In March 2019, a Home Office letter rejecting an asylum application made the headlines of the biggest media outlets in the UK and abroad. It was not the case itself that attracted this attention but the arguments in the letter that have weighed in on the debate whether Christianity is a peaceful religion. The response appears to have failed to consider the facts and apply the law, focusing instead on irrelevant debates about religious doctrine.
The applicant, an Iranian national who allegedly converted to Christianity, reportedly sought asylum in the UK out of fear of persecution in Iran. It is well reported on that converts to Christianity in Iran often face severe persecution. The persecution affects their ability to practice their new religion. In some cases, this persecution is so severe that the converts must flee the country out of fear for their lives. According to the Home Office letter, in his application, the Iranian Christian argued that he converted to Christianity as he believed Christianity was a religion of peace. The Home Office letter cited passages from the Bible and claimed that ‘these examples are inconsistent with [the applicants] claim that [he] converted to Christianity after discovering it is a ‘peaceful’ religion, as opposed to Islam which contains violence, rage and revenge.’
Since the emergence of the letter, the Home Office has not disputed the authenticity of the letter, however, it suggested that the response was not in accordance with its policy.
The question is then what is wrong with the response. Instead of considering the facts and applying the law and procedure in considering the asylum application, the Home Office letter engaged in a debate on whether Christianity was a peaceful religion. A debate that is theological in nature and outside of the scope of the work of the Home Office.
The content of the letter demonstrates a glaring lack of understanding of the law and procedure, and what, in accordance with the law and procedure, the caseworker was asked to do.
In order to apply for asylum in the UK, the applicant is asking to be recognised as a refugee as per the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. To qualify for protection as a refugee, one ‘must owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…’
In the reported case, the applicant claimed to have feared religious persecution in Iran because of his conversion to Christianity. In the review of his application, the caseworkers should have considered, for example, whether the conversion was genuine, whether he was persecuted in Iran or whether he had a well-founded fear of persecution in Iran (this could be considered on the facts of the case and in light of the general situation of coverts to Christianity in Iran).
The genuineness of the conversion is relevant but not the reasons for such conversion themselves. Also, whether he had a full understanding of the Bible or whether he had a mistaken understanding of the Bible – is irrelevant. The Home Office should not act as a theologian and/or make value judgements whether a religion is peaceful or not, it is not relevant for the validity of an asylum application.
While religious literacy training is a sensible option, it is not enough to address the above raised issues. It is crucial that any case worker dealing with the issue of religious persecution understands the anatomy of religious persecution in general but also the specifics in relation to various groups in different countries. Furthermore, the understanding of the law and procedure that governs such application is a must. The Home Office must do more to ensure that case workers are given adequate training in the law and procedure applicable to asylum cases as well as in understanding the geopolitics of religious and other forms of persecution.