Our Head of Public Policy Tim Dieppe discusses how the Church can respond to sharp criticism for supporting bogus conversion claims by asylum seekers
Chemical attack by Islamic asylum claimant
Last week a horrific chemical attack in Clapham was carried out by an asylum seeker from Afghanistan. A woman and her two children were brutally attacked with an alkaline substance leaving them hospitalised and the woman with “life-changing injuries.” Five police officers were injured as they responded to Ezedi’s attack, as were four members of the public who tried to help.
Abdul Shokoor Ezedi arrived in the UK in 2016 illegally on the back of a lorry. He applied for asylum and was turned down. He applied again and was turned down again. In 2018 he was convicted of a sexual assault/exposure offence and sentenced to nine weeks in prison, suspended for two years, plus 36 weeks, also suspended for indecent exposure. He was placed on the sex offenders’ register for a decade.
Fake conversion to Christianity
He then managed to convince a priest that he had converted to Christianity. When he once again applied for asylum in 2020, he was allowed to stay, and crucial to this decision was the evidence of a reportedly Catholic priest that Ezedi was “wholly committed” to his newly found Christian faith.
Ezedi’s claim of conversion has fallen apart since friends have told journalists that he remained a “good Muslim.” He continued to purchase halal meat regularly from his local halal butcher, and had even said he was planning to return to Afghanistan to get married – where, according to his asylum claim, his life would be in danger.
Ezedi is not the only Asylum seeker whose claim of conversion to Christianity is suspect. The Liverpool suicide bomber, Emal Al Swealmeen was said to have converted to Christianity at Liverpool cathedral. His ‘conversion’ also enabled him to stay in the country.
Swealmeen’s alleged conversion raised questions at the time about fake conversions of asylum seekers. Around 200 asylum seekers had converted from Islam to Christianity in the previous four years after completing a short five-week baptism course at the cathedral. Khairi Saadallah, the Reading knifeman also claimed to have converted to Christianity. The former Dean of Liverpool Cathedral claimed that in sharp contrast with hundreds of asylum seekers, he couldn’t think of a single example of someone who already had British citizenship converting from Islam to Christianity. There is evidence that people smugglers are urging asylum seekers to convert to Christianity in order to aid their asylum claims.
Church attacked for facilitating bogus conversions
Ezedi’s case has kicked up a huge fuss about fake conversions to aid asylum claims. Former Home Secretary, Suella Braverman wrote in The Telegraph that as Home Secretary she “became aware of churches around the country facilitating industrial-scale bogus asylum claims.” She claimed that “migrants are directed to these churches as a one-stop shop to bolster their asylum case.” She said that she had set up a dedicated taskforce to “root out the grifters enabling this sordid business.”
Dame Priti Patel, also a former Home Secretary, accused churches of “political activism” in their approach to asylum seekers, and claimed that religious institutions support cases “without merit.” Nick Timothy wrote that “the church is also complicit” by allowing fake conversions to flood the asylum system. Tim Loughton MP, said he was concerned that “Christian conversion had become a scam” and claimed that some asylum seekers had got crucifix tattoos to reinforce their claims. Melanie Phillips wrote that the “Church allows asylum seekers to exploit it”, and accused the CofE of being naïve about the motives of migrants who convert while failing to campaign for real Christian refugees to come to the UK. It is rare to see such a chorus of attack on the Church, but the anger about allowing this false convert to stay in the country is entirely understandable.
New laws being considered
Home Secretary James Cleverly is set to receive a report detailing the full facts of the Ezedi case and is said to be considering whether any legal changes are needed to tighten up the scrutiny of asylum seekers’ conversion claims.
Meanwhile, the Church of England has insisted that it is not its job to vet asylum seekers. A spokesman said: “It is the role of the Home Office, and not the Church, to vet asylum seekers and judge the merits of their individual cases.” But if the Church won’t judge who are genuine converts and who are not, then who will?
What can be done?
As a nation we should want to grant asylum to those who genuinely need it, but we can’t have everyone who claims to be a convert being granted asylum. So how can this conundrum be resolved. There are some principles to bear in mind as we think through what can be done about this.
- People should be allowed to change their religion
This is a human right. No nation should prevent people from converting people to Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, or whatever. People also sometimes reconvert back to their original religion. Freedom of religion is an absolute.
- There are genuine conversions
There are many hundreds or thousands of genuine conversions of asylum seekers. In fact, many evangelical churches are seeing significant growth from asylum seekers. Christian Concern has supported Reza as a genuine convert from Islam who would face the prospect of imprisonment, torture and separation from his wife and family were he to return to Iran. His application for asylum has been rejected on the grounds that his Christian faith is ‘fabricated’. I have personally met Reza and heard his testimony and about how he shares his faith with other Iranians. You can get a sense of his passion for Christ from this interview in which he says: “If I get sent home to Iran, praise God. If I have one hour to evangelise to my people, I’ll do that. If I have one second, I’ll use that. That’s my passion for Jesus.” There is no doubt in my mind that he is a genuine convert. There are also conversions amongst British Muslims. Christian Concern is currently helping a convert whose family have been intimidating and pressuring him after he was found to be attending Bible studies. We set up Safe Haven to help converts who face such pressure and occasionally help to provide alternative accommodation where this is necessary.
- There are fake conversions
Undoubtedly, many of the alleged conversions of asylum seekers are fake. Ezedi is an obvious case in point. Asylum seekers know that this is a way to game the system, and churches are being exploited for this purpose. Last year, 71% of asylum decisions were granted leave to stay. This is substantially higher than in pre-pandemic years when only around one-third of applications were successful and indicates that, if anything, we are being too generous in granting these claims.
- Conversion claims should be rigorously tested
The church cannot pass the buck on this. If we want the government to take seriously claims of conversion then we need to test those claims more thoroughly. Agreeing that someone is a convert on the basis of a five-week course and willingness to say that they believe the basics is just not enough. It is worth remembering that by the 3rd century it was normal for the Church to require a convert to have two to three years of instruction before baptising converts. This would include instruction in faith and morals and observation of their manner of life. Jesus said, “by their fruit you will recognise them” (Matt 7:16) which refers to evidence of a changed life and a spiritually mature lifestyle. Converts should participate in fellowship groups where they are held accountable for their spiritual growth and lifestyle.
I suggest that the government should require a church to sign off that an alleged convert has participated in a fellowship group for at least a year, and been observed to pray and worship in an authentic manner and formed long-lasting relationships with other Christians with whom he or she is held accountable. In addition, converts should be required to publicly renounce their previous religion. A former Muslim should publicly declare that he is no longer Muslim and that Muhammad was a false prophet who he was deceived by, and that the Qur’an is not inspired by God. Allah is not the true God, Jesus is God, and God is a trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Genuine converts will be more than happy to do all this. False converts will find it a lot harder. Nevertheless, we have to acknowledge that some fake converts will always be able to deceive people, even if they are not able to deceive God. If the Church takes this job seriously, however, then it will not be vulnerable to criticisms of allowing fake conversions for asylum claims.
- Those who have been convicted of crimes should lose any claim to asylum
One of the points that has most angered people about Ezedi is that even as a convicted sex offender he was still allowed to stay in the country. I am sympathetic to changing the system so that those who are convicted of crimes in the UK automatically lose their claims to asylum. We have no responsibility to host criminals from other nations.
If we apply these principles, then it will be much harder to make bogus conversion claims. Sadly, mainstream or established denominations in the West, particularly where liberal theology is evident, are not good at assessing conversion claims. Some of the criticism of the Church for this is well-deserved. I do think that conversions in non-conformist evangelical churches are more likely to be genuine since these churches have more emphasis on conversion generally, and demand higher standards of conversion in terms of a clear testimony and evidence of a changed lifestyle.
The Church should do better
It is a fact that Christianity is the world’s most persecuted religion. In the West we have it easy, which is partly why assessing conversion claims is relatively lax. Nevertheless, there are genuine converts and these people should be protected from persecution. Genuine converts to Christianity will also be much more likely to make good citizens. The church should be prepared to more rigorously assess conversion claims before allowing them to become the basis of an asylum claim.