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Posted on Wed 17 November 2021

It’s not churches' role to set asylum policy

The terrorist attack in Liverpool, carried out by an asylum seeker who had converted to Christianity, has once again raised questions about whether the asylum system is fit for purpose. But it has also 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.

There can be no doubting that Christians are obliged to meet human need wherever they see it, and to offer advice and friendship to those who require them. Moreover, in a plural society, it is to be expected that people will move from one faith to another or, indeed, to no faith at all.

There are many good reasons, too, why asylum seekers and immigrants in general might wish to become Christians. They may want to root themselves in the spiritual soil of their adoptive country. They may have a spiritual nature which seeks expression in worship and they have become disenchanted with the faith of their birth because of its drift to extremism. They may simply be looking for friendship.

But fears that people traffickers and immigration lawyers are advising asylum seekers to obtain church affiliation as a way of strengthening their claim – since it will enable them to say they would be persecuted if they return to their birth country – appear to be well-founded. More worryingly, conversion to Christianity could make a very good cover for extremist or even terrorist activity.

Are churches sometimes being too credulous? 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?

The other side to this issue, however, is the proper role of churches in the wider debate about asylum and immigration. On some issues, they have made a valuable contribution. Christians are especially vulnerable in many parts of the world to persecution based on religious faith, for example, and Britain has been slow to recognise this. 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. Those persecuted in Pakistan, because of blasphemy laws, or in Iran’s theocracy, similarly find little sympathy with British refugee settlement processes.

Yet more generally, there has sometimes been an unwillingness to recognise that asylum and immigration are not always simple moral questions. All of us have to be aware, for instance, that some people apply for asylum in order to circumvent the usual immigration rules. Young men may wish to avoid conscription in their homeland; others may want to come for economic reasons.

Everyone must be treated humanely but it is the state’s role to take a view on the nation’s capacity to absorb refugees and immigrants, and the effect that this might have on the social and economic fabric of the nation. Church leaders ought to respect national processes for assessing claims, even if, from time to time, they can make suggestions about how to improve and revise such processes. Christians are required to love the stranger, whatever the circumstances, but must also recognise that the state has to take account of the wider interests of the nation and the common good.

The worldwide movement of peoples goes on and Britain continues to be a magnet for large numbers. Churches can contribute to the moral discussion about national policy, and can also help asylum seekers with humanitarian aid and advice. What they are not equipped to do is to second guess the state in deciding on the validity of individual claims.

This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph and can be accessed here.  

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