Put yourself in the shoes of an Iranian asylum seeker.
Let's say you've grown up in a Muslim home, but as you grow older, you perhaps meet some Christians. Something about them is different. You start to think about Christianity and, through God’s grace, you believe and trust in Jesus as the son of God and saviour of the world. But Iran is a dangerous place for a Christian. Its number 9 on the Open Doors World Watch List.
As you watch your new friends suffer - perhaps they're imprisoned, beaten or tortured - you decide to flee your homeland. Where should you go? The United Kingdom seems like a sensible choice. It’s known as a Christian nation where people from many different backgrounds are welcomed. The politicians there talk often about tolerance, rights and respect. So you set off.
When you arrive in the UK, you submit an application for asylum. In it you explain how you fled an intolerant and oppressive regime in order to live out your new faith. You also explain that, in your view and given your experience, Christianity is a religion of peace, whereas Islam is one of violence.
Then, after a substantial delay, the Home Office write back. Contrary to what you say, they argue, citing various biblical texts from Matthew, Leviticus, Revelation and Exodus, that Christianity is not so peaceful after all. Their argument is that in the Old Testament we read that God will crush Israel’s enemies. Furthermore, because Jesus said he came with a sword on the earth and because Revelation is filled with images symbolising revenge, destruction and death, Christianity is not a peaceful religion.
The Home Office demonstrated the sort of awful ‘proof-texting’ that any Christian with even a basic grasp of Bible handling would instantly reject.
As you've probably figured out by now, we are not entirely in the realm of fiction, but real life. We don't know this asylum seeker's name. We don't know exactly what their experiences were like in Iran. But we do have - in black and white - a copy of the letter an Iranian Christian asylum seeker has received from the Home Office.
A huge outcry has followed in the days since this letter was posted on Twitter by the asylum seeker's Christian caseworker Nathan Stevens. Initially the Home Office distanced themselves, then promised an investigation, then announced they would withdraw the refusal and reconsider the case. So this tragic story may yet have a happy ending. But it should never have reached this point in the first place.
Important news on the Iranian Christian conversion case I have been working on: the Home Office have agreed to withdraw their refusal and to reconsider our client's asylum application, offering us a chance to submit further representations. A good start, but more change is needed— Nathan Stevens (@nathestevens) March 22, 2019
The initial response from the Home Office demonstrated the awful ‘proof-texting’ that all Christians with even a basic grasp of Bible handling would instantly reject. No mention is made that Jesus is the Prince of Peace or that Christians are told to bless those who persecute them, or love their enemies. There is no appreciation for different genres in the Bible that require different approaches. No mention of the absolute importance of context and understanding texts in relation to the rest of the Bible. Instead, random verses are plucked out of thin air, with no proper exegesis and then utilised to contradict the claim that Christianity is a peaceful religion.
Unfortunately, this case in not an isolated example. According to Stevens, a similar refusal in 2016 said: “You affirmed in your Asylum Interview Record that Jesus is your saviour, but then claimed he would not be able to save you from the Iranian regime. It is therefore considered that you have no conviction in your faith and your belief in Jesus is half-hearted.” Both examples demonstrate a dangerously shallow level of religious literacy in the Home Office.
This case in not an isolated example
Let me be clear: the initial response from the Home Office was utterly and absurdly awful. I’m thrilled that they've seen sense and agreed to reconsider the case. The wider challenge is how we make sure such cases don’t continue happening. For every time the Home Office reconsider an earlier mistake, there are other examples where ignorance of true Christianity and Bible handling have meant genuine applications for asylum have been rejected. There are plenty of theologically astute Bible handlers out there. Most, if not all, would happily pick up the phone to discuss the Bible with Home Office staff.
And for us, as Christians, I think we've got to admit that parts of the Bible are hard to understand. Some of the imagery is difficult to get our heads around, which is precisely why we need good, solid, careful, thoughtful, biblical teaching and preaching. We need humility and a clear view of God’s moral character. We need to listen, to learn, to debate and discuss how to better understand the Bible if we are to avoid the sort of mindless and shallow exegesis demonstrated by this Home Office response. It’s all very well throwing stones, but this case is a reminder that we must watch our own doctrine and carefully handle our scriptures as well.
James Mildred works for Christian Action Research and Education (CARE) and writes here in a personal capacity