Attempts by Western politicians and media to judge whether Iranian migrants and asylum-seekers who ask to be baptised are either genuine or are doing so to boost their chances of being granted asylum are “naïve”, according to an academic who has carried out extensive research among Iranians who profess to have become Christians.

In north-east England, Revd Mark Miller has had up to 100 Persian asylum-seekers in his congregation. Photo: Jim Wright

Dr. Sara Afshari, who has been helping the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark to devise a strategy for integrating Farsi-speaking migrants and refugees from Iran, Afghanistan and Kurdistan into society and the Church, told World Watch Monitor: “I don’t like this naïve understanding of conversion by the politicians or the media saying they become Christian because their case will be strengthened. That might be one of the reasons for some – not for all.”

Her comments come as European governments look for ways to assess whether claims of conversions made by Iranians seeking asylum in their country are genuine. There are thought to be thousands of Iranians who have requested baptism in the UK, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands. The lawyer of Iranian-born convert and asylum-seeker Aideen Strandsson appealed against a decision by Sweden’s Migration Board to refuse her asylum, arguing that “there are no reliable criteria for judging what a Christian should know in order to believe”. In addition, Afghan, Iraqi Kurdish and some Arabic asylum-seekers and migrants have requested baptism.

Iranian-born Dr. Afshari added that she has found the concept of conversion (ie. turning from one faith to another, or adopting a faith when one had none before) to have a range of meanings in the Middle Eastern context.

But she added that since some converts’ understanding of conversion and their motivation for it are different from the Western Christian understanding of conversion – which she defined as accepting eternal salvation through Jesus Christ – converts sometimes felt abandoned by their churches after baptism.

In her research for a PhD from Edinburgh University, Afshari explored the interaction between media, religion and culture in the Middle East, for which she interviewed Iranians in the Middle East who had converted to Christianity. In particular she explored how Muslims respond to Christian media aimed at Muslims. Her research found a range of motivations for converting.

Dr. Afshari is a co-founder and former director of SAT-7 PARS, a Persian Christian satellite channel. She explained that, while many converts do experience sudden and dramatic visions of Jesus Christ, these should not be counted as “Damascene conversions” in themselves. “Dreams and visions are part of Iranian culture, so they should be seen as tools for converts to come to a decision whether to convert to Christianity,” she said. (Saul, who first hunted Jesus’ followers to kill them, famously converted after being blinded by a dazzling light and hearing the voice of Christ as he travelled on the road to Damascus.)

Dr. Afshari said conversion was sometimes used “beautifully” as a means of integration into European culture and a way of disassociation from their past allegiances.

“Conversion has also been used as a migration strategy against Islamophobia,” she added. Men who emigrate and convert after being “wounded by their religious authorities” at home might as converts don large and very visible crosses, “mainly because they want to say, ‘Hey, we are not one of them, we are one of you’,” she explained.

Dr. Afshari also identified different “levels” of conversion taking place in Iran. “If you are in Iran and you are scared of total conversion because of the persecution, you say, okay, ‘I’ll just give my heart to Jesus Christ.’ That means you’ll just be an admirer of Jesus Christ – a kind of Sufi [mystic] Christianity.”

Or a person might follow Christ by adding his teachings into the Shia teachings by which they lived. Another category she identified was “an Iranian secular who has no clue about religion but wants affiliation with the West”, who might choose a “cultural Christianity” that included customs associated with the West – she recounted meeting a family whose shift to Christianity included switching from eating with a fork and spoon to eating with a knife and fork.

Dr. Afshari also noted that the conversion process is also influenced by the nature of a person’s “deconversion” from Islam. She said that some Iranians feel “betrayed” by their religious leaders and their country and “go through a painful journey to divorce Islam”. Yet they may miss customs and rituals from their old way of life and seek “reconciliation” between elements of their past religion and their new faith.

Because of these factors, it was important that converts from Islam be able to access materials tailored to their experience and needs, Dr. Afshari said. Because converts in Iran tend to meet in secret to avoid arrest, accessing discipleship materials is difficult, but some Christian satellite channels broadcast into the country. However she added: “The majority of programmes [available in Iran] are very much based on the Western understanding of Christianity, and most of them are very low quality.”

She highlighted the lack of discussion of conversion in Islamic discourse. “There is no equivalent term for conversion in Farsi or Arabic that would illustrate the same understanding of conversion in Christianity, perhaps because conversion has been forbidden in Islam, so that vocabulary hasn’t developed.” She said that by contrast, the word ‘apostasy’ has to do with guilt or crime rather than faith, and conversion to Islam is usually discussed in the context of mass conversions rather than individual decisions. “The Church [in the West] really needs to help and support them. Whatever phrase converts use for their journey has its implications for their faith.”

She acknowledged that some Iranian converts stop attending church once they are granted asylum, but suggested reasons why this might be the case: firstly, that asylum-seekers “plan for rejection” and are always thinking about where to apply to next, so the experience of finally being formally accepted, followed by the time-consuming process of acclimatising, can be “overwhelming” for a while. Secondly, “many converts feel that they are not included into the fabric of the church, though they may have felt more or less welcomed as visitors.” Thirdly, she said the context of the church teachings, particularly on conversion, “might be far from their understanding”. Churches needed to “acknowledge the conversion experience in their teachings and their theology,” she said, as well as put on events such as meals so that the existing congregation and the newcomers can get to know each other. Other converts might leave church because they have decided to disassociate themselves from the church and/or Christianity.

But she added: “Many of them will come back.”