Iranian Christian refugees in Sweden share frustrations at asylum process

Iranian Christian refugees in Sweden share frustrations at asylum process

Members of the “I Am a Christian Too” campaign group were back on the streets on Tuesday for World Refugee Day.

Over the past three years, Article18 has reported on numerous occasions about a group of Iranian Christians in Sweden who have taken to the streets of Stockholm to protest about rights abuses in their home country.

The “I Am a Christian Too” protesters have campaigned for Iranian Christians’ release from prison, their right to employment and a place to worship, and other issues such as the targeting of Baha’is and killing of protesters.

On Tuesday this week, they were back on the streets, and this time the issue was perhaps even more personal; it was World Refugee Day, and the Christians wanted to draw attention not only to the struggles of their coreligionists back home, but also refugees like them, who continue to suffer even after being forced to flee.

Article18 spoke with several of the Christians – all converts – about their struggles since arriving in Sweden, in many cases several years ago, and how many had their asylum applications rejected because of doubts regarding the veracity of their conversion claims, despite years of active involvement in their churches.

Edris Afsar, who has been in Sweden since 2015, told Article18: “I applied for asylum, and after a long time, I received a rejection and deportation notice from the immigration office. 

“They even took away mine and my wife’s permission to work, despite the difficult conditions we have.” 

Kobra Yadegarpoor (left) alongside two other women protesters on Tuesday.

Another asylum-seeker, Milad Motamedi, said: “My family and I have been in Sweden as refugees for almost eight years, and our asylum application was rejected. We are dealing with many problems – not having a work permit, and also not being able to study and participate in society. 

“We don’t even have the possibility to go on a trip and book a hotel or plane ticket, which is actually a normal thing in the life of every person. In some cases it has not been possible for my child to see a doctor; it is not possible to shop online; and the combination of all these things causes stress and problems.”

“It’s very difficult to live in Sweden without residency,” said Arash Mirzaee, who has been in Sweden for over a decade. “I don’t have the permission to have a bank account, or any other right that a human being needs to live here – like getting a driver’s license, a bank card, attending classes, or getting a work permit.” 

Finally, Kobra Yadegarpoor provided a woman’s perspective, telling Article18: “As a Christian woman, I came to Sweden from my own country with the challenges and problems I had in society, but unfortunately, my right to asylum and work permit was taken away from me for more than five years, and there was no proper and fair handling of my case.

“Single people, families, and children each have their own problems and challenges, such as the right to housing, allowances, work permits, medical treatment, etc., and in the meantime, Christians have their own problems, and their faith and belief is always ridiculed, and the courts make incorrect judgments.”

Converts’ asylum claims disbelieved across Europe

The “I Am a Christian Too” group have campaigned for Iranian Christians’ release from prison, and their right to employment and a place to worship, among other issues.

Whether it’s Sweden, or elsewhere in Europe, there appears to be a clear similarity in how asylum claims involving Christian converts are dealt with, including their high rejection rate.

Whereas in most courts of law the principle is to be believed innocent until proven guilty, in the asylum cases of converts it seems the principle is to be believed insincere until irrefutably proven otherwise.

But as asylum courts across Europe will attest, there is no easy way to prove or disprove the sincerity of someone’s faith.

“It is not possible to make windows into men’s souls,” noted the judges in the case of one Iranian asylum-seeker, “PS”, whose example was included in the latest guidance to UK courts on how to assess such claims.

And yet, over and again, it appears that making such impossible judgements is precisely what immigration authorities seek to do.

The Swedish newspaper Dagen recently visited the country’s largest asylum accommodation, and met with around 20 Iranian asylum-seekers, all of whose cases were based on their professed conversions to Christianity, and all of whose claims had been rejected.

Dagen reported that they had all received the same response from the authorities: that “their Christian faith is not considered genuine, and therefore does not constitute a basis for protection”.

According to the judgments that Dagen viewed, the converts’ stories were considered “vague”, unreliable and lacking “deeper reflections”, leading the judges to conclude that their conversions were “not because of a genuine religious conviction”.

Edris Afsar (second left) and Arash Mirzaee (centre), during Tuesday’s protest.

A common phrase that Dagen found in the rejection notices was that “the Migration Agency finds that it appears that your connection to Christianity is more about your well-being than that you have a genuine and religious conviction”.

But the asylum-seekers themselves told Dagen they didn’t know what more they could do to prove the genuineness of their faith.

“The Migration Agency wants me to be a ‘perfect’ Christian who follows their template,” said one, Alirez Zarei.

Another, Saeed Mohamdi, put it this way: “The Swedish Migration Agency does not believe me, and it is because I find it difficult to put into words what is in my heart.”

This was also the point put to Dagen by lawyer Rebecca Ahlstrand, who has represented several converts in their asylum claims:

“You must be able to show that you have reflected before converting, and that you have thought about the risks of the conversion, and preferably be able to describe the process leading up to the conversion and what thoughts preceded it. But this is often difficult for applicants, and at the same time, one must take into account the individual’s personal ability to verbally tell about their conversion – due to their education, culture, social status and so on – which is rarely done.

“When assessing whether a conversion is genuine, it is primarily the oral information and the story that is judged on the basis of certain criteria, but we think that this can be very arbitrary.”

And meanwhile, “the churches and the Migration Agency sometimes have different views on what is genuine faith and what is not”, noted Christian Mölk, the pastor of the local Pentecostal church that supports the asylum-seekers and has attested for the genuineness of their faith at multiple hearings.

“Generally speaking, the Swedish Migration Agency wants people to be able to reason about their conversion, while the churches rather focus on various forms of spiritual experiences, such as healing, answers to prayers, hearing God’s voice, experiencing inner peace, or seeing Jesus in a dream,” he said.

Some of the converts told Dagen they became Christians after witnessing miraculous changes in themselves or others, like Pegah Foroughasharagi, who said she noticed a transformation in her husband, who himself converted after seeing a colleague’s daughter recover from cancer following prayer.

But the Swedish Migration Agency judged that Pegah was unable “to account for the thought process that led her to distance herself from Islam”, and “the inner spiritual journey that this distancing should have meant for her”.

Once again, it seems we’re back to peering into a person’s soul. And all the while, converts like those from the “I Am a Christian Too” campaign group remain in a state of uncertainty, and fear of deportation.

“My whole life – days and nights – is spent in stress and anxiety about the future and what will happen to me,” Arash Mirzaee told Article18. “For these 12 years, I could have studied, had a good job, and peace, but I haven’t had any of these things; only stress and anxiety.”