A Raw Deal: Christian Converts Seeking Asylum In UK

Mohammed arrived in the UK underneath a lorry.
Mohammed arrived in the UK underneath a lorry.

Can you reel off the Ten Commandments?

If someone is asking the UK for protection as a refugee because they’ve converted to Christianity, should they know the answer?

The all-party parliamentary group on international religious freedom says asylum claims from converts to Christianity are being dealt with unfairly precisely because of questions like these.

It says that too often officials are asking about Bible trivia, rather than probing what someone really believes.

And this “lack of understanding of religion and belief” is leading to the wrong people being rejected – meaning they could be forced out when they have genuinely been persecuted.

Mohammed, an Iranian asylum seeker convert, is fighting to stay in the UK. His claim was rejected following his asylum interview.

“One question they asked me was very strange – what colour was the cover of the Bible,” he says. “I knew there were different colours. The one I had was red. They asked me questions I was not able to answer – for example, what are the Ten Commandments. I could not name them all from memory.”

When someone turns up for an asylum interview, the assessors have to decide whether what they’re told adds up to a reasonably likely account. The caseworker doesn’t have to be sure of every detail and in the case of religious claimants, the guidance says they’re not required to ask anything other than “basic knowledge questions”.

Living faith

But why shouldn’t the Home Office, which runs the asylum system, reasonably expect claimants to know basic facts from the Bible?

“The problem with those questions is that if you are not genuine you can learn the answers, and if you are genuine, you may not know the answers,” says Baroness Berridge, who heads the parliamentary group behind the report.

“When the system did move on to ask about the lived reality of people’s faith, we then found that caseworkers, who are making decisions which can be life or death for people, were not properly supported and trained properly.”

There are no official figures on asylum claims on religious grounds but anecdotal evidence suggests the vast majority are probably former Muslims who have turned to Christianity.

Another large group of claimants are members of the Ahmadi Muslim sect who are persecuted in Pakistan.

Rev Mark Miller, who has a large congregation of Iranian converts in Stockton-on-Tees, has advised the Home Office on how to handle such claims. Many of his congregation will have first experienced the faith in secret meetings in private homes.

“The asylum assessors have a real challenge on their hands,” he says. “If you’ve come to faith in an underground house church, where you’ve been able to borrow a New Testament for a week and have encountered the risen Lord Jesus, you’re not going to know when the date of Pentecost is.

“They should be trying to understand the difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge,” he says.

“They should be asking questions that help them to understand why someone has left behind the faith of their upbringing and the faith of their family.”

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Dominic Casciani

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