Christian converts seeking asylum in Germany are half as likely to succeed in their applications today as they were two years ago, according to this survey . by Christian charity Open Doors Germany reviewed the experiences of over 6,500 converts – 70% of whom are Iranian – from 179 German churches between January 2014 and September 2019.
It found that the acceptance rate of Germany’s Federal Office of Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has “fallen drastically” for Christian convert asylum seekers of “almost all nationalities” since mid-2017, and that in several federal states it has halved.
For the 4,557 Iranians in the survey, 50% had claims accepted before July 2017 and only 22% since.
The majority of rejected claims were successfully appealed in administrative courts (AC), but Open Doors Germany says the great disparity between BAMF’s findings and those of the appeal courts “must give rise to concern”, as they show “thousands of wrong decisions”.
The authors of the 100-page report estimate that the survey sample represents 15-30% of the total number of convert asylum seekers in Germany, a country that has seen an influx of over two million asylum seekers since 2014.
Many of the converts – whether they converted in their home countries or in Europe – are Iranian, as indicated by the survey.
As Article18 has highlighted frequently, Iranians who convert to Christianity face immense pressure, leading many to flee.
Open Doors accuses Germany’s migration service of failing to recognise the dangers faced by Christian converts in primarily Islamic countries like Iran.
The report notes that while Germany’s overall acceptance rate for asylum seekers has fallen largely in line with the figures for converts since mid-2017, the protection rate for converts has dropped to an even greater degree.
Open Doors says converts’ “situation of special vulnerability, and thus their need of protection, is not acknowledged in many cases”. Instead, “authorities bring forward the argument that there is no sincere change of faith, therefore persecution is not to be expected in the event of deportation”.
The report says there is “no evidence” to suggest anything has changed in the profile of the converts seeking asylum today than pre-2017, including no indication of an increase in “strategic” conversions – as is often claimed in the verdicts for those rejected asylum.
In contrast, the pastors who contributed to the report claimed confidence in the genuineness of a convert’s faith in 88% of cases.
The report’s authors note how significantly Germany’s approach to asylum seekers has shifted over the past few years – from an initially warm welcome, to “the political will to remove as many asylum-seekers as possible from the country”.
Open Doors says such political will “must not lead to these asylum-seekers and refugees being deprived of their human right of religious freedom”, which “includes the right to change religion, enabling converts to live their faith in public and privately”.
The report says it is therefore not appropriate to claim a convert can avoid danger by keeping their faith secret upon their return to a country like Iran, where the freedom to change one’s religion does not exist.
It also questions the appropriateness of interrogating asylum seekers on the sincerity of their faith. A German bishop is quoted as saying “faith tests for converts are an attack on the Constitution”.
The report also suggests that, as the verdict is “almost exclusively focused on the applicant, the outcome of the hearing is therefore highly dependent on the type of person, i.e. introverted or extroverted, and on the applicant’s level of education and thus his or her ability to express himself or herself”.
Open Doors Germany calls on BAMF to treat the testimonies of church pastors seriously and to rely on them as experts in the assessment of whether or not a convert’s faith is genuine.
The researchers found that, rather than proving helpful to a converts’ case, both a clerical affidavit testifying to the authenticity of a convert’s faith, and a baptism certificate, are in fact detrimental to the convert’s chances of success.
The report includes observations from several pastors who express serious concerns about the current asylum process.
The pastor of a church in Berlin says the discrepancy between verdicts in different parts of Germany is “insanely huge” – even in some neighbouring states.
For example, the pastor says that “in the courts [just] outside Berlin, the judicial appeals of our church members, as far as I was present, were granted by far more than 90%. In the AC [of] Berlin, the recognition rate is under 20%, even at 0% with some judges”.
The report says there is “no consistent legal practice concerning the fate of converts in Germany. The protection rates of the federal states differ significantly from one another”.
Another unnamed pastor, whose letter to the appeal courts is included in the report, writes of his concern that the political climate in Germany “influences, or can influence, the verdict”.
“In the first trials to which I was summoned as a witness,” the pastor writes, “almost all verdicts were positive for our Iranian brothers and sisters. This has changed greatly in recent months. Almost all appeals are dismissed.
“For me, the question is whether the politically charged situation in Germany should have an influence on asylum decisions.”
Another contributor, German MP Volker Kauder, cautions against assumptions that “strategic” conversions have increased, saying “there is simply no evidence of this”.
“We must not place Iranians who have converted to Christianity under general suspicion,” he writes. “Iranian converts can be found in non-state churches, Catholic and Protestant congregations. It [should be] primarily the task of these churches to examine the sincerity of the change of faith.”
Open Doors Germany’s report also includes, in full, the ten-page report released earlier this year by researchers at Open Doors International, providing “considerations for immigration officials, government agencies and advocates of Iranian Christians”.
That report urges immigration officials to focus their questions on the claimant’s “personal experience of Christianity”, rather than the extent of their theological understanding; to “explore when and where the claimant’s personal experience of Christianity began, and the steps taken on the way to full acceptance of the new faith”; and for the interview “not [to] be reduced to a mere collection of data describing the journey from Iran to the country of destination, or to a description of exact dates when the person was first introduced to the new faith”.
The report ends with a comparison of similar studies carried out in other European countries in recent years.
A March 2019 study in Sweden also found the “rhetorical ability of converts to reflect on their faith” was central to the success of their applications, so that “ultimately it was not the sincerity of their faith that was assessed, but their intellectual capacity”.
A 2018 study in the Netherlands said the Dutch migration agency’s guidelines on cases involving Christian converts were “deficient” in 60% of cases and that newly published guidelines in July 2018 “had not led to a noticeable improvement” because “new, inappropriate arguments had been added on the grounds of which conversions were rejected as implausible”.
A 2017 study on Denmark found that “statements by pastors/churches were explicitly mentioned” in a quarter of cases “evaluated as plausible”, and that asylum was granted in 75% of those cases. However, it was denied in the remaining 25%.
And earlier this year the United Kingdom hired clerics to train its staff in religious literacy after a 2016 report by a UK parliamentary group noted a discrepancy between “guidelines and actual practice” and recommended that “all cases involving persecution should be reviewed by a higher-level specialist in order to grant consistency and proper proceedings”.
Meanwhile, a June 2019 report for the UK Foreign Office on the persecution of Christians worldwide showed “few instances of assaults of Christians were recorded for Afghanistan … lead[ing] to the misconception that violence against Christians did not occur in Afghanistan and that it was secure to deport Christians to that country”.