“What colour is the Bible?”: asylum-seekers and immigration officers

Widespread concerns have been expressed about the way immigration officials interrogate asylum-seekers. In this guest post, Michael Ainsworth discusses the particular issue of refugees from Islamic states who claim asylum on grounds of conversion to Christianity.

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Can it really be true, as reported, that this is one of the questions asked by immigration officials to test the faith of those who claim Christian conversion as part of their case for asylum? If so, what is the right answer? Perhaps it is ‘brown’, since most bibles provided by Gideons International in places of confinement, as well as hotels, are this colour – though some are red, and some are blue. We are not told: but if this is the extent of interrogators’ knowledge of the Christian faith, they know less than those they are questioning, and who may have come through a life-changing experience in which printed texts play little part – though a number I have met read their multi-coloured bibles assiduously, and sensibly (concentrating on the gospels, rather than starting with Genesis 1).

An Iranian whom I had the privilege of baptizing (together with his wife and 11-year-old son, who is settling well into secondary school and has shown me how English-Farsi translation keyboards work) – weekly worshippers who, since they were relocated, have to take two long bus journeys to get to the church which has welcomed them – told me with appalled incredulity that a friend had been asked what colour was the donkey on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem? He asked me, Is this not a stupid question? I do not find this in the gospels. And what does it matter?

This blog focuses on Iranian converts because there is a strong tradition of Christian mission there, and among those now seeking asylum are some who come with a background of involvement in secret house churches – though for others involvement with Christian faith has developed since their arrival in the UK. A growing number of churches and cathedrals now have significant numbers of Iranians worshipping, in some cases seeking baptism which was not possible back home. Among the more high-profile Anglican ones (there are also Pentecostal and other instances) are:

  • Liverpool Cathedral, where there is a Sunday afternoon Persian congregation, led by an Iranian curate. There have been about 200 baptisms of refugees in the last four years. The Dean, Pete Wilcox, acknowledges that there may be mixed motives at work, but compares it with parents seeking a place in a church school: God alone knows the person’s heart and we try to be consistent about that and not to set the bar at one height for middle-class aspiring parents seeking the best for the education of their children and the bar at another height for converts from Islam looking for asylum. Refuse Jemima baptism and she goes to school somewhere else. Refuse Mohammed baptism and he gets deported. [Though see below on whether baptism triggers permission to stay.]
  • Stockton-on-Tees, where the Revd Mark Miller has a large congregation of Iranians and has advised the Home Office on how to handle their claims. Many of the congregation will have first experienced the faith in secret meetings in private homes … The asylum assessors have a real challenge on their hands. If you’ve come to faith in an underground house church, where you’ve been able to borrow a New Testament for a week and have encountered the risen Lord Jesus, you’re not going to know when the date of Pentecost is. They should be trying to understand the difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge. They should be asking questions that help them to understand why someone has left behind the faith of their upbringing and the faith of their family.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom or Religion or Belief  agrees: too often Home Office officials are asking Bible trivia questions, rather than probing what someone really believes and how it has affected their lifestyle. It would be good to have the Home Office guidance made public, and to be assured that they have consulted the churches in formulating and developing it.

  • St Mark, Stoke-on-Trent, where ‘Mother Sally’ (the incumbent Sally Smith) has resolutely offered welcome and practical assistance as well as baptism to Muslim refugees, despite the loss of a good number of her indigenous congregation as a result.

At a less high-profile south Manchester parish church where I have recently assisted, a relatively small but articulate and firmly inclusive congregation has positively welcomed an Iranian ‘influx’ – young men and some families, initially located at a nearby hostel – and has thought carefully about their nurture, as well as assisting some at tribunals. There is some support from an Iranian priest in a nearby parish, with a weekday eucharist in Farsi, but most of what they offer (including printouts of the Sunday readings in Farsi, and a baptism preparation course) is jointly organised by the ‘old’ and ‘new’ congregations. Iranians welcome the predictability of the liturgy, with music, movement, bells and (occasionally) smells, and participate as they are able with reverence. Those who are baptized receive the sacrament with devotion, reminding me of the line from the hymn With sincerity and love / eat we manna from above; and those who are not, but are ‘ready and desirous’, look you hopefully in the eye as they are blessed. The Sunday eucharist is for many the highlight of the week, a fixed point of fellowship and acceptance amid the uncertainty of their lives.

The Church’s part: appropriate nurture

In Rites on the Way (1995), the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission offered guidance on the preparation of adult Christian converts from a variety of faith and non-faith backgrounds. This included the idea of a ‘knapsack’ of resources for the journey – texts which Christians should have by heart. They proposed four such texts, in particular, and made suggestions for how these should be ‘delivered’ to candidates for baptism (and/or confirmation) during the weeks of their preparation.

Each is given, at the appropriate point in the liturgy, with introductory words and a closing prayer, and the introductory words are worth quoting:

  • Summary of the Law: Brothers and sisters, listen carefully to the words that Jesus gave us as a summary of the These few words help us understand how we are to live as human beings in God’s world. They are given not to condemn us but to show how by the grace of God we may live as free people reflecting the goodness and love of God.

[Interviewees are sometimes asked to recite the Ten Commandments. Few native Christians, except perhaps BCP ‘8 o’clockers’, could rise to this challenge: the summary is generally more familiar.]

  • Apostles’ Creed: Brothers and sisters, listen carefully to this ancient text which the Church calls the Apostles’ Creed. It was formed in the earliest centuries of Christianity, and reminds us of God’s love for the world in creation, in incarnation and in salvation. It has a special place at baptism, where we confess that Jesus is our Lord and Saviour.
  • Beatitudes: Brothers and sisters, listen carefully to these words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In them he declares the blessings of God’s kingdom. He gives us a vision of a world redeemed by love, and the qualities of discipleship which will bring about that transformation. 
  • Lord’s Prayer: Brothers and sisters, listen carefully to the Lord’s Prayer. It is given to us as a pattern for our praying as well as a prayer that we can make our own. It teaches us that heaven is open to our prayers and that the world is open to the gracious working of God.

This is good liturgical practice for all confirmation and adult baptism candidates, and particularly appropriate for those from other faith or cultural backgrounds who are exploring Christian commitment. In Manchester we deliver these texts, in English and Farsi, to candidates for baptism: as well as their primary purpose in delineating the essentials of faith, they may hopefully provide an antidote to ‘bible trivia’ questions at interview. These are the fundamentals of what I believe as a Christian, in line with what the Church of England has declared. It would then be for the tribunal to assess whether the applicant sincerely lives by this, rather than by their own idiosyncratic construct of what Christian faith involves.

The Church’s part: interview support

Tribunal hearings seem to vary widely, according to accounts by church members who attend to give support, and by lawyers who are engaged in some cases. Candidates dread them, of course: the apparent randomness of questions, and the requirement for ‘physical’ evidence of conversion (see below on baptism). Some interrogators do the job properly, maybe even too thoroughly: one member of the Manchester congregation, now in London, was grilled for five hours on the difference between Shi’ite Islam and Christianity. Partners are interviewed separately, and here consistency in their accounts is what matters. Those who have lied in the past face additional problems. An example is an Iranian who fled to Greece after an adulterous relationship, and for some reason claimed to be Afghan (and was jailed there for 18 months). The church member who supported him at interview pointed out that she knew respectable cradle Christians who have lied in situations where they felt terrified and powerless.

Baptism

How can you be a Christian if you are not baptized? the man I mentioned above was asked. I said that I intended to be baptized, but that meanwhile I know that I am a sinner in need of repentance, and I trust in the Lord Jesus, he told me. Was that a correct answer? I assured him that it was. Even if this was a formula that he had picked up from others, I am fairly certain that he sincerely believed it and knew what it meant. I pointed out (to his surprise) that there are some Christian traditions, such as the Quakers and Salvation Army, that do not use the sacrament of baptism, as well as others where it is only available to long-standing members after extended catechesis. I did not go on to expound the ‘rite in search of a theology’, aka confirmation…

In any case, the Home Office has made clear that baptism in itself is not determinative of an asylum application – nor indeed is conversion. A document such as a baptism certificate would not automatically lead to a conversion claim being accepted as genuine but is given appropriate weight when considering all the evidence. A supportive letter from the incumbent, detailing the applicant’s participation in worship and bible study, could be equally significant. The issue is the genuineness of conversion, which is never easy to assess. (Pete Wilcox, mentioned above, has said that he knows no cases of conversion from Islam by those who already have British citizenship, though he presumably means among recent asylum seekers, since there are certainly individuals who have lived here longer who embrace the Christian way, just as there are British converts to Islam.)

To become a Christian convert, and make public profession through baptism (there seems no evidence of so-called ‘private’ baptisms in this country, unlike in Iran), has consequences, for good and for ill, and like marriage should not be undertaken unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly. Such a person becomes an apostate in a Muslim land, with the associated risks – though this may be why some believe it will strengthen their case. It may also divide families here in the UK when other members remain committed to Islam. Mark Miller is right to say [Assessors] should be trying to understand the difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge. They should be asking questions that help them to understand why someone has left behind the faith of their upbringing and the faith of their family.

That is why it is significant that the Beatitudes are among the ‘Four Texts’ – they are the marks of Christlike character, and of the qualities of discipleship which will bring about … transformation. Demonstrating the reality of this experience in the adversarial context of a tribunal hearing is a huge challenge for applicants. The challenge for the assessors is to enable those for whom this is truly a reality to articulate this.

Religious freedom

Whether or not the Iranians among us were involved in covert house churches back home, and whether or not their asylum claims are successful, they value the promise of religious freedom which we guarantee them, both under domestic and European law. It is all so different from that from which they have fled. This, rather than stories about ‘playing the system’, is what should characterise the process.

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Cite this article as: Michael Ainsworth, “‘What colour is the Bible?’: asylum-seekers and immigration officers” in Law & Religion UK, 5 August 2016, https://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2016/08/15/what-colour-is-the-bible-asylum-seekers-and-immigration-officers/

10 thoughts on ““What colour is the Bible?”: asylum-seekers and immigration officers

  1. Pretending to be Christian is a popular activity these days. Many parents do this to get their children into their local schools that are funded by their tax payments. If I were to want to do this I would concentrate on the dogma of Original Sin. If you could pretend to believe that, then you surely would pass the test. As the joke goes .. The important thing is sincerity … if you can fake that you are made.

    • If by Original Sin you mean the Sin of Adam, the Fall and all that, I don’t believe it either. But if it means that, faced with a straight choice between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing, human beings seem to have an innate tendency to choose the latter, then I reckon its truth can be proved by inspection. It seems to be the human condition and I don’t think it’s got much at all to do with “religion”: it’s just the way we are – me included.

  2. Frank is right – and is paraphrasing Romans 7.14-29, where Paul’s anthropology is spot-on. It’s not surprising, given what they have experienced, that many asylum-seeking converts strongly and genuinely believe in the reality of sin, ‘religious’ or otherwise, in the world at large and reflected in their own lives.

  3. I have sent an email to Frank which is too long for this blog.
    I dispute that humans choose wrong by default. I have a much higher regard for humanity it seems. I believe mankind is empathetic by nature and it takes indoctrination to suppress natural empathy. The indoctrination can have religious (sectarian), racist, totalitarian purpose or just be a result of the crisis of war. The evolution of empathy as a behavioural trait in a social species seem entirely plausible. If it hasn’t been proved by a properly conducted investigation yet then it is high time someone set about doing so.

    • I think we just have different views of human nature – my own included. But I’ll reply properly by e-mail.

  4. Dear Michael (please forgive the familiarity but I do not know your title),
    I have taken a look at Romans Ch7 V14-29 in the King James Version and I have to say that I find St. Paul’s anthropology far less convincing than even the abstract of Jean Decary et al as given below.

    In mammals, empathy is crucial for living in social groups and caring for others. In this paper, we consider the structural and functional organization of empathy. We propose that empathy subsumes a variety of neurobiological processes and partially dissociable information processing subsystems, each of which has a unique evolutionary history. Even the most advanced and flexible forms of empathy in humans are built on more basic forms and remain connected to core subcortical and neurohormonal mechanisms associated with affective communication, parental care and social attachment processes. Considering empathy within a framework that recognizes both the continuities and the changes within a phylogenetic perspective provides a richer understanding of empathy and related neurobehavioral processes.
    From:
    A neurobehavioral evolutionary perspective on the mechanisms underlying empathy, Progress in Neurobiology, Volume 98, Issue 1July 2012, Elsevier Press

    What asylum seeking refugees experienced in Syria was the result of the indoctrination of “normal” empathetic human beings by the various sectarian factions, the authoritarian Syrian regime and the exigencies of war. The sudden appearance of thousands of psychopaths in what had been a relatively peaceful, if oppressed, nation is difficult to explain in any other way.
    Religion doesn’t have to be bad but it does strongly manipulate human behaviour and defining another human being as a ” kafir ” categorises her/him as less than human just as “heathen” did for pre-19th Century Christians. This is certain to reduce empathy for the target of this classification. It allowed, for example, the Anglican Church to profit from slave plantations until slavery was eventually abolished as empathy re-asserted itself in the Christian population.
    Regards,
    Alan Rogers

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