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Welby rejects ‘scamming’ slur, as Chessun warns of ‘new lows’ in Tory rhetoric

08 February 2024

Alamy

The Prime Minister during Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday. He has asked for more information about Christian conversions among asylum-seekers

The Prime Minister during Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday. He has asked for more information about Christian conversions among asylum-s...

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has warned against making “irresponsible and inaccurate comments” on church support for asylum-seeker applications, after a Conservative MP accused him of “scamming” UK taxpayers.

And the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, has written to the Home Secretary deploring the “dehumanising” political rhetoric surrounding asylum-seekers, which he said had reached “new lows” in this country.

The Church of England has been in the firing line this week, after it was reported that the suspect in last week’s alkali attack in Clapham, south-west London, said that he had converted to Christianity before his asylum claim was approved (News, 2 February).

The former Home Secretary Suella Braveman, writing in The Daily Telegraph on Monday, 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” (News, 5 February).

During Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, the Conservative MP Tim Loughton referred to recent reports that about 40 of the 300 migrants currently residing on the barge the Bibby Stockholm in Dorset are Christians, and that six of its residents were baptised at Weymouth Baptist Church on Sunday.

“So Christianity in the UK seems to be on the wane unless apparently, you are from a Muslim country in the middle of an asylum claim,” he told the House of Commons. “We’re now told one in seven occupants of the Bibby Stockholm have suddenly become practising Christians.”

Citing the steady decline in regular church attendance and baptisms over the past decade, he went on to ask Mr Sunak: “Given that the Church of England has now issued secret guidance for clergy supporting asylum applications for these Damascene conversions, who is the Church accountable to, and are taxpayers being scammed by the Archbishop?”

Mr Loughton appeared to be referring to a 2017 document, Supporting Asylum Seekers — Guidance for Church of England Clergy, which is available on the Church on England website.

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, posted on social media on Wednesday night that the “secret guidance” had been “hidden in plain sight on the website for the last 6 or 7 years, I believe. But why let the truth get in the way of a good slur?”

Responding to Mr Loughton’s question, Mr Sunak said: “When it comes to illegal migrants, we need to have a system whereby if someone comes here illegally, they shouldn’t be able to stay.

“I can tell [the Archbishop that] the Home Secretary has asked for more information about the extent to which migrants converting to Christianity is playing a role in our asylum system. And more generally under our Illegal Migration Act, anyone entering the UK illegally will not be granted asylum here. That’s why we need to have somewhere to send them and why our Rwanda scheme is so important.”

Archbishop Welby, who is currently in Ukraine, responded to the exchange in a statement on social media on Wednesday evening, in which he described the “mischaracterisation” of the Church over the past week.

“It has been disappointing to see the mischaracterisation of the role of churches and faith groups in the asylum system,” he said.

“Churches up and down the country are involved in caring for vulnerable people from all backgrounds. For refugees and those seeking asylum, we simply follow the teaching of the Bible, which is to care for the stranger.

“It is the job of the Government to protect our borders, and of the courts to judge asylum cases. The Church is called to love mercy and do justice. I encourage everyone to avoid irresponsible and inaccurate comments — and let us not forget that at the heart of this conversation are vulnerable people whose lives are precious in the sight of God.”

Archbishop Welby has been candid in his criticism of the Rwanda scheme, which the Government is attempting to enshrine in legislation through the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill (News, 2 February). It will begin the Committee Stage in the House of Lords on Monday.

Bishop Chessun has also expressed concern about the rhetoric surrounding seeking asylum and refuge, which he said this week was “reaching new lows” in the UK.

In a letter to the Home Secretary, James Cleverly, on Tuesday, Bishop Chessun writes that the commentary surrounding recent Bills on immigration, including the Rwanda Bill, “only stokes suspicion of rampant criminality and underhand dealing among those seeking safety in Britain.

“The effect of this is to dehumanise people, creating division and suspicion in our communities. Tragic stories, like that of the Clapham attack, should not be weaponised in service of political aims — as if an appalling incident such as this is somehow characteristic of those seeking refuge on our shores.”

This approach, Bishop Chessun wrote, “does not rise out of a vacuum. It relates to less than considerate language used by the governing party.”

He was, he wrote, “especially concerned that, in the year of the General Election, the language should be moderated”. His letter ended with an invitation for the Home Secretary to “come and see for yourself” the work of churches with the refugee community, who, he said, had “enriched our communities and deepened our faith. We owe so much to them.”

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