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7 February 2024

The Church is being villainised over the Clapham chemical attack

Religious figures have been drawn into debates over false asylum claims – but it is the process that is flawed.

By Hannah Barnes

Where I live, in south-west London, the state schools that achieve the best results are all Church of England. Many of our friends have no religion, or are what I tend to call “C of E by default”. They might have been christened and got married in church, but they have no overarching faith. Yet a number of them began attending church a year before their children’s school admissions in an attempt to secure a place. As a Jew and a Catholic, this wasn’t something my husband and I ever considered. Not that we particularly cared that others were doing what they saw as best for their children – even if it was gaming the system.

Just as the Church of England is used by parents trying to secure the best school places, so it appears that some asylum seekers are using the Church to remain in the UK. This, however, is where the comparison ends. When (largely) middle-class parents pretend to be more devout than they are, no one gets hurt. When people who are a danger to others are granted the right to stay in the UK because of false declarations of faith, as the events of recent days in Clapham have shown us, the lives of others can be destroyed.

In the hours after a 31-year-old woman and her two young children were violently attacked using a highly corrosive alkaline substance, it emerged that the chief suspect, Abdul Shakoor Ezedi, was a convicted sex offender. After arriving in the UK from Afghanistan in the back of a lorry in 2016, he claimed asylum but was refused twice. In 2018 he was convicted of sexual assault and exposure. Despite this, a third request for asylum was granted a few years later, allegedly after he claimed to have converted to Christianity and his application was supported by a priest.

Reports suggest Ezedi’s claim to be a practising Christian was false. Acquaintances have described him as “a good Muslim” who bought halal meat and avoided alcohol. In the days following the attack, many have criticised the Church of England for its alleged role in supporting Ezedi’s residency in the UK. The Archbishop of Canterbury has been branded “woke Welby”; the Church labelled as stupid and “craven”; it has even been accused of being so desperate to boost its dwindling congregations that it will happily support “sham” conversions of convicted criminals.

What do we know about the Church’s involvement in this particular case? Not much. The priest who is said to have vouched for Azedi has not been identified. The local Catholic Church in the neighbourhood where Ezedi lived – the Hexham and Newcastle diocese – has confirmed that he was a client of a charitable project it runs, but said it did “not know which Christian church received him nor which Christian minister gave him a reference”.

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That Church of England ministers personally support those seeking asylum following a conversion to Christianity is not in doubt. What is also clear is that some asylum seekers make false claims of having converted to Christianity in order to have their immigration status approved. This isn’t new.

David Rees, a Church elder in Dorset who is working with those on board the Bibby Stockholm, told BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme that as many as 40 of what’s thought to be 300 asylum seekers currently living on the barge had converted to Christianity, or were in the process of doing so. Are they all sudden converts?

Church leaders are people of God. They want to help. While they can look out for signs that they are being duped – and are advised to – what are they expected to do? In any individual circumstance, the desire to convert to Christianity may be genuine. Even if clergy did have suspicions, it may well be that these people simply want a better life – so where is the harm? But, as we have seen, the desire to be compassionate to some can result in harm to others.

How, then, do we strike the right balance of potential risks and benefits?

Elsewhere, lawmakers allow women to have separate single-sex spaces because it is acknowledged that a small minority of men can be predatory and dangerous. Most men are not. But for the sake of the greater good, and to avoid harm, we take a blanket approach. We strive to be a civilised society that protects the vulnerable.

While innocent people would almost certainly be penalised, perhaps it is time to close the loophole, and say that religious conversion cannot be counted in an applicant’s favour while an asylum claim is ongoing. Benjamin Franklin said that “it is better a hundred guilty persons should escape than one innocent person should suffer”. In this situation, though, it is not entirely clear who the innocents are.

But this much we know: one person alone was responsible for the horrific attacks against a woman and two children in Clapham. No one else. Not the Church of England, and not the Home Office.

[See also: Censorship does not work]

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This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?