Article
Comment
Freedom of Belief
Middle East
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.  

Article
Belief
Comment
Life & Death
Politics
4 min read

Did God save Donald Trump?

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Graham Tomlin asks whether or not we can see the hand God at work.

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

Red hat with the words Make America Great Again

Given the polarised nature of American politics and the venomous nature of the debates, the assassination attempt on Donald Trump was not entirely a surprise, even if a massive shock to the system. It was both tragic for those who were killed and yet a relief for everyone that Trump survived, not least for the unimaginable consequences across the country if he had not.

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into the maelstrom that is Twitter/X these days, to discover a common theme among Trump supporters - that God shielded him from a certain death. “God protected President Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio posted. “God saved the life of Donald Trump” say a million others, confident that the seemingly miraculous slight head tilt at the moment of the shot that ensured the bullet hit his ear, not going through the back of his temple, was a moment of divine intervention.

Yet look elsewhere on X and you can find vast numbers of people equally certain that this is complete nonsense. God did not save Donald Trump, either because there is no God to save anyone, or because if there is a God, either he doesn’t intervene at all, or even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t want to save the likes of Donald Trump.

If God saved Trump, they say, why did he not save the life of Corey Comperatore, the volunteer fireman who was killed by bullets fired from the gun that was used in the attack?  Trump supporters respond with the claim that Trump has a special calling, justifying divine intervention, to ‘restore the Judaeo-Christian heritage to America’ as one tweet put it.

So, which is it?

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history.

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history. After all, the central Christian claim is that he did this in remarkable acts of deliverance such as the Exodus, at key moments in the history of Israel and most importantly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, they claim, he does it in less prominent ways, as testimonies to prayers answered and apparently miraculous occurrences suggest.

Yet divine interventions like this are by definition rare. In one of Douglas Coupland’s novels, one of the characters ponders a Christian group that expects constant miracles: “They’re always asking for miracles and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe in God - I think that he created an order for the world; I believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.” He has a point.

Yet a world without any interventions at all would be a world which God had seemed to abandon to its fate. The idea that God set up his world to run like clockwork with no further intervention is Deism, not Christianity, a theology popular in the C17th and C18th, still found today, but leaves God watching us from a safe and uninvolved distance. It would lead to the conclusion that God did not really care that much about the world, leaving it to its own devices, especially when evil runs riot and nothing seems to prevent it. Such interventions are best seen as signs, special indications that do not ‘unravel the fabric of the world’, yet are tangible reminders that even though it is broken, God has not given up on this world, and will one day redeem it.

Yet if God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

If God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

At several points in the Old Testament, writers wonder how you can tell the true prophet from the false. One of them answers like this: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

To be honest, this doesn’t appear to help much. You can tell if a person has got it right if their prediction comes true, but at the time, you have no idea whether it will come true or not, so it still leaves you in the dark as to who to believe.

Yet it does suggest an important insight. You can only tell God’s intervention retrospectively. You can only say with a degree of confidence that God has ‘intervened’ when looking back on events and seeing how they turn out.

If Donald Trump is elected, and somehow brings about harmony and flourishing for as many people in the USA as possible, stabilises the economy, enabling all people to live a decent life, not just the rich and powerful, restores a sense of civility and generosity to public life, resists the forces of harm and evil in the nation and in the world, and brings freedom for Christians and others to practice and promote their faith, then maybe we might look back in future years and say that God did step in on July 14th 2024 to frustrate the purposes of evil in the world.

Yet if none of that happens, and what results from his survival is instead a deeper fracturing of social cohesion, a coarsening of public debate, a siege mentality that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the elites and ordinary people, then we might in future say it was mere chance, one of those random things that happen in this created yet fallen world with its mysterious blend of order and chaos.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Until then, we’d better be cautious about claims of divine intervention. Not because God never does it, but because we’re not very good at telling when it happens.