Christians reflect on conversion and asylum claims as Church continues to come under fire

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Christians have been weighing in on the question of whether churches are to blame for asylum seekers trying to game the system with claims of conversion and persecution. 

Questions have been raised in the aftermath of the acid attack in London's Clapham South area last week in which the main suspect is Abdul Ezedi, a 35-year-old man from Afghanistan who was granted asylum, despite a sexual assault conviction, after claiming to be a Christian convert. His conversion was vouched for by an unnamed priest.

The Church has come under pressure because the suspect in the 2021 Liverpool terror attack was a failed asylum seeker who had also claimed conversion to Christianity. 

Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman claimed in The Telegraph over the weekend that "too many churches are facilitating bogus asylum claims". 

"Many asylum seekers are genuine and it's right that we offer help when their cause is just. But far too many are bogus and using our laws against us," she wrote. 

"Take the church as an example. While at the Home Office, I became aware of churches around the country facilitating industrial-scale bogus asylum claims.

"They are well-known within the migrant communities and, upon arrival in the UK, migrants are directed to these churches as a one-stop shop to bolster their asylum case. Attend Mass once a week for a few months, befriend the vicar, get your baptism date in the diary and, bingo, you'll be signed off by a member of the clergy that you're now a God-fearing Christian who will face certain persecution if removed to your Islamic country of origin.

"It has to stop. We must get wise to the problem." 

The Church of England said last week that it was the job of the Home Office to vet asylum seekers, not the Church. 

This position has been echoed by writer and Anglican priest, Giles Fraser. Writing in Unherd, he said he did not judge the priest who baptised Ezedi "one bit". 

"Baptism is not a certificate of good character. It is an outward expression of the desire to be saved. And that is available even to the very worst of us," he said.

"But theology aside, it is important to emphasise that the church has nothing to do with assessing the validity of asylum claims."

He continued, "So, was the priest naive? What was he supposed to look for? Eyes too close together? Evidence of past wrongdoing? Polygraph before baptism? There is no foolproof epistemological test for sincerity." 

He also rubbished Braverman's claims in The Telegraph as "desperate and pathetic stuff" and an attempt to blame the government's track record on immigration on churches. 

"She was one of the most senior members of government, responsible for making our laws and enforcing them. But yes, it's your local vicar that is to blame for mass immigration," he said. 

Steve Kneale, pastor of Oldham Bethel Church, responded on his blog to calls from broadcaster and trade unionist Paul Embery for a "public inquiry into the phenomenon of asylum seekers converting to Christianity".

"Justin Welby and and other church leaders should be called to give evidence," Embery wrote.

Responding to his comments, Kneale said "it is not churches who decide asylum cases".

"Nor, it should be said, do churches determine whether asylum claims are genuine or not. The sole question put to churches is, as far as you judge it, does this person appear to be a credible Christian," he said.

"We make no judgement, indeed can offer no judgement, on the legitimacy of asylum claims. We have no insight into the country of origin nor the need for asylum. We are only asked a narrow question: do you think this person is a believer and why?" 

He went on to say that in considering conversion claims in asylum applications, the courts look for "credible evidence" that churches have "robust" processes in place and do not simply "wave everyone through". 

"The courts typically do not accept the word of church leaders as gospel truth, but consider them do-gooder dupes who are desperate to think the best of people so they can increase their membership rolls," he said. 

"In many cases, I don't think the courts are entirely unjustified in that assumption and it means that the church must demonstrate the robustness of their processes and that they rely on credible evidence to make these judgements."