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Freedom of Belief
7 min read

What the Gaza conflict and the asylum seeker row have in common

Iran’s persecution drives its Christians here. This is their story.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Rows of soldiers march away from the camera, two in the back row turn their heads back.
Officers at Iran’s Sacred Defence Week parade, 2023.
Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Israel-Gaza war and the recent row between the church and the UK government over asylum seekers don’t seem on the surface to have much to do with each other. But they do have a common denominator: Iran.  

Iran may not have directly sponsored Hamas’ infamous attacks on Israel on October 7th but without Iranian support for Hamas, it is unthinkable that they would have happened. Iran remains on the list of those countries who sponsor terrorist organisations across the Middle East, such as the Houthis in Yemen, and are widely regarded as a force for instability and undermining democracy across the region.  

It is also one of the most repressive nations on earth. It counts in the top ten of countries where freedom of religion or belief are restricted. According to the Open Doors’ World Watch List, list, Iran is the ninth most dangerous country to be a Christian in 2024, just behind Sudan and ahead of Afghanistan. With 1.2 million Christians in the country, they make up just 1.4 per cent of Iran’s population, and yet, they are considered to be a risk to national security and a means by which the West is seeking to undermine the Iranian government. This inevitably makes life incredibly hard for the Christians who call Iran home; to be a recognised Christian means to live your life as a second-class citizen, under constant surveillance, and enduring endless discrimination. 

Given that Iran is hardly a friend of the UK, the USA and its allies, you might have thought western governments would do all they could to support people seeking to escape the country, or a movement that draws people away from the influence of the mullahs. Which makes the attack on asylum seekers seeking baptism in UK churches all the more perplexing. 

Over the past week, Seen & Unseen has spoken to several Iranian Christians in the UK. These are definitely not bogus Christians. Some came to Christianity in Iran after a Muslim upbringing. Others were born into the small Christian community in Iran. Some are training to be ordained in the Church of England, and many of them have been imprisoned for their faith in Iran before coming to the UK. 

“The persecution that Christians are facing in Iran is absolutely real. Does that mean that some of them are leaving the country? Yes. I had to. I’m here. I had to leave my home.” 

One man, Mehdi (his name has been changed to protect his identity) became a Christian in Iran at the age of 18. His older brother converted to the new faith first and Mehdi, having seen his big brother struggling with violence, anger, depression and drugs, was curious about the complete and immediate change in his brother’s life. That curiosity led him to believe in Jesus. It became immediately obvious to these two brothers that their new faith was going to make their life complicated; and at the age of 20 and 26, they found themselves being arrested for the first time.  

He explains what drew him, and many others to Christianity. “It’s the same for many Iranians. There were people around us who are who were, and still are, dealing with lots of difficulties because of the economic situation, because of the oppression and corruption of the government. It feels like there’s no hope, no solution. The only solution can be found in the hidden places. It’s Jesus. He is the hope of a new life.” 

He tells us how Iran sees Christians: “They believe that Christianity is a weapon of Western countries, with a long-term plan to convert Islamic countries like Iran so that they can alter the culture and take the power.” 

After years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement in degrading conditions and yet more threats from the authorities, he was forced to leave Iran. He is now living in the UK with his wife, and at the midway point in his training to be a priest.  

We wanted to know what he thought of the comments concerning the church and ‘bogus asylum claims’: 

“The violation of human rights, the right to both free speech and freedom of belief, in Iran is real, it’s true, it’s happening. The persecution that Christians are facing in Iran is absolutely real. Does that mean that some of them are leaving the country? Yes. I had to. I’m here. I had to leave my home. And there aren’t enough legal routes, there aren’t enough ways to seek asylum in countries like the UK.  

So, it’s true that Christians are leaving Iran. I’m one of them. And I was incredibly lucky, I got here safely and securely.”  

Another convert, Hassan (also a false name to protect identity) while at home in Iran, went though the usual teenage angst, wondering about his place in the world, and whether God really exists. He delved into Islamic theology but says it left him ‘feeling empty’.  

After a few months of praying that God would somehow reveal himself, Hassan had a dream of a figure on a cross. This was the beginning of a journey that led him to faith in Jesus Christ. Hassan talks about his experience with the immigration system: “It’s hard for the Home Office, but the church has an important role to play – to support the people who have been persecuted, who have never before had a place to learn about or worship God. Those who have never had the freedom to express their faith, or live in their faith.”  

They are habitually religious people, so are not naturally drawn to atheism or agnosticism. On arriving in the UK, which they assume to be a Christian country, they naturally want to explore the faith of the country that they have arrived in. 

An Iranian refugee Darbina, unlike the others, was born as a Christian into a Christian family. Yet she speaks of how Christians are persecuted in Iran. She says they are treated like second class citizens, unable to sell food because they are regarded as unclean, unable to enter many professions because they are Christian. She describes the open surveillance of Christians. Her father, a pastor, was imprisoned for ‘acting against national security’ by organising small groups and illegal gatherings. Eventually Daria herself was imprisoned for a year. She experienced degrading treatment as a woman in a predominantly male prison, and frequently had to listen to the torture of others.  

There is another common story. Many Iranians leave Iran not yet as Christians, but seeking a better life from an economically depressed nation and disillusioned with the form of Shia Islam found in the country. They are habitually religious people, so are not naturally drawn to atheism or agnosticism. On arriving in the UK, which they assume to be a Christian country, they naturally want to explore the faith of the country that they have arrived in, even when they find the UK church more lukewarm than they expected. Of course, there are a number of Iranian Christians already in the UK such as Mehdi, Nasir and Daria, ready to help them discover a faith which has become vital to them. This would seem a much more common explanation of Iranian Christians wanting baptism, then simply a cynical attempt to manipulate the asylum system.  

Of course, there are Iranian and migrants from other countries claiming false conversion as a means of advancing their case for asylum. No-one doubts that. Yet the problem has been exaggerated. A recent Times report found that since January 2023 only 28 cases were heard at the Upper Tribunal Court in which a claimant cited conversion to Christianity as a reason to be granted asylum – in other words, just one per cent of cases heard. And of those 28, seven appeals were approved, 13 were dismissed and new hearings were ordered in eight cases. Hardly an ‘industrial scale’ operation. Yet there is a great deal of evidence of numerous people like those we spoke to, who have genuinely converted to Christianity, either in Iran itself, or in the west.   

More significant than the comparatively small number of fake claims, is evidence of a genuine religious revival amongst Iranian Muslims, drawn to Christianity as a more attractive option than the oppressive form of Islam they find in their homeland. Attacks on Iranian and other migrants, with the implication that all Iranians seeking conversion are bogus, or at least feeding suspicion of such claims to conversion is undermining exactly the kind of movement that you would have thought that the British government would be wanting to encourage. 

If there is something of a spiritual revival taking place amongst Iranian Muslims then this should be something to be celebrated rather than penalised or tarred with the brush of deception. We owe it to these people who have risked their lives to find a better way of living and believing.  

Column
Belief
5 min read

Defining cultural Christianity 

There’s already a backlash against Dawkins and the New Theists.

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A speaker turns from the podium against a backdrop reading 'Centre for Sckeptical Inquiry
Richard Dawkins speaking at a sceptics event, 2022.
CSI

“Richard Dawkins says he’s a cultural Christian,” I said over breakfast.  

“What’s that?” she asked.  

I had a stab at it. “Someone who doesn’t buy the Christian faith, but likes hymns and churches and to live in a nominally Christian country, because it’s decent. Apparently.”  

“So what’s new?” she said.  

She has a point. I’ve just completed a decade as a rural parish priest and plenty of people came to church because it’s a respectable, middle-class thing to do. It’s as comforting as it is comfortable.   

But cultural Christianity is a thing of the moment not just because of the pop-atheist Dawkins. To be honest, he’s struggled to retain his increasingly embarrassed atheist flock over the past decade, so in the public sense he’s not much of a trophy. But there are those of higher and more surprising profiles, who have come out for Christianity as the very essence of our culture and the bulwark against something much worse (for which read Islam).  

The backlash against New Theism has been swift. And, strangely, most of it hasn’t come from humanists and atheists.

A key text for cultural Christians is Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. It posits, inter alia, that Christianity is the foundation of our civilisation, even the bits that try to destroy the faith. Holland has more recently experienced a miraculous cure from cancer through intercession (which sounds suspiciously like deal-making prayer, but never mind).  

Then there’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose journey from Islam to atheism to Christianity traces her developing conviction that secular humanism is a reed in the wind against the threat to the West from militant Islam. Holland and Ali, among many others, including women’s rights activist Louise Perry in her apologia for traditional Christian morality, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, fuel the enthusiasm of Justin Brierley for a new renaissance in his joyful book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God.  

Collectively, these are called the New Theists, who ride against the four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse (more accurately, perhaps, the four hacks of the new millennium), Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.  

The backlash against New Theism has been swift. And, strangely, most of it hasn’t come from humanists and atheists, but from what one might call established Christians. I have heard the likes of Ali and Holland called cosplay Christians and their faith derided as Christianity-lite.  

Dawkins still says the Christian faith is nonsense, but who’s to say the spirit isn’t moving in him?  

Robert Thompson, a north London priest, has posted that “we will be in the midst of Christian revival… when we actually reorder our lives around the abused Christ and raise the abused Christ’s body”. He argues against Brierley’s championing of London’s oldest church, St Bartholomew the Great, because it’s “the gayest church in town” (no, I didn’t follow this line of argument either) and critiques Brierley’s account of Holland’s witness (if not conversion) by comparing it with “the worst Easter Day sermon I’ve ever heard”.  

I accept that this is a savage paraphrase in its brevity. But it’s all there and it comes not from any of the (now old) New Atheists, but from someone ordained to the priesthood. Meanwhile, Chine Macdonald, director of the Christian think tank Theos, writes in relation to his claims of cultural Christianity that “Dawkins isn’t actually a fully paid-up follower of Jesus” and that she’ll save her excitement over New Theists until they start “talking about the ways in which their lives have been turned upside down by the radical love of Jesus Christ.”  

Frankly, all this sounds a bit snobbish and patronising, as if there’s a minimum bar for Christian entry, as if it’s cosplay Christians indulging in Christianity-lite. Sure, Dawkins still says the Christian faith is nonsense, but who’s to say the spirit isn’t moving in him? Frankly, I have people at my communion rail who say the same thing. And, to be brutally honest, I can count on one hand those of my very many Christian friends who claim that their world has been turned upside down by the radical love of Jesus Christ.   

To be clear, Thompson and Macdonald have important things to say. Thompson writes movingly about his pastoral experience of cystic fibrosis patients in hospital, to take theological issue with Brierley for writing about “an unbiblical God who simply does not exist” as he waited with his patients “until they died… generally well before their 40th birthday.” No Holland miracle cures, please.  

Macdonald writes usefully about the difference between the word “Christian” as an adjective and a noun, the New Theists being Christian adjectives in action. She also speaks of Dawkins’ talk of Christianity as a “decent” religion (as opposed to Islam) and his feeling “at home” in a Christian country as code for “whiteness”. To my shame, I hadn’t thought about that.  

This would all be an ecclesiastical spat, like arguing about angels on a pinhead, if it weren’t for a darker danger beneath it. I think of former nun Karen Armstrong’s work on the dangers of religious fundamentalism when outsiders are excluded. In that context, I worry even more about those who claim that the New Theists are the work of “the enemy”, or Satan, because they “hollow out” our faith more insidiously than atheists.  

In contrast to that, Bishop Graham Tomlin gave a sermon at Lambeth Palace the other day in which he referenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s claim to a faith that proclaims Christ at its centre, rather than worrying too much about the boundaries of the Christian community, which are always a bit fuzzy. I like that, because with fuzzy boundaries it becomes harder to exclude New Theists.   

It’s tough being a Christian, whether new or old. When a rich young man comes to the Nazarene and asks how he can acquire the kingdom of heaven, he’s told to sell all he has, give the money to the poor and follow him.  

None of us can reach that bar. But the implication I hold on to is that he’ll walk alongside us anyway. And that applies to everyone in this column, without exception. Now that’s what I call radical love.