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Asylum seekers, conversions to Christianity and the role of churches

Discretion and integrity are essential, but they shouldn’t go so far as to become scepticism and distrust. The roles of church leaders and immigration officials need clear differentiation.

A man sitting in a church building. / Photo: [link]Tasha Jolley[/link], Unsplash, CC0.

Churches providing hospitality and welcome for asylum seekers does not undermine the immigration process.

The man suspected of committing a horrific acid attack in London was a refugee from Afghanistan, and scrutiny has quickly turned to the role of church leaders in testifying to the conversion of asylum seekers. In the case in question the suspect apparently converted to Christianity and as a result successfully argued, after two failed attempts, that his life would be at risk if he was returned to his home country.

[destacate]Questions asked to try and ascertain if the faith of an asylum seeker was genuine were often nonsense[/destacate]Writing in a British newspaper the former Home Secretary Suella Braverman said while in her post she “became aware of churches around the country facilitating industrial scale bogus asylum claims”. Another former holder of that post, Priti Patel, also accused churches of supporting cases without merit. And the current Home Secretary criticised Church of England bishops for opposing the government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Should church leaders play a role in supporting asylum seekers including testifying to their conversion?

In 2007, the Evangelical Alliance produced ‘Alltogether for Asylum Justice’ which looked at a number of issues facing asylum seekers citing the threat of persecution for their Christian faith. One of the main problems identified in the system then was that the questions asked to try and ascertain if faith was genuine were nonsense.

Some of the examples ranged from factual questions which could easily be learnt, such as to name Jesus’ disciples, the cultural: ‘how do you prepare a turkey at Christmas?’, through to the ridiculous such as being asked to name the ‘forbidden fruit’. And the impossible: ‘what were the names of the thieves crucified beside Jesus?’.

What was evident then was that better understanding about the nature of the Christian faith was essential, and the report recommended that the testimony of those who could speak of a person’s spiritual life should be given due credence. Other reports including from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Freedom of Religion and Belief made similar calls that were taken up by the UK Home Office. This is just the situation that is now under significant scrutiny.

[destacate]The suggestion church leaders are abetting people to abuse the asylum system is a serious charge[/destacate]The allegations that politicians have levelled at church leaders, of facilitating too many bogus asylum applications, for example are important to consider. The implicit and sometimes explicit suggestion church leaders are aiding and abetting people to abuse the asylum system is a serious charge but it also risks confusing their role in sharing the Good News and discipling believers with legal asylum decisions.

There is a responsibility for church leaders to speak with integrity and although the role of church leaders has become politicised by the sustained criticism, and I think unjustified accusations of collusion it is not a charge that can be ignored. Church leaders should use their discretion before testifying to someone’s conversion, and be aware of the risks of fake testimony, especially if this is seen as a successful route to gaining asylum.

With the present criticism there will need to be more attention paid to how the hospitality and welcome of churches could be abused, but it shouldn’t stop churches from opening their doors, introducing people to Jesus, and celebrating when people come to faith. For churches in the UK, hospitality of those entering the UK is key area of practical compassion and place for mission. Whereas in previous eras missionaries went around the world, now many return to the UK to share the Good News. The diversity of the UK population provides a mission field on our doorstep and many churches have seen significant growth among diaspora communities.

[destacate]Church leaders should take their role as expert witnesses seriously, but never stop sharing the gospel and welcoming everyone[/destacate]While discretion and integrity is essential, it shouldn’t go so far as to become scepticism and distrust. This is where the roles of church leaders and immigration officials need clear differentiation. It is not for church leaders to decide whether someone has grounds for asylum, but they can provide evidence of someone’s commitment and involvement in church life as a testament to their faith. To blame church leaders for abuse of the system is to divert attention away from the dysfunction of the immigration system.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, told one British newspaper: “There are one or two cases that have attracted wide publicity, and my guess is that the vast majority of Christian pastors would be well aware of the risk of false claims. What evidence is there that this is a large-scale problem? More significantly, what evidence is there that Christian clergy are deliberately colluding in any such phenomenon?”

He went on to say: “Highlighting a small area of alleged abuse of the system in the wildly generalised terms used in recent days can only divert attention from the real systemic problems.”

The cases highlighted will undoubtedly lead to church leaders exercising more caution in how they provide evidence in support of asylum applications. Where that means they take their role as expert witnesses seriously that is good and beneficial, but it should never stop them from sharing the gospel and welcoming everyone into their church.

Danny Webster, head of advocacy of the Evangelical Alliance United Kingdom.




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