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Conveyer belt a myth, Bishop of Chelmsford tells asylum-seeker hearing

12 March 2024

ParliamentTV

Dr Francis-Dehqani giving evidence at the hearing

Dr Francis-Dehqani giving evidence at the hearing

THE Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, defended the Church of England’s approach to asylum-seekers when she was questioned by MPs on Tuesday morning.

At a meeting of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Dr Francis-Dehqani reiterated that the Church had no evidence that there was a “conveyer belt” of asylum-seekers cynically converting to Christianity to expedite their applications, but said that the Church was willing to work collaboratively with the Government on immigration policy.

The C of E does not keep records on whether people being baptised are asylum-seekers, she said, but noted that there had been no increase in baptisms in areas where there are larger numbers of asylum-seekers.

Churches should be a place of “warmth and welcome” she suggested, and, in “the increasingly hostile environment” created by UK immigration policy, it was “perhaps not surprising” if asylum-seekers were drawn to them. “But that’s a totally separate issue to saying that we’re quickly and easily and freely baptising large numbers in order to scam the asylum process.”

Later in the hearing, the Minister for Legal Migration, Tom Pursglove MP, seemed to support Dr Francis-Dehqani’s point, when he said: “We do not have evidence of systemic abuse of the asylum process in the way some perhaps are suggesting.”

The pair were among the church and political figures giving evidence on Tuesday morning, after MPs had heard an account from the Revd Matthew Firth, Priest-in-Charge of St Cuthbert’s, Darlington, between 2018 and 2020.

In early February, Mr Firth said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph that, during his time in the parish, there had been a “conveyor belt and veritable industry of asylum baptisms” for asylum-seekers, and that he had “put a stop” to the practice (News, 12 February).

In a letter to the newspaper, the then Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, wrote that there was no evidence to support Mr Firth’s “imaginative range of allegations”.

In 2020, Mr Firth left the Church of England to join the Free Church of England.

On Tuesday morning, under questioning from select-committee members, Mr Firth made more detailed claims: that he had been approached every two to three weeks by groups of six or seven asylum-seekers who wanted to be baptised, but he had turned them down.

When he had first arrived in the parish, he had found seven baptisms already “booked in”, which he conducted, he said. According to records kept by the diocese of Durham, a total of 15 baptisms of people who could have been asylum-seekers took place at St Cuthbert’s over the decade that included Mr Firth’s incumbency.

He said that the people seeking baptism “melted away” when they realised that they would be required to attend church regularly; and he attributed the low numbers of baptisms of possible asylum-seekers to his decision to “press pause on the process”.

Asked why he had not communicated his concerns at the time, Mr Firth said that he had felt that there was little need, as he had “dealt with” the situation — but also that his experience of making disclosures, including allegations of bullying, was that he had been “ignored”.

The Conservative MP for Dudley North, Marco Longhi, said that Mr Firth was a “brave man” for agreeing to speak to the committee. At the start of the session, Mr Firth said that he had been advised that some people “might try to get” him as a result of his giving evidence.

He confirmed that he was not aware of anyone who was actually trying to intimidate him, but had merely been warned about the possibility of this.

Another Conservative MP on the Select Committee, Tim Loughton, asked whether it was “fair to say that the Church of England has come down on you like the Spanish Inquisition”.

Mr Firth suggested that the response from the C of E amounted to “veiled attacks”, and insisted that his allegations “were not imaginary”. After giving evidence, he declined to answer questions from the Church Times.

Mr Loughton has previously suggested that taxpayers were being “scammed” by the Archbishop of Canterbury, after C of E guidance for clergy involved in supporting asylum-seekers came to public attention (News, 8 February).

The MP for Ashfield, Lee Anderson, who this week joined Reform UK after having lost the Conservative Party whip for making comments that were perceived as Islamophobic, asked Mr Firth whether he thought that the Archbishop of Canterbury had “turned a blind eye” to allegations of widespread bogus conversions.

“I think there is a lack of awareness about the particular dynamics I’ve been describing, and an unwillingness to be totally honest about the dynamics we’re seeing in this area,” Mr Firth said.

 

AFTER Mr Firth had given evidence, Dr Francis-Dehqani appeared alongside the general secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Canon Christopher Thomas, and the Baptist Union’s public-issues enabler, the Revd Steve Tinning. Dr Francis-Dehqani fielded most of the questions.

The panel consisted of a Labour MP, an SNP MP, three Conservatives, and Mr Anderson.

Dr Francis-Dehqani said that she did not want to get into a “tit for tat” with Mr Firth, and was not aware of the detail of what had occurred in the diocese of Durham, but emphasised that the Church had no reason to think that it was facilitating any scams.

The clergy were right to be “vigilant” when it came to those seeking baptism, she said: something that was reflected in the guidance, where it said that priests should be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”.

“Clergy must be confident that those seeking baptism fully understand what it signifies, as an unrepeatable sacramental act of initiation which ushers an individual into the Church,” the guidance continues.

Although the document was being revised, Dr Francis-Dehqani said, she did not expect the essence of the guidance to change. That essence, she suggested, was “to support individuals, to help them to explore faith, to bring them to baptism if that is their commitment. That is our role. It is the role of the Home Office, the courts, and the tribunals to assess asylum claims.”

Mr Loughten asked whether the guidance was in fact an “instruction manual” for helping asylum-seekers to win their cases, to which Dr Francis-Dehqani replied that it was designed to support people through the system.

“We want to always act with honesty, and above board,” she said, and suggested that “headlines are driving people’s perceptions” on the topic.

It was ultimately impossible to provide a “cast-iron” guarantee of genuine conversion, because one “can’t look into people’s hearts”, she said. A few examples of things’ going wrong — such as the case of a convert in Liverpool who carried out a terrorist attack (News, 16 November 2021) — should not be used “to criticise a whole system”.

In any case, she said, it was “not, at the end of the day, the Church’s responsibility to assess a person’s claim”, but to attempt to discern a calling to baptism — a sacrament, she said, that the Church took “incredibly seriously”.

Towards the end of the session, Mr Tinning spoke about the Baptist church in Weymouth where seven migrants who are currently accommodated on a barge, the Bibby Stockholm, have been baptised since October. In each case, they had converted to Christianity in their home country, he said.

The Baptist church that they and dozens of other asylum-seekers attend had been the subject of threats, he said; and he read out an extract from an email in which the church was described as “treacherous”, needed “closing down”, and was warned: “brace yourselves.”

After the church representatives had been questioned, it was the turn of the Mr Pursglove and two senior civil servants from the Home Office.

Mr Pursglove was asked what evidence there was for the former Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s remarks, made in The Daily Telegraph, that “too many churches are facilitating bogus asylum claims.”

He replied that it was for Ms Braverman to explain her comments, but confirmed that the Home Office did not have evidence of “systemic abuse” of the system, and that individual cases were investigated when they arose.

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