A trivia quiz is not adequate to determine the beliefs of asylum seekers

The BBC recently reported that asylum seekers are being consistently assessed on the veracity of their faith by way of bible trivia. For those of us who have ongoing dealings with asylum seekers this is not exactly news, for such has it always been. What is new, and somewhat heartening, is that the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief have now publicly come out and said this is going on. What is more, they have stated it is a major problem in the assessment of asylum claims. Gillan Scott, at the Archbishop Cranmer blog, offers some helpful comment here.

I was in the asylum tribunal court only yesterday, acting as a witness on behalf of one of our congregants. It was staggering to hear how unbelievably weak the Home Office case was, majoring as it did on the assumption that my friend’s Christian faith was but a pretence for gaining asylum. At no point during proceedings – except in my evidence on his behalf – was it mentioned that it is faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ that ultimately determinates whether one is a real Christian. Nor was the fact that such faith is worked out in a desire to learn more about God in his word, to be with God’s people and to share one’s faith (again, except in my evidence).

Instead, the Home Office chose to emphasise the fact that my friend was unable to state how many disciples Jesus had (should he include Judas? How about Matthias as his replacement? And Paul?) and that he couldn’t name them all on the spot (a piece of bible trivia that has managed to allude many a team member in a United Beach Missions ‘beat the team’ competition). They sought to argue that because my friend went ‘above and beyond’ what was required to prove the veracity of his faith in his commitment, he must have been trying it on. No doubt had he not gone ‘above and beyond’ this would count against him as a lack of commitment. Some emphasis was placed upon his baptism despite repeated statements that baptism does not determine credible faith (in our tradition, at any rate).

It is a sad state of affairs that a matter of faith and belief can be reduced to little more than a quiz about Bible trivia. Moreover, the issue is not unique to Christians seeking asylum. As Scott rightly points out:

a woman from Sudan, who had claimed asylum in the UK on the basis of her atheism, was told: “..as there was no evidence about atheism in Sudan, it could be concluded that there are no atheists and that therefore she could not possible have been persecuted for this reason.”

This is the lamentable level of religious illiteracy with which asylum seekers are faced. There have been cases of individuals failing to recognise that one can be Anglican and Evangelical at the same time. Likewise, we have had people asked how many candles there are on a advent candle (perhaps legitimate if you belonged to some Anglican churches during Advent, but I – having been in churches for 30 years – have never so much as seen an Advent candle, let alone made one or found it to be important to my faith!) The understanding of basic denominational differences within Christendom is woefully lacking.

What is worse, many asylum seekers are often fleeing a country based on a set of relatively new found beliefs. The idea that they should be able to prove their beliefs, in ways that would fell many advocates who have held and propagated those views for years, is highly unfair at best. It is, more accurately, utterly disgraceful and clearly inadequate.

As Scott rightly argues:

We have no idea how widespread these failures are because, astonishingly, the Home Office does not keep any statistics on these matters. It is little wonder, then, that the report’s primary recommendation is that the Home Office should “keep a record of the number of asylum claims made on the basis of religious persecution as well as the acceptance vs. rejection rate of such cases so as to assess the true scale of such claims and how sensitively such claims are being dealt with”.

There is good reason to believe that religion is little more than a dirty word for too many government officials, despite freedom of belief being a key human right. Only last month the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education agreed that widespread religious illiteracy among civil servants and policy-makers in government is a major problem. Before that, in January, it was reported that there is a widespread culture within the civil service which treats speaking about faith as “not the done thing”. With such unwillingness even to discuss religious matters, is it any wonder that we find attitudes towards asylum seekers result in some being told to return home and keep their faith to themselves and not to engage in public expressions of their belief?

It is heartening that the issue is beginning to be noticed. That the All Party Parliamentary Group are highlighting the issue and stating that it is not a credible assessment may be the beginnings of some change. In the meantime, however, we are still left with many people – with legitimate beliefs for which they face real persecution – being treated as though their beliefs are entirely false simply because they don’t know which miracle Jesus did first, the theological rationale behind paedo- rather than credo- baptism or can state exactly how many witnesses the Bible claims saw the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Surely we can do better and treat these asylum seekers with the decency and fairness they deserve?

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