: I wanted to repay the great warmth and charity I experienced from Christian friends when I arrived in this country and when my father and my mother's lives were at stake. A family of evangelical Christians called Plymouth Brethren, an English sect, took me in when I arrived as a penniless refugee in England.

I lived like a member of the family, and was allowed to continue to study. Shortly before the outbreak of the war, they saved my parents and brought them over by guaranteeing to the British authorities that they would look after them financially. That was a very important fact in my life: I was beholden to Christians.

The other thing was the fact that I was privileged to have been part of a group that, every year, attended a long weekend at the papal residence of John Paul II at Castel Gandolfo. The group of about 25 Jews and Christians, academics and intellectuals, had this wonderful opportunity of meeting the man who coined the phrase: "The Jew is the elder brother of the Church."

So, it's a double debt I wanted to repay: to that wonderful family and to the memory of a great pope, who said what I always felt, that we and the Catholics are brothers.

The Safe Havens project comes many decades after your own lucky escape. Why now?

Lord George Weidenfeld, publisher and philanthropist

Lord George Weidenfeld, publisher and philanthropist

Because now I believe I am in a position ... to make a contribution. I'm using this opportunity by trying to help a group of Christian families - approximately 2,000 families, or 10,000 souls - under control of ISIS, to bring them to safe havens where they can lead Christian lives.

How is Safe Havens funded?

There is a Jewish and a Christian network. The Jewish network is trying to produce the cash, the Christian network is producing the contacts with the people, to bring them to safe havens in various countries of the world.

The program is aimed expressly at Christians - for the most part in Syria and Iraq. Critics have argued this discriminates against Muslims.

This is no discrimination against Muslims. Muslims in the same situation can take a 100-kilometer taxi ride - and they're in a safe haven. I wish the Muslims all the help, and I'm sorry for them, but logistically, they are a few kilometers from the United Emirates who are awash with money. The Christians have nowhere to go, and nobody gives them any money, they have no logistical support. That's the difference.

How many Syrian Christians has the program safely brought out of the country so far, and where are they taken?

So far, the only two countries in Europe who are showing any signs of helping are the Poles and the Czechs. The Poles are responsible for almost 10 percent: 1,000 people, sent in groups of 40 and 60 over the months. The Czech Republic has taken 400. Germany has its own problems with immigrants, we've tried to get in touch but we haven't gotten very far.

We don't count on Europe very much. We count on Australia, Canada and Brazil, and to some extent South Africa.

From your own experience as a refugee so many years ago: what can you pass on to refugees in the same situation today?

The important thing is that my generation of refugees tried to assimilate in a constructive way, to become loyal citizens of Great Britain, and part of the British culture.

Lord George Weidenfeld, born in Vienna in 1919, is a member of the British House of Lords. In 1938, he fled from his native Austria to Britain, where he worked as a political commentator for the BBC. He served as a political advisor to the Israeli government in 1949. Today, Lord Weidenfeld is still chairman of the publishing company Weidenfeld & Nicolson, which he co-founded. Lord Weidenfeld was knighted in 1969, and has received countless honors and awards.

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