November 18, 2021

Below its report criticising the Church of England for naively baptising and confirming an Iraqi asylum seeker who wasn’t what he seemed, yesterday’s Daily Telegraph offered us another headline, suggesting a level of deception infinitely worse than false conversion: “Bomber took cake decorating course”.

How appalling! How dare you pipe out ganache to pretend you are one of us! What will these dastardly immigrants think of next?

I don’t mean to belittle what happened in Liverpool on Sunday. Emad al-Swealmeen, an Iraqi asylum seeker, died when an improvised bomb went off in the back of a taxi. He was allegedly on his way to the Remembrance service at Liverpool’s vast Cathedral, the place where he was prepared for confirmation, photographed smiling beside the Bishop. Had he succeeded in exploding his home-made bomb as worshippers made their way from the remembrance of deaths past, he would have caused carnage. This was wickedness itself.

But the fall-out from this incident has laid the blame at the very church he was seeking to blow up. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, is reportedly appalled that the Church of England is naively complicit in ‘gaming’ the immigration system, converting hundreds of asylum seekers as a way of helping them avoid deportation to countries where being a Christian could be a death sentence. But that simply isn’t true.

My church in South London welcomes asylum seekers. Until lockdown, we hosted a weekly surgery where asylum seekers, mostly from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, could find support, including legal advice. I have been to court several times to speak on behalf of people in my congregation whose legal status here is uncertain. I have visited members of my congregation held in detention centres. And yes, I am unapologetically ‘on their side’.

But to conclude from this that we are naive is like concluding that a defending barrister is gullible for presenting the best case for their client before the judge. The immigration authorities have their role and I have mine. It is not my job to do their work for them.

This is not naivety. Pretty much every day, I have someone on my doorstep telling me a tale. They have to go somewhere to see a dying mother; can I give them £20 for the train fare? Can I sign this document to say that they are churchgoers? These are the easy ones. Many stories are dark and frightening. Some are threatening. Posh middle-class people tell me stories too. Like many clergy, I have a bullshit detector honed by decades of such daily encounters.

Sometimes the story is true. But even if I think it is not, I still look for a way to help them. After all, something very real has driven them to ring a stranger’s door and ask for help. My job is to juggle suspicion with compassion. To be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” was Jesus’s commission. And if I do find a way to help, it doesn’t mean I believe them. It’s because someone asked me.

So good on Elizabeth and Malcolm Hitchcott, the Christian couple who took al-Swealmeen into their home, and provided him with food and shelter. They were not suckers or liberal do-gooders. Jesus was not a sucker for sharing his table with the man who would betray Him to death. The Hitchcotts are heroes, models of Christian compassion. It is a part of the Christian faith that in the cosmic battle of good against evil, kindness will win the day. Indeed, this is the message at the very heart of the Christian story: faith is about exposure to risk and death. There is no such thing as risk-free Christianity.

“Christians are more renowned for their bake sales and the ferocity of their whist drives than for their eagerness to commit mass murder,” wrote Tom Harris, former Labour MP, this week. But he misunderstands where Christianity fits into Sunday’s attack. If the question raised by this incident is the nature of true believing, then look to the Hitchcotts. They embody it.

Was Al-Swealmeen himself pretending to be a Christian? For the sake of argument, let’s assume he was. But tell me: how can his sincerity or lack of it be tested? He studied the Bible. He went to church. He asked to be baptised and confirmed. What am I supposed to be looking for to confirm whether he means it or not? Eyes too close together? A certain hesitancy of speech? Shall I hook up my confirmation class to a lie detector test? “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls” said Elizabeth I. Quite right too.

But Priti Patel is not interested in such matters. Here is a telling comparison. Earlier this year, struggling for votes before the Knesset elections, the then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised the spectre of “false conversions” to Judaism, hinting that migrant workers from Africa might overrun Israel, using conversion to gain citizenship. This followed a High Court ruling that those who had converted to Judaism through the Reform and Conservative movements should be recognised as Jews and thus entitled to Israeli citizenship. What we heard from Netanyahu is the same spiel now offered by Patel: conversion is a way of avoiding border control. In both cases, it’s not about religion at all. It’s a political line designed to appeal to their political base.

This forms part of a broader double-think concerning religion and immigration that often takes place on the Right. On the one hand, conservatives tend to value Christianity because they regard it as in some way constitutive — at least historically — of who we are as English, and of the West in general. Christianity is a part of our cultural identity. Thus, for instance, the Right might argue they are protecting Christianity by insisting upon more stringent immigration policies. Sometimes, this particular use of Christianity bleeds over into a subtle racist code for ‘not Muslim’. In recent years, cultural Christianity has become a part of Right-wing identity politics. Fake Christianity comes in many forms.

But when this sort of Christianity as culture bumps into the real thing — such as that of Elizabeth and Malcom Hitchcott — they run a mile from it. If the response to Sunday’s attack has exposed one thing, it’s that the Right wants the religion of choral evensong and of the kindly vicar’s village fete — not all that dodgy stuff about loving your enemies or turning the other cheek.