What is “genuine conversion” to Christianity for the purposes of an asylum claim by a fugitive from Iran?
In PS (Christianity – risk) Iran CG  UKUT 46 (IAC), the Immigration and Asylum Chamber of the Upper Tribunal considered the current Country Guidance on asylum-seekers from Iran in the light of two questions:
- whether the situation in Iran for “ordinary” converts to Christianity had changed since the decision in SZ and JM (Christians – FS confirmed) Iran CG  UKAIT 00082; and
- whether there was a real risk of persecution for persons who had engaged in Christian activities abroad, regardless of whether or not they held a genuine religious belief in Christianity .
PS had been baptised as a Christian in 2015 and had attended church – but it was not accepted that his conversion was genuine. The First-tier Tribunal had decided that it had been “a cynical device, deployed in order to obtain international protection to which PS was not otherwise entitled”. The First-tier Tribunal had dismissed his appeal and in 2018 the Vice President had upheld that finding but had found that the Tribunal had erred in law in failing to assess whether PS would nevertheless be at risk upon return to Iran, “simply by virtue of his ostensibly Christian activities in the United Kingdom, and his decision to rely upon those activities in pursuit of an asylum claim” .
The existing guidance was that:
(i) A distinction had to be drawn between ‘ethnic’ Christians, such as Chaldeans, Assyrians and Armenians, and more recent converts to Christianity: though ‘ethnic’ Christians did face discrimination, they did not in general terms face a real risk of serious harm;
(ii) Christians perceived by the Iranian state to be actively evangelising or proselytising in the Muslim population were generally at risk of persecution regardless of whether or not they were deemed to be leaders in the church. Apostasy from Islam was a capital crime and although the death penalty had been sparingly used, individuals found to be encouraging others to abandon Islam would be reasonably likely to face serious harm including arrest, detention and ill-treatment.
(iii) The risk for ‘ordinary’ Christian converts had to be assessed case by case: the ordinary convert would generally be able to engage in Christian worship within Iran without facing serious harm .
The Home Secretary argued that the position was unchanged: the ordinary convert to Christianity would be able to return to Iran without fear of persecution, and would be able to worship without any flagrant restriction on his right to do so and “Since PS is not even a genuine Christian, it follows that the risk to him is negligible” .
PS argued that the situation for Christian converts in Iran had markedly deteriorated since 2008, to the extent that ordinary Christians faced a real risk of persecution as part of a perceived “Western fifth column”. He would be questioned upon his return to Iran, and when it came to light that he had claimed asylum on the basis that he had converted to Christianity he would probably be exposed to a real risk of ill-treatment – and it was irrelevant whether or not he was a genuine convert .
The Upper Tribunal began by pointing out that its judgment decision was not intended to replace the existing guidance on “ethnic” Christians: it related purely to converts . Further:
“what we mean by ‘Christian convert’. It is not possible to make windows into men’s souls. Whether someone is or is not, a Christian is a matter of fact that is impossible to objectively verify. For example, an individual may pay very little attention to scripture or sermon but might fervently believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God; Christians with a long-held and deep belief can still face a crisis of faith at any given moment. It is no doubt for that reason that the Tribunal in Ali Dorodian v Secretary of State for the Home Department (01/TH/1537) preferred to focus on the externally observable: ‘as we have said, it is church membership rather than mere belief, which may lead to risk’. This difficulty means that in this jurisdiction decision-makers must rely largely on the observations of others to determine whether someone is, or is not, a ‘genuine’ Christian. A further complexity arises. There is no doubt for many a path to wholehearted belief, with gradations marked by life events and a deepening understanding. At what point along that path an individual might become a ‘Christian’ is not clearly signposted. There is certainly no theological consensus on the matter; baptism is an indicator, but it should not be regarded as determinative. The terminology used in this decision must therefore be read with that caveat in mind. For our purposes, we are primarily concerned with those whom the Iranian state regard as ‘Christians’.” 
The Upper Tribunal recalled that Article 1(A)(2) of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a “refugee” as any person who:
“… owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group, is outside the country of nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country… or, owing to such fear, unwilling to return to it” .
It concluded as follows
- It had never been disputed that there was a causal nexus between the religious belief of Christians in Iran and the harms that they suffered: the dispute was about the extent of those harms and whether “considered in the round, they amounted to a real risk of persecution” .
- The situation for Christians in Iran has deteriorated drastically since the last country guidance was published: the most marked change had been that the Persian-language churches had now almost all closed down .
- Christians who confined their practice within the walls of their own homes and who had strictly limited contacts with other Christians were not, as a group, at risk per se: however, that fact was unlikely to be particularly relevant to any case before the Tribunal, because “protection claims brought in this arena invariably come from individuals who have asserted – either expressly or impliedly by their actions – that a fundamental part of their faith is to attend church. It is this desire to take part in collective worship which will expose them to risk” .
- The purpose of arresting Christians in Iran was to intimidate them and to try and prevent them from practising their faith through attendance at house churches: “It is a purpose pursued with malignancy, and with no legitimate purpose recognised in international law. In that context, such short-term arbitrary arrests must amount to persecution” .
- There was “an ever-present fear of ill-treatment” .
- here were “clear and undeniable breaches of tier 1 rights comprising lengthy detention, prosecution and torture” .
- None of those persecutory measures was reserved exclusively for church leaders or for those with particular evangelical zeal .
- The fact that Iranian Christians were existing “under the radar” did not change the fact that they would be persecuted if they chose to live openly .
Citing Lord Rodger of Earlsferry’s test in HJ (Iran)(FC) v Secretary of State for the Home Department  UKSC 31 at , the Tribunal concluded that the final test in Lord Rodger’s framework was equally determinative in the case of Christians who openly worshipped in the UK and who would wish to continue to do so in Iran but for their well-founded fear of persecution . In doing so, it had considered and rejected the argument advanced for the Secretary of State that the act of collective worship did not go to the core of what it is to be a Christian. Such a ban was contrary to Article 10 of Council Directive 2004/83/EC and Article 9 ECHR [135-138]. The effective ban on collective worship for Christian converts therefore amounted to a severe violation of religious freedom and the harms suffered by Christians in pursuit of that right reached the high threshold of persecution .
The Tribunal formulated new Country Guidance as follows:
“141. This country guidance applies to protection claims from Iranians who claim to have converted from Islam to Christianity.
142. Insofar as they relate to non-ethnic Christians, this decision replaces the country guidance decisions in FS and Others (Iran – Christian Converts) Iran CG  UKIAT 00303 and SZ and JM (Christians – FS confirmed) Iran CG  UKAIT 00082 which are no longer to be followed.
143. Decision makers should begin by determining whether the claimant has demonstrated that it is reasonably likely that he or she is a Christian. If that burden is discharged the following considerations apply:
(i) A convert to Christianity seeking to openly practice that faith in Iran would face a real risk of persecution.
(ii) If the claimant would in fact conceal his faith, decision-makers should consider why. If any part of the claimant’s motivation is a fear of such persecution, the appeal should be allowed.
(iii) If the claimant would choose to conceal his faith purely for other reasons (family pressure, social constraints, personal preference etc) then protection should be refused. The evidence demonstrates that private and solitary worship, within the confines of the home, is possible and would not in general entail a real risk of persecution.
144. In cases where the claimant is found to be insincere in his or her claimed conversion, there is not a real risk of persecution ‘in-country’. There being no reason for such an individual to associate himself with Christians, there is not a real risk that he would come to the adverse attention of the Iranian authorities. Decision-makers must nevertheless consider the possible risks arising at the ‘pinch point’ of arrival:
(i) All returning failed asylum seekers are subject to questioning on arrival, and this will include questions about why they claimed asylum;
(ii) A returnee who divulges that he claimed to be a Christian is reasonably likely to be transferred for further questioning;
(iii) The returnee can be expected to sign an undertaking renouncing his claimed Christianity. The questioning will therefore in general be short and will not entail a real risk of ill-treatment;
(iv) If there are any reasons why the detention becomes prolonged, the risk of ill-treatment will correspondingly rise. Factors that could result in prolonged detention must be determined on a case by case basis. They could include but are not limited to:
(a) Previous adverse contact with the Iranian security services;
(b) Connection to persons of interest to the Iranian authorities;
(c) Attendance at a church with perceived connection to Iranian house churches;
(d) Overt social media content indicating that the individual concerned has actively promoted Christianity.”
As to PS’s appeal, he had been baptised after attending Coverdale Christian Church in Manchester for only two weeks, following which he had made a “fresh claim” for asylum based on his claimed conversion . The Upper Tribunal took the view that, on the facts, the Iranian authorities were unlikely to regard PS as a security risk:
“He will be released fairly quickly and we are not satisfied that there is any risk of ill-treatment. PS may be placed under surveillance. Once the authorities are satisfied that he is not attending house church or attempting to contact known Christians he will be of no further interest to the authorities. Accordingly, we find that PS does not face a real risk of persecution upon return to Iran and his appeal is dismissed” .
With thanks to David Lamming for drawing the judgment to my attention.