by Dr Grace Milton, Research Fellow, Edward Cadbury Centre
In the UK, religious conversion is generally considered to be a private matter. Citizens have the legal right to hold and manifest religious beliefswithout fear of intervention or public criticism. However, there are occasions when conversion, and its associated rituals, become a matter of intense public scrutiny. Often these fall under one of two opposing typologies. First, there are instances of apparent forced conversion to a supposedly ‘deviant’ group. In these cases it is inconceivable to outsiders that someone would willingly choose to convert, and accusations are sometimes made of manipulation and ‘brainwashing’. Perhaps the best recent example of such rhetoric can be found in the discussion of conversion to Islamic extremist groups.Second, there are so-called ‘conversions of convenience’. This phrase describes the perception that the decision to convert might have been motivated by a desire to gain social and/or material benefits offered by the new group. For example, the inmate who converts to Christianity prior to a parole hearing,or the parent who starts attending church just as their child is applying for a position in an affiliated school.
One scenario arising in recent years that has often been alleged as ‘convenient’ has been the conversion of refugees to Christianity. Since the European migrant crisis was brought to public attention in 2015, there have been reports of mass refugee conversions in host countries around Europe and in Lebanon. The reports often explain that by converting to Christianity, the convert would be at more risk of persecution in their country of origin and therefore more likely be granted asylum.
The UK government has long implemented a test for asylum seekers in an attempt to establish whether or not a claim of Christian conversion is genuine. Such tests have been widely criticised. The scepticism inherent in this approach reveals a lack of understanding of Christian education and catechesis, and have been previously criticised on these grounds, but even more so of the nature of conversion, and it is from this perspective that I will offer two further critiques of the test system below.
Firstly, Christian conversion is best understood as a process and not an event. We know that forced displacement makes many refugees likely to enter into the process of converting, but not all will necessarily come to identify as converts. In addition, different denominations will have varied understandings of when and how conversion is thought to take place. All of this shows how complex conversion can be. We cannot take a snapshot of faith and assess it without, in the very least, the use of testimony to place that moment in its context.
A detailed critique of the ‘conversion test’ method was sent to the Home Office back in 2006and it does seem as though independent advocates can now be called to act as witnesses to the applicants’ faith. This is a step in the right direction. However, this still requires an individual’s faith journey be evaluated in a moment in time, which is problematic.
Secondly, the underlying question behind public scrutiny is often, “what are they gaining?” This question is not unfounded, as news reports record asylum seekers openly admitting that they have converted to Christianity in order to assist their application. However, the assumption that this negates the authenticity of the conversion is short sighted. Conversion theorists from many sides would say that anyconversion involves some form of perceived gain. There is little uproar when that gain is ‘spiritual’. Salvation, holiness, closer community or seeking enlightenment are seen to be worthy goals. Distrust comes when the gain is considered to be ‘material’.
This separation of the spiritual from the material reflects a particular mind-set, crucially, one that is not shared by all. There are Christian theologies that view salvation as a whole-life state, which includes the material. There are metaphysical approaches in many religions which place value on the interconnection between the spiritual and the material. From these perspectives, there is no problem with entering the conversion process because there are perceived material benefits.
Public scrutiny of asylum seekers’ conversions to Christianity is symptomatic of two things: (1) a lack of understanding about conversion as a process and (2) a distrust of the connection between faith and the material world. The continuation of these misunderstandings has the potential to put asylum-seeking converts in an unfair position, and needs to be addressed.
Article 9, Human Rights Act
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/sweden-bible-tests-christian-asylum-seekers-refugees-a7736981.html; https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jun/07/refugees-asylum-religious-grounds-quizzed-on-bible-trivia; https://ctbi.org.uk/asylum-and-refugees-resources/
Kraft, Kathryn “Religious exploration and conversion in forced displacement: a case study of Syrian Muslim refugees in Lebanon receiving assistance from Evangelical Christians” (2017) Journal of Contemporary Religion, 32(2): 222
Churches’ Refugee Committee (January 2006) “Testing the Genuineness of Conversion to Christianity” Churches Together in Britain and Ireland website https://ctbi.org.uk/asylum-and-refugees-resources/
Währisch-Oblau, Claudia (2011) “Material Salvation: Healing, Deliverance, and “Breakthrough” in African Migrant Churches in Germany” in Candy Gunther Brown (ed) Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing(Oxford: Oxford University Press) pp.61-80