UK: The Home Office, asylum and religious conversion
Home Office cites Bible to deny asylum
By Kaya Burgess
The Times (22.03.2019) – https://bit.ly/2GnTDBV– The Home Office refused asylum to an Iranian who converted from Islam to Christianity because, it said, Christianity was not a peaceful religion.
Immigration officials wrote to the man, who had converted to Christianity on the ground that it was a peaceful religion, citing violent passages from the Bible to support their claim. They said that the Book of Revelation was “filled with imagery of revenge, destruction, death and violence”.
The Church of England condemned the “lack of religious literacy” after the man said that he now faced persecution in Iran for his faith. Church officials called for a “serious overhaul” of Home Office policies.
The letter cited a passage from Leviticus in the Old Testament, which says: “You will pursue your enemies and they will fall by the sword before you.” It also referenced chapter ten of Matthew’s gospel, in which Jesus says: “I came not to send peace, but a sword.”
It said: “These examples are inconsistent with your claim that you converted to Christianity after discovering it is a ‘peaceful’ religion, as opposed to Islam which contains violence, rage and revenge.”
Nathan Stevens, an immigration caseworker who is also a Christian and is helping the unnamed asylum seeker with his appeal, shared the letter and said he was shocked by “this unbelievably offensive diatribe being used to justify a refusal of asylum”.
“Whatever your views on faith,” he said, “how can a government official arbitrarily pick bits out of a holy book and then use them to trash someone’s heartfelt reason for coming to a personal decision to follow another faith?”
The Bishop of Durham, the Right Rev Paul Butler, said in a statement shared on Twitter by the Archbishop of Canterbury: “I am extremely concerned that a government department could determine the future of another human being based on such a profound misunderstanding of the texts and practices of faith communities. To use extracts from the Book of Revelation to argue that Christianity is a violent religion is like arguing that a government report on the impact of climate change is advocating drought and flooding.”
A spokesman for the Home Office, which could not confirm whether the official who sent the letter had been reprimanded, said: “This letter is not in accordance with our policy approach to claims based on religious persecution, including conversions to a particular faith.
“We continue to work closely with key partners . . . to improve our policy guidance and training provided to asylum decision-makers so that we approach claims involving religious conversion in the appropriate way.”
The bishop said: “The fact that these comments were made at all suggests the problem goes deeper than a lack of religious literacy among individual civil servants and indicates that the management structures and ethos of the Home Office, when dealing with cases with a religious dimension, need serious overhaul.”
Stephen Evans of the National Secular Society said that asylum decisions should be based on facts, adding: “It’s not the role of the Home Office to play theologian.”
Campaigners have complained of a “culture of disbelief” among officials dealing with asylum claims based on religious conversion.
A 2016 report from the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief said that Christian asylum seekers and converts were being asked “Bible trivia” questions. It warned that questions from crib sheets were a “very poor way of assessing a conversion asylum claim” and could result in wrong decisions and expensive appeals.
A report published yesterday by the Commons home affairs committee accused the Home Office of showing a “shockingly cavalier” attitude towards immigration detention, including a lack of sufficient judicial safeguards and failings when dealing with individual cases.
A spokeswoman for the Home Office said: “Detention is an important part of our immigration system — but it must be fair, humane and used only when absolutely necessary.” She added that most people detained were held only for “short periods” and that such people could not by law be held indefinitely.
Church of England response to Home Office letter regarding Iranian asylum seeker
Speaking in response to the publication of an excerpt from a Home Office ‘reasons for refusal’ letter sent to a Christian convert who had applied for asylum The Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler said:
“I am extremely concerned that a Government department could determine the future of another human being based on such a profound misunderstanding of the texts and practices of faith communities. To use extracts from the Book of Revelation to argue that Christianity is a violent religion is like arguing that a Government report on the impact of Climate Change is advocating drought and flooding.
“It is good that the Home Office has recognised that this decision is inconsistent with its policies and that its staff need better training. But the fact that these comments were made at all suggests that the problem goes deeper than a lack of religious literacy among individual civil servants and indicates that the management structures and ethos of the Home Office, when dealing with cases with a religious dimension, need serious overhaul.
“I look forward to hearing what changes in training and practice follow from this worrying example.
“The Church of England has regularly raised the issue of the religious literacy of staff at all levels within the Home Office. This fresh case shows just how radically the Home Office needs to change in its understanding of all religious beliefs.”
The Bishop of Durham leads for the Bishops in the House of Lords on matters relating to immigration, asylum and refugees.
Comment from His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos, Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London
21 March 2019
It is with great concern that I read reports from various sources yesterday regarding a letter from the Home Office rejecting an Iranian asylum seeker, and convert to Christianity, based on, at best a complete and utter misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Christian Scripture, and at worst an intentional manipulation of the text to justify the rejection of this vulnerable individual.
Home Office process and procedure on asylum issues, especially pertaining to religious converts, has been a source of ongoing conversation with the Home Office for a number of years. Through our Asylum Advocacy Group, which I founded and convene, we are working with the Home Office on a training programme due to be implemented within the coming months for case workers which takes into account incidents such as these, and many more like it.
This particular incident needs thorough investigation because while it has been accepted by a spokesperson from the Home Office as ‘not in accordance with our policy’, it must be determined whether this is merely out of misunderstanding or a proactive attempt to adversely affect the application of someone whose life may very literally be at risk. It must also be ascertained as to whether religious discrimination is at work, as there is no place for partiality within a Government that seeks to promote equality, and abides by Article 18 of the Declaration of Human Rights among other agreements.
We have been told on numerous occasions that the Home Office is not even in a position to ask whether an employee, case worker or contractor has any religious affiliation at all. Taking this into consideration, it now is astounding that such brash comments about a person’s religious belief can be made by an employee or contractor of that same institution.
Since yesterday, other examples have also arisen of similar malpractices when it comes to misrepresenting Scripture and rejecting asylum claims on those grounds, and so I do hope that these are also looked at in their entirety, and not a single case in isolation.
I look forward to our ongoing work with the Home Office as I commend the faithful and professional practice of the vast majority of Home Office staff and contractors.
Finally we must realise the extent of these actions, and that they have a bearing on people of faith who are potentially vulnerable in their state of origin, and vulnerable here in Britain as asylum seekers, and for this we must take great care to ensure that such violations do not go undetected or untreated.
Catholic News Agency (25.03.2019) – The British Home Office has agreed to reconsider the asylum claim of an Iranian Christian, after it was shown on Twitter that the department had denied the application on the grounds that Christianity is not a peaceful religion.
“The Home Office have agreed to withdraw their refusal and to reconsider our client’s asylum application, offering us a chance to submit further representations. A good start, but more change is needed”, the Iranian’s caseworker, Nathan Stevens, tweeted March 22.
Stevens added that he hopes “there will be real change though as it isn’t all about this one case; there’s a much wider problem to be addressed here.”
The immigration caseworker had tweeted photos March 19 of the Home Office’s letter explaining its reason for refusing the convert’s asylum claim, commenting: “I’ve seen a lot over the years, but even I was genuinely shocked to read this unbelievably offensive diatribe being used to justify a refusal of asylum.”
The asylum seeker had noted in his 2016 application that among his reasons for converting was that Christianity talks of “peace, forgiveness and kindness” while “in Islam there is violence rage and revenge.”
The refusal letter cited biblical passages, from Leviticus, Matthew, Exodus, and Revelation, which it said contradicted the asylum seeker’s claims: “These examples are inconsistent with your claim that you converted to Christianity after discovering it is a ‘peaceful’ religion,” the denial letter stated.
Stevens said: “Whatever your views on faith, how can a government official arbitrarily pick bits out of a holy book and then use them to trash someone’s heartfelt reason for coming to a personal decision to follow another faith?”
The Home Office, the British government department responsible for immigration, drugs policy, crime, fire, counter-terrorism, and policing, has said that the refusal letter is “not in accordance with our policy approach to claims based on religious persecution,” the Catholic Herald reported. It added that “we continue to work closely with key partners … to improve our policy guidance and training provided to asylum decision-makers.”
Sarah Teather, director of Jesuit Refugee Service UK, said March 21 that the refusal letter “is a particularly outrageous example of the reckless and facetious approach of the Home Office to determining life and death asylum cases – they appear willing to distort any aspect of reality in order to turn down a claim.”
“This case demonstrates the shocking illiteracy of Christianity within the Home Office … Here at JRS, we routinely encounter cases where asylum has been refused on spurious grounds.”
She added that “as this instance gains public attention, we need to remember it reflects a systematic problem and a deeper mindset of disbelief within the Home Office, and is not just an anomaly that can be explained away.”
Stephen Evans, CEO of the National Secular Society, commented on Twitter that it was “totally inappropriate” for the Home Office “to play theologian.” He added that “Decisions on the merits of an asylum appeal should be based on an assessment of the facts at hand – and not on the state’s interpretation of any given religion.”
Paul Butler, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, expressed “extreme concern” that the Home Office “could determine the future of another human being based on such a profound misunderstanding of the texts and practices of faith communities … that these comments were made at all suggests that the problem goes deeper than a lack of religious literacy among individual civil servants and indicates that the management structures and ethos of the Home Office, when dealing with cases with a religious dimension, need serious overhaul.”
Stevens has also noted that the refusal letter was part of a larger problem. He quoted in a March 20 tweet from another refusal that stated: “You affirmed in your AIR that Jesus is your saviour, but then claimed that He would not be able to save you from the Iranian regime. It is therefore considered that you have no conviction in your faith and your belief in Jesus is half-hearted.”
Shia Islam is the state religion of Iran, though several religious minorities are recognized and granted freedom of worship. However, conversion from Islam is strictly prohibited.
Open Doors UK said that 114 Christians were arrested in Iran in December 2018. Many of them were reportedly converts from Islam.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote in its 2018 report that “in the past year, religious freedom in Iran continued to deteriorate … with the government targeting Baha’is and Christian converts in particular.” It said that “Christian converts and house church leaders faced increasingly harsh sentencing: many were sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for their religious activities.”
If you want to be regularly informed about different violations of human rights in the world, click here for a free subscription to our newsletters!
HRWF database of news and information on over 70 countries: http://hrwf.eu/newsletters/forb/
List of hundreds of documented cases of believers of various faiths in 20 countries: http://hrwf.eu/forb/forb-and-blasphemy-prisoners-list/