Fleeing from Tehran's secret police, more and more refugees from Iran are converting to Christianity. But are they doing it out of conviction? DW's Astrid Prange reports.
The crypt of the church is buzzing. Parish volunteers are serving hot tea. On the stone floor, there are crates with textbooks about the Christian doctrine in Arabic and Farsi. Around 30 refugees are using the textbooks to prepare for their baptism.
The Protestant priest baptizing the new Christians does not want to reveal his name or the location of his parish because he fears that he will be threatened for helping refugees.
Suddenly, a tense hush falls over the crowd. The parish priest has bad news.
"We have the first round of deportations to Iran, here from our group," he says in the silent room. Then he gives advice. "Tell the judge about your faith and distribute Christian scriptures at the Christmas market. Otherwise the judge will say that you can pray in private in Iran."
First Muslim, then Christian
Is there a formula? Flee, be baptized and obtain asylum? When the European borders opened in the fall of 2015, not only war refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq came to Germany through the Balkan route. Amid those seeking protection were many Iranians who were fleeing from the mullah regime.
Minister Gottfried Martens in Berlin-Steglitz baptizes Iranian refugees. Over 400 have converted and now belong to the Protestant parish.
According to the Federal Agency of Migration and Refugees (BAMF), 25,000 people from the Islamic Republic of Iran applied for asylum in Germany between January and November 2016. In the same period in 2015, only 4,454 had applied.
One of the asylum applicants is 31-year-old Elia. The physical education teacher from Tehran traveled to Germany with the help of a smuggler and also trudged across the Balkan Route to Germany. Once in Germany, he converted to Christianity and was baptized in a Protestant parish in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
In August, after waiting for eight months, he attended his first hearing at BAMF. "I was glad to finally be able to speak freely again," he says. "I told the investigator that somebody from school staff reported me to the secret police and claimed that I was going to home Church services."
Fear of spies
The BAMF official did not seem to be impressed by the story told by the physical education teacher. The state representative suggested Elia move to another city in Iran, which was met with a shake of the head. "The secret police in Iran are worse than the KGB in the former Soviet Union. They can find you anywhere," says Elia. He even avoids contact with other Iranians because he is scared of meeting spies.
Elias said he is "over" Islam and his country. "The government always preaches that Islam is the best religion in the world. But Islam does not give sinners a chance to make amends - and that also includes leaving Islam. It is punishable by death," he says. In Christianity, however, it is possible to forgive.
Asylum seekers are questioned about the nature of their religious beliefs in their home country. If they are found to be the cause of persecution, they may quailfy for asylum
So what comes after baptism? Churches in Germany are rejoicing at the rising number of conversions. BAMF and immigration authorities, however, are skeptical of the trend.
"In the case of a conversion, applicants must plausibly prove that they will practice the new religion when they return to their home country and that is why they will be persecuted in a manner that is covered by asylum laws," explains the BAMF. "The decision maker must assess whether applicants have changed faith tactically for asylum reasons or if they mean it."
Decisions vary from state to state. Asylum law expert Jens Dieckman from Bonn says that in Rhineland-Palatinate, for instance, no one is asked questions about the theology or history of their new religion. But that's not the case in other states.
"In North Rhine-Westphalia, a judge at the administrative court went up to an asylum seeker and told him to his face, 'I find religion really boring; it doesn't interest me at all. Now can you convince me about Christianity?'" recalled the lawyer. The refugee was really shocked.
In other hearings, refugees were asked to recite the Apostle's Creed, to say the Lord's Prayer or were asked about what is written in the Bible. The list of questions includes a question about the name of the prodigal son in the New Testament, what the differences between Jacob and Esau is and when Martin Luther was born.
Pope Benedict XVI baptized Magdi Allam on March 22, 2008. The journalist, who has Egyptian roots, is one of the most prominent critics of Islam in Italy
The Protestant Church has expressed concern about the examinations on faith at administrative courts or immigration offices. The current assessment process was criticized at the state synod of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Bavaria between November 20 and 24 in Bad Reichenhall.
"One need not dispute the fact that administrative courts and BAMF must assess whether the asylum seekers would be exposed to mortal danger if they practiced their religion in their home country," said Church Council head Michael Marti in his address to the assembly. "From the Church's point of view, questions asked to test the new religion are viewed critically."
Elia does not by any means want to go back to Iran.
"I did not come here for work; I had a good salary in Tehran," he says, adding, "If my asylum application is rejected, no problem, I will try again."