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Two steps forward, one step back? Asylum and religious freedom

Our public policy researcher, John Coleby, looks at Christian asylum and the Home Office

Following the Home Office’s refusal of asylum to an Iranian Christian convert, our country’s response to those fleeing persecution for their faith is again under scrutiny. As the discussion continues, we look at the progress we’ve made on this in the past, and how we can still improve.

According to immigration case-worker Nathan Stevens, an Iranian convert to Christianity recently had their asylum claim rejected by the Home Office. In a letter seeking to justify this decision, the Home Office quoted the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Revelation, which speak of violence and judgement. The letter then put to the asylum claimant that these passages were inconsistent with your claim that you converted to Christianity after discovering it is a peaceful’ religion”.

This exegetical leap of logic drew strong criticism – and rightly so. His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church noted that the letter is based on, at best, a complete and utter misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Christian scripture, and at worst an intentional manipulation of the text to justify the rejection of this vulnerable individual”. The Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler, added that to use extracts from the Book of Revelation to argue that Christianity is a violent religion is like arguing that a government report on the impact of climate change is advocating drought and flooding”.

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From a policy perspective, there’s a feeling that we’ve been here before. In 2007 the Evangelical Alliance published All Together for Asylum Justice, a study of how converts to Christianity were treated by the Home Office. This included references to 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 then raised for asylum seekers of all faiths by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief in its 2016 report Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Grounds. Again, it was found that applicants for asylum were being treated inappropriately by UK authorities. 

The Home Office has responded that this letter is not in accordance with our policy approach to claims based on religious persecution, including conversions to a particular faith”. A further update from Mr Stevens states that the Home Office has agreed to withdraw its refusal offering us a chance to submit further representations”. So, on this case at least, there is hope. 

More broadly, in October the Government pledged to introduce training in religious literacy for Home Office officials. This was in response to another case that had been handled poorly: a humanist asylum seeker was rejected for not being familiar with Plato and Aristotle. It has emerged that this training is on course to be delivered in April, and the most recent case shows that it cannot come too soon. 

So, what remains to be done? Questions are already being asked of the Government about this case, and it and others are under urgent review. Please write to your MP expressing your concerns. Guidance on writing to your MP can be found here: https://​www​.eauk​.org/​w​h​a​t​-​w​e​-​d​o​/​p​u​b​l​i​c​-​p​o​l​i​c​y​/​g​i​v​i​n​g​-​o​u​r​-​v​o​i​c​e​-​i​n​-​p​u​b​l​i​c​-life.

But, what worries me is not the level of scrutiny now; instead, my worry is for the future, when the spotlight has moved on to something else. In two or three months, the cases of other converts will be in process, only without the concern that exists at the moment. There’s always a risk of going backwards once the problems are not in full public view. Outrage, however righteous, tends not to have much staying power. 

So, here’s what I encourage some of you to do. Open your calendar, physical or electronic. Scan ahead, let’s say to early May, and make a note to write to your MP then. When you write to them, remind them of this incident. Ask them to ask what progress the Government has made on the religious literacy training, and on its urgent review” of asylum cases in the intervening weeks. Find out through them what the Government has done once the media has moved on. The answer the Government can give then will, I think, be a better test of their seriousness than a holding statement in the midst of an outcry. 

Until then, please continue to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ fleeing persecution, awaiting asylum decisions from our government and from others, and for all who work with them in different ways. 

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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