Sunday, February 22, 2009

Religious Refugees

The UNHCR defines a refugee as a person who has fled his country owing to well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, is unable or owing to such fear is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. (In every case the male pronoun includes the female). Free countries have a duty to offer asylum to those in such danger.

There is a special problem with converts from Islam. According to Sharia law, leaving Islam is a crime on a par with treason that is punishable by death (or life imprisonment if it is a woman according to some readings). Not every Muslim takes this view, but many countries that operate according to Sharia law do. Even when the government of a country takes an enlightened view, family members and certain rural communities do not. Even enlightened governments are reluctant to interfere in the workings of families and local communities. In Pakistan, for instance, there have been many Christian converts from Islam who have been unmolested, but if you happen to live near the Afghan border, your father or brothers might kill you if you convert.

Recently, a Libyan asylum seeker who had converted to Christianity was beaten almost to death while in the West Drayton Removal Centre in the UK, by Somali and Yemeni detainees, as he left the makeshift church in the centre.

There is a great ignorance on behalf of officials of national immigration services (I am speaking in particular about the UK, Germany and New Zealand) about the danger that Christian converts from Islam are in, and a lack of cultural sensitivity. The UNHCR takes the view that converts are in no danger in Iran - a view that most in the West would regard as laughable were it not so serious. Then take the questions asked of converts to establish the genuineness of their conversions. "How do you prepare a turkey for Christmas?" "Recite the Roman Catholic Mass." "What were the names of the thieves crucified with Jesus on the Cross?"

Some immigrants have been offered Muslim interpreters. Do they not realise the risk of this. Although some interpreters may be scrupulously honest they will hardly be able to present the asylum seekers problems with any insight, and there may be an incentive to mistranslate so that the person is sent home for 'reconversion'.

However, it is not all bad news. In September last year an asylum seeker "George" a Syrian who had previously seen his application for asylum refused because the Inspector could not believe that George's father would truly hurt his son, finally won the right to stay in Britain.

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