The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Australian Refugee Policy Encourages Conversions to Christianity

By Mike Seccombe and Linda Morris
March 21, 2005

Thirty of Australia's longest-term immigration detainees are having their cases reviewed and could be freed because they have converted to Christianity since arriving.

The Federal Government has made the move quietly as it searches for a face-saving way to soften its policy on failed asylum seekers who have been in custody for more than three years, and cannot be repatriated to their countries of origin.

It follows strong lobbying efforts by several Government backbenchers, churches and the powerful Family First party for the Government to relax its refugee policy for Christian converts.

It also follows the case of one convert, deported from Baxter detention centre last October within a week after the election, and promptly interrogated in Iran for 48 hours before being charged with leaving the country illegally.

The case was taken up by Family First, whose spokeswoman, Andrea Mason, described the action as "repugnant". The Government is keen to build bridges with Family First, which controls one vital vote in the Senate, where the Government has a majority of a single vote.

Previously, the Immigration Department has viewed conversions to Christianity with suspicion. But yesterday a spokesman for the Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, confirmed the only reason for reconsidering the 30 cases was their new religion.

"All these people had exhausted the [assessment and appeals] process and failed. Once you have exhausted the process and failed, you're over. You've had your go and that's it," he said.

"To apply again onshore, the minister has to make a decision under section 48 of the act to lift the bar. That's what has happened in this case; the bar was lifted about two weeks ago."

Asked what had changed in the detainees' circumstances to warrant such reconsideration, he said: "Just that they brought new information that they've converted to Christianity and that they want their claim - that they may be persecuted if returned - to be examined."

He said all 30 were "all unauthorised boat arrivals", mostly from Iran and a few from Iraq, who had been in detention for more than three years. They include Peter Qasim, a Kashmiri whom India will not take back, and who is in his seventh year of detention.

Cabinet is considering whether to release about 120 inmates who have been detained for more than three years. These are asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected, but who cannot be returned to their home countries for a variety of reasons.

Sources yesterday suggested this could be done either by devising a new form of temporary visa, or by the more lenient use of ministerial discretion. The reconsideration of religious conversion claims appears to be a move in the latter direction.

In the case of Iranians, who make up the bulk of long-term detainees, religion becomes an issue because the theocratic government there makes renouncing Islam a crime.

The president of the Uniting Church, the Reverend Dean Drayton, has supported the applications of about 50 Iranian Christians, most of whom have converted while in detention.

In the past month, he said, the Government seemed to be "far more open to requests" for the applications to be reconsidered. "I don't think there has been a change of policy but the minister has the power to intervene and provide a reassessment of cases and I think the minister's been doing that."

The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, has recently intervened in the case of Amir Mesrinejad, a refugee from Iran who converted to Christianity while in detention. The Sydney Anglican Diocese has offered Mr Mesrinejad work, while its social social issues committee issued an urgent briefing paper last week condemning the decision of Senator Vanstone's office to refuse Mr Mesrinejad a protection visa and urging a letter-writing campaign.

The committee said the Government seemed intent on reducing the provisions of the United Nations Convention on Refugees, to which Australia is a signatory, to exclude religious persecution. "It is simply unbelievable that Australia could consider sending Amir back to Iran, where apostates from Islam face the death penalty by law," it said. "His conversion to Christianity is public knowledge, which serves only to heighten the danger he would face."


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