'Ignorant' Home Office Staff Endanger Christian Asylum Seekers' Lives

A new report from the Evangelical Alliance has rallied behind asylum seekers being deported to their home countries by the Home Office despite a clear risk of being executed or handed life imprisonment sentences for their conversion to Christianity.

The Evangelical Alliance is pleading the case of one woman who is being deported home to Iran, despite fears she will be stoned for converting to Christianity.

The 29-year-old, known as Samar, converted to Christianity before leaving Iran, and says a death warrant for her has been issued in her homeland.

Her church in Bournemouth and MP Tobias Ellwood have campaigned on her behalf, but despite a temporary reprieve on Friday, immigration officers have again issued her with deportation papers to return to Iran on 18 July.

Gordon Brown also promised to look into Samar's deportation, after Tory MP Ann Widdecombe appealed to him to look into the case "with an urgent view to intervention" during Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday.

The report highlighting the plight of Christian asylum seekers was issued yesterday by the Evangelical Alliance, which represents more than 1 million Christians across the UK. It says that a lack of understanding of conversion, translation problems and ludicrous questioning by Home Office staff or the judiciary has led to asylum seekers being refused asylum from dangerous home countries.

One asylum seeker told the Alliance that Home Office interviewers asked her to prove her Christianity by describing how to cook a turkey for Christmas.

A key claim of the report is that inadequate country information leads to people being sent home because the country is wrongly seen as safe for converts.

In the case of Iran, the UNHCR has reported that conversion from Islam to another religion will lead to execution for a man or life imprisonment for a woman, but all appeals against Samar's deportation there have been refused.

John Dallison, who travelled to Downing Street today to hand in a 1,000-name petition on behalf of Samar, said, "This is a key issue which only really came home to us when we encountered it personally with Samar. She is a committed Christian and I baptised her.

"It is so important that immigration officials better understand the issues around religious conversion so that nobody has to go through what Samar has gone through again."

The report was compiled using evidence from translators, pastors, asylum seekers and transcripts of asylum interviews and legal appeals.

It also takes into account information reported at a symposium on the persecution of Christian asylum seekers, hosted by Lord Anderson of Swansea in June.

The report includes a survey of Evangelical Alliance members, more than 90 per cent of whom said a sample of questions asked of asylum seekers could not prove their faith.

It recommends that caseworkers and adjudicators be given training in the Christian faith and understand that conversion is a complex decision, which does not necessarily result in detailed biblical or doctrinal knowledge.

Evangelical Alliance Parliamentary Officer Gareth Wallace said: "The stories we were told of Christian asylum seekers and their experience of the asylum process give an indication of the fear and trepidation with which they apply for asylum in the UK, knowing that admitting conversion will result in imprisonment or the death penalty in countries like Iran and Afghanistan.

"Many are new Christians, with limited knowledge of the Bible and even less of British religious tradition.

"Given the stress they are under, it is entirely understandable that they struggle to give the right answer when met with a long list of questions - in some cases fifty or sixty - about their new Christian faith."

The report highlights a number of other questions used by immigration officials. These include: "Identify the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden" (the Bible does not offer a name to the fruit); "Name the thieves crucified on either side of Jesus" (they are not named in the Bible); "What will happen around the world in the second coming?" (Different theologians would give different details in answering this question).

The report includes guidance for MPs and their case workers to give them a better understanding of asylum claims on religious grounds.

Simon Hughes MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs/Justice, attended the symposium in June.

He commented: "When interviewing those who have converted from one faith to another immigration caseworkers need to be as sensitive about faith as they are about gender. This is an issue that won't go away and MPs need to be better informed on all its implications and I am sure this report will be a useful aid."