Heard at Field House
AS (Christian Apostates - Evidence) Iran  UKIAT 00182
On 16 July 2003
IMMIGRATION APPEAL TRIBUNAL
Date Determination notified:
Mr Richard Chalkley (Chairman)
Mr A F Sherward
SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT
Mr G Parsons of Counsel instructed by Taylor Bracewell, Solicitors appeared on behalf of the Appellant and Ms J Webb, a Senior Home Office Presenting Officer, appeared on behalf of the respondent.
DETERMINATION AND REASONS
1 The Appellant, a citizen of Iran, appeals with leave of the Tribunal against the determination of an Adjudicator, Mr I F MacDonald, promulgated on 11 December 2002, following a hearing at Leeds on 6 November 2002, in which he dismissed the Appellant's appeal against the decision of the Respondent, taken on 19 June 2002, to direct his removal after refusing asylum.
2 The Appellant had claimed to convert from Islam to Christianity while he was in Iran and also claims that he was baptised in Iran on 10 September 2001. Following his conversion to Christianity, whilst at a graduation party, he spoke out against Islam and suggested that the Prophet Mohammed was a paedophile. He went on to make other insulting comments about Islam. Unbeknown to the Appellant, there was an officer of the Basij at the party who, on hearing the Appellant make offensive remarks about Islam, arrested him. The appellant was taken away by members of the Basij and locked in a container with the intention that he would be sent to Ettelat the following day for further investigation and trial. During the night the Appellant's friend arrived at the container and assisted the Appellant to escape. The Appellant first went to a town called Karay where went into hiding for fifteen days before leaving Iran for Turkey on 1 October 2001. He arrived in the United Kingdom on 21 October 2001 and claimed asylum on 23 October.
3. Since his arrival in the United Kingdom, the Appellant has been regularly attending at Tinsley Methodist Church in Sheffield and on 16 February 2002, he was baptised at that Church by the Reverend Eileen A Sanderson.
4. The Adjudicator heard oral evidence from both the Appellant and from the Reverend Eileen Sanderson. The Adjudicator did not believe the Appellant's account of his conversion to Christianity in Iran, his arrest and subsequent escape and found it to be a fabrication.
5. In paragraph 21 of the determination, Mr MacDonald said:-
"In response to questions put by me, Reverend Sanderson affirmed her belief that the [Appellant's] conversion was genuine. She was asked why a second baptism was needed if the Appellant had already been baptised in Iran. She said she understood that the ceremony in Iran was a blessing, involving the Holy Spirit and baptism was to be by water and the Holy Spirit. I asked her if the Tinsley Methodist Church would be regarded as an evangelising church. She said that there were some discussions with her colleagues as to whether the church would seek out Muslim asylum seekers with a view to converting them to Christianity. The idea was rejected. She personally was not in favour of any kind of evangelism and that evangelism does not form part of a Methodist ministry."
6 In paragraphs 23 and 24, Mr MacDonald said:-
"23. After listening to the evidence of Reverend Sanderson, who I perceived to be a sincere and honest person, I find that the Appellant has, since his arrival in the United Kingdom, become a genuine convert to Christianity. I acknowledge that I maintain some reservations about the genuineness of his conversion, which perhaps only time will resolve. For the present, Reverend Sanderson has a far better knowledge of these matters than I have and that is why I accept her evidence that the Appellant is a genuine convert to Christianity.
24. I find that the Methodist Church in England is not an evangelising church and that in particular, the Tinsley Methodist Church does not evangelise."
7. The grounds of application to appeal challenged the determination on the basis that Mr MacDonald had erred in finding that the Appellant is not a member of a church that is involved in evangelism and also in finding that the Appellant is not involved in evangelism.
8. Following promulgation of the determination, a copy was sent to the Reverend Sanderson who, in a letter dated 15 December 2002, expressed her surprise and disappointment in it. She said:-
"I am also very disturbed at what the Adjudicator says about the position of the Methodist Church with regard to evangelisation. It would appear to me that she, at best misunderstood and, at worst, misinterpreted what I told her, with regard to my attitude to evangelism and the unfounded extrapolation of the comments I made to be the position of the whole of the Methodist Church.
It is right to say that I chose not to be actively seeking to convert Muslims to Christianity. I respect people of other faiths, preferring to offer the opportunity of discovering faith to those who have no faith. The Methodist Church, in general, may well take the same position (depending on to whom you speak). But that is a far cry from saying that the Methodist Church is not an evangelical or evangelising, church. I know of very few Christian denominations who would deny their evangelical role and responsibilities. It is a matter of how and where it is exercised.
I resent the uninformed and clearly misguided inference from my comments that the Methodist Church 'does not believe in evangelism'. That would be to deny our calling as Christians. The Christian Church is committed to sharing the Good News of God's love for all, irrespective of their background. I merely meant to assure the Adjudicator that, in my particular circumstances, in Tinsley, it was my view that to seek to evangelise among the Muslim community was not what I believed to be the right thing to do – hence my surprise and initial reservation when the three, then one more, Iranian Muslims came to seek Christian baptism. I had not sought their conversion, they sought me. The consultation was to be sure of making the right explorations, not to get permission to do what I did.
That element of the rejection of the appeal is founded on an altogether false premise. The Methodist Church is a mainstream Christian denomination with as much commitment to evangelism as any other denomination. Any Christian cannot help but share their experience with others. If there is a danger in to returning to Iran because of a conversion to Christianity, then the faith of the '[the Appellant], as a new Christian, leaves him open to the challenge of being an evangelical Christian.
It may or may not, be worth mentioning that, at the moment, he is not – and neither are any of the other Iranian Christians – members of the Methodist Church. They have been baptised as Christians – part of the whole Christian church – but not yet gone through the membership and confirmation process which would align them with any particular denomination. That takes more learning and understanding, a process of discovery which is ongoing at this moment. It is also something which, as new Christians, makes little sense in the light of the earlier experience and familiarity with English and when all the denominational differences pale into insignificance when moving into Christianity from another world faith.
It seems to me as if there is a profound lack of understanding of the whole area of faith issues and the facts in Iran among the staff of the Secretary of State, and it would be helpful if they could become much better informed before making sweeping statements which may have a potentially devastating and destructive affect on the life of individuals whose circumstances must seem like numbers on a paper, but represent real people with real struggles who have appealed to a country which considers itself just and free."
9. In paragraph 25 of the Adjudicator's determination, the Adjudicator found that, just because the Appellant attended church with some Iranian friends, this was not evidence that he was proselytising other Muslims. He was simply attending church with his friends. He found that there was no evidence to suggest that he had any desire to proselytise.
10. Mr Parsons emphasised that the Appellant was undertaking preparatory work before joining the church. He is not a member of the church, although he was baptised in February last year. He drew our attention to what the Reverend Sanderson had said about the Methodist Church being evangelical. She has confirmed that the Appellant is a Christian who has not yet been confirmed into the Methodist Church. He does, however, regularly attend church.
11. Mr Parsons submitted that there was a risk to the appellant on return to Iran, because if he wishes to evangelise, he must be able to do so. If he were to return to Iran he would not be able to talk to others about his conversion. He has done this in the United Kingdom. He has spoken to Iranian friends in the United Kingdom and taken them along with him to his church. Ms Webb submitted that the Tribunal's decision in Morteza Abbasian  UKIAT 08277 was relevant. That case in turn referred to Nasiri  UKIAT 06180, in which the Tribunal were referred to a report by the Swedish Asylum Board, following a fact finding mission to Iran in 1996. The Board said:-
"Conversion from Islam to Christianity is, according to Iranian authorities, not possible; a conversion abroad is considered by the authorities as a technical act for the purpose of obtaining asylum, which therefore does not mean that the person in question risks any serious harassment upon return. The concept of 'Taqieh', which is widely accepted in Iran, makes legitimate to lie in order to achieve certain purposes. This means that there is a high level of acceptance in Iran of the lie as a means of obtaining a purpose, such as seeking asylum in the west. Iranian nationals who have converted to Islam to another religion and who keep the conversion a personal matter, do not attract the attention of the authorities…
An Iranian national who converts from Islam to another religion normally does not risk the kind of persecution prescribed in the Sharia'a law, whether the conversion takes place in the home country or abroad. There is also no significant chance that he or she would be a target of any actions from the authorities or of any serious harassment. This assessment is based on the assumption that the conversion has come to the knowledge of the Iranian authorities."
12. Ms Webb submitted it is not likely that the Appellant's conversion to Christianity would come to the attention of the authorities, but that if it did, it would be seen as a self-seeking act. She suggested that even if the Methodist Church did have an evangelical approach, in the sense that the Christian church generally does, they cannot be said to be an evangelical church of the type envisaged in, or described by, the objective material. It has never been suggested that the Appellant would evangelise in the way in which the objective material suggests would put him at any risk. The Methodist Church does not require its members to evangelise. She invited us to dismiss the appeal. Mr Parsons confirmed that it was not suggested that it was necessary for the Appellant, as a member of the Methodist Church, to go out on to the street corners and preach the Good news of God's love but, he submitted, he had evangelised in the United Kingdom and would do so on return.
13. We are grateful to Mr Parsons for the assistance he gave to us. Despite the eloquence of his submissions, we have concluded that we must dismiss this appeal.
14. It appears to the Tribunal that, with great respect to her, the Reverend Sanderson did not fully understand the context in which the Adjudicator was suggesting that the Methodist Church does not evangelise. That is certainly no fault of the Reverend Sanders; there is no reason why she should have familiarised herself with the objective background Country Information on Iran.
15. Within the appellant's bundle of documents was enclosed a copy of the US State Department Report dated 4 March 2002. We have carefully considered it, particularly Section C dealing with freedom of religion. The government of Iran restricts freedom of religion and the constitution declares that the:-
"official religion of Iran is Islam and the sect followed is that of Ja'fari (Twelver) Shi'ism" and that this principle is ''eternally immutable'. It also states that other Islamic denominations are to be afforded full respect and it recognises Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews as the only 'protected religious minorities.' Religions which are not specifically protected under the constitution do not enjoy freedom of religion. Religious activities are closely monitored by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. 'Evangelicals have resisted this demand'. 'Members of religious minorities are allowed to vote, but they may not run for president. All religious minorities suffer varying degrees of officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in the areas of employment, education and housing."
16. The report went on to confirm that the government does generally recognise religious minorities rights to conduct religion education of their adherence, although it does restrict this right considerably in some areas. It confirmed that there were separate and privately funded Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian schools which are supervised by the Ministry of Education, which imposes certain curriculum requirements, as there are, of course, in the United Kingdom. "Evangelical Christian and Jewish communities have suffered harassment and arrest by authorities for the content of school instruction and religious services". The report spoke of recognised religious minorities being allowed by the government to establish community centres and certain cultural, social, sports or charitable organisations and that they finance themselves. The report went on to say:-
"The government is highly suspicious of any proselytising of Muslims by non-Muslims and can be harsh in its response, particularly against Baha'is and evangelical Christians. The government regards the Baha'i community, whose faith originally derives from a strand of Islam, as a heretical sect and has fuelled anti-Baha'i and anti-Semitic sentiment in the country for political purposes."
17. Apostasy, specifically conversion from Islam, may be punishable by death. In November 1999, the President publicly stated that no-one in the country should be persecuted because of his or her religious beliefs and added that he would defend the civil rights of all citizens, regardless of their beliefs of religion. Subsequently a bill of citizenship was approved affirming the social and political rights of all citizens and their equality before the law. The Christian community is estimated to be some 300,000, the majority of which are either ethnic Armenians or Assyro-Chaldeans. Protestant denominations and evangelical churches are also active, although non-ethnically based groups, report restrictions on their activities. The authorities have become particularly vigilant in recent years in curbing, what is perceived as, increasing proselytising activities by evangelical Christians, whose services are conducted in Persian. It has continued in recent years. Christians reported instances of government harassment of church goers in Tehran, particularly of worshippers at the Assembly of God congregation in the capital.
18. Unfortunately the Amnesty International Report added nothing to the question of freedom of Religion; neither did human Rights Watch Report. However, we were assisted by the Iranian Country Assessment of April 2003. The situation of Christians in Iran is dealt with at paragraphs 5.53 to 5.61 of that report. That spoke of proselytising apostate converts, who had begun preaching Christianity, as being likely to face execution. One western embassy said that there had been no reports of persons being executed on the grounds of conversion from Islam since 1994. The source thought that converts who were known to the Iranian authorities are summoned to an interview at the Ministry of Information in order to be reprimanded. They are then allowed to go after being warned not to talk about what has taken place at the Ministry. If a criminal case is brought against them, they will be accused of something other than conversion. Many individuals try to convert with a view to emigrating, considering the opportunities for obtaining asylum in the west are thereby greater. The Christian churches send letters of recommendation to converts and other persons belonging to the church, on request. It would appear, however, that the present government is not pursuing an active and systematic policy of investigating and prosecuting of cases of apostasy. The report went on to say that in practice, Muslim converts to Christianity might face obstacles, such as not being admitted to university, or not being issues a passport. Even Muslim converts, however, in reality, appear able to practise their new faith up to a point. This means, for instance, that weekly church attendance is a possibility. On the other hand, those who actively display their new faith in public, particularly by proselytising, can expect to face severe repression, even if their conversion goes back decades.
19. It is in this context that the Adjudicator's comments about the Methodist Church not being an evangelising church must be considered.
20. It is claimed on behalf of the Appellant that he has evangelised I the United Kingdom, in that he has introduced several Iranians to his church at Tinsley. However, there is no evidence before us that he has been evangelising in the sense that he has been suggesting to anyone he meets that they should attend his church. As a Methodist, assuming the Appellant continues along the route to confirmation, he will not be required to evangelise either in the United Kingdom or, on his return to Iran.
21. The Swedish Board Report makes it clear that it cannot be said that every genuine Christian convert would be at risk on return, even if the conversion were to become known to the authorities. The Appellant would not, as a Methodist, be required on his return to Iran to attempt to proselytise, or otherwise act in a manner that would expose him to a risk of persecution or to a breach of his Article 3 rights. The objective evidence before us shows that, even if the authorities were to become aware of his conversion, the Appellant would be able to continue to practise his faith.
22. For all these reasons we have concluded that we must dismiss this appeal.