Jump directly to the Content


UK Churches’ Outreach to Muslim Migrants Scrutinized After Clapham Attack

Evangelical leader: Ministers’ testimonies were never intended to be the “make-or-break” factor in judging asylum applications.
UK Churches’ Outreach to Muslim Migrants Scrutinized After Clapham Attack
Image: Finnbarr Webster / Getty Images
Weymouth Baptist Church has taken in 40 asylum seekers from the immigration barge Bibby Stockholm.

A chemical attack that injured a dozen people in the South London suburb of Clapham a month ago has sparked the resurgence of a national debate over the UK’s asylum system and the church’s involvement with migrant converts.

The suspected perpetrator, Abdul Ezedi, was an Afghan refugee who came to Britain illegally in 2016 and was granted asylum in 2020 on appeal after his two previous applications had been denied. He won his appeal even though he had been convicted of a sex offense in 2018.

At his tribunal, he claimed he had converted from Islam to Christianity and would face persecution from the Taliban if he was returned to Afghanistan. A member of the clergy vouched for the sincerity of Ezedi’s religious belief. A tribunal judge was convinced by the plea and granted Ezedi asylum status.

The uproar grew as the details of Ezedi’s case became clearer and doubt was cast on the sincerity of his conversion. (Metropolitan Police confirmed last week that they found his body in the River Thames, where he had likely drowned.)

Suella Braverman, a member of the UK Parliament who has formerly served as Home Secretary (a top cabinet position in the British government with responsibilities including immigration issues), wrote in The Telegraph that “churches around the country [are] facilitating industrial-scale bogus asylum claims.”

Braverman charged that, at some churches, migrants can simply “attend Mass once a week for a few months, befriend the vicar, get your baptism date in the diary and, bingo, you’ll be signed off by a member of the clergy that you’re now a God-fearing Christian who will face certain persecution if removed to your Islamic country of origin.”

While Ezedi’s asylum appeal was supported by a Baptist congregation according to media reports, much of the subsequent criticism has been focused on England’s established church. Matthew Firth, a former Church of England priest, told The Telegraph that while the Church of England had not engaged in “direct wrongdoing,” it had nonetheless been “naive” and often turned “a blind eye” to questionable claims of conversion by asylum seekers.

Church of England leaders have disputed these accusations and contend that it isn’t the responsibility of local congregations to determine who is eligible for asylum. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said in a statement in early February that “it is the job of the Government to protect our borders and of the courts to judge asylum cases. The Church is called to love mercy and do justice.”

Many of the statements from church leaders reflect how clergy have responded to similar controversies in the past. However, there are indications that the church may soon adjust how it supports asylum seekers.

Some ministers, while maintaining that their main responsibility is to help the vulnerable, have admitted the difficulty in discerning whether converts preparing for baptism are genuine believers. The Guardian reported that the Church of England is reviewing its guidance for clergy on engaging with asylum seekers. It was not immediately clear what specific changes to the Church of England’s current guidelines were being considered.

Some congregations outside the Church of England have also found themselves the subject of intense media coverage after the Clapham attack.

Several media outlets reported on Weymouth Baptist Church’s ministry to Muslim migrants who were living on the Bibby Stockholm barge. The barge has been chartered by the UK government to serve as a living space for about 500 asylum seekers while their claims are processed.

A BBC report in early February said that the church was working with 40 men, 6 of whom they had already baptized. Dave Rees, an elder at the church, told BBC Radio 4 that their engagement with the migrants was enhanced through a connection with a Farsi-speaking minister.

Weymouth Baptist is part of the Evangelical Alliance, a network of evangelical churches and believers in the UK and the founding member of the World Evangelical Alliance. Danny Webster, the organization’s director of advocacy, believes that the role of churches in helping win asylum cases has been overstated in public discourse.

He contends that church leaders’ testimonies were never intended to be the “make-or-break” factor in judging asylum applications. Rather, they were seen as providing better evidence of genuine faith than asylum seekers’ responses to the religiously illiterate or trivial questions often asked by Home Office caseworkers. (CT has previously reported on questions used to evaluate the faith of asylum-seeking Christian converts’ faith in the UK.) However, he says the Clapham attack may still lead to some adjustments.

“I suspect church leaders will need to act with even greater discretion in the future,” Webster said. “I think there is some wisdom in having a level of almost baseline standards in terms of how long has this person been attending church, what has their commitment been—so it’s almost a more factual questionnaire rather than [a personal opinion].”

Even with the high level of scrutiny, Webster says believers should continue engaging with asylum seekers: “We want churches to be sharing their faith, we want people to be getting baptized, and at the end of the day, it’s not our job to really decide how sincere someone is.”

Sara Afshari, a research tutor at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, also encourages churches to continue supporting asylum seekers and other migrants. She converted to Christianity in 1989 while still living in her native Iran. After she was baptized, she was imprisoned several times because of her faith.

She later came to the UK to study theology and found a supportive community in Church of England congregations. Her doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh focused on the conversions of Muslim-background Iranians to Christianity. She maintains that “only God knows the heart of a convert.”

“Sadly, we hear only about those who betray the church, not those who really support the growth of the church and enrich the church, which are the majority,” Afshari said. “Even in Iran, we have examples of those who betray the church, and their betrayals cost people’s lives. But again, it didn’t mean that the Iranian church leaders refused to accept [new converts].”

[ This article is also available in Français. ]

Support Our Work

Subscribe to CT for less than $4.25/month

Read These Next