A few years ago we had a popular children’s song at my church that started like this:
You won’t get to heaven on the back of a camel,
And you won’t get to heaven on a sheep.
You won’t get to heaven in a double-decker bus,
And you won’t get to heaven in a jeep.
Eventually we’d get to the chorus:
There’s only one way (one way) you can get to heaven, oh yeah.
There’s only one way (one way) and that’s through God’s son Jesus,
He’s the only way!
Well, according to the BBC, for some in the Home Office, Jesus is no longer good enough either. You’re now only a real Christian if you can recite all of the 10 Commandments, and (bizarrely) know what colour a Bible cover is.
This would be rather amusing if it wasn’t so serious. We’re talking about refugees and asylum seekers who have fled their countries to avoid persecution because of their religious beliefs. They have arrived here under the assumption that we are a compassionate, Christian country, and will finally provide a safe haven where they will be free from the fear of intimidation, physical violence or worse. Instead, they find themselves being asked trivial questions on random Bible knowledge, and many are having their applications rejected because they can’t provide correct answers to many questions which would confound quite a few native British Christians.
How much anguish and trauma must it inflict on someone who has risked everything to reject the religion of their family and community in order to follow Jesus, to arrive in the UK and be told by a paper-pushing official that their faith is bogus?
These utterly depressing findings come from a new report from the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief. Sadly, though, the BBC only paints part of the picture.
The levels of ignorance displayed by some Home Office officials toward Christian asylum seekers is nothing short of appalling. Admittedly, the assessment of religious persecution is likely to be complex and demanding: the report’s authors find that there is already sufficient, sound and nuanced guidance formulated by the Home Office to assist in assessing applications, but too often it is ignored or poorly implemented. Knowledge of churches and liturgies is sometimes based on a quick survey of churches’ websites, which may have limited information. In one case, the official had not realised that an Anglican Church can also be an Evangelical one, and thus found the applicant’s testimony inconsistent as it did not match the church’s public information on its website.
There is little appreciation of the difficulties faced particularly by Christian converts from a Muslim background, including high levels of hostility or very limited access to Bible texts. For one such woman, to have had her application rejected partly because she did not know how many books there are in the New Testament is a gross injustice.
In another case, an appeal judge remarked on an Indian woman’s ignorance of the Friday abstinence rules in Roman Catholicism in relation to refraining from meat consumption. He concluded that she was not a Christian as this practice was ‘general knowledge’. This was despite a Roman Catholic priest providing a statement explaining that many Indian Catholics frequently eat meat on a Friday.
It is not only Christians who are at the mercy of subjective and ill-informed opinions: a woman from Sudan, who had claimed asylum in the UK on the basis of her atheism, was told: “..as there was no evidence about atheism in Sudan, it could be concluded that there are no atheists and that therefore she could not possible have been persecuted for this reason.”
Further problems are encountered through interpreters. Muslim Arabic interpreters have been known to be critical of an individual’s decision to leave Islam. In some cases, the interpreter has lacked the necessary religious vocabulary. One solicitor gives this example:
Mohammad was an active house church leader in Iran. His case was refused because the Home Office did not believe he was a Christian. He lost his first appeal because of mistranslation of Christian terminology at the hearing. During the tribunal hearing, the judge asked him to state the name of the last book of the Bible. Mohammad responded Mokashefe, which is the Farsi word for Revelation; the Muslim interpreter repeated the same word to the Judge. The judge in his decision stated that the last book of the Bible was not Mokashefe but rather the book of Revelation. Mohammad also did not have any lawyer and therefore could not answer all the judge’s questions promptly as he was under a lot of pressure. He won his case at the Upper Tribunal though after instructing a lawyer, having a witness and having a different interpreter.
We have no idea how widespread these failures are because, astonishingly, the Home Office does not keep any statistics on these matters. It is little wonder, then, that the report’s primary recommendation is that the Home Office should “keep a record of the number of asylum claims made on the basis of religious persecution as well as the acceptance vs. rejection rate of such cases so as to assess the true scale of such claims and how sensitively such claims are being dealt with”.
There is good reason to believe that religion is little more than a dirty word for too many government officials, despite freedom of belief being a key human right. Only last month the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education agreed that widespread religious illiteracy among civil servants and policy-makers in government is a major problem. Before that, in January, it was reported that there is a widespread culture within the civil service which treats speaking about faith as “not the done thing”. With such unwillingness even to discuss religious matters, is it any wonder that we find attitudes towards asylum seekers result in some being told to return home and keep their faith to themselves and not to engage in public expressions of their belief?
The Home Office regards it as unacceptable to tell the same to applicants who are LGBT. In fact, the Home Office works closely with LGBT groups to provide a dedicated training module to decision-makers on LGBT cases, and how to assess claims made on the basis of sexual orientation correctly and sensitively. There is now a ‘second pair of eyes’ test in place for LGBT claims, meaning that all LGBT decisions are reviewed by a technical specialist who usually supervises decision makers – before being issued to the applicant. This system works well, and yet the report finds that despite offers from religious advocacy groups going back at least 10 years, no moves have been made to put an equivalent process in place for Christians.
Religious freedom is not a trivial matter. According to the internationally respected Pew Research Centre, more than a quarter of countries have high levels of religious hostility towards some groups, and some 5.5 billion people live with religious restrictions imposed upon them. And of these, Christians are the group most likely to suffer. We may be shielded from the worst horrors of religious persecution in our cosy corner of the world, but that does not excuse the treatment of the relatively small numbers who do make it to our shores. Is it really too much to ask the Home Office to open its eyes and start treating Christian asylum seekers with the (dare we say Christian) decency and fairness that they deserve?