UK churches defend their role in welcoming asylum seekers interested in the Christian faith

Leading politicians accuse churches of allowing “bogus” conversions of migrants to obtain refugee status. “The suggestion church leaders are aiding people to abuse the asylum system is a serious charge”, says an Evangelical Alliance representative.

Joel Forster

LONDON · 07 FEBRUARY 2024 · 12:03 CET

People walking in a street of London, UK. / Photo: <a target="_blank" href="">Jonny Gios</a>, Unsplash, CC0.,
People walking in a street of London, UK. / Photo: Jonny Gios, Unsplash, CC0.

The brutal attack in London on a woman and her children by an immigrant from a Middle Eastern country has sparked controversy over what some consider to be ‘express conversions’ to Christianity.

The attacker arrived in the United Kingdom in 2016 in a lorry, had his asylum claim rejected, but then in 2020 was granted refugee status after claiming to have converted to Christianity. His testimony was supported by a priest. He had previously been convicted of sexual assault.

In an environment where immigration is a hot topic, some British politicians have accused some churches of offering easy gateways for migrants who claim a religous conversion to avoid deportation.


“Befriend the vicar, get your baptism date in the diary and, bingo”

Suella Braverman, until 3 months ago Home Secretary, denounced in the newspaper The Telegraph that “there are churches around the country facilitating industrial-scale bogus asylum claims”. She continued: “They are well-known within the migrant communities and, upon arrival in the UK, migrants are directed to these churches as a one-stop shop to bolster their asylum case. Attend Mass once a week for a few months, befriend the vicar, get your baptism date in the diary and, bingo, you’ll be signed off by a member of the clergy that you're now a God-fearing Christian who will face certain persecution if removed to your Islamic country of origin”.

Braverman has often called for tougher conditions of access to the UK and is one of the conservative politicians demanding a move away from the European Convention of Human Rights, which gives migrants certain rights when they arrive in a new country.


Church of England: Baptism is ‘not a magic ticket’

The criticism has not been welcome by church groups. The Church of England (Anglicans) said it was the job of the state, not the churches, to decide on asylum applications.

Guli Francis-Dehqani, Bishop of Chelmsford, an Iranian who arrived in England as a refugee, said that local church leaders only endorse conversion claims “after careful assessment” and that it is “wrong” to think of baptisms as “some sort of magic ticket” to asylum.

“The notion that a person may be fast-tracked through the asylum system, aided and abetted by the Church is simply inaccurate”, she added.

Vicars have asserted that their spiritual role of accompanying and baptising people who express an understanding of the gospel and a desire to follow Jesus Christ will never include the ability to know exactly what hidden intentions a person may have.


Evangelicals: Hospitality could be abused but churches have a mission

Evangelical Focus asked the director of advocacy of the Evangelical Alliance United Kingdom (EAUK) about the controversy.

“The allegations that politicians have levelled at church leaders, of facilitating too many bogus asylum applications, are important to consider”, said Danny Webster. “The implicit and sometimes explicit suggestion church leaders are aiding and abetting people to abuse the asylum system is a serious charge but it also risks confusing their role in sharing the Good News and discipling believers with legal asylum decisions”.

Webster pointed to the work the EAUK in this area with documents like Alltogether for Asylum Justice (2007). “Church leaders should use their discretion before testifying to someone’s conversion, and be aware of the risks of fake testimony, especially if this is seen as a successful route to gaining asylum”.

Paying attention to how “hospitality and welcome of churches could be abused (…) shouldn’t stop churches from opening their doors, introducing people to Jesus, and celebrating when people come to faith. For churches in the UK, hospitality of those entering the UK is key area of practical compassion and place for mission”.

The Evangelical Alliance's head of advocacy underlined that “discretion and integrity are essential” are not the same as “scepticism and distrust”. “The roles of church leaders and immigration officials need clear differentiation”, he concluded.

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