- LÉNA ROSE
In November, Emad al Swealmeen set off a bomb outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital. When it became known that Al Swealmeen was an asylum seeker who had converted to Christianity, it was reported that the Home office had accused churches of converting asylum seekers to Christianity in order to “play” the asylum system.
In my course research, I explore what counts as a credible conversion to Christianity in asylum processes in Germany and the UK. I have discovered that in reality churches and clergy have a very limited role in the asylum process. It is rather the role of asylum policy makers (who work for authorities like the Home Office in the UK) to assess nominations on the basis of conversion to Christianity.
Forensic police officers stand near the remains of a taxi that exploded outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital in Liverpool, Britain on November 17. Photo taken with a drone. Photo: Reuters / Phil Noble / File photo.
I analyzed dozens of Christian converts asylum decisions and case law and observed 32 appeal hearings. I also conducted 38 formal interviews with judges, asylum seekers, lawyers, pastors and translators as well as many other informal conversations.
The UK and Germany are parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which (among other things) grants protection to those who would face religious persecution if they returned to their countries of origin. Many Muslim asylum seekers who have converted to Christianity are said to face religious persecution in their home countries.
“The UK and Germany are parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which (among other things) grants protection to those who would face religious persecution if they returned to their countries of origin. Many Muslim asylum seekers who have converted to Christianity are said to face religious persecution. in their country of origin. “
Assessing an asylum claim on the basis of a conversion therefore involves determining what risks an claimant would incur based on their faith if returned to their country of origin. To do this, social workers and judges must be convinced that the applicant’s conversion is real.
The authorities of a secular state must assess what beliefs a true convert should have and which practices are essential for a “true Christian”. However, religious conversion is personal and may differ from person to person. As asylum seekers often have trust their word alone proving their asylum claim is a difficult process.
Although I have found that ratings can vary from case to case, converts generally need to be baptized and need to demonstrate that they know the “basics” of Christianity. These basics vary, but may include knowledge of Christian holidays, the Bible, prayers, or the creed. Applicants may be asked to name a favorite Bible passage to show that the Bible means something to them personally. They should also be able to explain why they specifically converted to Christianity and what triggered their conversion. Above all, they must show that it is important for their identity to live their faith openly, for example by proselytizing.
My research has shown that asylum decision-makers can be influenced by their culture and socialization in the way they assess these narratives. For example, they can promote rational and critical engagement with religion rather than supernatural or emotional reasons for conversion. They may also have a particular idea of what Christianity is and may expect responses more typical of the liturgical traditions of Christianity, rather than free evangelical traditions.
The role of the church
Churches follow their moral mandate to welcome asylum seekers who are often in need. After hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in Germany in 2015, many members of the clergy reported in interviews that they were surprised by the interest in Christianity. They described how they rushed to find translators to help those interested in Christianity understand church services.
If asylum seekers request baptism, churches usually offer baptismal training and classes in Christianity. Most of the pastors I interviewed discerned who they baptized and often asked a convert to get involved in their church for a period of time to test their commitment to Christianity. Sometimes a supposedly “strategic” conversion turns into a genuine interest in Christianity over time. I have observed a number of appeal hearings that have taken place many years after the initial refugee decision in which a claimant could demonstrate such a journey of faith.
Pastors can write letters of support for a refugee claim or accompany a convert to their asylum hearings. However, the final decision on the credibility of an asylum seeker’s conversion rests with social workers or judges during appeal hearings.
Determine the credibility conversion is an extremely difficult process, with potentially serious consequences for applicants if done poorly. For example, the Iranians (who form a large portion asylum seekers based on conversion in Germany and the UK) are interrogates when they return to their country. They must sign a document to renounce their conversion to Christianity. If they have ever had problems with Iranian security services, know someone who has, or attended an underground church in Iran, they could still be persecuted by the state.
My research suggests that the assumption that churches baptize asylum seekers to aid them in their asylum process is largely wrong. Most churches are rigorous in the discernment that is ready for baptism. Ultimately, it is the state’s decision-makers who must decide whether a conversion is genuine or not. They would do well to rely more on the expertise of the clergy who know the asylum seeker and can comment on his religious life.