An Iranian convert to Christianity has been refused asylum in Sweden, placing her at risk of deportation and “torture and rape” in jail in her home country.
Aideen Strandsson, 37, who was baptised in Sweden in 2014, said officials at the country’s Migration Board did not believe her life would be in danger if she were sent back to Iran, where converts from Islam – as she is – can face jail. “They said to me it’s your personal life and it’s not our problem if you decided to become a Christian; it’s your problem,” she told the US-based Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). (She arrived in Sweden on a work visa three years ago and took a Swedish surname.)
Subsequent appeals against the board’s decision were also rejected.
Ms Strandsson says that a Swedish migration official told her it wouldn’t be as bad for her in Iran as she is expecting because “it would only be six months in prison”, and, in her words, for the official that was “no problem”.
Ms Strandsson became a Christian in Iran after having a dream about Jesus, according to CBN.
The Migration Board website states that, in line with UN, EU and Swedish regulations, a person is considered a refugee when they have “well-founded reasons to fear persecution due to … religious or political beliefs”, and that anyone at risk of corporal punishment, torture or death is deemed in need of extra protection.
Board official Ulrika Langels told CBN: “[Ms Strandsson’s] case has been appealed and processed by the Migration Agency and thereafter by the Swedish courts, which have also decided that she cannot be granted asylum.”
“Assessments of faith are dismissed off-hand with the explanation that people of the cloth and members of the congregation would be unable to assess faith, while bureaucrats – who have barely met the person – would by some incredible powers see what nobody else sees.”
Swedish lawyer Gabriel Donner, who has worked on around 1,000 asylum cases involving Iranian and Afghan converts, said “torture and rape is common in Iranian prisons”.
He told World Watch Monitor: “The Migration Board did not believe that Aideen is truly a Christian and believed her knowledge of [the] Christian faith was inadequate.”
But he added: “There are no reliable criteria for judging what a Christian should know in order to [be seen to] believe.”
Churches in Sweden have criticised the Migration Board for assessing conversions with questions based on doctrine such as “Can you explain the Trinity?” Faith is often seen as a private matter, in contrast to the openness and enthusiasm with which some converts discuss their conversion on social media.
Critics of the Strandsson decision have pointed out that Lund County in Sweden has considered offering protected identities, housing and benefits to returning Islamic State fighters, in order to enable them to reintegrate into Swedish society. Sweden has identified some 150 of these fighters nationally.
A spokeswoman for the Christian Council of Sweden told World Watch Monitor the alleged comments made by Migration Board officials would be considered “neither decent nor appropriate” by their superiors. She added that the council focused not on single events but worked with the board to build up the “necessary competence on these special issues, but also to point out perceived general misconduct and injustices in the process regarding religious converts and other asylum-seekers of conviction”.
Mr Donner suggested the rejection of Ms Strandsson’s asylum application was not a one-off. He said the Migration Board was “blatantly ignoring” UN guidelines for determining grounds for asylum. “Christian converts from Iran and Afghanistan … under the present government are facing extensive legally discriminatory treatment when their asylum cases are tried,” he said.
“The UN Guidelines concerning examination of cases involving converts is on the one hand admitted as substantive law in Sweden, and on the other hand blatantly ignored. Converts face refusal of their cases because, earlier in their process of conversion, they had not yet developed the degree of maturity in their faith they now have.
“These guidelines require of us first to ask whether the person has definitely abandoned Islam or not. The Migration Board ignores this question in nine out of ten cases.”
When it came to assessing the integrity of a conversion, Mr Donner claimed the Board rejected around half of the assessments and testimonies submitted by clergy and members of applicants’ congregations.
He said: “One must not forget that converts, with the backing of their congregations, normally have evidence very few asylum-seekers can compete with.
“Testimonies of [their] true faith are dismissed contrary to all normal legal procedure. Assessments of faith, made by church ministers based on how [the applicant] expresses faith in words, in deeds and emotionally in a religious environment, [are] dismissed off-hand with the explanation that people of the cloth and members of the congregation would be unable to assess faith, while bureaucrats – who have barely met the person – would by some incredible powers see what nobody else sees. What is worse is that this dismissal of testimonies lacks all reasonably support in statistics.
“So converts convinced by Jesus Christ’s message of love are refused with the argument that this could not be a valid reason for conversion.”
Ms Strandsson, has been offered asylum in Hungary, although she may not leave of her own accord because her Iranian passport has reportedly been taken away. The Hungarian government website republished comments Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen told the newspaper Magyar Idok: “Hungary does not send anyone back to a country where his or her life or physical well-being may be in danger … Taking in persecuted Christians is our moral and constitutional duty all at once.”
Iran is ranked eighth on the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List of the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian. The Islamic government in Iran persecutes Christians – particularly converts on the belief that their religion is Western-influenced and a threat to the country’s Islamic identity. The government is guided by Sharia (Islamic law), which calls for the death penalty for apostates, or those who abandon Islam to follow another faith.
Kiaa Aalipour from the rights group Article 18 told World Watch Monitor that while “the only person officially executed in Iran for apostasy was Rev Hossein Soodmand in 1990 … recently, many Iranian Christian converts have received heavy sentences”. He added: “If Aideen Strandsson returns to Iran, the Iranian regime will put pressure on her. If she is an active Christian [i.e. wants to take part in collective worship] then the chance of being arrested is high.”
At least 193 Christians were arrested or imprisoned in Iran in 2016, according to Open Doors, while in the past few months over a dozen Christians – most of them converts – have been sentenced to long prison terms on charges of acting against national security.
How other European countries assess conversion claims
In Germany, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has been accused of wrongly rejecting asylum claims where the applicant’s path to conversion had only taken a few months. Green Party MP Volker Beck also criticised the Office for ruling that weekly church attendance did not amount to evidence of religious conversion, the German daily Handelsblatt reported. Mr Beck accused the BAMF of considering itself more qualified than a parish priest to judge the authenticity of a person’s stated beliefs, based only on a two-hour interview.
By contrast, a migration official in the Netherlands said the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service had moved away from asking questions related to biblical knowledge to asylum-seekers who claimed to have converted. Instead officials asked about people’s personal experiences to determine whether a conversion was genuine, according to a BBC documentary aired last month.
“Officials are asking about Bible trivia, rather than probing what someone really believes. And this lack of understanding of religion and belief is leading to the wrong people being rejected – meaning they could be forced out when they have genuinely been persecuted.”
A year ago a UK Parliamentary group published a report in which it reviewed how the UK Home Office processes asylum-seekers’ claims. It found that, too often, “officials are asking about Bible trivia, rather than probing what someone really believes. And this lack of understanding of religion and belief is leading to the wrong people being rejected – meaning they could be forced out when they have genuinely been persecuted”. UK Home Office guidelines have been reviewed in light of the report.
Meanwhile in Finland the Evangelical Lutheran Church recently told the state broadcaster YLE that “several hundred” asylum seekers had renounced Islam for Christianity. That figure represents a modest estimate, according to Marja-Liisa Laihia from the Church’s central administration.
To be accepted into the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Church said converts must attend and pass a religious training course, undergo confirmation and remain in regular contact with the parish for three months. Pastor Vesa Julin said the Church devised special pre-confirmation lessons after asylum-seekers began attending services.
“All are essentially in exile from their home countries and have been through a harrowing asylum process,” YLE reported.