Here’s the paradox: at a time when ordinary Britons are turning away from the Church in record numbers, conversion to Christianity is booming among asylum seekers.
Nowhere is this more evident than at St Stephen’s With St Paul’s Church in the heart of Nottingham’s multicultural Hyson Green district.
The unofficial motto of the parish is Crossing Cultures With Christ. The words are emblazoned on its website. Many of the flock are Muslims from Iran and Afghanistan.
Next month, 30 of them will be baptised en masse by Rev Clive Burrows, the local vicar.
By then, they will have attended weekly Bible-reading sessions — with passages translated into Farsi — and been to Sunday service for at least three months.
Abdul Ezedi, the suspect in the Clapham alkaline substance attack
Emad Al Swealmeen who died after a device, which he had made himself, exploded while he was in a taxi outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital
They are not the first asylum seekers to be welcomed into the Church of England here in this corner of the East Midlands — nearly 100 have trodden the same path in the past three years — and they won’t be the last.
It’s an increasingly familiar story among dwindling congregations in towns and cities up and down the country. Only the converted themselves (and perhaps God) will truly know if they have genuinely seen the light.
But common sense and recent events tell us that some, such as Abdul Ezedi — the suspect in the Clapham chemical attack and a convicted sex offender whom police now believe may be dead — have ulterior motives; becoming a Christian is grounds for winning refugee status in the UK because apostasy is punishable by death in strict Muslim countries.
Ezedi remained ‘a good Muslim’, say friends, long after he supposedly converted.
The sheer number now converting — which has come to light following a Mail investigation — suggests the line the church is treading between fulfilling its Christian duty to migrants and being complicit in facilitating bogus asylum claims on a potentially industrial scale has, at the very least, become dangerously blurred.
Indeed, a whistleblowing priest who spoke out this week accused the C of E of being part of a ‘conveyor belt’ of questionable conversions and is naively turning a blind eye to what is happening.
Back in 2016, the former Dean of Liverpool Pete Wilcox hinted as much after 200 asylum seekers had been baptised at the cathedral in the previous four years.
‘I can’t think of a single example of somebody who already had British citizenship converting here with us from Islam to Christianity,’ he said.
Aerial panoramic view of the Liverpool Cathedral or Cathedral Church of Christ or Cathedral Church
His warning seems to have gone unheeded. Few of the clergy are prepared to put their heads above the parapet.
But Rev Burrows, who is refreshingly honest and has been at St Stephen’s for more than a decade, is not one of them.
‘I know a great many churches, some within my own diocese, that will grant someone a conversion after just one Bible reading and a chat with the vicar, then be invited to come along the following Sunday and be baptised,’ he admitted.
‘Over the years, I am sure there have been instances where the church has been hoodwinked but I hope that because the process I follow is so thorough, I am less likely to be deceived.’
Does he think he had been hoodwinked himself, though? ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘I’m sure I was deceived more often in the past. I base that on the fact that nowadays I see more faces returning after they have been converted than perhaps I did before.’
Behind the so-called Pray To Stay controversy, as some critics have dubbed it — epitomised by Abdul Ezedi — is a broken immigration system, lacking in both transparency and accountability, and hamstrung by human rights legislation ruthlessly exploited by ‘loophole’ lawyers making money out of legal aid.
Ezedi, from the Newcastle area, has been named by police as the suspect in a corrosive alkaline substance attack in Clapham, south London
The truth is that if there is the slightest chance of someone being persecuted in their country of origin, be it Iran or Afghanistan or anywhere else, the threshold being merely ‘a reasonable degree of likelihood’, they are likely to be granted leave to remain.
In fact, more than three-quarters of all asylum applications (75,340 relating to 93,296 people) for the year ending September 2023 were approved, more than twice as many as in 2018.
What this means in practice is that the endorsement of the church is hard to ignore legally and can be crucial in determining the outcome of an asylum claim.
So many might think that the tweet from Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, that ‘it is the job of the Government to protect our borders and of the courts to judge asylum cases’ is more than a little disingenuous in the circumstances.
How many new arrivals are converting to Christianity? The information is not available because applications approved by the Home Office and first tier tribunal judgments are not published, which is perhaps an indictment itself.
Nor does the Home Office collate data on appeals on grounds of religious persecution.
But a Mail audit of upper tribunal rulings, available online, found that more than half — 302 appeals — since 2002 featured an asylum seeker who had converted to Christianity.
These cases, remember, are just the tip of the iceberg because they only concern appeals.
They include recent appeals from a child sex offender (his nationality is not given), an Iranian drug dealer, a Bangladeshi man convicted of murdering his British wife plus two further Iranians, one who didn’t know when Easter was and the other who became a Christian only after his claim that he was gay failed.
These cases were sent back to the first tier tribunal to be reheard which ensured the shambolic legal merry-go-round began all over again.
Were any of these individuals ever deported? Probably not, given the difficulties in deporting almost anyone. But we simply don’t know for sure.
Official guidelines make it clear that the constitutional principle of ‘open justice’ should only be ‘departed from in rare cases’ to ensure ‘public scrutiny of the way courts decide cases and to hold judges to account for their decisions’.
Neither goal is being achieved. In all but a handful of examples in our audit, an anonymity order had been issued keeping the person’s identity secret.
Among the few to be named was Afghan Zaman Uddin Mazari, who was granted asylum in 2010 after convincing the authorities that he was a bona fide Christian convert.
In 2017, he was jailed at Blackfriars Court for six years for grievous bodily harm with intent.
Afghan Zaman Uddin Mazari was jailed at Blackfriars Court for six years for grievous bodily harm with intent
At the end of his sentence, the Home Office revoked his right to remain and tried to deport him but Mazari successfully appealed in November 2022.
He is still believed to be here.
Advice for ministers in parishes where more than one in ten follow a non-Christian faith is set out in a document entitled Supporting Asylum Seekers — Guidance For Church Of England Clergy.
It explains how they can help find an immigration solicitor, provide letters of support for migrants (signed by more than one person if possible) together with ‘testimony’ from a church leader.
Stockton Parish Church on Teesside, where the Rev Mark Miller once proudly baptised 200 asylum seekers in the space of five years, sometimes in outdoor immersions, is highlighted in the ten-page publication.
Stockton Parish Church on Teesside, where the Rev Mark Miller once proudly baptised 200 asylum seekers in the space of five years
‘Nine or ten years ago we were facing closure. The church had lost its way and the building was in a poor state of repair,’ he told local paper the Teesside Gazette in 2017. ‘But the church has built itself up and we now have 270 people that call us home.’
Rev Miller politely declined to comment when contacted and his diocese said he did not wish to be drawn into an ‘increasingly political debate’.
The church still welcomes a large number of asylum seekers and signs around the building are in both Farsi and English.
One, in both languages, on the main noticeboard says: ‘To be a beacon of God’s Kingdom by worshipping Him, welcoming people into His family and helping them grow as disciples of Jesus…’
The diocese did not disclose how many asylum seekers are being baptised, although locals say the practice continues.
‘The church is still very much involved with the refugee community and will carry out baptisms, though not in the same numbers as the past,’ said one woman.
Conversion to Christianity is booming among asylum seekers
‘It prides itself on being inclusive and welcomes people seeking asylum. They’ve helped to bring up the numbers in the congregation.’
One ‘member’ of the congregation was the Iranian man, mentioned earlier, who initially said he was a homosexual and would be beheaded if he was returned to the country, which turned out to be ‘wholly fabricated’.
Details of his claim, on the register of tribunal appeals, make farcical reading. His new story, after admitting he wasn’t in fact gay, namely that he had found God during imprisonment for cannabis production, possessing amphetamines and resisting a policeman, resulted in a deportation order against him being dropped.
The Home Office eventually successfully appealed, but only for the case to be sent back — yes, you’ve guessed it — to the first tribunal, in around 2021.
His application was supported with church photos and baptism and confirmation certificates. The claimant, who is 43, came to Britain in 2001 and, despite his lies and criminality, is almost certainly still here, courtesy, in no small part, of the church.
We now know that Abdul Ezedi, 33, who lived in Newcastle, was in contact with a number of different churches on Tyneside.
His application was approved by an immigration judge after he claimed that he had converted to Christianity and would be persecuted if he returned to Afghanistan, even though two previous appeals had been rejected, even though he had convictions for sexual assault and indecent exposure, and even though he had been put on the sex offenders’ register for ten years.
He is not the first ‘Christian convert’ to make the front pages.
Emad Al-Swealmeen, who detonated a bomb outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital on Remembrance Sunday in 2021, had been confirmed at Liverpool Cathedral four years earlier in 2017 after completing an Alpha course, a popular introduction and route to Christianity.
He said his life would be in danger if he returned to the Middle East.
Two applications for asylum had been rejected and a third was under appeal when he struck.
A copy of the Koran and a prayer mat were later found in his flat.
A recently retired immigration judge with 20 years’ experience told us that asylum seekers are increasingly ‘gaming the system’ with the support, innocent or otherwise, of the church.
The detonated a bomb outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital on Remembrance Sunday in 2021
‘There would typically be someone senior there from the church, not necessarily the vicar, who would say they are certain the person has truly come to faith,’ he said.
‘Properly coached, there are no grounds for the tribunal to disbelieve them. I probably only rejected one or two because they did not know the answer to basic questions like when Christmas is or who Jesus was.’
The judge added: ‘There are fashions. There were a lot of people gaining the right to remain here ten or 15 years ago through sham marriages to European citizens. Then there was the time when it was easy to get leave to remain on the grounds of sexuality.’
According to Home Office data, sexual orientation formed part of the basis for an asylum claim in seven per cent of all applications in 2017. By 2021, that figure had fallen to one per cent.
Claims from converted Christians, on the other hand, have steadily risen in the judge’s experience and were ‘wide open to abuse’.
‘It really appeared to have taken off during my time as a judge and has probably only got worse since I retired.’
Is there any evidence the Church of England is addressing the problem? Probably not, judging by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s tweet this week.