ALI whispers as if someone is listening in; his dark eyes betray a hunted look, even as he introduces himself over a tea in a café in eastern England. He speaks, none the less, of an inner peace. He recalls: “When I read the Sermon on the Mount, there were tears flowing from my eyes; no other religion had such harmony. [Before then] I was even thinking of going to Syria to join ISIS.”
A 29-year-old Afghan refugee, Ali (not his real name) says that he became a Christian five years ago, after studying various faiths, long after becoming a British citizen. A non-Christian British friend passed him a Gideon’s New Testament. Months before, Ali married in Afghanistan, but his infrequent visits and questioning of Islam had led his Pakistani wife to return to her parents; threats from his brother to kill him; and pressure from relatives in Britain to say whether he had left Islam. He fell out with the Muslims with whom he owned a small business in north Kent. At one point, he attempted suicide.
The British Pakistani Christian Association put him in touch with supportive church leaders; and, after being helped to relocate, he has begun lodging with a priest, and doing casual work for another church leader near by.
Ali’s interest in Christianity and religious experience is unusual, but not unheard of. Individuals, families, and small groups of people from other faith backgrounds have been approaching churches in unprecedented numbers — for spiritual as well as material help. In some cases, they have reinvigorated struggling congregations, while presenting pastoral, cultural, and theological challenges.
THE Bishop of Bradford, Dr Toby Howarth — formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury’s interfaith adviser — says that the Church of England does not record the numbers of candidates for baptism and confirmation who come from other faith backgrounds.
But trends are discernible: most enquires approach city churches in the north or the Midlands, and Iranians are by far the most frequently mentioned, ahead of Iraqis, Kurds, Afghans, Emirati, and others.
What can be measured is the Church’s growing response. Liverpool Cathedral’s Farsi-language congregation, Sepas, led by an Iranian-born priest, attracts about 60 Iranians each week; Lichfield has recruited an Iranian chaplain to Persian Christians in Stoke. (“Persian” can refer to parts of Afghanistan and Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as Iran.)
Newcastle diocese has a Supporting Persians Group for people who work with Iranians; a training day in Leeds last summer on ministering to Iranians attracted about 80 people from 30 churches across the country. An Evangelical mission to Iran, Elam Ministries, has translated courses such as Alpha into Farsi for use by European churches.
No one interviewed for this piece could list all the places where it is happening, but a sketch would include the dioceses of Birmingham, Durham, Leeds, Lichfield, Manchester (an estimated 20 churches are involved), Newcastle, Sheffield, and Southwell & Nottingham. Much of the work has grown out of supporting asylum-seekers and refugees of all faiths and none, and all nationalities. Not all dioceses wanted to speak on the record.
THE work, which several interviewees emphasised is “welcome”, not “outreach”, falls under the Church of England’s Presence and Engagement (P&E) programme, led by the Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Tony Robinson (News, 7 July 2017). Dr Howarth, with the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, leads Anglican ministry to Persians. The Bishop of Loughborough, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, who was born in Iran, where her father, the late Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, was the first Iranian Anglican bishop, is supportive, but not formally involved.
Rich WainwrightCanon MacPherson leads one of the twice-weekly 80-minute sessions on Christianity in Wakefield Cathedral. He aims to teach six sessions in three weeks, because many asylum-seekers housed near the cathedral are moved to new accommodation after only a few weeks.
P&E’s national co-ordinator, Kat Brealey, says that, where someone wants to follow a faith other than the one in which they were raised, “the specifics of how Churches respond to this vary, but will always be sensitive to both the personal circumstances of the individual and the wider context”.
When religion is linked to ethnic, political, national, or family allegiance — or, as in Ali’s case, all four — conversion threatens those ties, and can leave the person emotionally, socially, even physically vulnerable. The Church of England has adopted the Christian-Muslim Forum’s “Ethical Guidelines for Christian and Muslim Witness in Britain”, which emphasise respect and transparency.
Conversion is a difficult word. It can spark associations with coercion, proselytism, betrayal, and, as Dr Howarth notes, a concern within the Church of England “not to abuse its privilege as the national Church”. But, he adds, “A vicar has a responsibility to everyone in the parish.”
THE newcomers are not only to be found in the C of E. The Vicar of Holy Cross, Newcastle, the Revd Gavin Wort, who hosted the confirmation of 12 Iranians in December, says that “the local Baptist church gets a lot of Iranians, as do the independent Evangelical Churches, and the Evangelical Church of England parish”. One lay leader confided that the arrival of some Iranians had caused a liberal catholic priest friend to wrestle with the concept of conversion.
The newcomers are not exclusively from Muslim backgrounds. In Heeley, Sheffield, several dozen ethnic Nepalese expelled from Buddhist Bhutan — a mix of Hindus, Buddhists, and animists — found Christianity somewhere between there and Yorkshire, and started attending the parish church.
One member of the congregation, Nora Bell, spotted that the Nepalis, who made up about a quarter of the congregation, and had their own service on a Saturday, were not integrating at Sunday services. She wrote a course, “Getting to Know You”. Now, at best, she says, “we have singing in both languages following a split screen,” and readings in both languages; but not yet translated sermons.
Only a handful of people resent the way that their church has changed. She believes that creativity (to locate translators), and patience (because “integration is a process”) are vital, and lead to rewards: coffee after the service now involves “lots of noise, a lot of inspiration, and lots of hugs”.
AN INFLUX of people from different cultural and religious backgrounds inevitably changes a church. The Team Vicar of Hanley, in Stoke-on-Trent, the Revd Sally Smith, regrets that, of her original congregation, probably only six are now left — the rest attend other churches in the team ministry.
Having baptised about 70 people from other faith backgrounds, she remains emphatic: “I think we’re in a key moment in history. We have this massive opportunity, and I’m afraid that much of the Church is going to miss it. The nations are being shaken. This is our moment to talk about [the fact that] we belong to a Kingdom where no passports are needed, [where] we’re invited to the banquet.”
The mention of passports is important: many of those who ask for baptism are also seeking asylum, which means that any claim of conversion is open to suspicion. Indeed, the cities concerned are often places to which the Home Office disperses asylum-seekers.
A 2016 report in The Sunday Times, which looked at conversions and asylum claims, quoted the then Dean of Liverpool, now Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, saying: “I can’t think of a single example of somebody who has already had British citizenship converting here with us from Islam to Christianity.”
Dr Wilcox’s words went down badly with people working in the field. They appeared to portray asylum-seekers as devious, and Liverpool as naïve. “I did not feel that my views were well reflected there,” he says today. “The team at Liverpool Cathedral is not naïve.” Canon Tony MacPherson, the Sub Dean at Wakefield Cathedral, who runs twice-weekly classes on the Christian faith for Iranians, says that the scenario that Dr Wilcox described was no surprise, because, once leave to remain is granted, people tend to relocate to find work.
A TEN-PAGE report published by P&E in 2016 identified two categories of Iranian asylum-seeker: persecuted Christians for whom it was too dangerous to get baptised in Iran — they may have been Christians for years; and those who left their country for political reasons and converted to Christianity afterwards.
A senior imam at Makkah mosque, in Leeds, Qari Asim, says: “We appreciate the role the Church is playing in providing faith-based nourishment to asylum-seekers who . . . have had very bad experiences.” He suggests that those seeking baptism might do so because they had suffered oppression, were not devout Muslims or were already Christian, or because they believed that it might help asylum applications.
The P&E report advocates an unhurried approach to these requests for baptism, and advises involving the PCC to help to decide how best to welcome them into church life. “We will sometimes baptise and confirm separately . . . to allow a little longer to do the catechesis,” the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, says. This may mean that the two services take place in different dioceses, owing to the transience of asylum-seeker life. Clergy may be asked to attest to a conversion in a letter to the Home Office, or at an asylum tribunal.
The Priest-in-Charge of St Paul and St Jude, Manningham, in Bradford, the Revd Alistair Helm, who has made his church a “beacon” for Persian asylum-seekers as well as local Muslims, says: “It’s hard. . . I never go to court with anybody unless we’ve known them for at least six months.”
THE Home Office’s knowledge-based questions for assessing beliefs (Ahmadi Islam and atheism, not just Christianity) have been criticised (News, 10 June 2016). The Priest-in-Charge of St Thomas’s, Stockton-on-Tees, the Revd Mark Miller, who has had up to 100 Persian asylum-seekers in his congregation, is one of several religious leaders working with the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Freedom of Religion or Belief to recommend more experience-based questions.
The group’s operations director, Katharine Thane, has collected data from religious charities in Germany, Holland, Sweden, and the Netherlands about asylum-seeker conversion assessments, to share best practice. In a statement, the Home Office said: “We continue to work closely with the APPG . . . and engage a range of faith groups to improve our policy guidance and training provided to asylum decision-makers so that we approach claims involving religious persecution and conversion in the appropriate way.”
Welcoming newcomers from other faith backgrounds is dragging geopolitics into parishes, and religious literacy into politics. It is proving an inspiration to clergy, causing them to question how far they will welcome the foreigner whose life may be transient or chaotic. Perhaps it is not just nations that are being shaken.