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Bishop challenges former Home Secretaries’ talk of churches’ ‘facilitating’ bogus asylum claims

06 February 2024

Alamy

The Bibby Stockholm in Portland Port, near Weymouth, in Dorset, last month

The Bibby Stockholm in Portland Port, near Weymouth, in Dorset, last month

CHRISTIANS have a duty “to follow the example of Jesus, who, throughout the Bible, focuses his love and care on the most vulnerable and marginalised people in society”, the Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, has said.

She was writing in The Daily Telegraph on Monday in response to comments from senior political figures — including two former Home Secretaries, Suella Braverman and Dame Priti Patel — who have questioned the involvement of churches and members of the clergy in the asylum process.

The subject came to the fore after it was reported that the suspect in last week’s alkali attack in Clapham, south-west London, submitted that he had converted to Christianity before his asylum claim was approved (News, 2 February). The suspect, Abdul Shokoor Ezedi, is an Afghan national who is believed to have arrived illegally in the UK in 2016 and to have received support from church communities for his application to settle in the country.

Mrs Braverman, who was Home Secretary from September 2022 until November 2023, wrote an article for the same newspaper over the weekend with the headline “Too many churches are facilitating bogus asylum claims. This must stop”.

She accused “churches around the country [of] facilitating industrial-scale bogus asylum claims”, and suggested that migrants saw “churches as a one-stop shop to bolster their asylum case”.

She wrote: “Attend Mass once a week for a few months, befriend the vicar, get your baptism date in the diary and, bingo, you’ll be signed off by a member of the clergy that you’re now a God-fearing Christian who will face certain persecution if removed to your Islamic country of origin.”

Dr Francis-Dehqani, who was born in Iran and whose family took refuge in the UK in 1980, dismissed the idea of clerics’ providing “some sort of magic ticket” for asylum-seekers during the process: “The notion that a person may be fast-tracked through the asylum system, aided and abetted by the Church, is simply inaccurate. Home Office guidance says ‘ultimately, evidence even from a senior church member is not determinative’.”

She continued: “It is the role of the Home Office, not of churches, to assess and vet these claims. I arrived in this country myself as a refugee from Iran. . . I have a sense of the real trauma that many asylum seekers have experienced.”

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, has questioned the evidence behind the claims of the former Home Secretaries. He told i News on Tuesday: “There are one or two cases that have attracted wide publicity, and my guess is that the vast majority of Christian pastors would be well aware of the risk of false claims. What evidence is there that this is a large-scale problem?

“More significantly, what evidence is there that Christian clergy are deliberately colluding in any such phenomenon?”

Lord Williams continued: “If there is no such collusion, do the former Home Secretaries think they can offer cast-iron criteria to determine the sincerity of people enquiring about this?”

He suggested that many regular churchgoers would struggle to answer questions from immigration officials designed to test the authenticity of their faith.

“It is widely admitted that the asylum system at present is chaotically overburdened and understaffed, glacially slow and generally inefficient,” Lord Williams said.

“Highlighting a small area of alleged abuse of the system in the wildly generalised terms used in recent days can only divert attention from the real systemic problems. This ought to be admitted by those who think the system is too lenient as much as by those who think it too restrictive.”

In 2021, the Church of England received criticism when a convert to Christianity detonated a bomb outside the Liverpool Women’s Hospital on Remembrance Sunday (News, 17 November 2021). Emad Jamil Al Swealmeen, who died in the explosion, had undertaken the Alpha course at Liverpool Cathedral, where he was confirmed in 2017. It later emerged he was not a Syrian refugee, as he had claimed, and that he had made several unsuccessful asylum applications. He had been taken into the home of a local Christian couple he had met through church life and was among hundreds of asylum-seekers to be baptised in Liverpool.

About 40 of the 300 migrants currently residing on the barge the Bibby Stockholm in Dorset are reported to be Christians. Six of its residents were reportedly baptised at Weymouth Baptist Church on Sunday.

An elder of the church told Radio 4’s Sunday programme: “There’s no reason we would doubt these asylum-seekers from their profession of faith. Obviously we need to make sure that they believe in Jesus . . . and they want to start a new life in the church.”

Mr Ezedi’s faith and church connections have yet to be substantiated. He is currently on the run after last week’s attack. Reports suggest that he had already had two asylum claims turned down in the Newcastle area. His Christian adherence has also been doubted. A Newcastle shopkeeper told The Sunday Times that Ezedi appeared still to behave as a Muslim; he would buy halal meat and said that he planned to return to Afghanistan to find a bride.

The priest who apparently vouched for Mr Ezedi in his official application has not been identified or come forward. The Roman Catholic diocese of Hexham & Newcastle has confirmed, however, that Mr Ezedi “visited our diocesan Justice and Peace Refugee Project, a charitable venture which assists a wide range of people who come to us in need”.

An official statement on its diocesan website said: “After checking local parish records and central records, and after consulting with clergy, we have no indication that Abdul Ezedi was received into the Catholic faith in this diocese, or that a Catholic priest of this diocese gave him a reference.

“We do not know which Christian church received him nor which Christian minister gave him a reference. We keep the victims in our prayers and hope that justice is done soon.”

On Tuesday, the Anglican diocese of Newcastle also released a statement saying that no evidence had been found of Mr Ezedi attending its churches.

A spokesperson said: “Our churches remain committed to working with the most vulnerable in our society, including those who seek asylum, many of whom have suffered torture or persecution in their home countries. Our clergy will continue to support asylum seekers as they engage with the Home Office application process, and the scrutiny this involves.

“We have checked records held by parishes close to where Abdul Ezedi lived in Newcastle, and have found no evidence of him attending any of our churches, or being supported by our clergy in any asylum application. We pray for the mother and her two children injured in this shocking and horrific incident and for the police as they continue to hunt for the attacker.”

In the early hours of Monday, a 22-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of assisting the alleged attacker and was bailed. A reward of £20,000 has been offered by the Metropolitan Police for any information that may lead to the arrest of Mr Ezedi. Members of the public have been advised not to approach him.

Read more on this story in this week’s Letters and Press column

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