ON TRINITY SUNDAY, in St George’s, Newtown, Birmingham, an Iranian man stood up to sing unaccompanied, the oil of chrism still fresh on his forehead from his confirmation. His voice was filled with the sweetness of his first communion, which he had received moments before, with 17 other candidates from many nations. Few were English-born.
As the rest of the congregation went forward to the communion rail, he lifted up his voice in Farsi. The lilting sounds of the Middle East and of the desert song expressed the congregation’s devotion.
The experience was moving. But politicians have claimed that asylum-seekers have become Christians only in order to stop Britain sending them back home. As Christian converts, they can argue that they might be persecuted for their faith if returned to a Muslim country, and particularly Iran.
“There is an element of that for some people who need to get permission to stay,” said the chaplain to the Persian Community in the UK, the Revd Bassi Mirzania, who is based near Guildford. “They believe that if they are baptised and known to the church, they will get it. But that is not necessarily the case.
“So how do clergy handle the people who say: ‘I want to be baptised yesterday?’” she asks.
People in detention centres who wanted a baptism certificate would send for clergy because they were “desperate to get this piece of paper” before they were served with their deportation papers. “I would not advise any clergy to baptise them if they are not ready,” Ms Mirzania says. It is an issue she has discussed with the Home Office through the National Church Network.
It is not just the clergy who find it hard to determine whether faith is genuine, she says. At tribunal hearings, “One problem is that, if the translator is a Muslim, he may not know the religious terminology. If the convert says, ‘I have met God the Father’, the translator may not know the language — or they are even biased.”
In three years, she has met more than 1200 Persians and Farsi-speaking Christians or aspirants, has contacted 140 clergy, and visited 20 dioceses. 150 Persians have been baptised at City Church, in Newcastle and there are Persian communities worshipping in Doncaster, Sheffield, and Cardiff.
She converted from Islam while still in Iran, before the revolution (“I had fallen in love with the Man from Galilee”). Forty-three years ago, she asked her father, a Sufi Muslim, “a loving, intelligent man, who treated us five girls and two boys the same” what he thought about her becoming a Christian.
“He said: ‘Whatever faith brings you closer to God is right for you, my girl.’ That has been a lamp on my journey.”
In those days, Iran was open to different faiths. Now, “all of a sudden it is restricted to one belief that you must believe.” Last week, she had news that 18 Christians in her home town of Shiraz had been arrested and questioned. The church is constantly under scrutiny. Lists of the congregation must be supplied to the authorities; and baptisms are not allowed in church.
“People are leaving home 99 per cent not because they need a job — because in Iran there are plenty of opportunities to work — but because of strict sharia law. Life is so suffocating, people come out to breathe. They find freedom in the Christian faith.
“They say the Christian faith seemed to them the way that God will meet them and accept them.”
Since the 1979 revolution, more than six million Iranians have left. “When you listen to their stories, they tell you that, unless you are wholeheartedly devoted to the Muslim revolution, there is no place for you.”
Ms Mirzania met many exiles when working as a social-responsibility officer in London diocese. Then, four years ago, she was ordained by the Rt Revd John Gladwin, then Bishop of Guildford, and two former Bishops in Iran, to work as chaplain among Persians in Britain. It costs £10,000 a year, and in March, Bishop Gladwin, now Bishop of Chelmsford and patron of her ministry, appealed to all 43 diocesan bishops for help. He needed £30,000 for the next three years, but received only £3000.
Her advice to Persian Christians? Learn English and get involved. Her advice to churches? Support the new Christians, involve them, and allow them a service in Farsi once a month.
Contributions to the Anglican Ministry for the Persian Community in Britain, made payable to the Church Mission Society, can be sent to Barbara Shaw, 128, Perth Road, Ilford, Essex, IG2 6AS.