Increasing numbers of Muslim refugees are converting to Christianity. Katie Stock examines why it’s happening and what it means for churches in the UK
Jalal used to be a TV engineer in Iran. Because the devices he installed in people’s homes allowed them to receive foreign news, Jalal was targeted by the Iranian authorities. Fearing for his life, he fled and now lives in the UK. “Everything has changed” he says. “Our lives are full of joy, hope, love, kindness and peace. Life used to be based on fear but now it’s totally changed.” This change has taken place in the context of finding a loving welcome and new community in a UK church.
Jalal isn’t the only one. There’s increasing anecdotal evidence of Persian refugees converting to Christianity from Islam – both in the UK and across Europe. ‘Persians’ refer to people originally from Iran, Afghanistan and Kurdistan. They generally speak Farsi and make up a significant proportion of those seeking asylum in Europe.
Asylum seekers should not be confused with migrants. Asylum is a specific protection given to someone fleeing persecution in their home country. There’s been a mass exodus of refugees from the Middle East in recent years – including those displaced by the Syrian civil war and the reign of ISIS – as people have been persecuted for their political opinion, sexual orientation or religion.
Asylum seekers are overrepresented in the media. They made up less than six per cent of immigrants to the UK in 2015, yet often appear on our television screens. Of those asylum seekers, 26 per cent were from the Middle East compared to a third from African countries. In the UK there were only six asylum applications per 10,000 people – well below the European average of 26 applications per 10,000 people. Consequently, some of the most dramatic statistics of Muslims turning to the Church come from mainland Europe.
Last year, Trinity Church in the suburbs of Berlin grew from 150 to 700 worshippers mostly due to Persian Christian converts. In Switzerland, Philippe Dätwyler of the Reformed Church in Zurich has spoken of large numbers of conversions to Christianity, with new Farsi-speaking congregations meeting at the church. But are these conversions genuine, or merely an opportunity for refugees to bolster their claim for asylum? It’s not just the mainstream press who are raising the possibility of false conversions taking place. One pastor of a church in Turkey says that 90 per cent of the converts they see are not genuine, while some clergy in the UK have said they suspect up to 50 per cent of those they baptise also fall into this category.
Sanctus in Stoke-on-Trent
Rev Sally Smith is the vicar of St Mark’s Church in Stoke-on-Trent. The post-industrial city is a dispersal centre for the Home Office. Refugees are often placed there while their applications are looked at. Much of the housing used for refugees is within Sally’s parish, one of the most deprived areas of Stokeon-Trent. Today, the population is mainly Pakistani Muslim, but when Sally arrived four years ago her congregation was a time capsule, harking back to the area’s historic population. On a Sunday morning, 18 people rattled around in a large building. Many of this loyal, predominantly white British congregation no longer lived near the church but continued attending because they used to live in the area.
Sally is a warm and welcoming character. When refugees began coming to the church, she responded by starting a social enterprise called Sanctus. The project partners with local services to offer practical support and Sally is clear it is not an evangelistic tool. Nevertheless, because Sanctus takes place inside the church building, refugees have started to attend Sunday services. She describes Sanctus as a bridge between those seeking asylum and the church community. Sally has baptised over 75 people, the majority of whom were previously Muslims. Many of these new converts claim to have had supernatural visions with several apparently seeing Jesus in their dreams.
Are these new converts genuine believers? “There are mixed motives by most of us in all sorts of areas of our lives, aren’t there?” Sally replies. “I’d say that the majority are genuine,” she adds.
Sadegh was raised a Muslim in Iran but found Jesus when he settled in Yorkshire
I first heard about Jesus at home in Iran. A friend sent me some verses from the Gospel of John. John 3:16 shocked me to the core. I had always been told God hated me because of my sin. But here was a God who loved me so much that he sent his Son to die for me!
I left Iran and found myself in Yorkshire. A church opened its doors to me. My new church family laid the foundation of my Christian faith. Without them, I don’t know where I would be today.
I was so thirsty to learn about Jesus that I was always the first to arrive and the last to leave the meetings. After leaving all my family and friends in Iran, this church was my new family. Through God’s strength and the support of my church family, I broke free of my addictions to drugs and pornography. And in 2012 I got baptised.
Everyone needs to hear the good news of Jesus. It has become my joy to share him with others. Now I preach the gospel wherever I go. In Costa, the train station, anywhere!
This is my story. I’m convinced it can be the story of so many others, if the Church really gets on its knees in prayer, gets to its feet in action, and opens its mouth to share Jesus.
The vicar often reflects on the parable of the sower in Matthew 13. Sally observes the sower only achieved a 25 per cent “success rate” with his harvest. “What I mean by ‘success’ is that those people we baptise and nurture go on to become mature witnessing Christians…We can’t expect to do better than what Jesus promised us we would do!”
For Sally, Sanctus is a working out of her Christian faith and duty. “We have a responsibility to welcome people in the name of Jesus, to show them love and kindness and hospitality. Jesus’ welcome, throughout the Gospels, was very clearly for everybody.”
Stockton welcomes refugees
A duty of hospitality has been taken on board by various Christian leaders in the UK. Parallels have been drawn with the Church of England’s coldshouldered response to the AfricanCaribbean Windrush generation who arrived in Britain in the 1950s; something that the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has referred to as “a very bad sin”. This rejection led to a racially divided Church that persists today (see p28).
The archbishop’s commitment to learning from our past mistakes is shared by Rev Mark Miller, the vicar of Stockton Parish Church in Stockton-on-Tees. Five years ago he had five Iranians in his congregation. Stockton is the eighth most deprived town in the UK and Mark’s parish contains the estate from Channel 4’s infamous Benefits Street documentary. Its low-cost housing has also made the area a dispersal town for the Home Office. Since the arrival of Persian refugees, the church has grown markedly. Today over half of his 260-strong congregation are of Persian background.
Sepas in Liverpool
Another congregation birthed in recent years is Sepas which meets at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. The community is led by Rev Mohammad Edghtedarian who himself converted to Christianity while applying for asylum in the UK.
In 2013 the cathedral ran an Alpha course but found that after a few weeks, there were more Persian than British people attending. As a result they ran the Persian version of the course. Sepas, which means ‘thanksgiving’, emerged from the course as a Farsi-speaking service attended by over 110 people every week. The majority of the congregation are refugees. But this growth and the change that has resulted from large numbers of refugees converting to Christianity can present challenges for smaller churches.
Strengths and challenges
The challenge facing any local church which wants to engage with asylum seekers and refugees is how its existing congregation will respond.
The influx of Iranian converts to Sally’s Stoke-on-Trent church has been significant. On a superficial level, the nature of Sunday services has changed. They now feature readings in both English and Farsi and the sermon is also translated. The church has taken steps to simplify the creed to include physical actions that allow non-English speakers to participate. But these changes didn’t go down well with the older church members. The original congregants have now all left. They accused Sally of caring more about the refugee community than them. She describes it as a “challenging” time but is confident that embracing the new community was the right move. The original members are able to worship at a neighbouring church served by the same clergy team.
Meanwhile, in Stockton the language barrier has also been a problem. Mark explains his challenge is maintaining unity within the church. “It’s a challenge in terms of integration rather than because of hostility” he says. But with the cultural and linguistic differences comes refreshment. Broadly speaking, the Church in the UK is in decline; in particular the Church of England where Sally, Mark and Mohammad all serve. Sally believes this area of growth could be just what the Church needs. “I think that it’s an opportunity for the Church to be renewed. The ministry gifts that people are bringing from all around the world is something that we desperately need. My church was like a stale pond, getting stagnant; we needed them coming in, creating more of a river.” Mark has found that the natural hospitality that his Persian congregation show fits well within his church’s pre-existing “culture of hospitality”. The Persian members are often comfortable about inviting others to visit the church.
Why are Refugees coming to faith?
People smugglers frequently instruct those they traffic into Europe to claim that they are Christians in order to gain asylum. But that doesn’t mean people always follow their advice. There is a huge stigma attached to converting and becoming an apostate from Islam. Some refugee converts describe being spat on because of their new faith. Besides, having a Christian faith does not in any way guarantee asylum, so deportation remains a risk. Fifty-five per cent of asylum applications are refused or withdrawn (2011-13 figures). It’s also notoriously difficult to prove your faith as a ‘matter of truth’ as the Home Office credibility panels demand. There are reports of unofficial “cribs sheets” with questions attempting to determine whether or not someone’s conversion is genuine. Questions include:
- How many chapters are there in the book of John?
- What is Ash Wednesday?
- How many books are there in the New Testament?
- Can you recite the Lord’s Prayer? What is the last book in the Bible?
- Who betrayed Jesus to the Romans?
- When is Pentecost?
- Can you name the twelve disciples?
As Baroness Berridge, who heads up the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief points out: “The problem with those questions is that if you are not genuine you can learn the answers, and if you are genuine, you may not know the answers.” This, compounded by the issues of inadequate training of panel members and translators, has resulted in mistakes being made. Genuine Christians who’ve converted from Islam have had their asylum claims rejected and been sent back to their country of origin where they're at risk of experiencing family rejection, beatings and even death. Some believe that the risks associated with a false conversion are simply not worth it for the average Muslim refugee.
Some have claimed that Muslims are permitted to perform Taqiya – the denial of religious belief for a specific purpose. Originally this was granted in the face of direct persecution, but can be interpreted more broadly. It comes from Sura 3:28 in the Koran which speaks of Muslims being careful and guarded during their interactions with unbelievers. Muhammad’s companion Abu AdDarda is reported to have said, “We smile in the face of some people although our hearts curse them.”
Mark Miller’s church tries to guard against being used to pursue false asylum claims. One way they do this is by making it difficult to get baptised. He says, “Now if anyone wants to get baptised they need to do a ten-week Alpha course. Parents who want their children baptised also need to attend.”
Mark’s approach is not that different to those Church of England vicars who are frequently asked to christen babies from non-church going families. Mohammad Edghtedarian acknowledges that some people do convert in order to help their asylum application: “People are desperate for a better life and sometimes they will lie for it – that’s understandable… There are many people abusing the system…[but] who are they deceiving? The Home Office, me as a pastor, or God?...Look at people who go to church to get their children into good church schools. Is there any difference, morally?”
Church leaders in the UK have a choice: to risk being taken advantage of or be closed with no opportunity to share the love of Jesus and the gospel message. Mohammad says he’s simply trying his best to serve the people who God has put under his care, saying, “Thank God it is not my job to judge them.”
Revival in Iran?
Mark Miller is clear: “It’s always OK for someone to come to church.” He believes that this growth is not happening in isolation. “Many people, including myself, believe that there is a move of God happening in Iran.” Over the last three decades the number of Christians in Iran has seen exponential growth. In the foreword to Mark Bradley’s book Too Many to Jail (Monarch), Sam Yeghnazar writes: “Iranians are incredibly open to the Gospel. They have always had a special love for Jesus, and now, after thirty-five years of experience of the Islamic Republic, they are ready to hear about Jesus.” Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, no new churches have been allowed to open in Iran but, according to Professor Richard Foltz, “an estimated 40,000 people attend underground churches and estimates of recent converts reach as high as 500,000”.
Some have suggested that the reason Iranians in particular are converting in far greater numbers than other immigrants, such as Pakistani Muslims, is because many Iranians are only nominal Muslims. Nadine Daniel, who advises the Bishop of Liverpool on interfaith issues says, “I have been told by many of our Iranians, ‘I was not a good Muslim’.”
Having experienced life under a fundamentalist government and having observed many radical Islamist groups, many Iranians are open to the gospel. Mark Miller says, “They have seen the hypocrisy of those saying they are Muslim but acting in such violent ways.”
Any misconceptions of Christianity have also been dispelled. Churches are often the first places to open their doors to them, offering practical support and love. Sally notes the attractiveness of “a sense of belonging to a family” draws refugees to the Church.
Mark Miller, who is also an urban ministry leader of New Wine, believes that the reason for conversion lies beyond just the need for community. “They have been taught the fear of God but when they encounter the Holy Spirit they experience a God that acts in the world today,” he says.
Mark even knows of refugees who have lied about their conversion to Christianity but have now come to genuine faith because of their experience of the Holy Spirit. One couple had been exploring Christianity while living in Iran. Upon arriving in the UK they lied about being Christians in order to pursue their asylum claim. They attended Mark’s church where they heard the Good News and were both baptised. That afternoon, the husband rang Mark saying he'd broken his hand. Mark invited him to come to church where a group prayed for him. “The pain disappeared and both he and his wife started weeping. It was at that point that their faith drastically changed. That was when they encountered the living God.”
Something significant is happening within the new Persian community in the UK and throughout Europe. Some church leaders are embracing the change and following where the Spirit leads but there are many more open to Christ yet to be reached. The changes involved in responding to this gospel opportunity can be uncomfortable, particularly in more traditional churches that often have a clear sense of what church ‘ought’ to look like. The accounts of Revs Sally, Mark and Mohammad show what can happen when instead of saying, “we’ve always done it this way”, churches and their congregations say “welcome”.
What can your church do?
Whether or not your church is situated near a Persian refugee or asylum seeker community, here are three ways you can show Christian hospitality:
Our prayers show our priorities. Holding specific prayer meetings for Christians in Iran as well as Muslims seeking asylum in the UK places them into God’s care and reminds us of his supreme power. Linking prayer to your day-to-day activities in solidarity with other humans around the world can bring a new perspective and depth to our prayers. Rachel Held Evans recently wrote: “Every night, as I nurse my little boy for the last time before bed, I pray for the mamas nursing their babies in refugee camps and rafts around the world, desperate for a safe place to call home.”
In 2016, the home secretary and the Archbishop of Canterbury launched a scheme to enable community groups and churches to sponsor refugee families. Archbishop Justin Welby has said of the scheme: “The full community sponsorship scheme presents churches and other civil society groups with the opportunity to provide sanctuary to those fleeing war-torn places.” For more information click here.
If you have space in your home there are various response options open to you. Charities such as Refugees at Home connect people with a spare room in their home with asylum seekers and refugees in need or accommodation. Home for Good also allows people to register their interest in fostering an unaccompanied asylum seeking child.