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How to test asylum-seekers’ faith

12 July 2019

Changes to the way in which the Home Office does this are vital, says Simon Valentine


AN EVER-increasing number of asylum-seekers are entering Britain, many of whom allege that they face persecution in their native countries, owing to their conversion to Christianity. The Home Office thus faces the formidable task of assessing the credibility of their faith, and thereby identifying legitimate from bogus applicants.

Unsurprisingly, the system used by the Home Office to assess “faith” is seriously flawed. In trying to prove the unprovable, Home Office officials are regularly seen as being religiously illiterate, and “out of touch” with religious belief and practice. Consequently, many asylum-seekers are treated unfairly by the application system.

Examples illustrating this point are legion. An asylum-seeker earlier this year (identity undisclosed) was told that his or her claim of converting to Christianity “because [Christianity] was a ‘peaceful’ faith”, was “inconsistent” with many biblical passages showing violence and warfare (News, 22 March). On that fatuous point, the application for asylum was rejected.

In another recent case, the asylum-seeker’s evidence was questioned because he had claimed he was a Roman Catholic and an Evangelical Christian. The assessor was woefully unaware that Evangelicals could be found in most churches (including the Roman Catholic Church) and that “Evangelicalism” was not a distinct denomination.

RECENTLY, I helped Reza, an Iranian convert to Christianity, through the application process. Previously a Shia Muslim, Reza faced persecution from family members and Sapah, the Iranian undercover police. His life was in real danger in Iran. Under Iranian law, it is a crime to renounce Islam and become a Christian, or to proselytise: an offence which is punishable by death.

On arrival in Britain in 2017, Reza, like other asylum-seekers, attended a screening interview, in which he was asked questions about his faith. These included: “On what mountain did Jesus give the Sermon on the Mount?” and “What were the names of the twelve disciples?” Other asylum-seekers I know were asked “How many books are in the Bible?”, and could they name the Ten Commandments. Such questions are grossly unfair. As Reza’s minister remarked: “Probably very few Christians attending church in the UK would be able to answer these questions, never mind a young, inexperienced [and frightened] Iranian convert.”

Reza, a Farsi speaker with limited English, also had problems with his interpreter. At the initial interview, Reza stated that he used to be a Muslim, but this was translated, and placed on official documentation, as his saying that he was currently a Muslim. Owing to this, and other errors in translation, Reza was accused of being “contradictory” in the facts that he gave, resulting in the dismissal of his application.

WITH these issues in mind, how should the Home Office assess the faith of asylum-seekers? What changes could be made to improve the application process?

There is much truth in the adage that actions speak louder than words. Instead of asking questions about biblical trivia (although retaining scope for “sensible” questions), much more emphasis needs to be placed on subjectively assessing a person’s faith commitment, by both questioning and observation.

As such, the evidence of the minister (and other Christians) at the church attended by the asylum-seeker should be paramount. Church membership and participation (vouched for by the minister) is equally as important as “beliefs”, if not more so, in assessing credibility.

Reza, with little English and lacking confidence, similar to many other asylum-seekers, found the application process intimidating, if not hostile. In his experience, interviewers were usually officious and dictatorial, asking questions quickly, making him feel confused (especially if the translator was unhelpful), and unable to answer correctly.

Asylum-seekers are real people with real needs — not just lifeless statistics. As such, although interviews and assessments of applicants have to take place (sadly, there are those who feign Christianity to beat the immigration system), such procedures should be undertaken sensitively: the assessor should create a relaxed atmosphere, ensuring that the applicant fully understands every question asked. Applicants must be given the opportunity to speak about their life experience and faith commitment.

In secular Britain, where fewer than five per cent of the population attend church, we can no longer take it for granted that people generally have a knowledge of the Bible or Christian doctrine. As such, if Christian asylum-seekers are to get a “fair deal”, it is imperative that all officials dealing with them (including judges) should attend courses on Christian beliefs, ritual, and history.

Caseworkers — especially those lacking experience of a Church background — could be linked with a member of the clergy to prepare interview questions and jointly assess the applicant’s faith commitment. Admittedly, resources are limited, but, ideally, such prepared interview questions should then be “peer-reviewed” by another church official before being used.

As indicated in Reza’s case, the need for such training applies also to interpreters. From my experience of helping Ahmadi Muslims and Christians during the asylum process, courts and tribunals often find it difficult to find an appropriate translator. When Reza met his solicitor, I was surprised at how she kept us waiting while she rang around on her mobile searching for someone who could speak Farsi.

In the interests of fairness and practicality, the interviewing process would improve if Christian asylum-seekers were appointed with Christian solicitors, likewise Muslims with Muslim advocates. In both the first-tier hearing and in his appeal, Reza experienced problems with his legal representation. He confided in me that he felt that his solicitor — a Muslim — showed very little interest in his case, even refusing to advise him on the phone. “The British Government forgets that Christian converts are despised as murtad [apostate] and worthy of death by any practising Muslim, not just the extremists,” Reza told me.

IN THE same way, the Home Office needs to be more sensitive in the allocation of residence. Christian asylum-seekers have complained to me that they are often placed in houses where all the other residents are Muslim. Reza, the only Christian convert, was placed in a house with a large group of Muslims, in a Muslim district of Bradford. He was repeatedly threatened, verbally and physically. On one occasion, he was badly beaten up: his right eye was injured and needed hospital treatment.

Having spent much time with Reza, not only teaching him English and helping him with practical issues, but also praying and reading the Bible together, and talking about his faith, I had little doubt in my mind of his genuine faith commitment. I and the minister of the church that he attended raised these points at his appeal hearing in Bradford. Thankfully, justice — and common sense — prevailed, and Reza’s appeal was successful.

But, lastly, would it be an abuse of human rights for a caseworker to retain a link with successful asylum candidates, offering a supportive (courtesy) visit to the asylum-seeker’s home and church? An asylum-seeker’s continuing commitment to a Christian church would go a long way in proving the unprovable.

Dr Simon Ross Valentine is a freelance writer and lecturer who regularly visits the Middle East, including Iran. He has worked extensively with the police and other agencies on issues relating to counter terrorism and asylum-seekers. Email: archegos@btinternet.com.

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