Refugee Review Tribunal using intense questioning about the Bible to determine faith

NEWS | Kaley Payne

Thursday 18 June 2015

A Chinese immigrant seeking asylum in Australia has been subjected to intense questioning about the Bible to determine if her faith is genuine.

Questions included ‘Who is the longest living person in the Bible?’, ‘Have you heard of Golgotha?’, ‘Who went with Moses to confront the pharaoh?’, ‘What does the dove carry in its beak when it returns to Noah’s ark?’ and ‘How often does Jesus say that we must forgive someone?’

A Federal Circuit Court judge found the Refugee Review Tribunal, which asked the questions as part of their investigation of the application for a protection visa, acted with a “reasonable apprehension of bias” in its line of questioning in the case (SZOUO v Minister for Immigration). It quashed the Tribunal’s decision that the applicant did not have a genuine fear of persecution were she to be sent back to China. The case has been sent back to the Tribunal.

The Tribunal found that the Chinese immigrant, who had first come to Australia on a student visa in 2006 where she began attending a local Catholic church, had been coached to answer questions about her faith.

The Tribunal noted the applicant “provided considerably greater knowledge of Christianity at her hearing than she did at the time of her departmental interview,” and that her answers to their questions where “rehearsed and memorised in order to achieve a migration outcome.” Yet, said the Tribunal, even after ample opportunity to study up on the Christian faith, the applicant’s answers contained numerous errors.

“Her lack of knowledge of Christianity is demonstrative of the fact that she is not a genuine practicing Christian… The applicant’s testimony in relation to her knowledge of Christianity was at best superficial, and lacked spontaneity.”

Judge Manousaridis of the Federal Circuit Court, hearing the applicant’s appeal in May, declared that the questions asked of the applicant about her faith were of “intense specificity” and were “random”. The Judge said a fair-minded observer would agree that the Tribunal wanted to “trip the applicant up” in the questions it asked.

“… the Tribunal’s purpose in asking the questions was not to determine whether the applicant genuinely held a Christian belief, but, instead, to expose her ignorance with a view to confirming that she did not hold genuine Christian beliefs.”

Several other cases are currently before the Federal Circuit Court, appealing Refugee Review Tribunal’s decision about seven asylum seekers who converted from Islam to Christianity while seeking asylum in Australia.

The ABC has reported that the tribunal found their conversion to Christianity “not credible”, and in at least one case an Iranian asylum seeker was quizzed on her Christianity by the Tribunal and asked why she did not understand parts of the Bible.

“The Tribunal acknowledged the difficulties of reading in a foreign language, but said the New Testament was not an overly difficult text to follow,” wrote ABC journalist Stephanie Dalzell, reporting on the case.

We’ve listed some of the questions that the Tribunal asked in order to determine the genuineness of the Chinese immigrant SOUZO’s Christian faith. Would you have passed? 

  • What visible sign of the Holy Spirit did the disciples see on the day of Pentecost?
  • What was the name of the garden in which Jesus was arrested?
  • What is the name of Moses’s sister?
  • Who went with Moses to confront the pharaoh?
  • Where was the actual place of Jesus’ crucifixion?
  • What is the significance of the water, and the pouring of water at baptism?
  • Who is the longest living person in the Bible?
  • According to Genesis, who is the first murder victim in history?
  • What does the dove carry in its beak when it returns to Noah’s ark?
  • What did God convey as a signal or a message of His covenant with Noah and all living creatures?
  • Which plague fell on Egypt from the sky?
  • Why was Jesus condemned to death?
  • Did the crowd at Jesus’ trial have anything to do with him being sentenced to death?
  • Have you heard of Golgotha? What is it?
  • What were the momentous events that occurred when Christ died on the cross?
  • When Jesus rose from the dead, where did he first appear to two of his disciples?
  • How long after his resurrection did Jesus remain on earth before he was taken up to heaven?
  • What were Jesus’ final instructions to His disciples before he was taken up to heaven?
  • What is the name of the second book of the Old Testament?
  • What were the Israelites supposed to put on the doors of their houses to save themselves from the last plague in Egypt?
  • What book is the story of Moses in?
  • How often does Jesus say that we must forgive someone?

Reality mirroring fiction?

Some of our staff at Eternity are true West Wing fanatics, and these current Australian refugee cases have reminded us firmly of an episode in Season 2, called “Shibboleth”. (In fact, the Chinese migrant in the recent Australian was from Fujian Province in China, the same place that the Chinese refugees in this fictional account in West Wing were from).

In that episode, the President of the United States must deal with a boatload of Chinese refugees asking for refugee status in the US. They claimed that, as Christians, they were being oppressed by their government (the episode aired in November, 2000). There were accusations that the refugees had “feigned faith” and were “coached” to appear as Christians in order to stay in the US. President Jed Bartlet asks to meet one of the Christian Chinese refugees, and you can read the transcript of the scenes below:

Josh Lyman (Presidential advisor): “How do you tell the difference between… [real faith and feigned faith]?

President Bartlet: You guys know what a shibboleth is? It comes from the Bible: “Then said now unto him ‘shibboleth’ and he said ‘sibboleth’ for he could not frame to pronounce it right.” It was a password – a way the army used to distinguish true Israelites from imposters sent across the river Jordan by the enemy. I’m having one of the Chinese refugees flown here. I’ll meet with him tonight.

Josh Lyman: What are you going to ask him?

President Bartlet: I’m going to ask him to say ‘shibboleth’.

Next scene—

President Bartlet: Thank you for coming all this way… There are questions as to the veracity of your claim to asylum

Chinese refugee: Yes, sir.

President Bartlet: How did you become a Christian?

Chinese refugee: I began attending a house church with my wife in Fujian, eventually I was baptised.

President Bartlet: How do you practice?

Chinese refugee: We share Bibles. We don’t have enough. We sing hymns, we hear sermons, we recite the Lord’s prayer, we are charitable.

President Bartlet: Who’s the head of your church?

Chinese refugee: The head of our parish is an 84-year-old man named Wen Ling. He’s been beaten and imprisoned many times. The head of our church is Jesus Christ.

President Bartlet: Can you name any of Jesus’ apostles? If you can’t, that’s okay. I usually can’t remember the names of my kids or for that matter…

Chinese refugee: Peter, Andrew, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, Thaddeus, Simon, Judas and James. Mr President, Christianity is not demonstrated through a recitation of facts. You are seeking evidence of faith – a wholehearted acceptance of God’s promise of a better world. “For we hold that man is justified by faith alone,” is what Saint Paul said. “Justified by faith alone.” Faith is the true… shibboleth. Faith is the true shibboleth.

President Bartlet: Yes, it is. And you sir just said the magic word in more ways than one. Thank you.

You can watch this part of the episode, here:

* Change: A previous version of this story said the appeal was heard in the Federal Court. It was actually heard in the Federal Circuit Court, and the article has been amended.

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