The question needs to be raised. Muslim organisations have generally been silent. Scholars and Imams also seem to be mute on the issue. And Muslim civil society, bar a few examples, has generally been inert in its response. It seems the continuous abstraction of Muslims into the counter-terrorism discourse is taking its toll and numbing the minds to the elephant in the room.
The question relates to Muslim refugees entering Europe and subsequently converting to Christianity.
The Christian Focus on Muslims
In May, Cardinal Kurt Koch, the head of the Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, issued a statement during an interfaith meeting of senior Catholic and Jewish leaders – and in the absence of Muslims – held by Cambridge University’s Woolf Institute:
“We have a mission to convert Muslims to Christianity… We have a mission to convert all non-Christian religions’ people [except] Judaism.”
Cardinal Koch justified his exceptionalism towards Judaism in the following terms:
“It is very clear that we can speak about three Abrahamic religions but we cannot deny that the view of Abraham in Jewish and the Christian tradition and the Islamic tradition is not the same… In this sense we have only with Jewish people this unique relationship that we do not have with Islam.”
This statement was based on a declaration made by the Vatican in December 2015, also undersigned by Cardinal Koch. It states that Jews can attain salvation without accepting Jesus and that there is no longer any official missionary work aimed at the Jewish people.
It is curious to observe that the focus is upon the Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) and how the three great religions view him, and not the Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him). Using the “relationship” argument, Judaism unequivocally rejects Jesus, whilst Islam accepts and honours Jesus as one of the great, miraculous Prophets of God. Even the Vatican declaration acknowledges, “the figure of Jesus thus is and remains for Jews the ‘stumbling block’, the central and neuralgic point in Jewish-Catholic dialogue.” If anything, the Islamic, pluralistic perspective means that Islam has a closer relationship to both Judaism and Christianity, than Judaism and Christianity have with each other.
What further perplexes is the placing aside of the core of Christianity: salvation through Jesus. Again the Vatican declaration highlights this paradox:
“The theory that there may be two different paths to salvation, the Jewish path without Christ and the path with the Christ, whom Christians believe is Jesus of Nazareth, would in fact endanger the foundations of Christian faith. Confessing the universal and therefore also exclusive mediation of salvation through Jesus Christ belongs to the core of Christian faith.”
It then declares Jews can still attain salvation, but how this is possible “remains a divine mystery”. How this can be reconciled with the Council of Trent (1545-1563) documents also remains a mystery. These documents decreed that if “anyone says the sacraments… were not all instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ, or that there are more or less than seven… or that any of these are not truly and intrinsically a sacrament, let him be anathema”. Further, “if anyone says the sacraments… are not necessary for salvation… and that without them… men obtain from God through faith alone the grace of justification… let him be anathema”.
Sacraments are Christian rites which are as a matter of belief derived from Jesus. A denial of these sacraments results in excommunication. What then is the status of someone who rejects Jesus? Indeed, what would have this Council made of Cardinal Koch’s statements?
Where was Sughra Ahmed?
Moving on from awkward theological gymnastics, the Woolf Institute meeting took place between Jewish and Christian leaders. Why was Muslim representation absent in this landmark discussion on unity, which includes interaction with Islam?
This is a question Islamic Society of Britain (ISB) President Sughra Ahmed is best placed to answer. After all, she is also a Senior Programme Manager at the Woolf Institute. Does she, as the president of the Islamic Society of Britain, feel it was dandy that Muslims were excluded from a meeting in which they were discriminatorily designated a target? Are there no “equality” or “integration” concerns here for Ahmed to perhaps publish a paper on? The watering down of Islam at the hands of the far-right, neoconservative-linked Usama Hasan at this year’s Living Islam event, gives a good indication.
Perhaps this article will be a point of discussion in her next interfaith meeting.
Regardless of the strange posturing in the context of Jews, it has to be said that attempting to convert Muslims is itself not problematic. After all, Muslims also hope that humanity accepts Islam. However, it seems the refugee crisis is not a scenario in which the “bargaining power” between the preacher and the needy is equal. Indeed, refugees are in a state of desperation, forced to traverse perilous paths to avoid near certain death. Churches have money. And, as we shall see below, evidence suggests that the British government is providing this money.
The Cardinal’s decree represents an attitude which has swept across Christian networks.
State Coercion for Conversion?
A Guardian report highlighted that conversion to Christianity would aid asylum, thus creating an institutionally discriminatory scenario that subtly coerces the vulnerable. This policy-level preferential treatment of Christians was hinted at by Gerald Kauffman in October 2015, who, discussing the Immigration Bill, stated,
“I got a letter from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs about a constituent who had been asked to clarify his Christian name. To anyone of any intelligence, the man was a Muslim. That kind of approach happens under this Government: it has never happened before, even under previous Conservative Governments.”
Further, on the 15th of June, the Bishop of Sheffield Steven Croft commenting on the European Union relocation plan, made references to a connection between the state (specifically the Department for International Development) and missionary effort:
“The Church of England is engaged through its networks right across its Diocese in Europe and the wider Anglican communion in responding to the refugee and migration crisis and is working with the DfID to get the aid committed by the UK Government to those in most need. The Anglican communion is assisting those who remain in the camps with health, hygiene kits, shelter and education. Those who have decided to leave the region and have arrived in Europe are being supported with spiritual, psychological, health and clothing support as they cross Europe by the Anglican Church in Athens and the Anglican churches in southern Italy. These churches are themselves working in partnership with Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities.
“Throughout Britain, churches and faith communities are working in similar partnerships to build this ecology of care for refugees here and across Europe. Sheffield is the original city of sanctuary and the ideas have spread to many other places.
“This is what I’m meant to be doing”
The fruits of this state-sponsored conversion project have percolated into the media.
In June, it was reported that a Trinity church in the Berlin suburb of Steglitz had seen its congregation grow from 150 two years ago to almost 700, “swollen by Muslim converts”. Churches in Britain had seen a similar trend.
In Greece, Christian missionaries have been asking asylum seekers held in a detention centre to sign forms declaring the following: “I know I’m a sinner … I ask Jesus to forgive my sins and grant me eternal life. My desire is to love and obey his word.” Moreover, these efforts were taking place during the holy month of Ramadan.
In July, a widely circulated video with the title “this is what I’m meant to be doing” showed Rev Sally Smith baptising Muslims. Her congregation has reportedly “transformed” with the presence of former Muslims:
“The white faces who used to make up the congregation of this tiny church in a deprived area of Stoke have been replaced by an eclectic mix of Iranians, Syrians, Iraqis, Bangladeshis and Eritreans who are all either looking for salvation in another religion or simply seeking charity.”
Rev Smith highlights that resistance to her efforts has come from within the Church; that there is an attitude which suggests that the Church will be “messed up” and it has no role in opening doors to refugees. This seems like a deflection. As I have already alluded to, and as we shall see further below, this is not the only reason for resisting her questionable activities.
Exploiting the Vulnerable
The situation is a cause for consternation. Whilst there may be genuine conversion cases, the targeting of desperate, fleeing, stressed refugees to convert effectively in exchange for a morsel of food, and some money (as one Palestinian refugee is quoted as saying “The church has more money”) seems somewhat unethical. Where survival has seen them migrate in the worst possible conditions, a further layer of duress is being added through cash for conversion dealings.
Indeed, the idea that this is unethical is not new; the European Court of Human Rights in the 1993 landmark case of Kokkinakis v. Greece stated that religious freedom could be limited “where there is an attempt to coerce the person into consenting or to use manipulative techniques.”
For countries which preach freedom of religion, creating a climate conducive to converting vulnerable Muslim refugees who are by their very status under duress demonstrates poetic irony, and a degree of hypocrisy. Indeed, in the case of Britain, there seems to be a state-level conversion policy which is manipulative and discriminatory, and most likely regarded as effectively “improper proselytising” as understood by the European Court in Kokkinakis case.
Christian Opposition to Conversion
Not all Christians are for this refugee conversion agenda. This unethical, exploitative proselytization has caused a reaction amongst some Christians too. As the refugee influx into Europe began last year, Germany’s largest Protestant regional church issued a position paper in which it held,
“A strategic mission to Islam or meeting Muslims to convert them threatens social peace and contradicts the spirit and mandate of Jesus Christ and is therefore to be firmly rejected…”
Barbara Rudolph, head of mission work for the church brought attention to the fact that the World Council of Churches, the Vatican and the World Evangelical Alliance issued a joint code of conduct that said Christians should avoid “inappropriate methods of exercising mission by resorting to deception and coercive means.”
The UK-based Christian think-tank Theos similarly stated in its 2015 paper on prosleytism,
“It is clearly objectionable when people make the most of someone’s social, economic or any other kind of disadvantage to attempt to convert them…”
These voices and perspectives however, have been absent from the mainstream media. With the establishment creating conditions which foster apostasy from Islam, this is not surprising.
Many were shocked when Slovakian interior minister Ivan Metik told the BBC that Muslim migrants wouldn’t be accepted, claiming that they “are not going to like it here.” He added that Muslim migrants should avoid moving to the country, warning that they would find it difficult to integrate with the majority Christian population.
At least the Slovakian minister was honest in his bigotry and exposition of the fickleness of the claimed secular indifference to religion. Where the Slovakian policy is overt, the British government seems to be resorting to a covert, deceptive, underhanded tactic where it is allowing hapless Muslim refugees in, but it has also created discriminatory conditions that favour those who convert to Christianity. The Christian network is all too eager to aid this effort. This is simply a morally untenable situation.
How should Muslims respond?
Though it is obvious to Muslims, it must be reiterated that responding in a like deceitful, manipulative manner, or even with violence is prohibited. Such reactions only provide fodder for more opportunist “I am under threat” stories aimed at discrediting Islam as a violent religion.
Whilst it is easy to fulminate and criticise Christians for what they in essence believe is divinely ordained work, the reality remains that this situation represents a failure of Muslim institutions to more effectively support refugees socially and spiritually. When local mosques and charities are battling allegations of “extremism”, chronically apologising for an attack they have no hand in, and busy managing PR in the face of institutional/media prejudice against Islam and Muslims instead of tending to the most vulnerable, this failure is understandable. But it is not excusable. There is nothing more paramount for Muslims then the protection of Iman (faith).
A reorientation of intentions, focus and resources is required to address the material, psychological and spiritual needs of refugees.