Alpha, asylum seekers and the debate about genuine Christian conversion

When a car bomb exploded outside Liverpool’s Women’s Hospital just before 11am on Remembrance Sunday 2021, it was dismissed as a clumsy and failed terrorist action on the part of the perpetrator. Emad al Swealmeen, who triggered the bomb in a taxi in which he was a passenger, perished in the ensuing fire, though thankfully the cab driver escaped unharmed and no-one else nearby was injured.

The incident ought to have been consigned to the minor incident files but when the details surrounding al Swealmeen’s circumstances emerged, it set in process a conversation that has gathered in intensity and concern over the past two years, culminating in a parliamentary enquiry to which the Catholic Church was giving evidence yesterday.

What emerged from the bombing attempt was the claim that al Swealmeen had converted from Islam to Christianity and that this journey – which had been facilitated by the Anglican church in Liverpool – had materially assisted his asylum process. This suggestion immediately triggered a vigorous social narrative about the tensions between the current government’s animosity towards asylum-seekers and the Christian churches’ commitment to welcoming victims of violence and oppression who come to seek refuge on our shores.

Emad al Swealmeen had arrived in the UK in 2014 and was refused asylum. In 2017 his asylum appeal against the decision was also rejected. He ended up wandering the streets of Liverpool and came into contact with a group of Christians running an Alpha course for asylum-seekers at the city’s Anglican cathedral. Evidence from its members said that al Swealmeen took to the process avidly.

Church worker Malcolm Hitchcott told BBC Radio Mersyside: “He was on the streets, basically… he arrived here on April 2017, he was with us then eight months. During that time we saw him really blossoming as regard to his Christian faith. Every night we used to pray, my wife and him and if there was anybody else in the house we prayed for half an hour or so and studied the scriptures and we had a great time together.

“And I was in no doubt by the time that he left us at the end of that eight months, that he was a Christian … he was absolutely genuine as far as I can tell.”

The Right Reverend Cyril Ashton, the bishop who confirmed Al Swealmeen said he was “shocked and saddened” by the bombing.

“His confirmation was one of hundreds I have conducted as a bishop so I have no specific recollection of the individual,” the bishop told the BBC at the time.

“The church takes confirmation seriously and I know that he would have been thoroughly prepared with an understanding of the Christian faith. It seems that sadly, despite this grounding, the bomber chose a different path for his life.”

The Alpha course that the bomber found himself on was (and in some quarters still is) a popular and highly intensive introductory course to the Christian faith which became very attractive to evangelical churches in particular. It had its roots at Holy Trinity Brompton, a radical Church of England parish in London in the late 1970s, and spread rapidly.

It is very charismatic in nature and early on attracted nervousness about the very direct relationship being lauded between the human person and the Holy spirit. Some theologians warned about the narrow and didactic style of the course, something that limited its incursion into the Catholic Church despite the attempts of some Catholic priests and study groups to insert missing aspects of teaching that were either specific or critically important to the Catholic position on Christianity in an attempt to make Alpha more ‘Catholic-friendly’.

As far as the Emad al Swealmeen case was concerned, it was both tempting and convenient to dismiss its Christian dimension as a consequence of Alpha and over-enthusiastic evangelisation. Unfortunately the government took a rather different and somewhat more sweeping view, believing that al Swealmeen and many others were ‘gaming the system’ by claiming asylum on the grounds that they had converted to Christianity and that the Christian churches were effectively aiding and abetting this subterfuge out of both their desire to gain converts and their perceived left-of-centre socio-political outlook.

In essence the ‘conversion to Christianity’ narrative was giving a powerful impetus to the argument that a now ex-Muslim would almost certainly suffer persecution and likely death if returned to their homeland as a Christian convert. Iranians, for example, are questioned on this specifically if returning home and have to sign a document renouncing their newfound Christianity, as well as being marked out by the notoriously brutal Iranian security services.

In the face of this, the evidential proof of Christianity all but negates any justification to return an asylum-seeker back to a Muslim country of origin.

Given the febrile narratives surrounding migration to the UK it was to be expected that unsubstantiated political chatter about Christian conversions and ‘gaming the system’ would break out, but few people anticipated this would become an issue of such considerable substance that it needed a parliamentary enquiry.

Unfortunately the recent dreadful acid attack by refugee Abdul Ezedi who allegedly converted from Islam to Christianity gave the debate added urgency and impetus, especially as some of the media coverage of the crime was very misleading and had the effect of stoking animosity towards asylum seekers and the Church of England.

Cynical minds were enflamed further last month when it was revealed that a Baptist church had taken the controversial Alpha process onboard the Bibby Stockholm asylum barge moored of Portland, Dorset, and was making ambitious claims about conversions to Christianity amongst the ship’s occupants.

Dave Rees, and elder at Weymouth Baptist Church, claimed to have converted 40 men using a 10-week Alpha course, and was busily baptising them into his church. He had no qualms about the authenticity of their conversion.

“Obviously we need to make sure that they believe in Jesus, they believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, they repent of their sins and also they want to start a new life in the church,” said Rees.

“And they have to give a public testimony at their baptism, which they did in a native language and was translated into English.”

Sussex MP Tim Loughton was less than impressed by these revelations, and immediately took aim at both the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

At Prime Minister’s Questions on 6th February Mr Loughton challenged: “Given that the Church of England has now issued secret guidance for clergy supporting asylum applications for these damascene conversions, who is the church accountable to? And are tax payers being scammed by the archbishop?”

The archbishop of Canterbury did issue a response, but this only batted the ball back over the government fence, and added to the growing spectre of a Christian conspiracy that further undermined the government’s much vaunted commitment to minimising asylum applications.

“For refugees and those seeking asylum, we simply follow the teaching of the Bible which is to care for the stranger,” said Rev. Welby.

“It is the job of the government to protect our borders and of the courts to judge asylum cases.”

Of course in a secular country it’s all but impossible for government ministers to assess what genuine beliefs a convert would need to hold in order to be defined as a ‘true Christian’ – and frankly it’s not that much easier for the Christian churches themselves to discern.

The common evangelical view that an admission of Christianity and an agreement to be baptised means that you’re all done and God will sort the rest is optimistic to say the least, and even the more rigorous mechanisms of the mainstream churches are fraught with difficulties – especially as religious conversion is a highly personal and subjective journey.

In some respects this lends credence to the position of Justin Welby, that the duty of the Christian is to care for the stranger, and the duty of the state is to judge the legal validity of the process.

Governments of course will have none of this, and you can’t blame them, as to them a Christian conversion will always look like an obvious asylum strategy and there doesn’t seem to be any enthusiasm or co-operation from the churches to assist the government in executing its legal obligations to the taxpayer, especially when it’s to the detriment of the vulnerable.

It has been this tetchy standoff that led the government to call witnesses from the main UK church communities to give evidence yesterday to the Home Affairs Select Committee which has been examining the role that conversion to Christianity plays in granting asylum in the UK.

Among those speaking yesterday was Canon Christopher Thomas (pictured), the General Secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales.

The session began with a lengthy representation from Rev. Matthew Firth, a former Darlington priest who claimed that whilst he was a priest at St Cuthbert’s in Darlington between 2018 and 2020, he was brought groups of asylum seekers ‘week-in, week-out’ looking to convert to Christianity – a claim that the Diocese of Durham has refuted robustly.

Mr Firth said the cohorts were “six or seven” people “every two or three weeks”.

“At a time six or seven people brought to me by people saying these people need baptism,” he said.

Rev Firth was somewhat surprised when it was put to him that only 15 people who may have been asylum seekers were baptised at St Cuthbert’s over 10 years.

For his part Canon Christopher Thomas said that the Catholic Church in England & Wales does not maintain data on the prior background of people seeking Baptism, but he emphasised that we follow the advice of Pope Francis to “welcome the migrant and protect them, promote their integration into the community, not only within our Church but within the broader society in which we live.”

Canon Thomas then outlined that the Catholic Church has a “very defined, very universal process” called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) which he said is “quite a lengthy process in which the order of Christian initiation takes place.”

Typically, this process takes “around nine months” said Canon Thomas. By contrast The Rt Revd Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, Bishop of Chelmsford said that the process of prayer, study and initiation in the Anglican Church took “around 12 weeks” while for the Baptish Church The Rev Steve Tinning, Public Issues Enabler, Baptist Union of Great Britain, said that people came for baptism from a range of circumstances but the process in the Baptist Church generally took a mere “six weeks”.

Canon Thomas also emphasised that the process of initiation into the Catholic Church involved a range of individuals – the parish priest, sponsors and catechists – which created a “more broad community aspect” to the process. He stated that in his 13 years as a parish priest in the Diocese of Nottingham “the people who came as adults to receive the Sacraments of Initiation did have a real deep sense of participation within the faith community.”

Following yesterday’s expert testimonies, Tom Pursglove MP, Minister of State for Legal Migration and the Border at the Home Office confirmed that the Home Office is now going to conduct a formal review of how Christian conversion impacts asylum applications, but he was understandably vague about how this process might be achieved.

Currently assessments vary – usually converts must be baptised and need to demonstrate that they know the basics of Christianity, including a knowledge of Christian festivals, the Bible, prayers or the Creed. Applicants may also be asked to name a favourite Bible passage, and be able to explain why they converted to Christianity and what triggered that conversion.

This may sound like the Highway Code exam before a driving test, but it’s hard to see how government officials can apply any other type of test to establish the veracity or otherwise of an individual’s highly personal and unique conversion to Christianity.

A far better strategy would be to trust to the judgement of our faith communities that they have the best interests of both the most vulnerable and of wider society at the centre of what they do, but that’s going to be hard to sell to a government committed to reducing migration when the mainstream Christian churches prioritise the protection of the human person, and clearly some other faith groups seem to be focussed far more on counting converts or making political points than guiding vulnerable enquirers towards a fully informed and enduring faith.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian.