FS and others (Iran Christian Converts) Iran CG  UKIAT 00303
Date of hearing: 16 & 17 March 2004
Date Determination notified: 17 November 2004
|FS and others||APPELLANT|
|Secretary of State for the Home Department||RESPONDENT|
"I accept readily that it is not a ground of appeal that a different conclusion was open to the tribunal below on the same facts, or therefore that another tribunal has reached a different conclusion on very similar facts. But it has to be a matter of concern that the same political and legal situation, attested by much the same in-country data from case to case, is being evaluated differently by different tribunals. The latter seems to me to be the case in relation to religious apostasy in Iran. The differentials we have seen are related less to the differences between individual asylum-seekers than to differences in the Tribunal's reading of the situation on the ground in Iran. This is understandable, but it is not satisfactory. In a system which is as much inquisitorial as it is adversarial, inconsistency on such questions works against legal certainty. That does not mean that the situation cannot change, or that an individual's relationship to it does not have to be distinctly gauged in each case. It means that in any one period a judicial policy (with the flexibility that the word implies) needs to be adopted on the effect of the in-country data in recurrent classes of case."
"The undesirability of such factual disparities was recently reiterated by this court in Gurung  EWCA Civ 654 : see especially the judgment of Buxton LJ at paragraph 12. Mr Kovats has argued that, while it may be proper to insist that good reasons be given for departing from an otherwise consistent line of factual decisions of the present kind, there can be no such requirement where, as here, there is no consistent line. But this does not answer Ms Webber's point that it is the very inconsistency of the decisions which is inimical to justice."
The facts in FS
The facts in NS
The facts in TB
"I have given careful consideration to the background information particularly that contained in the CIPU Country assessment about the position of Christians in Iran and note that there is likely to be distinct discrimination against those who have converted from Islam to (particularly) evangelical forms of Christianity. Converts may be arrested (paragraph 5.02) there is a possibility of execution (5.51) and there have been reported incidents of government harassment (5.52). There is a significant danger to someone who has converted from Islam to Christianity and who preaches Christianity with a view to converting other Muslims the penalty for this being execution (5.54). Since being in the United Kingdom the Appellant has joined and become an active member of an evangelical Church although he has not said at any point in his evidence that if he were to return to Iran he would feel it incumbent upon himself to take part in evangelical activities with a view to converting other Muslims. I have noted that since his "conversion" on the 15th August 2001 until his departure almost a year later the Appellant was apparently content to practice his religion in safety by restricting his activities to his personal reading and writing in the safety of his own home and he had never attempted to join an evangelical Church in his own Country. I therefore find that the Appellant had adopted a cautious and sensible approach to his wish to follow Christian teaching and philosophy and I can see no reason why if he were to be returned to Iran he would not behave in a similar manner. I accept that he would be proscribed from evangelising and attempting to convert other Muslims to his way of thinking but he has not described a need or a wish to do so.
I am therefore left to consider whether what transpired prior to the Appellant's departure from Iran was likely to lead to persecution if he were to be returned. The Appellant has produced no evidence that he is of any ongoing concern to the authorities and I have noted that the penalties likely to be imposed for a failed asylum seeker upon return are unlikely to be unduly harsh (paragraph 5.94 and 5.95 of the CIPU Country Assessment)."
The background evidence: conversion
"Mistreatment of evangelical Christians continued during the period covered by this report. Christian groups have reported instances of government harassment of churchgoers in Teheran, in particular against worshipers at the Assembly of God congregation in the capital. Instances of harassment cited included conspicuous monitoring outside Christian premises by Revolutionary Guards to discourage Muslims or converts from entering church premises and demands for presentation of identity papers."
"6.59 Apostasy, or conversion from Islam to another religion, is not acceptable in Islamic law. It states that an innate-apostate, one whose parents were Muslims and who embraced Islam but later left Islam, if a man, is to be executed. If a women, she is to be imprisoned for life, but will be released if she repents. A national apostate, a person converting from another faith to Islam, and then reconverting back to the other faith is to be encouraged to repent and, upon refusal to repent, is to be executed. The most prominent cases of apostasy appear to occur from Islam to Christianity although Baha'is have also been accused of it and the death sentence has been carried out even though the accused have said that they had always been Baha'i and were not therefore apostates.
6.60 Proselytising apostate converts who have begun preaching Christianity are likely to face execution. 17 clerics are known to have been in detention in 1995. In that connection, a Western embassy said that there had been no reports of person being executed on the grounds of conversion from Islam since 1994. In the source's opinion, although a convert may still be sentenced to a term of imprisonment if the authorities hear about his conversion, it is very rare nowadays for a criminal case to be brought against a convert. The source stressed that converts often remain Muslim for official purposes.
6.61 The source thought that converts who are known to the Iranian authorities are summoned to an interview at the Ministry of Information in order to be reprimanded. They are then allowed to go after being warned not to talk about what has taken place at the Ministry. If a criminal case is brought against them, they will be accused of something other than conversion. Many individuals try to convert with a view to emigrating, considering that the opportunities for obtaining asylum in the West are thereby greater. The Christian churches send letters of recommendation to converts and to other persons belonging to the church on request. It would appear however, that at present the Government is not pursuing an active and systematic policy of investigation and prosecution of cases of apostasy.
6.62 In practice, Muslim converts to Christianity may face obstacles such, as not being admitted to university or not being issued a passport. Even Muslim converts, however, in reality appear able to practise their new faith up to a point. This means, for instance, that weekly church attendance is a possibility. On the other hand, those who actively display their new faith in public, in particular by proselytising, can expect to face severe repression, even if their conversion goes back decades."
"The authorities are often aware of conversions but do not do anything to oppose them. As long as the religion is practised privately and the person concerned is not too obtrusive, in principle there is no problem. It is only if the person practises his religion publicly and actively attempts to convert others that he could be in trouble. However, this applied more to small towns, where it appears that members are sometimes questioned, than to Teheran, where things are somewhat easier given the anonymity of this big city. One of the sources related that one of its members was currently in detention for distributing Bibles and because of open proselytising. None of the other sources we consulted had any knowledge of such cases.
Muslims regularly attend services in the different churches. In most cases this is known to the authorities, but they do not make any problems."
"If the authorities become aware that someone has been converted, this can lead to the person losing his job. This applies more to civil servants than to people who work for private businesses. Among the believers there is a general atmosphere of fear, so much so that they tend to restrict themselves in their proselytising activities. Also members regularly stay away from the church to divert somewhat the negative attention of the authorities.
On the whole, the ordinary population have a positive attitude towards Christians. There are only rarely negative reactions. However, six or seven years ago the headquarters received a visit from a few members of the secret services who demanded that their Friday church services be stopped and that everyone who wanted to attend the church service on Sunday gave his identity. However, this demand was refused by the church authorities, and they simply continued as before, without any further problems. Of course, they are well aware that the authorities are very well informed of their activities and that there are probably also spies among their members.
According to Rev Avanesian, all the members of the church can at some time have problems with the authorities, even though the situation of most of the members is tolerably good. He understands that some choose to leave the country, but he rather puts this down to economic factors and the desire to lead an untroubled life. Those who have 'the true faith' choose instead to stay and to witness to their faith."
"For the moment, because they have not been active in this field for very long, the church has so far had no problems because of its proselytising activities. As long as converts keep a low profile and are not very obtrusive about their new beliefs, in principle they have no problems [an exception was identified]. However, converts who want to get married have problems when it comes to registering their marriage. Also, they cannot go through the conventional Christian marriage ceremony."
"Those who, in the view of the authorities, offer Muslims alternative to Islam run the risk of falling victim to human rights violations. There have recently been fresh reports of threats and intimidation, including house searches, directed at churches which include converts among their congregations. Repression of Christians is directed particularly at leading members of the Anglican church and the Assemblies of God."
"184.108.40.206 Despite constitutional guarantees of religious freedom for Christians, those denominations which fall outside the historically well established Armenian and Assyrian traditions have been subjected to a greater degree of officially sponsored intimidation. Those churches which did not have what the Government regarded as indigenous roots at the time of the Revolution have been accused of espionage, collaboration with foreign powers and cultural imperialism. The majority of non-Iranian clergy have had their visas revoked or have been pressured to leave.
220.127.116.11 While the violent excesses of the past have abated, a process of attrition remains. For example, in 1993, the Anglican church was divested of its substantial property holdings. The Anglicans appear to have fared badly under the current regime. At present the most virulent threat to the maintenance of an Anglican presence here remains insolvency. In the early days of the Revolution, all Anglican property under the name of the then Bishop was frozen, comprising land, schools, hospitals and homes Previously frozen assets have been confiscated and title deeds amended to preclude any future assertion of interests. No compensation has been proposed. The confiscation was conducted without prior consultation. No paper trail is available to the aggrieved thus rendering the pursuit of judicial redress impossible. The legal justification for the latest act relates to the apostasy of the former Bishop, in whose name the property was formerly invested. Property rights enjoyed by the individual are extinguished and revert to the Islamic State. The Anglicans have changed their name to 'Episcopal' and now have an entirely indigenous clergy. The Catholic Church has also had most of its property seized since the Revolution."
"Overall, Muslim converts currently seem to be able to function reasonably well in Iranian Society, without much fear of persecution. Muslim converts to Christianity share some of the same problems of those or other recognised religions, such as Jews, and those who are `born' into Christianity. Muslims routinely attend church services (particularly at Christmas and Easter), often out of curiosity, and often they are attracted by the ritual associated with the services, including music and singing. Many subsequently register for and attend Bible classes.
The current tolerance toward Christians and proselytising could mark a genuine improvement in human rights in Iran, attributed to President Khatami's influence and that of former Minister for Culture and Islam Guidance, Attaollah Mohajerani. We do not know of any recent arrests or sentences on the basis purely of proselytising or apostasy (MORTAD). However, the prospect for charges of this nature being imposed in political trials remains (see for instance the case of Eshkevari who, in late 2000 was accused of apostasy as part of broader political trial). Those who change their faith do remain vulnerable to a change in the domestic political climate, and their conversion could be used subsequently to prosecute them if they attract negative attention from authorities for other reasons."
"In the past, the independent evidence has suggested that Muslims who convert to Christianity and who proselytise Muslims could be at risk of persecution in Iran. However, there is now strong evidence before the Tribunal suggesting that members of the Assembly of God Church, which has a congregation consisting largely of Muslim converts, are able to attend church and engage in evangelical activities without encountering serious harm, either from the government or the community. This is a different picture to that portrayed in a report published by Iranian Christians International earlier this year. It also differs from views expressed in reports such as those written by the US State Department. However, I am of the view that the information provided by the Australian Embassy as a consequence of recent and direct discussions with senior Christian clergy in Teheran is much more reliable than the information (much of it quite dated) of the kind contained in the ICI report. I am also of the view that the US State Department is not a reliable source on the current situation for Iranian Christians in Iran, given that the US does not have diplomatic relations with Iran and is therefore in no position to directly obtain information from Iranian Christian clergy in Iran. The advice given to DFAT by the Church is not in the form of a public statement, but as a result of a number of private discussions with an Australian diplomat. I am of the view that this information is credible, reliable and reflects the actual situation for Muslims who have converted to Christianity.
However, no information is provided which suggests that members of the Church have in fact been seriously harmed because they had been involved in proselytising. On the other hand, the information provided to DFAT indicates that church members have been involved in specific proselytising activities (handing out Bibles in public transport in the lead-up to Christmas last year) without encountering serious harm. The independent evidence indicates that Christians have engaged in proselytising activities without encountering serious harm notwithstanding the disparaging view of such activities expressed in the newspaper article provided by the applicant's adviser.
It appears that the contents of the DFAT reports are now well-known in the Iranian Christian community. The applicant in this case was aware of the reports prior to the hearing. I have been told in other cases that the Assembly of God Church in Australia is in contact with the Assembly of God Church in Teheran. In my view, if the DFAT reports were incorrect or misleading it would have been open to the Assembly of God Church in Teheran having been made aware of the situation by the Church in Australia to take this up with the Australian Embassy. This could be done without the church putting anything in writing. I am satisfied that if this had been done the Australian Embassy would have passed on the information. The fact that no such information has been provided strongly suggests that the leadership of the Assembly of God Church in Teheran accepts that the DFAT reports are correct. In the circumstance, I prefer the DFAT reports to the information provide by the applicant in his latest statutory declaration.
I accept that the applicant would not be able to obtain government employment if he were open about his conversion to Christianity and engaged in proselytising activities. The independent evidence does not suggest that the applicant would have any particular difficulty obtaining employment in the private sector nor being self-employed because of his conversion to Christianity. I am not satisfied that the applicant would be denied the capacity to earn a livelihood because of this conversion to Christianity.
I accept that the applicant would not be able to study at university if he declared his conversion to Christianity or engaged in proselytising activities.
The applicant indicated that his conversion to Christianity would prevent him from registering his marriage if he married in the future. There is independent evidence before me which indicates that in February 2000 following a change in the law the head of the judiciary issued a circular letter to all registry offices throughout Iran that provided for any couple to be registered as husband and wife without being required to state their religious affiliation."
"80. However, their lot is considerably better than that of the unrecognised, that is, the non-ethnic Christians. These are those groups of Christians who are for the most part ethnic Persians. Evangelical Christians such as members of the Assemblies of God have been harshly persecuted over the years, apparently on the grounds that they had been or might be proselytising. Some of them are said to have been convicted for apostasy. Some have been sentenced to death and a few have been executed. The Special Representative has been informed that only three small Persian-speaking churches may remain in operation and that they have had to agree not to evangelize Muslims. The printing of Christian literature is prohibited and Christian bookstores are banned. A number of Christian activists have reportedly fled the country.
81. In the Special Representative's opinion, the situation of the Christians, particularly the non-ethnic Christians, does not seem to have improved since the 1996 report of the Special Rapporteur on religious intolerance on his visit to Iran (E/CN.4/1996/95/Add.2). The Special Representative again calls on the Government to implement the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on religious intolerance."
"It is important to add that conversion abroad could also be perfectly genuine. Iran is a place where people are fine as long as they do what they do behind closed doors and within their own four walls. People may drink, practice homosexuality and their religious faith after conversion. Yet, if a person who converted abroad walked down central Teheran wearing a cross, s/he would certainly have to face difficulties. S/he may not be at risk if s/he keeps a low profile. In general, however, it is very difficult to assess what is going to happen to a person who converted to another faith upon return. In such cases, a case by case assessment would need to be made taking into account the ultimate reasons for conversion and the degree of publicity surrounding the case. In addition, although Iranian embassies may well monitor activities of Iranian exile communities it would be highly unusual if they kept track of Iranian baptisms abroad."
1. A legal framework which included apostasy and blasphemy as offences punishable by death, and which allowed Muslim converts to be harassed and killed by Muslim extremists with impunity. It afforded no protection to them. We add that the summary could usefully have included the range of vague offences with which a convert or suspected convert could be charged.
2. If a known convert were to have other problems with the authorities, of whatever level or type, that fact would lead to worse ill-treatment.
3. Even if the situation had improved over the last few years, despite the views of the UNSR, the conservative Guardian Council exercised strong political opposition to Khatami and he had a very tenuous hold on power; a deterioration in the climate could very easily occur.
4. Neighbours, colleagues and others could very easily denounce a convert, maliciously or for ideological reasons, to any of the various forms of authority in Iran, state or religious, formal or informal; they could lay complaints directly with the courts which would trigger a hearing. This made generalisations very difficult about what factors would cause a person to face such problems. The 7th UNHCR/ACCORD Report on Iran, which we have already referred to, supported this point.
5. The judiciary was active and influential and in alliance with other conservative elements had become a source of challenge to the Khatami Government.
The background evidence: return
MR JUSTICE OUSELEY
This Appendix lists the background material before the Tribunal in March 2004. It does not include the various expert reports, nor the post-hearing material, which are all identified in the determination. It does not include the previous Tribunal determinations which were also before us.
UNHCR, European and Government Reports, Bulletins and Fact Finding Missions
News Items on Christianity
Commonwealth Caselaw on Christianity
Source material for the paragraphs on Christians and Apostasy/Conversions (6.54 to 6.62) from the Iran Country Report, Country Information and Policy Unit, October 2003, not cited above.
a. IRN22302.E 27/11/95
b. IRN256268.E 7/10/96
c. IRN24845.E 24/09/96
Most Recent Australian Jurisprudence and source material cited.
Objective Evidence Served on Home Office by Messrs Scudamores in 'A'
i. E-mail from Nina Shea of the Centre for Religious Freedom to Messrs Scudamores, Solicitors, dated 30th July 2003.
ii. E-mail from Mark Hetfield of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom dated 6th August 2003.
iii. 'Iran: Veto on Torture Bill Condemned', Human Rights Watch, 12th June 2002, New York. (Referred to in Mr Hetfield's e-mail).
iv. 'Japan violating refugee anti-torture conventions'. Iranmania.com, 27th
January 2004, Tokyo, AFP.