UNHCR Beirut and Persecuted Arab Converts Seeking Refugee Status

By Wissam al-Saliby*

Last Sunday, I drove a woman and her children to my Church service. She had escaped to Lebanon from a North African country following persecution. She had come to faith in Jesus Christ and become a Christian, but her family could not accept this. On the way to church, she explained to me that she had applied for refugee status at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office (UNCHR) in Beirut. Her application was rejected and she has appealed the rejection decision – but she said she was not hopeful that the decision would change.

I have worked in the past on asylum cases and refugee law in Lebanon. And over the past year, I met with many persons who shared with me this same story, over and over again, from across the Middle East and North Africa.

Persecuted converts to Christianity, fearing for their lives and the lives of their children, often end up in Lebanon. However, each individual I met has told me that UNHCR had denied them refugee status and that the UNHCR interviewer was insensitive to their claims – claims that are mostly well founded in my opinion.

To qualify for asylum, an individual must have a fear of persecution for one of the reasons stated in the 1951 Refugee Convention, and be able to demonstrate that their fear of persecution is well founded and that they are unable, or unwilling because of their fear, to seek protection in their country of origin or habitual residence.

UNHCR examines each case on its individual facts, and looks at every case individually – not at the status of a particular minority. UNHCR assesses whether effective protection is available in relation to the particular circumstances and profile of the claimant and the latest country of origin information.

Reports on religious freedoms and religious minorities, as well as reports by asylum services worldwide, confirm that persecution of converts in many Arab countries is a serious issue and is sufficient grounds for granting refugee status. UNHCR is well aware of the reports, accessible at www.refworld.org.

For example, in a UK Operational Guidance Note Assessment for Egypt (Dated 8 November 2013), Christian converts sit on top of the list of most vulnerable individuals prone to persecution, along with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and women (the note provides UK Home Office caseworkers with guidance on the nature and handling of the most common types of claims received).

Other reports include Bahai’s and other religious groups as persecuted minorities in some of Middle Eastern countries.

In the cases I have come across of Arabs seeking asylum in Lebanon, persecution is either by (1) the family, the husband or the clan in the absence of State protection, or by (2) State apparatuses, such as the judiciary or law enforcement officials, often upon incitement of the family or clan members. Several Arab countries criminalize religious conversion and/or proselytization.

The family of an Egyptian friend of mine formally stripped her of her inheritance last year. She told me that during the turmoil in Egypt in summer, her own friend died – probably murdered – when her parents found out that she was going to church. Other persons I have encountered, from Jordan, Syria and other countries, are likewise in Lebanon and unsure if they will ever be able to return home.

In a previous post, I had argued that the protection of Christians in the Middle East is achieved by upholding the rule of law and respecting human rights. I equally wrote that the splitting or “dissection” of countries and people is detrimental to the wellbeing of the Church and to Christian witness. IMES laments that converts from any religion to any religion in the Middle East and North Africa are very often persecuted. Many who become followers of Christ are forced to leave their communities or the region, where their witness and message of new hope is much needed.

I am not saying that every Muslim will necessarily be in favor of persecuting a convert to Christianity. I have come across converts to Christianity living at peace within their Muslim families in North African countries. I also know of a Christian woman hiding from her Christian family because she married a Muslim in a Middle Eastern country.

Yet, religious persecution at the local level is carried mostly by private actors – or upon their instigation – in many Arab countries. Recent political turmoil in several countries and a likely increase of persons changing religious affiliation could provoke an increase of asylum seekers in Lebanon. UNCHR Beirut may be afraid of an escalation of asylum seekers, or of individuals taking advantage of the ‘system’. This has led to many asylum seekers – including those persons I met – to fall through the cracks and be left vulnerable.

UNHCR Beirut should no longer disregard or downplay this phenomenon. They should give more credibility to the claims of Christian converts seeking asylum and not allow the cracks to endure.

* Wissam al-Saliby is the Partnerships Manager at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. He has significant experience as a trainer and advocate for human rights and humanitarian law in Lebanon and the Middle East. His previous IMES blog posts can be viewed here.

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