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Asylum-seeker ‘conveyor belt’ conversions are a fiction, says Bishop of Durham

12 February 2024

Senior figures — both ecclesiastical and political — have become involved in the row

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THERE is no evidence to support the “imaginative range of allegations” made by a former C of E priest about the Church’s apparent complicity in a “conveyor belt” of asylum-seeker conversions, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, has said.

The claims were made by the Revd Matthew Firth, a former Priest-in-Charge of St Cuthbert’s, Darlington, who left to join the Free Church of England in 2020. They were made in the wake of reports that the suspect in an alkali attack in Clapham, south-west London, Abdul Shokoor Ezedi, said that he had converted to Christianity before his asylum claim was approved (News, 2 February). Police reported at the weekend that Mr Ezedi, an Afghan national, is now believed to have drowned in the Thames.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph last week, Mr Firth said that the Church of England was “complicit” in allowing what he described as an “extraordinary” number of baptisms of asylum-seekers at St Cuthbert’s. “I decided I had to put a stop to the conveyor belt and veritable industry of asylum baptisms that was going on,” he said.

Responding in a letter to the Telegraph on Friday, Bishop Butler writes that the report “contains an imaginative range of allegations from Matthew Firth, who resigned as a priest in the diocese of Durham in 2020.

“Mr Firth does not offer any evidence to support these claims; however a check of the parish records shows that the portrayal of a ‘conveyer belt’ of applications is distant from reality. In fact, a total of 15 people (13 adults, two infants) who may have been asylum-seekers have been baptised over the past ten years. Of these, seven were baptised by Mr Firth himself.”

His letter continues: “As priest-in-charge, he will have been aware of his responsibility to check the authenticity of candidates. If there was anything amiss, Mr Firth should have reported it. Had he raised concerns with senior staff during his time at St Cuthbert’s, they would of course have been taken seriously and investigated. He did not do so.”

In a statement released on behalf of St Cuthbert’s, a spokesperson for the diocese dismisses the allegations as “nonsense”, including Mr Firth’s claim that he had been “cold-shouldered” by senior clergy within the diocese after raising his concerns.

“At no time did he raise concerns locally or with senior clergy about the number of asylum-seekers being baptised at the church, and [he] produces no evidence of being bullied by local church members in relation to this matter.

“His claims of the church being a ‘conveyor belt’ of asylum-seeker baptisms are nonsense.”

The statement concludes: “We are extremely proud to have St Cuthbert’s, which is now under excellent leadership, as one of our churches, and proud of the valuable work all our churches in Darlington do to ensure asylum-seekers and refugees are welcomed. They work closely together to undertake this work with care and thought.”

Criticism of the Church of England’s involvement in asylum-seeker conversions showed no signs of abating this week.

An investigation by The Times published on Monday — under the headline “Revealed: How judges let criminals use Christianity to escape deportation” — found that, in the past year, seven asylum-seekers, five of whom had previous criminal convictions, had cited religious conversion as a reason to stay in the UK.

The paper found that, since January 2023, the Upper Tribunal heard 28 cases in which a claimant referred to conversion to Christianity as a reason to be granted asylum. This constituted about one per cent of cases heard in that period. Of those, seven appeals were approved and 13 dismissed; in eight cases, the judge ordered a new hearing.

Five of the seven migrants granted the right to stay had been convicted of serious criminal offences, including a murderer and sex offenders, the paper reported.

Senior figures — both ecclesiastical and political — have become involved in the row. A former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, writing in the Telegraph on Sunday, said that, while he supported the place of the Lords Spiritual, he believed that their stance on immigration — particularly the current Archbishop of Canterbury’s opposition to legislation on Rwanda deportation (News, 2 February) — was “wrong”.

His disagreement, he said, was “not with their compassion and Christian care for others, but their blindness to what migration is doing to our country — our culture, our infrastructure, and our common life”. Immigration was affecting the poorest hardest, and had led to the Church’s being “accused of boosting the credentials of asylum-seekers and gullibly accepting insincere conversions”.

Lord Carey described the Church’s response to the criticism as “thin-skinned”. “When you raise your head above the parapet, you must expect to be criticised. . . But the Church hierarchy seems to be denying that there is a problem at all, or anything questionable about its own actions and statements.”

While it was the job of the Home Office and the judiciary to apply the asylum rules, church guidance on the authenticity of claims should be more robust, he argued.

During PMQs last week, the Conservative MP Tim Loughton accused the Church of issuing “secret guidance, for clergy supporting asylum applications for . . . Damascene conversions”, and the Archbishop of Canterbury of “scamming” UK taxpayers. Archbishop Welby responded that the “mischaracterisation” of churches had been “disappointing”.

In an interview with Radio 4’s Sunday, the Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, pointed out that the guidance (a 2017 document, Supporting Asylum Seekers — Guidance for Church of England Clergy) had always been available on the Church on England website.

The Church was “open” to “looking again” at its guidance on assessing the authenticity of requests for baptism, to bring greater clarity, she said — “but ultimately, it is the job of the tribunals and the Home Office to assess and vet. We will absolutely play our part and co-operate as much as we can, but we do have higher ideals in terms of welcome and support.”

Baptism preparation in the Church was already rigorous, she said. “Clergy do take that seriously, regardless of where people are coming from.”

Earlier in the interview, she had said: “As Christians, our primary responsibility is one of welcome and hospitality and support and teaching, but we need to do that in a way that is wise and aware that occasionally there are people who might try and scam us. . .

“It’s very difficult to look into the hearts of people and be 100 per cent. And that goes whether the person is from Britain or an immigrant from elsewhere. But we absolutely advise clergy to do the best they can. . . Inevitably, there will be a small number of cases, but it seems to me that it’s wrong that that should be highlighted because it’s diverting attention away from the systemic problems, which is that we have an immigration system which is overwhelmed and inefficient.”

Writing in The Times on Saturday, the Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron, who is a Christian, agreed about where the responsibility lay. “Church leaders may provide evidence that someone has regularly attended and made a profession of faith. But they do not judge whether that faith is genuine, any more than for a middle-class family seeking to get their child into the local church school,” he said.

Declarations of conversion were “rigorously tested” by the authorities, he said, and conversion to Christianity from another faith should not be viewed as “an easy option” but one with serious consequences for the individual. He also agreed that “there will be some fake conversions, and the Church should be alert to the fact that people do try to game the system. But who other than God can decide who has genuinely accepted Christ in their hearts and who has not?”

Read more on this story in this week’s comment section here and press column here

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