Published On: Tue, Mar 12th, 2024

Archbishop slammed over widespread abuse of baptisms by asylum seekers | Politics | News

The Archbishop of Canterbury has “turned a blind eye” to the widespread abuse of baptisms by asylum seekers in Britain, a whistleblowing priest has suggested.

Rev Matthew Firth, a former Church of England priest, accused Justin Welby of an “unwillingness to be totally honest” about the issue.

He also hit out senior Church figures for being “politically motivated” because of their outspokenness over the government’s migration policies.

His remarks came on the day the Daily Express revealed how migrants increasingly fake conversion to Christianity so they can remain in the UK.

Asylum seeker Bilal Jaf told this newspaper how migrants know changing religions remains an effective method for bolstering an asylum claim.

Addressing the Home Affairs select committee Mr Firth told MPs how baptism requests from asylum seekers “melted away” when he demanded they begin attending services first.

The ex-priest revealed how groups of six or seven were brought to him every “two or three weeks” while he was a priest at St Cuthbert’s in Darlington.

He told the committee the groups were made up of mainly Iranian and Syrian young male asylum seekers during his time at the church between 2018 and 2020.

But Mr Firth added the numbers “fell off a cliff” when he introduced a more rigorous baptism process by requesting they become involved in the church first.

Concerns about conversion last month forced Home Secretary James Cleverly to investigate how asylum seekers use religion to bolster claims.

Clapham chemical attacker Abdul Ezedi and Liverpool hospital bomber Emad Al Swealmeen both converted to Christianity.

Ezedi is believed to have been supported in his claim by someone from a Baptist church, rather than the Church of England.

Mr Firth, who left the church in 2020 and is now a vicar for the Free Church of England, said that when he came to St Cuthbert’s in 2018 he found there was a “surprising number” of baptisms going forward with asylum seekers.

“It was a large number of young male asylum seekers, almost in a cohort,” Mr Firth said.

“After those baptisms, week-in, week-out, significant groups of mainly Iranian and Syrian young male asylum seekers were being brought to me in sizeable cohorts.”

He added: “At a time six or seven people were brought to me by people saying these people need baptism.”

Asked who brought the asylum seekers to him, Mr Firth said: “There was a particular individual who I think had received the right to remain in the UK through the asylum application system.

“But I think this particular individual didn’t want baptism but was bringing lots of people who this individual said needed to be baptised.”

He said he “pressed a pause button on the process” of baptism requests after becoming concerned.

“There is a difference between the number of people being brought to me to request baptism, and the actual number of baptisms that happened,” Mr Firth said.

“You try to press a pause button which is to make sure that people are requested to come to church, start getting involved and attending church regularly and events,” he added.

“That was the thing that kind of made the numbers fall off a cliff in a sense, because those people melted away really.

“They were not really wanting to get involved in the life of the church so much after I requested them to do so.”

Lee Anderson pressed the former vicar over whether the Archbishop of Canterbury is responsible for setting the failing policy direction of the Church, blasting him for failing to give evidence to the Committee.

The Reform UK MP asked: “Can I just say minister, you have been incredibly brave coming today. Much braver than the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Do you think the Archbishop, if you are brave enough to say it, has turned a blind eye to this?

Rev Firth said: “I think there’s a lack of awareness about the particular dynamics I’ve been describing, and an unwillingness at the moment to be totally honest about those dynamics.

“That’s partly why I started to engage in the public discussion around this as I wanted to inject some truth into this.”

He added: “I think the Church, the christian community in the UK, wants to be genuinely welcoming and hospitable but I think there’s been some naivety and I think there’s been some laxity, borne of a political position.

“In some sections of the wider church there is some political motivation,” he added.

But the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Right Reverend Guli Francis-Dehqani, told MPs she does not believe there is evidence to suggest Church of England baptisms are being used to help people gain asylum.

She said “the figures don’t quite add up to me”

She added that given the “increasingly hostile environment for asylum seekers it is not surprising” that they may be drawn to the “warm welcome” the Church offers.

Tom Pursglove, Home Office minister, said “We do not have evidence of systemic abuse of the asylum process”

Mr Pursglove also said Christian conversion was “not a determinative factor” in the decision-making process.

Lambeth Palace said it wouldn’t comment on Rev Firth’s comments but pointed to the Archbishop’s remarks about the issue last month.

At the time he said: “Over the last week it has been disappointing to see the mischaracterisation of the role of churches and faith groups in the asylum system.

“Churches up and down the country are involved in caring for vulnerable people from all backgrounds.

“For refugees and those seeking asylum, we simply follow the teaching of the Bible which is to care for the stranger. It is the job of the Government to protect our borders and of the courts to judge asylum cases. “

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