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Friday, September 18, 2015

Muslim Migrants Find More Than Refuge in Europe’s Churches

Some Muslim Migrants Find More Than Refuge in Europe’s Churches
Germany sees rise in conversions to Christianity, a status that could help asylum claims

Pastor Gottfried Martens during a baptism for immigrants 
from Iran in the Evangelical-Lutheran Trinity Church in Berlin on Aug. 30. 
RUTH BENDERSept. 16, 2015 5:03 p.m. ET

HANNOVER, Germany—On a recent Saturday in a 19th-century Protestant church, Iranian and Afghan immigrants struggled to sing a hymn as the Rev. Hans-Jürgen Kutzner pointed to the German lyrics on a whiteboard.

Once a month, Mr. Kutzner gives a crash course in a neon-lit room adjacent to the church to prepare Muslims wishing to be baptized as Christians.

“What you are signing up to today isn’t just this seminar: Preparing yourself internally, going to Mass and integrating into your church, it’s all of that,” he told the 28 attendees as an Iranian woman clutching a rosary translated into Farsi.

Priests and researchers say they have witnessed a parallel trend to the surge in migrant numbers flocking to Germany in recent years: A rise in conversions from Islam to Christianity.

While most converts invoke spiritual reasons, people involved in the process point to another motivation: A conversion could make the difference between obtaining asylum or being deported.

Nariman Malkari, a recently baptized migrant from Iran, and 
his godmother, Marianne Bunyan, in front of his tent at the 
Trinity Church in Berlin, where he lives while his asylum 
application is reviewed. 

Up to a million migrants, many of them from Muslim countries, are expected to arrive this year in Germany alone. Those fleeing war or persecution could qualify for asylum; others seeking better economic prospects likely wouldn’t.

“We do get people that come here for reasons that aren’t just spiritual,” said Mr. Kutzner, adding that he believes they are in the minority. “We constantly fight against the suspicion that conversions are only motivated by hopes for asylum.”

One church official said the desire by some Christians to help can get out of hand. “There are middlemen who have started to develop a business out of connecting refugees with churches open to baptizing them,” this person said.

A spokeswoman for the main German Protestant church said she wasn’t aware of any such business taking place. The German Bishops’ Conference of Catholic dioceses declined to comment.

In many countries where classical Islamic law is a strong element of the legal system, such as Afghanistan and Iran, conversions by Muslims to another religion are prohibited and can be punished by death, said Ebrahim Afsah, associate professor of international law at the University of Copenhagen.

“Out of fear of being sent back, many refugees feel that converting is the safest route to getting their papers,” the church official said. “In most cases, such asylum requests are granted.”

German authorities can grant asylum if a conversion exposes the applicant to persecution at home, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. But a baptism certificate alone rarely suffices.

Europe is struggling to handle its largest flow of migrants since the aftermath of World War II. Why is the crisis happening now? The WSJ's Niki Blasina explains.

Decisions are sometimes lengthy and the type of proof authorities ask for when reviewing a case varies widely, officials familiar with the process say. Some officers probe applicants for their knowledge of their new religion, they say. Others demand detailed explanations about how people came to their new beliefs.

The immigration office doesn’t keep statistics on reasons for asylum requests.

Among the would-be converts in Mr. Kutzner’s class, most of whom declined to be identified, many said they had a spiritual revelation after a dream or reading the Bible. Others described embracing Christ as a protest against terror acts committed by Islamist extremists, or pointed to a desire to better integrate into their new home.

Nariman Malkari, a 25-year-old Kurd from Tehran, lives in temporary housing in the garden of the Evangelical-Lutheran Trinity Church in Berlin while he awaits a decision on his asylum application.

He moved here after Norway rejected his first asylum request. In May, the Rev. Gottfried Martens baptized the young computer engineer, who now goes by the biblical name of Silas and wears a silver cross necklace.

“I can never go back to Iran and I don’t want to,” said Mr. Malkari after Sunday Mass last week, which is held partly in German, partly in Farsi. “I live in a tent, but I have found Jesus.”

Roughly 600 of the 850 members of Trinity Church are from Iran and Afghanistan, Mr. Martens said. He said he has baptized roughly 400 Muslims, mostly from Iran and Afghanistan, since 2011, but refuses those who he feels just want to boost their asylum prospects.

“What I see is that 90% of the converts continue to come here even after they obtain asylum,” he said. “They wouldn’t do that if they had done it just for papers.”

The numbers of conversions remain tiny relative to Germany’s roughly four million Muslims, mostly from Turkey. In 2009, the Catholic Church in Germany counted 300 members who had converted from Islam, according to the secretariat of the German Bishops’ Conference, but neither it nor its Protestant counterpart keeps regular statistics of such conversions.

Aiman Mazyek, chairman of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims, said he hadn’t observed a rise in Muslims converting to Christianity, but noted there were “conspiracy theories” around that doing so could expedite an asylum request.

Jörn Thielmann, who heads the University of Erlangen’s Center for Islam and Law in Europe, said he has no doubt that conversions are on the rise. He has crafted expert opinions in asylum cases for the past decade, evaluating how big a risk a refugee would face if sent back home.

The Rev. Gerhard Triebe of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Düsseldorf has baptized some 30 Iranians since 2011. He said he devotes a lot of time to helping his converts in daily tasks, from asylum-related paperwork to finding an apartment.

“With more and more people arriving here, the word spreads. People also realize they get an enormous amount of support,” he said.

An Iranian asylum-seeker, Aref Movasaq Rodsari, at the 
Trinity Church in Berlin last month. 

In Mr. Kutzner’s class in Hannover, many aspiring Christians feverishly took notes as the pastor talked about the Bible and the Jesus’ resurrection. Others looked lost.

A man dressed in a shiny white suit and black tie brought his wife and young son from a small town in eastern Germany where they live. He said he fled Iran six months ago because “I wanted my family to be Christian.”

Mr. Kutzner said he doesn’t want to judge motives. “I am just a human, I can’t look people in the heart,” he said as he wrapped up his class with one-on-one consultations. “But if someone asks me for help, I help.”

Write to Ruth Bender at