German pastors say that refugee converters usually are not fraudsters

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Elias is waiting for a German official to evaluate his Christianity.

He secretly converted from Islam in Iran. He was afraid because he knew that other converts had been arrested and beaten, some even killed. He had also heard of converts who found asylum in Germany. He dreamed of going there and being baptized publicly. He could worship outdoors, start a new life, and join a church, free from fear of reprisals because of his newly discovered faith.

And so he fled to Germany. When he got there, he applied for asylum. Now Elias (a pseudonym) is waiting for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) to decide on his case. He is far from being alone.

According to a 2019 Open Doors report, between 20,000 and 40,000 refugees seek asylum due to religious persecution due to their religious conversion in Germany. Amid sharp national debates on refugee sentiment, religious competence, and religious freedom, a number of evangelical leaders have called for changes in the process of officially evaluating the conversion of refugees.

The BAMF is currently assessing the sincerity of the conversion and the seriousness of potential threats to the lives of asylum seekers. However, there are no explicit standards, clear criteria or precedents for these tests, and the BAMF grants asylum in different parts of the country at significantly different rates.

"It's like a lottery," said Gottfried Martens, pastor of a Lutheran church associated with the Missouri Synod in the Steglitz district of Berlin. Martens cares for over 1,000 baptized Iranian, Afghan and Pakistani Christians in his church and is currently teaching hundreds more in preparation for baptism.

"If you are in Potsdam, you have a better chance than in Berlin," he said. “In Berlin you have a better chance than in Düsseldorf. Protection is almost guaranteed in Hessen. It just depends on which person you get. "

Martens wants the process to be more consistent. Together with the German Evangelical Alliance and Open Doors, he calls for the examination procedure to be standardized and closer cooperation between the government and religious authorities. The Christian groups are part of a diverse coalition that calls for change, including conservative and liberal politicians, the Baha'i community, the International Society for Human Rights, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and Ahmadi Muslims (who have been persecuted in Pakistan ).

Other countries also had problems with asylum seekers. In the United Kingdom, there were several reports in 2016 that asylum seekers were “interrogated about“ Bible trivia ”as part of the application process. The European Court of Justice recently condemned the treatment of asylum seekers by Hungary. Some migrants have been held in prison camps since they were denied religious or political refugee status in 2018. Hungary now has to rethink the asylum applications of these migrants.

"The issue is of great importance for Germany," said Volker Kauder, leader of the Christian Democratic Union and Evangelical, who was once known as the right-hand man by Chancellor Angela Merkel. "Religious freedom is the litmus test for human rights."

Some evangelicals want pastors to have more influence over the conversion judgment. Markus Rode, head of Open Doors Germany, argues that judges may not have the religious competence required to evaluate spiritual transformation.

“Changing belief in Jesus Christ is a spiritual process. And as such, it can only be judged by people who themselves accepted Jesus Christ in faith, ”said Rode.

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Reinhardt Schink, Secretary General of the German Evangelical Alliance, said judges should at least call pastors as experts.

"People who are often not believers believe that they can judge someone else's beliefs within half an hour," he said. "It is absolutely ridiculous."

Skeptics say that conversion can be an easy route to asylum. But Martens – who has practical experience with thousands of refugee converts – disagrees. The process is intimate and thorough. While he admits that there may be people trying to defraud the system, Martens carefully tests every convert before baptism.

"Thirty percent of them fail," said Martens. "We don't just baptize them and announce" Hallelujah! "We're really checking them out."

According to the BAMF, the officials already recognize the baptism as sufficient proof of conversion. Spokesman Christoph Dieter said the question related to "the seriousness of the commitment to the new faith" and the potential for "persecution due to a change of belief in the home country".

The BAMF often concludes that persecution is not a real problem. An Open Doors study found that around 25 percent of converts rejected their asylum applications. Converts to charismatic churches were rejected with a 48 percent rejection probability significantly more often.

Kauder, who has been in parliament since 1990, said BAMF officials make the issue seem more complicated than it really is. "Once someone has renounced Islam, regardless of whether or not they are authentically converted to Christianity, they can be prosecuted for falling away from their faith," he said. "When it comes to political persecution, those who persecute don't care about the authenticity of a conversion."

The apostasy is a capital crime in Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. In some other countries, including Iran and Jordan, it is not formally illegal to reject Islam, but religious laws can be used to persecute people for apostasy.

There are only a handful of cases where apostasy led to a state.
sanctioned execution. However, Mohammad Fadel, a law professor at the University of Toronto, said formal legal systems are less important in this matter than "social law." Penalties are arbitrarily imposed in many countries.

The apostasy is viewed as a serious crime – legal or social – since converts are understood to be “to renounce the ties that maintain the entire Muslim community,” said Fadel. Many Muslims also believe that Islam needs to be protected from Christianity, he said, which is identified with colonial Europe and Western military power. For this reason: "If someone renounces Islam, life becomes uncomfortable for them in one way or another."

Human rights lawyer Farahnaz Ispahani, who served in the Pakistani parliament from 2008 to 2012, agreed. Christian converts in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, where "deeply rooted" prejudices teach people to fear Christians.

"Regardless of whether or not these countries have formal anti-apostasy laws, vigilante justice is widespread," said Ispahani. “It becomes very difficult to distinguish why verbal or physical violence is used. The mere accusation is enough to destroy a person's life. "

This is Elias' situation. And he wants to tell the BAMF when he goes in front of the government officials.

"My family will no longer accept me," he said. "Not my friends, my country. Nobody."

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His only hope, he believes, is asylum in Germany.

But when Elias prepares for his interview, in which he is asked about his religion, his conversion, and his decision to flee, he fears that he will not be trusted. Germany has seen widespread opposition to asylum seekers, the mood against refugees has grown, and fears that Muslims will ruin German culture.

"I'm more afraid of my government at home, but that government makes me nervous too," said Elias. "I am an enemy at home, but I am also seen as an enemy here."

He has the right to be concerned. A 2018 report by the SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research found that asylum seekers are increasingly seen as "economic freeloaders" and / or existential "threats", according to the report.

"They think they claim Christianity just to get asylum here and then they become Muslims again," said Martens.

According to Open Doors, the situation is worsening. Until July 2017, the conversion was generally recognized as sufficient grounds for asylum. Rates varied by state, but about 75 percent of converts received asylum. Now the quota has dropped to around 30 percent, both in places with many refugee converters such as Baden-Württemberg and in places with only a few such as Bremen and Hamburg.

"More and more Christian converts are denied the authenticity of their change of belief," said Rode, "and declared liars and fraudsters."

However, the rejected persons can appeal against their claims. In the first half of 2019, German courts overturned around 40 percent of deportation orders, thereby supporting the chorus of religious and humanitarian voices that demand change. However, it is not clear whether German evangelicals have the political influence to achieve this.

In the meantime, Elias is waiting.

"I have no idea how my situation will be decided," he said. "But I trust in Jesus. There is no question of my protection in his kingdom. He is always with me until the end. "

Ken Chitwood is a German writer and scholar of global religion.

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