Our history regarding asylum seekers is relatively short. The very first asylum seeker, an Iranian woman, came to our parish in 2007. She is a Muslim but a moderate one. After her there have been dozens of asylum seekers and those in need of help with a Muslim background.
The asylum work in St Michael’s parish does not include acts of conversion. However, many asylum seekers have found a community that they want to be a part of within our parish.
The first experience of a Muslim wanting to convert to Christianity was in 2009. He was a young man from Afghanistan who had fled the arbitrariness of the Taliban from his home country. Already in Afghanistan he had had contact with Christians and became interested in Christianity. He told us about his will to convert to Christianity, attended a private confirmation school and I baptised him in our church. After that began the problems. He became persecuted and ridiculed by other Muslims in the asylum seekers’ and fugitives’ reception centre. Fortunately he got a job and because of this a residence permit to stay in Finland.
There was also a complaint to the archbishop made about my actions by our church centre register’s director claiming that I had acted against the law by baptising a man who did not have a residence permit in Finland at that time. According to the law, he should have had a home parish, a Lutheran church in Afghanistan, who he had been baptised a member to. That kind of a church did not exist. Our archbishop dealt with this with a favourable attitude and now there is a modification pending concerning our church law that would allow an asylum seeker to become a member of a local parish.
Two years ago our parish was approached by a couple of Iranians who wanted to convert to Christianity. They had been attending to meetings of a local Pentecostal church but since they were not comfortable with the strict spiritual attitude that a local minister with an Iranian background represented, they wanted to find a different parish. Along with them came also a small group of other Iranians who took part in a confirmation school organized by us and some of them were baptised. At the moment there is a 10-member Iranian-Jordanian-Afghanistan confirmation school group in our parish. In addition, I am private schooling a Lebanese-Ukrainian couple who are of a Muslim background and want to attend a confirmation school in private.
During recent years more and more asylum seekers with a Christian background have approached our parish in need of help. Recently a Congolese young man got a residence permit by the grounds of studies. A couple of other Christian asylum seekers from Congo have contacted us and asked for our help. At the moment there is a Christian Iranian family waiting for a permit to come to Finland to their relatives in Turkey. In addition we are trying to help three Congolese children whose grown up sister is in Finland with a fugitive status. The children have lost their parents and are protected by a church in Congo right now. We are trying to get them to Finland through Tanzania. From Pakistan I have been contacted by a minister of a church that was attacked by terrorists who killed dozens of members of the church. They want to get out of the country.
A couple of observations and problems in the asylum procedure concerning religious persecution and beliefs.
- The definitions held by the authorities concerning persecutions are not always the same ones that churches have. For example, Christians fled from Egypt during the time of reign of Muslim brotherhood are not persecuted according to the definitions by immigration authorities.
- The evaluation of a religious belief is different when it comes to authorities and churches. The authorities often approach a religious belief from the perspective that an asylum seeker wants to benefit from his belief in the asylum process. In the country they come to, authorities view conversion sceptically and with critique.
- The knowledge of churches is not enough for the authorities to base their decisions on. Often this knowledge is not paid attention to at all.
- In the asylum seeking process one should tolerate religious conversion. It is not the job of church to critically assess a person who wants to convert to Christianity.
- So called quiet conversion also exists. Some people are Christians secretly.
- Persecution must always be taken seriously. Churches has the knowledge of religious persecution. It belongs as a part of reality churches live today all over the world. We must have a big and open heart for those who suffer because of their faith. Mother Theresa said once: “ we can’t save the whole world, but we can save one peoples whole world”. That’s our task!
Jouni Lehikoinen, the vicar of St. Michael´s Lutheran congregation in Turku Finland
-esitelmä Kielissä Saksassa Baltic Sea Network-konferenssissa vuonna 2013