THE Church of England has come under heavy criticism for a “naïve” approach to the conversion of asylum-seekers, after one supposed convert, Emad al Swealmeen, is suspected of blowing himself up in Liverpool on Remembrance Sunday.
Al Swealmeen, aged 32, a refugee from the Middle East, died when, the police say, his home-made bomb exploded in the back of a taxi parked outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital, at about 11 a.m. The driver was injured and taken to hospital. Four men arrested under the Terrorism Act on Monday have since been released without charge. No motive has yet been revealed for the incident.
It later emerged that Al Swealmeen, also known as Enzo Almeni, converted to Christianity and was confirmed in Liverpool Cathedral in 2017. A picture has been released of Al Swealmeen smiling beside an assistant bishop, the Rt Revd Cyril Ashton, after the confirmation service.
The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, told the Radio 4 Today programme on Tuesday: “It could have been me or any other of my colleagues. . . Confirmations are happy occasions, and you don’t think that this kind of awful future might lie in store. We pray for everybody that we confirm and welcome, and one of the things we pray for them is that they will grow up in holiness and wisdom. Sadly, in this man’s case that does not seem to have happened.”
Al Swealmeen undertook a five-week Alpha course shortly after the Government rejected his application for asylum in 2014. In a front-page article in The Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, churches were criticised for supporting asylum-seekers in conversion whose main purpose was to improve the chances of Home Office approval for their application. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, was quoted as saying that the “merry-go-round” system of legal appeals was being exploited at the expense of the taxpayer.
Sam Ashworth-Hayes, the director of studies at the Henry Jackson Society, a think tank that works to combat extremism, told the newspaper: “While the Home Office should be rooting out fake converts applying for asylum, the Church of England has been hopelessly naïve in accepting so many converts from migrant backgrounds and so readily offering them support in their asylum applications.”
He continued: “It’s one thing to offer a graceful welcome to those in need. It’s another to be taken for fools. When immigration tribunals are complaining about ‘improbably large’ numbers of converts and clergy publicly stating that people are pretending to convert to exploit the system, something is clearly going wrong.”
On Wednesday, the Dean and Chapter of Liverpool Cathedral expressed their shock at the events, but insisted that they had developed “robust processes for discerning whether someone might be expressing a genuine commitment to faith”.
Their statement read: “Clearly, we cannot speculate on the motivations of this individual. However, we are clear that the actions of an individual do not reflect a whole community and we remain united with all in the city and country who work for peace as we continue to pray for Liverpool at this time.”
It continued: “The ministry to asylum seekers is one of the ways we can welcome people following the teachings of Jesus in clothing and feeding those in need. Welcoming people into a worshipping community is one way we engage.
“Liverpool Cathedral has developed robust processes for discerning whether someone might be expressing a genuine commitment to faith. These include requirements for regular attendance alongside taking part in a recognised Christian basics course. We would expect someone to be closely connected with the community for at least two years before we would consider supporting an application.”
The Church’s Home Affairs Adviser for Mission and Public Affairs, Benedict Ryan, wrote a Twitter thread defending the Church against the Telegraph’s article, which was headlined: “Church under fire for helping asylum seekers to ‘game’ system”.
He wrote: “The Church isn’t responsible for assessing asylum claims or security implications. That is for the Home Office. The Church takes the Sacrament of baptism extremely seriously. It is not given out just because it is asked for, and never as a means to dodge the law.
“While undoubtedly there are those who believe that seeking membership of the Church will fast track their asylum claim there is no evidence this practice is commonly accepted by either the Church or the Home Office — or even that this practice is remotely widespread.
“There are many genuine Christian converts from Iran and elsewhere and lazy reporting risks jeopardising the extent to which their cases are taken seriously. The Home Office has a lamentable record on religious literacy and assessing such claims.”
Mr Ryan concluded: “The Church should never apologise for being at the forefront of supporting some of the world’s most vulnerable. It is not a coincidence that many refugees look to the Church for support, churches are essential in the work of supporting refugees and asylum seekers.”
Several Bishops, including the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, and the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, expressed their support of the thread.
Earlier this week, Bishop Bayes said that it was “a testing time” for everyone in the city. “Anxiety levels are going to rise in many communities, but we have tried over many years to build relationships between the different faiths, and it is on the platform of those relationships that we are going to have to stand now — and we do.”
He also expressed sympathy for the Christian couple, Malcolm and Elizabeth Hitchcott, who had taken in Al Swealmeen after his bid for asylum was rejected in 2014. “I have no doubt that they are numbed,” Bishop Bayes said, “and so are many people of all the different faiths who try to reach out in the name of the common good to make themselves available for love. When that is taken advantage of, or when things happen that subsequently you can’t understand, that does shake you. I hope that the Hitchcotts — the same as anybody else from any faith or from no faith — will be encouraged to be there for people.”