Suspend your disbelief for a moment, and try to imagine you’re an Iranian, in Iran. You were born into an observant Muslim family and brought up with all the customs of your inherited faith.
In late adulthood you met some Christians – a tiny minority who suffer for their religion. You were inspired by them, became attracted to their way of life and decide you wanted to become a Christian too. But then you watched as they were imprisoned for suspected proselytism, disappeared, faced bogus criminal charges and lived in desperate poverty, shunned by their families and communities. Realising that your life was in danger, you fled the country leaving behind everything you know. You undertook a dangerous and uncertain journey in the hope of finding sanctuary in a country which would allow you to express your new-found faith. That country, you believed, was Britain.
By some miracle you reach the UK and lodge an asylum claim. You set out as clearly as you can the pain you have experienced as the hands of an intolerant theocracy, describing the suffering of your friends and explaining the violence they have endured. You express your desire to live as a peace-loving Christian. After a seemingly endless delay, a letter comes back from the Home Office, quoting Bible verses to prove that, contrary to your claim, Christianity is not a peaceful religion after all, and that your application for asylum is therefore refused.
No, this is not a chapter in a badly conceived alt-right conspiracy novel. This actually happened, this very week, in multicultural Britain. Yes, Britain, where politicians endlessly claim tolerance as a defining feature of our national identity.
Excerpts of the offending letter were published by Nathan Stevens, an immigration case handler who will now have to appeal this bizarre ruling.
No, bizarre is too weak an adjective to describe the breathtaking heartlessness and ignorance of whoever did this. It’s hard to believe that someone who knew anything at all about modern Iran or Christianity could read the pleas of this convert, decide to Google a load of Bible verses, and then feel confident enough in their theological exegesis to decree: ‘these are inconsistent with your claim that you converted to Christianity after discovering it is a ‘peaceful’ religion’.
But it isn’t funny because this actually happened. And no, it’s not an isolated incident. It’s also highly unlikely that it’s a single bad apple. According to Stevens a similar refusal in 2016 read ‘You affirmed in your AIR [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’.
The charity Open Doors classifies religious persecution in Iran as ‘extreme’. It’s illegal to convert or preach. Conversion can land you in prison for a decade. The Iranian constitution permits worship, but not for converts, and given that 114 Iranians were arrested and detained in a single week last year for suspected proselytism, sticking your head above the parapet to worship is hardly a risk-free enterprise. So what on earth did this Home Office official think they were playing at? The incessant over-simplification and straw-man presentation of religion and religious texts by so-called New Atheists is bearing its fruit. I wonder if they’re proud.
The lid is slowly being lifted on anti-Christian Britain, and it seems like we have an institutional problem. Or rather, our civil service does. This latest shocker comes hot on the heels of a government review into Christian persecution which was knee-capped by the Foreign Office. Meanwhile, Department for International Development ministers still stick resolutely to the line that no aid should be provided to particular religious groups, and the UK Government still refuses to use word genocide to describe what happened to Christians and Yazidis under Daesh – despite parliament voting unanimously to describe it that way.
While in the first three months of 2018 not a single Christian was admitted to the UK out of 1112 Syrian Refugees. An appalling statistic made worse by the fact that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees only recommended four. We rejected even those solitary few. Either people are being led to believe that Christianity brings immunity from persecution or we have a real problem.
Whatever is going on in Whitehall and the wider civil service, something needs to be done, and something much more serious than an in-house Foreign Office review. Theresa May, daughter of a C of E vicar, your background ought to make it easier for you to empathise with the suffering of people like our Iranian convert. This is your government. What are you going to do about it?