The European Court of Human Rights ruled last month that an Iranian who sought asylum in Switzerland based on religious grounds could be deported to his home country because his life was not in danger, despite various reports detailing how Iran persecutes religious minorities and converts to Christianity.
Human Rights advocate Ewelina Ochab, in an article for Forbes Magazine, called it “another blow to the victims of religious persecution”.
The court said “Mr. A” did not have reason to expect torture or to fear for his life, as long as he didn’t pose a threat to the Iranian government and “practise[d] his faith discreetly”.
But quoting from various reports that provide evidence and detail stories of religious persecution in Iran, Ochab said: “It is concerning how the Swiss authorities concluded that converts ‘who practised their faith discreetly, did not face a real risk of ill-treatment upon their return’… The only reasonable conclusion is that by ‘practising faith discreetly’, the Swiss authorities meant not practising faith at all, as the practice requires some degree of manifestation and … this practice is significantly limited if not impossible in Iran”.
Ochab concluded that “the way in which the issue of religious persecution has been dealt with by the Swiss authorities and by the ECtHR shows that religious persecution continues to be misunderstood and neglected”.
Meanwhile an Iranian bishop in Tehran has faced criticism for his claims that Christians in Iran “have freedom of religion”.
“The Islamic government grants its Christian citizens every right to practise their faith, including observing their feasts such as Christmas,” Sibo Sarkisian, Armenian-Orthodox Bishop of Tehran, told Spanish news agency EFE. “They’re just not allowed to share their faith publicly, as it is forbidden under the Islamic government’s law.”
Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, said that “while the Iranian Constitution recognises Christians as an official religious minority, the state continues to persecute believers of the faith, especially converts”.
Amnesty International reported last year on the large numbers of Afghan asylum-seekers sent home from European nations, which Amnesty accused of being “wilfully blind” to the risks they face “of serious human rights violations”. It said religious minorities and converts to Christianity face additional risks.
In August an Iranian convert to Christianity was refused asylum in Sweden after she was told by migration board officials that it was her “personal life” and “not our problem if you decided to become a Christian; it’s your problem”.
Aideen Strandsson (who took a Swedish name) said 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”.
Determine the ‘real converts’
The challenge for the authorities and also church leaders is to determine the “real” converts among asylum seekers, over those only pretending to help their case.
In September World Watch Monitor reported how Afghan and Iranian asylum-seekers in Germany were finding shelter in churches and how many of them were becoming Christians in the process. According to the Washington Post, “conversion is both a side-effect of church relief and a potential advantage for rejected asylum-seekers, who can claim deeper need for asylum if they are at risk of religious persecution in their home country”.
Meanwhile the Federal German 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. German 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. 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.
A UK Parliamentary group in 2016 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.