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Religious freedom: Asia Bibi and the Home Office

What does a new Home Office course and the release of Asia Bibi say about religious freedom?

The past few weeks have seen the UK’s asylum system come under scrutiny in how it promotes global religious liberty. Two very different situations present a mixed picture: that of Asia Bibi in Pakistan and training for Home Office officials on asylum claims on grounds of religious persecution. With both in mind, we must continue to pray and make our voices heard on behalf of those seeking asylum because of their faith or belief. 

The Evangelical Alliance has been raising the issue of fair treatment of asylum applicants for over a decade. In 2007 we published All Together for Asylum Justice, a study of how converts to Christianity were treated by the Home Office when they sought asylum on grounds of persecution. We raised serious issues around the information used by the Home Office regarding persecution in countries of origin and inappropriate questions asked of asylum seekers to assess the sincerity of their faith, such as: How do you cook a turkey at Christmas?”. 

Similar concerns were raised for asylum seekers of all faiths by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief (APPG) in its 2016 report Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Grounds. Again, applicants for asylum were being asked misguided questions to determine the genuineness of their faith and were facing other problems, too. 

Following this report, the Home Office has worked with the APPG to produce training for case workers on dealing with asylum claims where someone is fleeing religious persecution. Last month, the Government confirmed that it is finalising a specialist course on freedom of religion or belief for such case workers, to be rolled out in 2019

While the delivery of this course will need monitoring, it represents a welcome step forward. It will hopefully mean an end to many of the worst problems faced by Christians and other asylum seekers when presenting their claims. This is an example of patient, long-term advocacy bearing fruit on behalf of those seeking asylum. 

The situation of Asia Bibi in Pakistan presents a different picture. Accused of blasphemy in 2010, Asia Bibi spent many years on death row before being acquitted this month by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. However, since her acquittal, she has been unable to leave Pakistan, and serious concerns remain for her safety. 

The Religious Liberty Commission, composed of Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release International and the Evangelical Alliance, called for Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to allow Asia Bibi to leave Pakistan, given the Supreme Court’s decision and the clear and present threat to her life as long as she remained in the country. 

Controversy now rages around the British Government’s position on offering her asylum, with some alleging that fear of reprisals is holding back such an offer. While various accounts are circulating about what decisions the Government has made, we have no word from ministers beyond a refusal to comment on individual cases and a reminder of the sensitivities involved. 

A chorus of voices have now called for Asia Bibi to be offered asylum by the UK. More than 70 MPs and Peers have written to the prime minister calling for this, and further support has come from the lead commissioner for countering extremism, Sara Khan, and many Muslim leaders, including three prominent imams. Read a letter from Christian and Muslim leaders as well as others.

The closest we’ve had to official comment from government came from Sir Simon McDonald, head of the diplomatic service, as he answered questions from parliament’s foreign affairs committee on Tuesday. Here he does raise the security implications of offering Asia Bibi asylum.

However, this focus on security didn’t appear to satisfy MPs on the committee. They asked him whether the UK was delaying in the hope that another country would step in – a clearly unacceptable approach. They also asked whether failing to offer asylum had been weighed against other options to guarantee the safety of UK officials in Pakistan, such as through strengthening security arrangements or withdrawing staff. Chair of the committee Tom Tugendhat noted the risk that UK policy is effectively dictated to by a mob”. 

The scrutiny from the foreign affairs committee on this issue is welcome, but these questions must now be put to a minister from the Foreign Office. It is surely not sustainable for differing accounts of government policy on such a critical issue to be circulating in the media while MPs are left in the dark. We hope that the Government will reaffirm its unreserved commitment to global human rights and will offer asylum to Asia Bibi. Or, if our Government fails to do this, we hope that another nation will be willing to step into the gap. 

So, as we approach the International Day of Prayer for the persecuted church, we should continue to pray for those seeking asylum on grounds of religious freedom. This includes those, like Asia Bibi but also others, who are seeking to leave their countries of origin, for those within the asylum process in the UK, and for churches and others in the UK that seek to welcome, support and reach out to those who have suffered horrific persecution. 

About the author

John began working at the Evangelical Alliance in 2016, focusing on issues of debate in parliament that are relevant to evangelical Christians in the UK. Before this he worked as a research assistant for the Church of England Bishop of Coventry, supporting his work in the House of Lords and his focus on freedom of religion or belief and global reconciliation. He holds a BA in Theology and an MPhil in Judaism and Christianity in the Graeco-Roman world, and he remains very interested in biblical studies and inter-religious dialogue. He also teaches English to speakers of other languages at a class run by his church.

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