Churches are naïve if they support the asylum claims of Muslim migrants who seek to avoid deportation by converting to Christianity, a high-profile former Anglican bishop has said following a failed bomb attack in Liverpool.
Fr Michael Nazir-Ali said reports that people-traffickers were advising migrants to strengthen their claims by becoming Christians were “well-founded”.
Although the churches have a role in offering humanitarian aid and advice they should not a partisan position in the assessment of asylum claims in case they were being misled, said Fr Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester who was ordained a Catholic priest less than three weeks ago.
The Pakistan-born cleric warned the churches that assessing the validity of individual claims was solely the duty of the state, which, he said, “has to take account of the wider interests of the nation and the common good”.
He said the failed Remembrance Day attack in Liverpool by would-be suicide bomber Emad Al Swealmeen, a Jordanian who became an Anglican in 2015, “raised questions about the role of churches and whether, out of a desire to do good, they can be naive in supporting the asylum claims of Christian converts”.
Conversion to Christianity enabled Muslim migrants with weak asylum claims “to say they would be persecuted if they return to their birth country”, he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.
“Are churches sometimes being too credulous?” he asked. “It is important for clergy and lay leaders to discern the motives that lie behind people coming to church and asking for baptism and membership.
“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. Church leaders should also make sure that the grounds are sound and that any convert has had adequate preparation for membership of their community. Are they always doing this?”
Fr Nazir-Ali, who became a Catholic on September 29 and was ordained a priest for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham on October 30, added that there were many Christians overseas who were persecuted and wrongly ignored.
“This country has not done enough to offer refuge to Christians from Syria or Iraq, who are unable to live in the UN-sponsored camps, which are dominated by Islamists and from which Britain draws its quota of refugees,” he said.
“Those persecuted in Pakistan, because of blasphemy laws, or in Iran’s theocracy, similarly find little sympathy with British refugee settlement processes.”
His remarks came amid concerns that illegal immigrants were “gaming the system” by converting to Christianity to give themselves a better chance of remaining in the UK.
Al Swealman, 32, had failed his application for asylum which was rejected by the Home Office in 2014 – a year before he presented himself at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral asking to become a Christian.
He was baptised in 2015 and confirmed in 2017, but he lost all contact with the cathedral by 2018. But he is known to have worshipped at a mosque for the last four years – right up to the point when he carried out the attack.
He was killed when the huge bomb, packed with ball-bearings, that he was carrying detonated in a taxi on the way to his intended target.
So far, police have been unable to establish if he meant to attack the Liverpool Women’s Hospital or the Anglican Cathedral which at the time was crowded with more than 1,200 military personnel attending a Remembrance Day service.
Hannah Chowdhry of the British Asian Christian Association (BACA) said: “It would not be fit for me or any other commentator to confer too much into motivations at this stage.
“But many questions would arise in the Christian community should it be confirmed that this was in fact an Islamist attack.”
She said that there has always been the knowledge within the Asian Christian community in the UK “that not every asylum seeker who enters the church is a genuine convert”.
“BACA has heard from a number of churches of people who have gone through the process of baptism, bible study and solid church membership, only to disappear after attaining legal right to remain in the UK,” she added.
According to press reports, hundreds of Muslim migrants have been welcomed into the Church of England in recent years after first completing a short five-week course at Liverpool Cathedral.
Besides allowing them to claim they will be persecuted if they are extradited, converting to Christianity may also serve as evidence of an applicant’s success in integrating into Western society.
Liverpool Cathedral has supported asylum applications for a number of people seeking to remain in the UK, according to the Daily Telegraph.
But the Rev. Pete Wilcox, a former Dean of Liverpool, said five years ago that he could not think of “a single example of somebody who already had British citizenship converting here with us from Islam to Christianity”.
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