Is the church helping asylum seekers to game the system?

On Sunday morning a Liverpool taxi driver realised that his passenger had an explosive devise attached to him. Bravely he chose to lock the cab doors so that the potential bomber was secured in the vehicle. As a result, when the bomb went off at the Liverpool Women’s hospital significant loss of life and injury was limited.

Since Sunday, one particular fact has emerged which has caused a lot of media attention. The man who carried the bomb and died had reportedly been an asylum seeker who had converted to Christianity via courses at Liverpool Cathedral. This has caused further speculation.  Was his conversion genuine? Was the Cathedral the target if he was bitter at his claim still not succeeding?  Was he in fact coerced and compelled into carrying the device.

The problem with such speculation is that we simply don’t know the answers, only the man himself could say for certain and potentially the other suspects who have been arrested might be able to shed some light on things – if, and only if, they choose to do so.

There is therefore no benefit in attempting to speculate further about what happened and what were the reasons. However, I am concerned about some of the commentary I’m seeing in the media.  First of all, there’s the usual comments which come out regardless of the immigration background (or lack of it) for the bomber. There are loud calls for a further crack down against asylum seekers on the basis of this. Secondly, the cathedral has come in for criticism for its part in the story.

Let’s deal with those in turn. First of all, there have been many thousands of immigrants who have turned up on these shores over the years.  People have come from all across the world and closer to home.  Bearwood, where I served as a pastor like many parts of Birmingham and the West Midlands has been home for many years to Irish immigrants and their descendents, just as large parts of Liverpool are. Some of those immigrants may well have been sympathisers for or even involved in IRA terrorist activities. However, we do not see that as good reason to encourage hatred and hostility towards the many who simply were seeking to settle, to work hard and to play their part in society.  I’ve talked before about my Great Granddad’s Italian lineage.  Sometimes we joke that perhaps he had mafia connections and that’s why he changed his name from Guilliani to Williams. It’s unlikely. However, yes parts of Italy have had issues with the mob but we don’t choose to see all Italians as potentially involved in organised crime.

Some asylum seekers will come as hardened criminals and some will be drawn into criminal activity. Some may have been radicalised or be radicalised whilst here and get drawn into terrorism.  That’s no different bluntly to people who have grown up here and whose families have been resident for generations.  Many others are seeking to find a new life, safe from danger and are willing to throw themselves into life here.  The actions of one asylum seeker are not a good reason to turn our backs on the many others who desperately need help and refuge.

Some asylum seekers seek to convert to Christianity too. Over the years I’ve met a number of asylum seekers who have professed faith in Christ. Some come here already professing faith.  Others start attending church once they arrive here.  Quite a few of those I’ve met had cases that were nothing to do with religious persecution and their profession of faith therefore had no bearing on their claim. Others however knew that professing faith meant certain death should they return/be returned home. Indeed, the danger may well have been closer than that for some. I know of at least one person who told me that there were people who might want him dead for converting living on his street.

The reality is that converting doesn’t guarantee asylum. Personally, I always take time when meeting with an asylum seeker to make it clear that the church has no sway over the immigration office. Indeed, we talk openly about the real possibility that they may indeed have to return and face the threat back home. I cannot promise physical safety I can simply promise the Lord’s presence with those who trust in him. 

An asylum seeker who professes faith will have to demonstrate two things to the Home Office and to subsequent tribunals. First, that their profession of faith means that there is a real danger to their life because of it. Note, it isn’t enough for them to say that they are in fear for their life. They will have to provide tangible evidence from their home country of the risk. Secondly, they will have to provide evidence that their own conversion is real.

Usually this will include being asked questions about their faith and about the faith. At times this can be frustrating because often the types of questions asked suggest a lack of understanding about the day to day reality and beliefs of Christianity. However, you can still appreciate the intent behind them. Secondly, a minister may be asked to vouch for them. I’ve been asked to write on behalf of claimants. Sometimes the minister will be asked to give evidence at a Tribunal. It’s actually very unwise to say more than you know for certain about a person. All that I could answer would be that I’ve seen them at church and how they interact with others, I’ve heard a profession of faith and that we were/were not satisfied enough to baptise them.

This isn’t to say that Christians won’t be naïve. I know of one situation where everything about the person’s “profession” was flashing red. They were flitting between churches looking for someone to baptise them. It was clear that there were major holes in their story. We would not baptise them. They found another church, which against our advice did. However the church were not trying to help the guy game the system. Nor could they have done and nor would it have been the church’s fault if it had.  The asylum system is not our business. Our concern is to see people come to know Christ.

So, it’s unhelpful and shows a lack of awareness of human nature, Christian faith and the immigration system when we get headlines like the one in the Daily Telegraph saying:

Church under fire in wake of Liverpool suicide bombing for helping asylum seekers to ‘game’ system

First of all, the article says:

He then launched “appeal, after appeal, after appeal” to frustrate the system and even had a legal challenge pending when he launched his terror attack on Remembrance Sunday.

Two things stand out here. The first is that a thoughtful journalist would be asking “so why did someone with an appeal pending launch an attack.” It’s the kind of inconsistency that would have DCI’s Barnaby and Vera Stanton deciding that there was a case to investigate.

Secondly, if you really believe in the justice of your claim then you will keep appealing for as long as you are able to. It’s not an attempt to “frustrate the system” no more than the repeated declines were an attempt to frustrate his attempt to find refuge.  It’s an attempt to achieve your aim.  My own experience of being with people through the process is that:

  1. There are solicitors who will simply keep processing paperwork through. They don’t always take the time to get to the nub of what the issue is.
  2. There has to be  a realistic possibility of success for the claimant to get legal aid.
  3. The claimant has to either demonstrate that there was an error of law or provide a fresh claim with new evidence.

Often cases are complex. It is hard to pull the evidence together and there are a number of factors at play.  Asylum seekers have to overcome language barriers and I’ve frequently heard about them feeling let down by translators when they discover what was said on their behalf later.  We’ve seen a number of people persist through appeal after appeal getting knock back after knock back and we’ve seen their mental health affected.  We’ve also seen some of the reasons given for claims being declined and whilst some of them will leave you scratching your head. 

What has tended to change the course of events in those situations is when the claimant is able to get a Judicial Review. What that tends to do is give a proper fresh start by identifying the correct basis on which the case should be heard.

The article then goes on to say:

At Liverpool Cathedral, where Swealmeen was confirmed in March 2017, a person can become a Christian in as little as five weeks after completing a basic course.

Well, as some people have pointed out, the author may be surprised when they read the New Testament and discover that some people were fast-tracked into faith within hours of hearing the Gospel. My own wife went along to an event at church, heard about Jesus and decided to become a Christian that night. Many others have similar stories.

The statement misunderstands what it means to become a Christian. Becoming a Christian is not about some kind of initiation ceremony like joining a society or dining club.  Becoming a Christian is about hearing the good news that Jesus died on the Cross and rose again for you, believing that good news and responding in faith. It is possible to discover the joy of this in one short encounter. It is also possible to attend church and courses for years without ever discovering the joy of knowing Jesus.

Courses are used to help introduce people to what the Bible says about Jesus and the Gospel. Some last between 7-10 weeks such as Alpha and Christianity Explored. Here on this site we run a course called First Look over 4 sessions. However, attending a course is neither necessary for you to become a Christian nor does it make you a Christian.  Incidentally, the article assumes that the only exposure that the person will have to Christianity is within those 4-10 weeks. In fact someone who attends Alpha, Christianity Explored or First Look may also be attending church services and talking to friends at the same time. They could have been reading the Bible and investigating for some time in advance.

Priti Patel is quoted in the article as saying:

“It’s a complete merry-go-round. And it’s been exploited. It has been exploited quite frankly by a whole professional legal services industry that has based itself rights of appeal, going to the courts day in, day out at the expense of the taxpayers through legal aid.”

Now, there may be a problem with unscrupulous lawyers and the system may be inefficient.  However, it is worth remembering two things. First that Priti Patel’s party have been in power for 11 years and in fact, they’ve been in power for 29 out of my 47 years. I think it’s about iem they stopped blaming the system that they’ve created and that they run.  Secondly, appeals have been demonstrated to be necessary because of how often the Home Office get the decision wrong at the start. Priti Patel should focus on putting her own house in order. We should not allow Sunday’s events to become a reason to turn our backs on asylum seekers. This applies to our responsibility to offer safe haven for refugees as a country. However it applies even more so to the church and our responsibility to offer out the hope of an eternal saviour.

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