The UK’s immigration service has hired clerics to train its staff in religious literacy, following years of criticism that workers are ill-equipped to deal with the complex claims of converts and others claiming persecution on religious grounds.
The issue came to particular prominence in March when a Home Office worker used verses from the Bible to contradict the claims of an Iranian asylum seeker who said he’d converted to Christianity because it was a “peaceful” religion.
The convert was told that suggesting Christianity was “peaceful” was inconsistent with verses such as “You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you” – from the book of Leviticus.
“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,” read a letter from the British Home Office, which was shared online by the Iranian’s lawyer, Nathan Stevens.
Church of England spokesman Bishop Paul Butler said he was “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”.
One of the clerics who took part in the first session for Home Office case-workers last month told the Church Times “there have been a number of bad decisions over the years, highlighted as far back as 2004 by an Evangelical Alliance report, All Together for Asylum Justice”.
Rev. Mark Miller, whose church has a large number of Iranian converts and translates its services into Persian, added: “I have been involved in training to share some of my experiences of working with Christian conversion, and how to go about assessing whether someone is genuine. In the session, I asked staff what they thought was basic knowledge, but most of what they suggested back to me wasn’t basic knowledge; it was ‘Name the Ten Commandments’, rather than the significance of a faith in Jesus.”
Converts to Christianity are regularly targeted in Iran, as was recently admitted by Iran’s Minister of Intelligence, who said he had “summoned [converts] to ask them why they were converting” and had been told it was because “they were looking for a religion that gives them peace”.
Once arrested, they often face pressure to recant their faith or sign commitments not to meet with other Christians. In many cases, converts have been released after paying huge sums for bail, then given their passports and encouraged to leave Iran.
As a result of the harsh treatment they face, many converts decide to leave Iran, as Article18 highlighted in its inaugural annual report, released in January.