Freedom of belief
4 min read

Away from home, cut off from home

As Refugee Week concludes, Belle Tindall moves beyond the headlines and learns the story of Azer and the thousands of churches who are providing a sense of home for those who have fled theirs.

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen &Unseen 

A man walks away down a drab street
Welcome Network

No refugee alone – that’s the vision, that’s the hope, that’s the end game.  

That is what is fuelling Welcome Churches, a charity that is encouraging, equipping and resourcing local churches to support refugees up and down the country. In the past twelve months alone, over one thousand churches have partnered with Welcome Churches to help ensure that their corner of the UK is a home fit for the people who are seeking sanctuary within it.  

As a result, nearly eighteen thousand people have been welcomed into and supported by local churches in the past year.  

One of those people is Azer.  

Azer came to the UK in 2022, along with his wife, to study in Birmingham. The plan was to stay in the UK for two years, complete his studies, and then return home to Iran with the qualifications he needed to obtain a promotion in tow. However, just two months into his time at the University, Azer found that his bank account had been frozen, and he was unable to pay his fees, and therefore attend his classes. After assuming that this was down to some kind of technical fault, or perhaps a legal complication, Azer was horrified to learn that it was the Iranian authorities who had intentionally cut him off from his finances. Not only that, but they had also raided and seized his home in Iran, as well as raiding the home of his wife’s family.  

He and his wife had been targeted.  

Azer and his wife are Christians, which is a dangerous thing to be in Iran. Christian gatherings are prohibited, and any rumours of secret Christian activity is heavily monitored. In fact, practising Christianity can lead to imprisonment for ‘crimes against national security’. The pressure that Christians are under in Iran has led Open Doors to rank it as the eighth most dangerous country to be a Christian in the world.  

Azer describes it this way,  

Being a Christian in Iran and participating in the communities will have consequences, such as prosecution or execution. Converting from Islam to Christianity will have a price and your life is entitled to be taken by Islamic government agents. That's why house churches are held secretly. Absolutely, you fear. That's why everything is done in confidentiality regarding the worship services, and Bible readings. 

As Helen, an Engagement Officer for Welcome Churches, says, ‘for some people it (Christianity) is literally life threatening, the persecuted church is a real thing’.  

Despite the immense risks, Azer’s wife covertly practiced her Christianity while living in Iran, keeping Christian literature in her home. Something which, it seems, did not go unnoticed. As a result, returning to Iran is no longer a safe option for Azer, nor his wife. When asked how it felt to learn that his own government had targeted him and his family in this way, and to realise that his home could therefore no longer be his home, Azer described it this way,  

We felt like all the organs of our body dismembered, and on the other hand, like something inside you has been lost which was your identity obtained during past years by your efforts.  A mixture of helplessness, frustration, being thrown into the void, and implosion inside.  Dealing with losing all your possessions and all your plans is very hard. Like somebody who survived after an earthquake and lost his family and home. On the other hand, feeling your life is in danger is harder to tolerate. We feel at any moment you can be killed by the agents. These threats last for a long time which is more difficult to cope with. 

Because of the profound dangers that Azer and his wife face, they have applied for asylum here in the UK. Azer speaks powerfully of how being a refugee feels,  

Even though being an asylum seeker carries legal status all over the world, you immediately have no social status and must navigate this extreme loss of identity in an unknown territory. Sometimes I cannot talk, think, or even concentrate and my wife and I often feel lonely and homesick for our parents and siblings. 

The UN Refugee Agency reports that in November 2022 (the most recent statistics), there were 231,597 refugees, 127,421 pending asylum cases, and 5,483 stateless persons in the UK. Each with their own stories, their own fears, their own hopes. Each one having to juggle copious unknowns on a daily basis, navigating risks that many of us cannot fathom. The depth of emotion in Azer’s words as he speaks of his experience, it is hard to comprehend such trauma multiplied by such huge numbers. Yet, that is the reality that many local churches are coming face to face with, supported by Welcome Churches.  

Believing that refugees are people to be supported, not problems to be solved, churches have been providing for their new neighbours in numerous ways: providing toys, clothes, food, warm spaces, games nights, social hubs and so much more. They have taken the biblical mandates to ‘welcome strangers’ and ‘love their neighbours’ incredibly literally, showing hospitality to people of all faiths, and none.  

Of course, there is a political component to this that cannot be ignored, and one of Welcome Church’s core values is institutional justice for refugees and asylum seekers, believing that the Church/Christians should be at the forefront of ensuring that the Home Office is in a position to hear every case presented to it and respond with compassion. As Helen says,  

It’s not for us to decide the validity of their claim. But neither is it for us to deny the validity of their humanity. 

This Refugee Week is an opportunity to move beyond headlines, statistics and culture wars and ensure that people are seen, and stories are heard. It therefore seems only right that Azer gets the final word,  

We ask Humbly that the UK (government) put themselves in our place, and then judge and treat us. In the meantime, we are thankful for all the love and compassion we have received from most of the British people. We pray to God to help and give us the power to reciprocate for this nation in the future. 

Freedom of belief
4 min read

Why should society care about the persecution of Christians?

Believers revere martyrs, but others are also inspired by sacrifice.

Ryan Gilfeather explores social issues through the lens of philosophy, theology, and history. He is a Research Associate at the Joseph Centre for Dignified Work.

A stone monument within which set, in the shape of a cross are statues of numerous standing praying figures.
Martyrs monument, Nagasaki, Japan.

The story of Christian martyrdom began with the death of St Stephen. On the 26th December 36 AD, Stephen the Deacon proclaimed the Christian faith before the rabbinic court in Jerusalem. His apology enraged the crowd before him. They dragged him outside of the city gates and stoned him until he perished. Looked at from one angle, all we see is chaos, fear and violence. Viewed from another perspective, however, we see remarkable courage and love for God. Stephen’s love for God so consumed his heart and mind, that he preferred to die violently than turn against Him. He became the first Christian martyr, a term which means ‘witness’ in the original Greek, because he would rather testify to his belief in Christ than live. We also use this term because his death says something about the character of God. Those who follow Christ take on his virtues. Stephen’s death showed how he possessed God’s virtues of courage and love more than the average believer.  

More stories of martyrdom emerged from the first three centuries after the death of Christ. A number of sources have told of the harrowing death of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Each presented it differently. Basil of Caesarea recounted how the Roman emperor enacted a law, making it illegal to confess faith in Christ. As an imperial official was posting up the law in a public place and demanding obedience, forty soldiers stood up and declared, ‘I am a Christian.’ The official promised them riches and high office to deny their belief in Christ. But they did not relent. He threatened violence and they remained steadfast. They said that because of their love for God they would readily accept torture on the wheel, by screws, and being burned alive. In response the official exposed them to the cold, where they stood until they froze to death. In this story, these same two perspectives emerge. One reveals violent death at the hands of a state scared of the consequences of people refusing to sacrifice to the pagan gods. The other speaks of people full of love for God, and the courage and integrity to refuse to turn their backs on Him.  

The martyrs show us that the virtues we need so often grow out of suffering and struggle.

Stories about martyrdom punctuated the worshipping life of the Early Church. Each year as the anniversary of a martyr’s death rolled around, crowds would gather at their tombs. Singing hymns, they held a candlelit vigil all night. In the morning the crowds processed into the tomb, where the bishop celebrated the eucharist and gave a speech commemorating their violent deaths. By the fourth century, each region celebrated dozens of different martyr festivals. These were joyful and ecstatic occasions. Early Christians treasured the opportunity to honour the martyr’s memory through commemoration. 

They also invested these stories with great spiritual potential. The martyrs were seen to be guides in the path of holiness. The deaths of St Stephen and the Forty Matyrs of Sebaste revealed how to express one’s love for God: to treasure Him so much in one’s heart, that nothing is worth denying one’s belief and trust in Him. Additionally, early Christian writers began to articulate that these stories also inspire and embolden their audiences to imitate the martyrs. Until the early fourth century, when Christianity became legally tolerated, some Christians faced the choice of denying Christ or death. For these Christians, the stories of the martyrs showed them that the Christian life involved proclaiming their faith and facing death, and crucially it gave them the inner strength to follow it through. After Christianity was made legal, Christians still saw the martyrs as spiritual guides. They revealed how to express courage and love for God in the face of hardship. These stories ignited a fire of zeal to imitate the martyrs in some way.   

They are, I propose, also of great inspiration to those who do not think of themselves as Christians.  The martyrs reveal to us how a love for God generates virtues we prize so greatly in society, namely courage, integrity, and faithfulness. If it were not for love for God, Stephen and the other martyrs would not have chosen to suffer, and they wouldn’t have expressed these precious qualities. In short, they give insight into how Christians understand love for God to be the wellspring for those precious virtues. The martyrs show us that the virtues we need so often grow out of suffering and struggle. In a sense, they reveal the value of suffering for virtue. However, they do not encourage us to suffer for its own sake. Rather, they reveal that the full expression of love for God can so often involve suffering and struggle. When Christians faithfully say yes to this hardship out of love for God, it transforms them into the embodiments of these precious virtues, which perhaps we need more than ever today, in an age where comfort and ease seems the goal of life.