Is the Church of England complicit in the rise of ‘Pray to Stay’? After Liverpool bomber’s conversion, how church gave official advice that being baptised can help failed asylum seekers stay in Britain
- Emad Al Swealmeen blew himself up outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital
- Was a Christian convert and was welcomed into Liverpool Cathedral in 2017
- Row has now erupted over the so-called ‘Pray to Stay’ racket
- MPs from Home Office Select Committee are demanding Parliamentary inquiry
On the day of his confirmation, Enzo Almeni walked through the grand West Doors of Liverpool’s world-famous Anglican Cathedral, beneath the monumental statue of the Risen Christ.
He crossed the marbled floor, past the stone tombs of long-forgotten clergymen and commemorative plaques to the great and good of the City, to take his place in a pew before the high altar.
It was March 27, 2017, and Almeni was welcomed into the Church with open arms, in a ceremony attended by beaming friends and well-wishers — among them the retired, devout Christian couple who would invite him to live with them just days later.
This week the cathedral was part of a key line of inquiry for counter-terrorism police investigating a bomb explosion in a taxi parked outside a hospital a mile away, at 10.59am on Remembrance Sunday.
On the day of his confirmation, Enzo Almeni walked through the grand West Doors of Liverpool’s world-famous Anglican Cathedral, beneath the monumental statue of the Risen Christ
And, as we now know, the bomber was Enzo Almeni, a Christian convert who had changed his name by deed poll from Emad Al Swealmeen, and who had allegedly spent the months preparing explosives which, police confirmed yesterday, could have caused ‘significant injury or death’.
The second terror attack in a month — following the killing of MP Sir David Amess — has seen the UK threat level raised to ‘severe’.
It has also revealed to the wider public a flaw in the asylum process that some argue may have undermined national security for years: how churches and faith groups have, often innocently, aided some asylum seekers who falsely claim to be Christian converts in order to remain in the UK.
In the wake of the attempted Liverpool atrocity — in which Almeni died — a row has erupted over the so-called ‘Pray to Stay’ racket.
MPs from the Home Office Select Committee are demanding a Parliamentary inquiry, and a counter-extremism think-tank is calling for an investigation into the ‘Liverpool Cathedral convert cluster’.
He crossed the marbled floor, past the stone tombs of long-forgotten clergymen and commemorative plaques to the great and good of the City, to take his place in a pew before the high altar
Home Secretary Priti Patel described the asylum system as ‘a complete merry-go-round and it’s been exploited by a whole professional legal services industry which has based itself on rights of appeal, going to the courts day-in day-out on legal aid at the expense of the taxpayers’.
The exact circumstances of 32-year-old Enzo Almeni’s conversion are not yet known (and there is no evidence he used it to aid his asylum application).
But the Mail can today reveal the scale of Christian conversions that may have facilitated successful asylum claims sanctioned by the clergy — and how the Church of England’s ruling body offered advice on the role of Christian conversions if asylum claims fail.
It is tempting to think of Almeni as an outlier who simply slipped through the intelligence net.
But Khairi Saadallah, who murdered three men in a park in Reading last year, was also an asylum seeker who converted to Christianity upon arrival in the UK from Libya.
In 2018, a 38-year-old Iranian asylum seeker who raped a teenage girl was spared deportation even though a judge believed his conversion to Christianity was a deliberate ploy to beat the system.
The judge ruled that the man’s 850 Twitter posts quoting the Bible placed him at risk of persecution if he was sent back to Iran following his release after serving five years in prison.
In recent years, UK immigration courts have heard the cases of hundreds of asylum seekers who claim to have converted to Christianity in order to stay here.
Under the Human Rights Act, if the asylum seeker can prove they are unable to live in their country of origin without fear of persecution, they can be granted leave to remain in the UK for five years.
This week the cathedral was part of a key line of inquiry for counter-terrorism police investigating a bomb explosion in a taxi parked outside a hospital a mile away, at 10.59am on Remembrance Sunday
Those who convert from Islam to Christianity are committing the crime of ‘apostasy’ — ‘deserting Islam’ — in their home countries, which in some nations, including Iran, is punishable by death.
Supporting evidence provided to immigration tribunals by church leaders, who can vouch for the credibility of the asylum seeker’s faith, can be the deciding factor in whether they are permitted to stay or are deported.
According to a report in The Times this week, some people smugglers are now even promoting conversion as a tactic to desperate migrants.
Some Christian churches work closely with immigration solicitors, who, it has been claimed, cross-refer asylum seekers to one another.
Last year, two Glasgow-based Iranian Muslims known only as TF and MA, who had converted to Christianity, won a landmark fight against the Home Office with the support of the Tron Church, a Church of Scotland church in the city which is led by retired solicitor and missionary John Taylor.
This is despite the fact that, in an early hearing, TF was found to have fabricated a letter from an Iranian hospital, and entered the UK on a student visa in 2013 having ‘been on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia . . . Undermining his claim that Islam did not play a role in his life’.
The second man first claimed he was a homosexual (a crime in Iran), then claimed to be Christian, which the judge said was being kept ‘in reserve’ as a ‘Plan B’ to be deployed if the homosexuality claim failed.
The judge called the man’s claim a ‘multi-layered contrivance’, adding: ‘He is not a genuine asylum seeker and should be removed from the UK on that basis.’
Yet four representatives from the Tron Church, including Mr Taylor who has assisted the claims of dozens of Middle Eastern asylum seekers since 2010, backed their bids, and the joint case was ultimately successful when the Home Office backed down in October before an appeal re-hearing.
The case of TF and MA has already been cited in subsequent conversion tribunals and could pave the way for hundreds more claims. The Tron Church declined to comment on the case yesterday.
Some asylum seekers are open about the reasons for conversion. A man known only as Abdul, from the Middle East, recounted his experience to academic William Wheeler in a book published this year. [Conversion] was ’60 per cent for my case’, he admitted after his previous appeals for asylum failed.
‘He succinctly described what being a refused asylum seeker means: your case is closed,’ wrote Mr Wheeler. ‘In order to put in a fresh claim, you need ‘a new story’. Ultimately his claim was unsuccessful.
Of course, many asylum seekers are truly desperate people who have reached the UK after fleeing despotic, war-torn and dangerous regimes, and as charity is a core tenet of Christianity, it is only natural that church leaders would help those in need.
But is it possible that occasionally they go beyond that moral imperative to assist in more dubious claims?
The Church of England hit back said after the Poppy Day attack: ‘It is not the role of clergy to establish the legitimacy of asylum claims and to assess security implications. ‘We are not aware of any evidence to suggest a widespread correlation between conversion to Christianity, or any other faith, and abuse of the asylum system’. Above: Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby
In 2017, the Church of England (C of E) opted to encourage asylum seekers as part of its Presence and Engagement Programme, designed to assist clergy in parishes where more than one in ten of the population follow a non-Christian faith.
That year, the General Synod, the Church’s governing body, advised clergy that where someone has already had an asylum application turned down, a conversion to Christianity would boost the chances of a successful new claim — seemingly issuing instructions to facilitate conversions when an original appeal has failed.
‘Note that if the person has converted to Christianity after a previous refusal, that may be the basis of a fresh claim,’ noted the text entitled ‘Supporting Asylum Seekers — Guidance for Church of England Clergy’.
It makes clear that ‘convincing evidence will be required’ which might include ‘testimony from a church leader; other testimony confirming their faith or conversion; evidence of persecution of Christians/Christian converts in their home country and evidence of laws from their country that punish apostasy’.
To Calvin Robinson, a CofE ordinate in Holy Orders training for the priesthood, the message is clear: ‘This document clearly shows the Church advising that a fresh asylum claim can be made if someone converts to Christianity.
‘It’s a demonstration for the clergy — it’s saying in black and white the way to do it.
‘Here’s the way to get them through.
‘Here is the loophole: Baptise someone and they can make a fresh claim’. It is an abuse of the sacrament of baptism.
In 2017, he met retired Liverpool lay pastor Malcolm Hitchcott (left), and his wife Marion, both 77. They housed him for eight months, took him to Bible classes and welcomed him to their faith, culminating in his confirmation that year
‘We’re at risk of terrorists infiltrating our country and the Church is actually complicit at this moment.
‘The Archbishop needs to be very clear on what is meant by this document. For me as a Christian I find it offensive.’
Mr Robinson said that he had spoken to CofE priests and vicars who had raised it as an issue and felt ‘discriminated against’ as a result.
‘One vicar told me about immigrant ringleaders who would bring a group of Muslim asylum seekers to a church on a Sunday, request a baptism for them regardless of the time they’ve been in the community, and within three weeks they are back asking for letters for their lawyers [to support asylum claims],’ he told the Mail.
‘The lawyers and vicars are working together to rubber-stamp these asylum claims.’
The rise in baptisms coincides with the drive in churches around the country to increase congregation numbers.
Indeed, at the time of Almeni’s baptism in 2015, Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral was having some success in boosting its congregation even as it embraced prospective converts.
The weekly average aggregate attendance had risen from 438 in 2013 to 702.
At the end of that year, Church Commissioners agreed £1 million of funding to roll out the cathedral’s ‘multiplying congregations’ scheme across the diocese.
Dr Rakib Ehsan, a specialist in radicalisation and terrorism at the think tank the Henry Jackson Society, describes some elements of the church as operating ‘almost an anti-deportation network in the UK’.
‘In recent times Anglican devotion has taken a dip,’ he says. ‘Is there a desperation to boost the numbers and reverse that trend?’
It is a provocative stance, but Church groups have been aware for years of the extent of doubtful conversions.
In 2016, the Rev Pete Wilcox, a former Dean of Liverpool, said: ‘I can’t think of a single example of somebody who already had British citizenship converting here with us from Islam to Christianity.
‘Once you are a baptised Christian it is really not conceivable that you would be deported to a Muslim country.’
And Rev Mohammad Eghtedarian — a former curate at Liverpool Cathedral who is himself an Iranian refugee who converted to Christianity, and was later ordained — said the same year that ‘people are desperate for a better life and sometimes they will lie for it — that’s understandable’.
‘There are many people abusing the system,’ he added. ‘I’m not ashamed of saying that. But is it the person’s fault or the system’s fault?’
Rev Sally Smith, a CofE priest at St Mark’s Church in Stoke-on-Trent, said she’d seen around 150 conversions to Christianity in her church, and that she believed ‘a very, very small minority of people’ had done so in order to boost their asylum claims.
‘I’d say probably on about 10-15 occasions I will guide people through the course, but there is no way that I would provide a letter to the Home Office or assist a person to go to court if I didn’t believe they were absolutely genuine Christians,’ she told the BBC Today programme this week.
‘I always say: “I’m not . . . helping you to swap one set of religious dogma for another in the hope that it will help you to gain asylum, because that’s just not what we’re doing.”‘
The total number of asylum seekers converting to Christianity in Britain is unknown, but anecdotally, their numbers are rising.
Almeni was one of around 200 asylum seekers to convert to Christianity at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral over a four-year period, while 200 Iranian asylum seekers were baptised over a five-year period in a parish church in Stockton-on-Tees near Middlesbrough.
Indeed, at the time of Almeni’s baptism in 2015, Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral was having some success in boosting its congregation even as it embraced prospective converts
Meanwhile, in one year alone , a quarter of confirmations conducted by the Bishop of Bradford were of converts from Islam.
Bradford and Liverpool, along with Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent and Stockton, are home to ‘dispersal centres’, where refugees are placed before their asylum claims are processed.
In recent years, clusters of Christian churches in these dispersal centre towns have sprung up, specifically catering to the new demographic.
Liverpool Cathedral hosts a weekly Persian service, attracting up to 140 people, while St Mark’s in Stoke-on-Trent delivers some services in Farsi to suit its new congregation of up to 90 per cent Kurdish and Iranian immigrants.
Certainly, there is no shortage of advice for asylum seekers wanting to improve their chances before an immigration tribunal.
Indeed, a public document issued by the CofE in support of asylum seekers states: ‘If an asylum claim is on religious grounds, [solicitors] will rely on input from clergy.
‘Occasionally a solicitor is not sympathetic to claims of Christian faith; in which case it might be better to find another one.’
Advice used by the Joint Public Issues Team, a partnership between the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the United Reformed Church, was drawn up by a solicitor specialising in asylum law, who is also a member of the Methodist Refugee Working Group.
The jointly issued guidance in 2018 advises on how their clergy members can aid asylum seekers in the congregation and on testifying at an immigration tribunal, provides template legal letters and suggests how to counter arguments by the Home Office.
‘The Home Office may argue that a Christian may safely return to their country of origin if they do not announce their faith,’ states the document. ‘
They may contend that members of the United Reformed Church, for example, do not evangelise.
‘While you should never attempt to invent evidence of evangelistic activity, you may want to affirm that to evangelise is essential to what it means to be Christian.’
A spokesman for the Joint Public Issues Team said: ‘We have seen people of all faiths and none treated inhumanely by the current asylum system . . . [and] will continue to call for an asylum system which gives people the fair hearing they deserve.’
Which brings us back to the Liverpool bomber Enzo Almeni’s case. An asylum seeker of Iraqi and Jordanian origin, his first claim failed in 2014.
The following year, he undertook the five-week Alpha ‘crash course’ on Christianity and was baptised at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral.
In 2017, he met retired Liverpool lay pastor Malcolm Hitchcott, and his wife Marion, both 77.
They housed him for eight months, took him to Bible classes and welcomed him to their faith, culminating in his confirmation that year.
Over the years he lodged numerous appeals for asylum. At the time of the bombing at Liverpool Women’s Hospital there was an appeal still outstanding, seven years after his arrival.
Separately, a Home Office source has said that Almeni’s attempts at using his Christianity in the asylum process was typical of the way arrivals had attempted to ‘game the system’.
The Church of England hit back, stating that: ‘It is not the role of clergy to establish the legitimacy of asylum claims and to assess security implications.
‘We are not aware of any evidence to suggest a widespread correlation between conversion to Christianity, or any other faith, and abuse of the asylum system.’
It declined to comment on the record about issuing guidance on conversions to aid with second asylum claims, but emphasised there is no evidence this was done to boost congregation numbers.
Liverpool Cathedral says that ‘welcoming [asylum seekers] into a worshipping community is one way we engage’.
It adds that it has developed ‘robust processes’ for discerning someone’s commitment to faith before their application, including a connection to the community for at least two years.
Quite how robust those processes are is now under the spotlight.
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