Monday 5 February 2024

What People Really Believe

Although there are varying attitudes towards churches, or at least towards some of them, as social and cultural phenomena, there is a profound anti-Christianity to the philosophical basis of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, as well as to what look like the Old Right revival movements of the present moment, with their links to the church-burning spitters at priests in the Holy Land, and with their roots in the likes of Guénon and Evola, of Nietzsche and Heidegger, and of a Konservative Revolution that was called “neoconservative” at the time. As these trends are articulated, if that can be the word, by such as Robert Jenrick and Suella Braverman, Giles Fraser writes:

Elizabeth I put it best. “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.” In other words, who knows what people really believe? When I baptise people, I ask them — or those who stand in for them — if they turn to Christ, if they repent of their sins, if they renounce evil. If they say that they do, then I baptise them, and they are counted as a member of the congregation. How do I know if they are being sincere? I don’t. But normally there is a little incentive for people to make such claims other than that they seek to live by them. Except when it comes to the asylum system.

Abdul Ezedi, from Afghanistan, became a Christian in order to game the asylum system and gain a permanent right to remain in the UK — or so it appears. In 2018, Ezedi was convicted of a sexual assault charge at Newcastle Crown Court. Last week he was suspected of throwing a highly corrosive chemical at a mother and her children in Clapham, inflicting horrific, lifechanging injuries. The unnamed priest who apparently admitted him into the church has come in for a lot of stick for being gullible in helping him convert. There but for the grace of God go I. I have probably baptised thousands of people. I do not know if any of them have gone on to do terrible things, but it’s perfectly possible. I do not judge this unnamed priest one bit for baptising Ezedi. Baptism is not a certificate of good character. It is an outward expression of the desire to be saved. And that is available even to the very worst of us.

But theology aside, it is important to emphasise that the church has nothing to do with assessing the validity of asylum claims. That is for the Home Office. Perhaps the Home Office did decide to take into account Ezedi’s “conversion” – but that is entirely up to them. And it is perfectly true that being a Christian in Afghanistan is a potential death sentence. There are reports that the Taliban have tortured Christians to ask them to give up the names of fellow believers – not unlike Elizabeth I, as it happens. And there really are Christians in Afghanistan, and they are in grave danger. So you can see why the Home Office might take conversion to be a significant matter when considering asylum claims.

So, was the priest naïve? What was he supposed to look for? Eyes too close together? Evidence of past wrongdoing? Polygraph before baptism? There is no fool-proof epistemological test for sincerity.

Take the case of Emad Swealmeen. He arrived in the UK from Iraq in 2014. The following year, he started visiting the Cathedral in Liverpool. He took an Alpha Course to learn about the faith and was baptised then confirmed as a Christian in March 2017. The Cathedral didn’t put obstacles in the way of his conversion. It had no reason to. But the Cathedral is more cautious in supporting claims for asylum. “We would expect someone to be closely connected with the community for at least two years before we would consider supporting an application” explained a spokesman from the Cathedral. That seems about right — the best test of sincerity is consistency of behaviour with professed belief over time.

But despite many in the church community writing in a private capacity to support Swealmeen’s asylum application, the Home Office rejected it. Perhaps they knew things that the church didn’t. He had been detailed under the Mental Health Act in 2015 and later arrested for wandering around town openly carrying a knife. In November 2021, and facing immediate deportation, Swealmeen detonated a bomb with several hundred small ball bearings in a taxi outside the Liverpool Women’s Hospital. He was the only fatality.

Was the church at fault here? Headlines mentioned “fake Muslim conversion to Christianity” as if the church were deciding asylum claims. It wasn’t. If there was fault, it was with an asylum system that took so long in moving to deportation. His asylum claim was first rejected in 2014. He was informed that all his appeal rights had been exhausted by 2015, yet he was still in this country in 2021.

Writing in the Telegraph yesterday, former Home Secretary Suella Braverman blamed the failure of Brexit to limit immigration on … the churches! The Conservatives have been in power for 14 years with a thumping majority. She was one of the most senior members of government, responsible for making our laws and enforcing them. But yes, it’s your local vicar that is to blame for mass immigration. “While at the home office, I became aware of churches around the country facilitating industrial scale bogus asylum claims,” she writes. This is desperate and pathetic stuff.

Of course, it’s not just Muslim converts who try and game the church system. Sharp-elbowed middle-class parents looking to get their offspring into a good church school are often masquerading as pious believers in order to jump the queue. I know from long and bitter experience that some stop coming to church when their child has gained a school place. I also know that some have come to church with mixed motives and then discover something worth staying for. My own view is that the best way to deter wouldbe “fake Christians” is to make the conditions for church entry into church schools prohibitively high. Generally speaking, regular attendance at church for two years is just too much for those who want to get on their knees to avoid the fees. In the end, the lure of a warm bed on a Sunday morning gets the better of them.

In terms of identifying sincerity, fake converts from Muslim countries are hardly different in kind from pushy middle-class parents. I have had numerous asylum seekers in churches I have run. We had a woman from Iran whose entire prayer group was raided and “disappeared” by the authorities. That same night, she escaped to Turkey in the back of a lorry under a pile of fruit. She knows the Bible better than I do. I am not a particularly trusting kind of person, but I have absolutely no doubt that her asylum claim was genuine. But clearly, there are asylum seekers from certain Muslim countries who are encouraged to convert to Christianity in order to game the system. In theological terms it is for God (not the church) to sort the sheep from the goats. In secular terms, it is for the Home Office. Blaming a handful of clergy who might lean on the side of generosity of interpretation for the systematic failures of your bankrupt government is scraping the barrel of excuses.


  1. Nietzsche and Heidegger in the same breath as Robert Jenrick and Suella Braverman, I almost love it.