By Tim Wyatt
Church leaders have hit back at allegations that they are naively backing fraudulent asylum claims, after reports that 40 men on the Bibby Stockholm barge had converted to Christianity.
The role of conversion within the asylum system has come under huge scrutiny in recent days after the police manhunt for Abdul Ezedi, the main suspect in the Clapham chemical attack.
Ezedi, who is originally from Afghanistan, made a failed asylum claim and as part of that reportedly said he had converted to Christianity while in Britain, which would have made it too dangerous to return home.
Tim Loughton, a Tory backbencher, accused the Church of England — which had no connection to Ezedi — of secretly facilitating sham conversions and said the Archbishop of Canterbury was effectively “scamming the taxpayer”.
But during a Religion Media Centre briefing on Thursday, church leaders rejected the claim that they were too ready to believe things, instead noting the complexities of untangling someone’s private faith.
The Bishop of Chelmsford, Guli Francis-Dehqani, said it was important to acknowledge that neither the CofE nor any other denomination actually “converted” someone to Christianity; that was something only God could do. What the church did was support anyone in their faith if they wanted to explore more deeply, up to and including baptism.
But the CofE’s guidance was “very clear” that “wisdom and discernment needed to be applied”. Bishop Francis-Dehqani added: “At no stage should be this be seen as a ticket to get one magically through the asylum process.” She was sure there were some who had faked conversion to strengthen their case, but ultimately there was no “cast-iron set of criteria to use to be 100 per cent sure of what’s going on in people’s hearts and minds”.
The numbers of asylum seekers who had been baptised and continued afterwards to commit to their church communities and grow in their faith vastly outnumbered the small group of individuals whose conversion was a sham, she concluded. “It seems to me really important that we don’t weaponise what is a horrific situation.”
Mr Loughton, a member of the home affairs select committee, said he had no criticism of religious groups for offering humanitarian support for asylum seekers, but believed naivety was leading some churches to not distinguish between authentic refugees and cynical faux-conversions to aid a bogus asylum claim.
“There is a small number of people who are using conversion to Christianity as a means for bumping up the grounds for claiming asylum, on the basis that it would be dangerous for them to be returned to their home country,” he warned. It seemed unlikely, he claimed, that there had a been a genuine surge in conversions solely among asylum seekers, and he also criticised the Church of England’s official guidance to clergy for not encouraging priests to test the validity of supposed conversion.
“I have met people who have suddenly decided that they are going to go down the conversion route. I’ve met them in detention centres. I’ve met them in Calais,” he said. It was not credible that one in seven of those detained on the Bibby Stockholm barge had decided to convert to Christianity, Mr Loughton said, citing figures from a Weymouth church.
The story of the CofE was one of relentless decline in recent decades after all, the MP noted, and yet the one prominent area of growth was among the asylum-seeker population. “I’m sure some of them will be genuine, but some of them will not. And I think the Church of England needs to be more discerning and working out the one from the other.”
The Church of England guidance for clergy on supporting asylum seekers, spoke of being “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”, but then was mostly about how to “facilitate somebody who is using conversion to boost the application for asylum”, he said.
When pressed on why he had personally attacked the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mr Loughton retorted that Justin Welby had vociferously attacked the government’s Rwanda policy and therefore should expect pushback and challenge. “It’s nothing personal. It’s about having a robust debate.”
In response to Bishop Francis-Dehqani, Mr Loughton acknowledged there were many authentic conversions which persisted long after refugee status had been granted, but he took issue with the CofE’s entire approach to asylum. “The Church of England seems to assume that every single asylum seeker is of equal merit and I’m afraid they’re not.”
Bishop Francis-Dehqani said that no bishop had ever called for an open-door policy, but that it was the job of the government and the courts to assess individual claims and make a judgment, not the church. “This is not about trying to increase our number of baptisms, this is about journeying alongside people and being supportive as they explore faith,” she added.
Many asylum seekers were from the Middle East and thus perhaps “naturally more spiritual”, were disillusioned with the regimes they had fled, and most had also had traumatic experiences, Bishop Francis-Dehqani said. In that context, it was not surprising they were more open to faith than native Britons.
Krish Kandiah, director of the refugee charity the Sanctuary Foundation, said he welcomed Mr Loughton’s more temperate tone after his strong words the previous day accusing Archbishop Welby of “scamming the taxpayer”. The decision on asylum rested with either the Home Office or an independent tribunal, and even a strong commendation from a church minister would not be determinative.
He said he knew of recent refugees from places such as Hong Kong who had become Christians thanks to the welcome and support they had received from a local church on their arrival. “So, I think the church is doing its job,” Dr Kandiah said. “The question is whether the Home Office are adequately doing their job to assess whether people have a genuine asylum claim.”
Emily Shepherd, the joint chief executive of Welcome Churches, a Christian refugee charity, said church leaders would often attend asylum interviews with people at the Home Office or in the courts, but her organisation always encouraged them to make sure they could provide evidence for the asylum seeker’s conversion. “I think the majority of churches take that very seriously,” she said.
It was vital, she added, to uphold the freedom of religion, including for those who had recently arrived in the UK and were for the first time able to explore other faiths. Ms Shepherd also suggested it was “hard” for thoroughly secular politicians “who have rejected Christianity” and were raised on the presumption that the church was in permanent decline to understand why someone else from a different culture might willingly choose to believe.
Graham Nicholls, who leads the Affinity network of independent evangelical churches, said that — unlike Bishop Francis-Dehqani — he and his network did openly set out to convert people to faith. That was their entire life’s work. But that did not mean the church leaders he represented were naive about the possibility of someone faking interest in Christianity for ulterior motives. Most churches would have a rigorous process to assess someone’s faith before they would go ahead with baptism, not to weed out asylum-motivated conversions but because they wanted people to have truly committed to following Jesus and to know the Gospel.
The Rev Jon Keyworth shared his experience of leading a church in Greater Manchester that had a sudden influx of Iranian asylum seekers coming forward to be baptised. He explained the church had tried to assess each man’s faith individually and waited for them to have attended for three months before going ahead with baptism.
He said the Home Office would often test converts’ knowledge of the Anglican church calendar among other subjects, when even genuine believers who had come to faith in Iran would very often have limited information about Christianity. While they had turned some away, Mr Keyworth said it was very tricky to know if the church had ever been duped, because there were many legitimate reasons that might lead to someone coming to faith and being baptised, before then drifting away again.
Gulwali Passarlay, who spent 12 months travelling from Afghanistan to the UK to successfully claim asylum as a teenager, condemned the system as inhumane and lacking in compassion, both for asylum seekers and those trying to support them.
He said church groups had given practical support such as clothes and food to him and others while waiting to cross into Britain from Calais, but upon his arrival in the UK he had not engaged with the church much and instead worshipped at a mosque. However, since gaining leave to remain and becoming an activist for asylum seekers, Mr Passarlay said it had become clear that churches, synagogues and religious charities were among the only people able to help refugees battling with the hostile environment and struggling to find housing and income.
“The work the church does is invaluable. They need to continue,” he said. “We should not be scapegoating charities and organisations which support refugees and asylum seekers.”
When it came to the fugitive Ezedi, Mr Passarlay said it was vital to separate out his alleged crimes and his immigration status.
Mr Loughton concluded by saying he thought the CofE guidance should be updated and strengthened to include how clergy should make sure they are convinced that somebody is genuine in their journey to conversion. Bishop Francis-Dehqani said she couldn’t see a reason for the Church of England not to look at the guidance again to see if it needed updating and refreshing, or if it could be enhanced in any way.
Another point of action arising from the discussion, Mr Loughton said, is to encourage free churches outside the main denominations to create their own set of guidelines and policies in association with the Home Office, as this was a “live issue and unlikely to be going away any time soon”. He was not trying to undermine the church, he insisted, noting he was a member of the CofE and had been keen to have all his own children baptised into it too.
“I want more people to be baptised in the Church of England,” he added. “I want more people to go to Church of England services on a regular basis and be part of that community. So that’s where I’m coming from.”
View the briefing again on our YouTube channel here