Friday, 6 November 2015

No, not economic migrants. No, not trying to come here for our benefits. But running for their lives. And on this side of the Channel there are people who have hardly ever darkened the doors of a church who are trying to keep them out because they want to maintain the so-called Christian character of Britain. Pah! That was going to be the gist of the piece. 
But then the story I was intending to write took an awkward turn. I sought out a friend, himself a refugee from Iran. And what he told me I really didn’t want to hear. Claiming Christianity, he said, is the No 1 justification for dodgy asylum applications from Iran. It’s the best way of getting into Britain. Yes, Christians are vaguely tolerated in Iran, as long as they are Armenian. For example, the current captain of the Iranian football team is a Christian. But conversion to Christianity is absolutely not tolerated. And because conversion is punishable by death it has become the most convincing way to claim the need for asylum. Furthermore, he said, because asylum seekers know they are going to get challenged about it by the Home Office, many have mugged up on their Christianity. They will have learnt all about Easter. They know the stories of the New Testament. 
So were these Kurds really Christians? An unwelcome thought was planted in my head, a suspicion I last had when I helped with admissions to a popular church school. How could anyone tell who was genuine? What Home Office questions would decide the matter? I, for example, am notoriously bad at the religion questions in the pub quiz. Yes, I suppose if someone knew nothing whatsoever about Easter that might raise a red flag. But the orthodox view is that it is baptism that makes a person a Christian. And, whatever you think about this, baptism often happens to babies who don’t generally have a worked out theology of Easter. Yes, evangelicals often take a different view about what makes a Christian a Christian, emphasising the belief in particular doctrines. But it is surely well beyond the compeeance of the Home Office to adjudicate on matters that the church itself has been arguing about for centuries. 
But this much I know. Like Saint Thomas, I had placed my finger in their side. And the scars were real enough. So too was the look of fear when they spoke of the security services. Maybe they were Christians, maybe not. But, like Elizabeth I, I have no desire for windows into men’s souls. That’s a fundamental British value if ever there was one. These men were running for their lives. And common human compassion was a Christian enough reason for me to want us to give them shelter.


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