Gaming the Asylum System?

Following the terrorist attack in Liverpool earlier this week, it is being reported that the Home Office believes converting to Christianity is now ‘standard practice’ among asylum seekers ‘to game the asylum system’, as converts claim that they would be at risk of persecution if they were sent back to their home countries.

Emad al-Swealmeen, 32, detonated a bomb in a taxi outside Liverpool’s women’s hospital on Sunday. He is being described by the media as a ‘Christian convert’ who had an asylum claim rejected in 2014. He was baptised in 2015 after a five-week Alpha course and confirmed in the Church of England in 2017, but lost contact with the church in 2018. According to media reports he was seen worshipping at a mosque during Ramadan and praying with a Muslim friend in the week before Sunday’s attack.

Asylum applicants who are able to show that they are practising Christians can argue their faith will lead to them being persecuted if they are deported. Such conversions may also be used as evidence of the applicant’s success in integrating into Western society. Liverpool Cathedral, where Al Swealmeen was confirmed, had what was described as ‘improbably large numbers of Iranians attending courses and services’, which meant it was unlikely they were all genuine converts. however, in many cases, asylum was granted after tribunals concluded the applicant’s new faith was indeed genuine.

It is now also being reported that Al Swealmeen had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act for six months and he was operating as a so-called ‘lone wolf’ who may have been inspired by Islamic terrorists but was not part of a strategic plan by an organised terrorist cell.

So the actual connection between his professed Christian faith, which did not seem to last, his failed asylum application and the bomb attack, is not clear. All the evidence seems to suggest that he was not genuine in his interest in Christianity and this raises legitimate questions about whether asylum seekers are cynically using churches to help their applications, and that churches and other advocacy organisations are naïvely aiding and abetting this deception.

I want to suggest we can and should show compassion but exercise wisdom and discretion to the extent that we are able to make a judgment about such things.

Our first instinct as Christians should be to offer practical help and hospitality to anyone who comes our way, especially those who do not have friends, family, or the state to support them. This must be regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Withholding help on the grounds that someone is from another country, race or religion because they might potentially be a deceiver or a terrorist is discriminatory which, apart from being illegal, is unbiblical.

Of course, we would also want to share the good news about Jesus with anyone who shows an interest and not rush to judge their motivation in doing so, knowing that God can draw people to himself through all kinds of circumstances.

It is also true that Christians are especially vulnerable to persecution in many parts of the world because of their faith and we want to stand up and speak out for them and provide safe places for them to live.

Even if some asylum seekers might use conversion to Christianity to help their application, not because they are following Christ, the overwhelming majority are not terrorists and do not go on to commit acts of terror.

But having said that, we do need to exercise our best judgment as we would with any seeker and be especially alert to the pressures on asylum seekers that might make them falsify a spiritual interest. Bishop Nazir-Ali suggests that one way of judging whether a claim of conversion is genuine is to consider whether interest in Christianity arose before or after an initial claim or appeal was rejected. The Liverpool attacker, for example, converted after he was refused asylum. Again, this might help alert us to potential deception, but still seems to be a rather blunt instrument to evaluate real spiritual interest.

Nazir-Ali also says, ‘Church leaders should also make sure that the grounds [for accepting their profession of faith] are sound and that any convert has had adequate preparation for membership of their community’.

In this regard, evangelical non-conformist churches tend to be in a much better position than the Established Church because we do not represent a form of cultural Christianity and tend to have higher expectations for what constitutes a genuine believer. In the experience of some of our churches, courts throw out evidence they have provided because it has not been obtained through credible processes; they have to demonstrate to the court that people are not accepted simply because they say they are believers.

In the end, it is the responsibility of the Home Office, not Christians, to assess the legitimacy of any asylum claim. If we offer help it is not to ‘game the system’ but to make sure justice is done.

The church is given the responsibility to judge who is a genuine believer as best we can. But as for all the people churches deal with, only God knows the heart – we can only judge on the basis of what they profess with their lips and the outworking of that in their lives.

Graham Nicholls is Director of Affinity

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