Court doubts Christian conversion of Egyptian brothers, one now faces deportation

NEWS | Tess Holgate
Monday 19 October 2015

Two Egyptian brothers who say they converted to Christianity are fearful of being returned to Egypt, but are likely to be separated after the Federal Circuit Court handed down two different results to their appeals for protection visas at the end of September.

One appeal was dismissed, meaning that if the applicant wishes to remain in Australia he must make a personal request to the Minister. The second appeal was successful, and will be reheard by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

The brothers, whose names have been withheld, applied for protection visas in January 2013 (after both studying aviation in Australia since January 2010) on the grounds of religious persecution should they be forced to return to Egypt. Both brothers claimed that they had converted to Christianity and become active members of Hillsong Church during their time in Australia, and that they faced persecution, and possibly even death, if they returned to Egypt.

After interviews with a delegate of the Minister of Immigration in July 2013, both applications were rejected. In August of the same year, the applicants applied to the Refugee Review Tribunal (now the Administrative Appeals Tribunal) for a review of the delegate’s decision. The Tribunal ruled on the review in May 2014, affirming the decision of the delegate.

Both the delegate of the Minister and the Tribunal did not think their claims of conversion to Christianity were credible, despite representatives from Hillsong Church speaking about their faith at the hearings.

Michael Kah, an immigration lawyer from Sydney, says, “credibility is one of the most complex aspects of refugee law, and credibility of more subjective ‘facts’ such as faith is even more complex.”

Decision makers in immigration cases tend to rely on questions about religious activities, religious knowledge, and religious beliefs to assess the genuineness of a person’s faith, says Mr Kah.

“Questions about religious activities are relatively benign,” he says. “If a person claims to regularly attend a specific church, they should know things like the name and address or physical description of the church, or times and nature of services.

“However, questions about religious knowledge and beliefs can be more problematic and based on dangerous assumptions. Some people’s faith is more about their spiritual experience and their relationship with a local church which has shown them Christian love, than about the number of books in the Bible or other theological details. Recent converts with limited English, or Christians who have only worshipped in underground churches without trained leadership, may not be familiar with theological details that a refugee decision maker may expect a ‘real’ Christian ‘should’ know.”

In handing down his decision, Judge Rolf Driver, who presided over both cases, said, “while the Tribunal is entitled to test credibility, it is not entitled to set itself up as the arbiter of religious doctrine. By close analogy, neither can the Tribunal set itself up as the arbiter of the path to religious conversion.”

But this raises vexed questions about how to test credibility. In June, Eternity reported that a Chinese immigrant seeking asylum in Australia was subjected to intense questioning about the Bible to determine if her faith was genuine.

“In my opinion,” said Judge Driver, “the Tribunal has fallen into the trap of arbitrarily selecting a ‘plausible’ path to conversion. In essence, the Tribunal refused to accept that a path to conversion could be a cerebral one of research or study, divorced from the society of other members of the desired faith.

“There is no ‘correct’ path to religious conversion. A solitary or cerebral path is no less correct or plausible than a path embarked upon in a religious community.”

Refugee decision makers tend to treat detailed, consistent information that is provided early in the process as more credible, says Mr Kah. But there are valid reasons why a person’s evidence may be vague, inconsistent, or provided later in the process.

“First, they may not remember,” says Mr Kah. “Second, they may have experienced trauma and suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, shame, guilt, or mistrust. Third, they may not realise the information is relevant.”

In assessing the credibility of a person’s faith, “questions about religious activities are preferable to questions about religious knowledge and beliefs,” says Mr Kah. “They allow a person to speak to their own experience and what is relevant to them, rather than to theological details that may not be relevant to them. They are also easier to objectively verify.”

Mr Kah says that there are people who fake conversion to Christianity in order to try and get a visa. “However,” he says, “they are in the minority. In our experience, most people seeking protection are genuine people with genuine problems, which may or may not fall within Australia’s protection criteria. However, most do, as reflected by Australia’s historically high acceptance rates.”

Featured image: Photo of Egyptian Christian not mentioned in this article. Credit: Chaoyue 超越 PAN 潘 | Flickr, CC License

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