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Press: Truth is to be found, if you dig deep enough

16 February 2024

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THE Office of National Statistics estimates that 925,000 people from outside the EU migrated to Britain in 2022. The figures for 2023 will be about the same. This is a very large number. Seven people were allowed to stay in England after converting to Christianity in 2023. That is a very small number. But it is the small number that made the headlines for the past fortnight, because five of these seven had been convicted of serious criminal offences.

What gets blamed for all this is “the Church” — if you read the Telegraph, it’s the Church of England.

You may feel quite sick of the whole topic by now, but the story tells us a great deal about how journalism works, and how ill at ease England is with itself at the moment.

For most of the fortnight, the story bowled merrily along without any numbers attached at all. Then The Times, on Monday, dug the real figures out. Seven migrants have been allowed to stay in Britain in 2023 because they had converted to Christianity; the cases of 13 were dismissed; and eight are still being considered.

This was an excellent piece of journalistic research, which put the whole of the past fortnight’s furore over fake converts into some kind of perspective. But the figures, of course, ruined the story. So, they were buried 24 paragraphs down in a piece headlined “Revealed: How judges let criminals use Christianity to escape deportation”.

The top of the piece was all taken up with horror stories dating back to 2018: “Murderers, sex offenders and drug dealers are among the migrants who have escaped deportation by claiming to have converted to Christianity.”

The natural outcome of all this, if anything lasting happens at all, will be to remove conversion from among the factors that are to be considered when deciding whether someone should be deported. Last month, there were said to be 100 MPs at the launch of the Open Doors report on the persecution of Christians around the world. I doubt whether a single one of these MPs would vote against such a change today.

The really revealing statistic — and I haven’t seen this anywhere — would be to compare conversions to Christianity among those who come here illegally, and those who enter by legal routes. There is bound to be a huge disproportion. Of course the system is gamed by asylum-seekers — but then it’s gamed by everyone. So long as notional Christianity offers any benefits, people will pretend, whether they want places at the local school, a wedding in a pretty church, or a chance not to be expelled from the country. And, no doubt, some fraction of those pretending will be criminals, too.

One strange aspect of the story was that no one seemed to think that conversion to Christianity might make a criminal repent of the crimes that had led to his or her deportation. That’s not quite true: the Times story quoted a judge in a lower tribunal who had asked whether a convicted Iranian sex offender had “sincerely recognised the wretchedness of his offending and repented of his wrongdoing, as the Christian faith would surely require for a genuine conversion” — but this was described by a more senior judge as “a wholly inappropriate analysis”.

Compare and contrast the double murderer Erwin James, who became a Guardian columnist some way into his 20-year sentence, and died last week. He was not, so far as I know, a Christian at all, but he really did repent of his crimes, and this was an essential part of his growth into a decent and admirable human being (Books, 14 July 2017).

It may be absurd to look for consistency in a confused story like this, when the Church of England is blamed for the decisions made by the State. But it is possible to recognise the emotional logic at work. Questions of citizenship and of asylum are questions about who belongs here, and who can be trusted. To ask them is to discriminate: it divides the world into insiders and outsiders, and that is one of the vital functions of the nation state.

When the Church is accused of sabotaging the process, it’s accused of acting on behalf of foreigners, and against the good people. It is, in short, accused of lack of patriotism; and, if the Church of England is not a Church for England, what possible use is it to anyone?

Lest this seem a reaction peculiar to readers of the right-wing press, it is worth remembering the corresponding liberal reaction, which is fury at the thought that foreign churches should have any input into the Church of England’s policies on sexuality. In both cases, those who side with the foreigners are felt, on a visceral level, to be traitors. (Incidentally, anyone who wants to know the connection between the Bishop of Lancaster and the pantaloons of a 19th-century Indian merchant should have a look at my substack where all is explained).

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