Churches warned of ‘potential damage’ over involvement in asylum cases

The reputation of Christian churches could be damaged if they are viewed as undermining the integrity of the asylum system, Home Office sources warned as further details emerged about alkali attack suspect Abdul Ezedi.

He was granted asylum by a judge who accepted he was a Christian convert despite concerns the sex offender was a liar, court records show.

Ezedi’s body was pulled from the River Thames last month following a major manhunt launched after he was suspected of dousing his ex-girlfriend with alkali when he pounced on her and her children, aged eight and three, in Clapham, south London, in January.

A raft of previously confidential documents revealed how Ezedi had been allowed to stay in the UK even though he had a criminal conviction.

Abdul Ezedi court case
Abdul Ezedi (left) being baptised (Judicial Office/PA)

The rarely-made-public immigration tribunal court papers showed the lengths the Afghan national went to evidence his religious conversion from Islam, and how some of those who supported him during the process were aware of his crimes.

He even signed an agreement to be effectively escorted during church services as a result.

Clapham Common incident
Police launched a major manhunt for Abdul Ezedi earlier this year (Metropolitan Police/PA)

The case sparked widespread debate about the role religion plays in determining asylum claims, while also raising questions over how the Government and courts scrutinise the validity of evidence presented in applications.

In the wake of the Clapham attack, Home Secretary James Cleverly called in church leaders to discuss the issues around the case.

A source close to Mr Cleverly said: “The Home Secretary called a meeting with the vast majority of senior representatives of Christian denominations in this country in the wake of the appalling attack this man carried out, and the role Christian conversion had played in an asylum tribunal when the Home Office had turned him down twice.

“We wanted to relay the potential damage to those churches of being seen, rightly or wrongly, as acting against the integrity of our asylum system where Christian conversion has been brought up at appeal.

“In this case the consequences were appalling.

“That reputational risk is only amplified by the fact some who denied knowledge of Ezedi at the time had in fact known of him within their church, and had supported and vouched for him.”

Ezedi arrived in the UK on January 8 2016 but his initial asylum claim was refused by the Home Office, with an appeal later rejected by the courts the following year, according to the documents.

He was handed a suspended sentence at Newcastle Crown Court on January 9 2018 after pleading guilty to charges of sexual assault and exposure, instead being placed on the sex offender register for 10 years and ordered to carry out 200 hours of unpaid work.

Just over a year later, on March 19 2019, he challenged the decision again by lodging an appeal with the First-tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber), arguing he feared persecution because of his religion.

The papers confirm his claim was granted after a hearing in Newcastle on October 28 2020.

Lawyers representing Ezedi argued he had “converted from Shia Islam to Christianity (Baptist).

“The punishment for this in sharia law which is practised in Afghanistan would be execution,” the documents said, adding that he “enjoys practising and sharing his Christian faith with others”.

But, during proceedings, the Home Office’s legal team said the Government department did not accept Ezedi’s conversion was “genuine and long-lasting”.

Ezedi was “prepared to deceive” and “use religion for his own ends” and had been unable to demonstrate a “clear understanding of Christian principles and beliefs”, according to court records of the Home Office’s submissions.

In a ruling dated November 10 2020, Judge WK O’Hanlon, sitting in the First-tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber), said: “Having considered all of the evidence before me in the round, notwithstanding my concerns as to the honesty of the appellant (Ezedi) in relation to certain aspects of his account, I find that the appellant had been consistent in his evidence with regard to his conversion to Christianity.”

“Having taken all of these factors into account, I am satisfied … the appellant has undergone a genuine conversion from his former Muslim faith to Christianity and that accordingly … would be at risk in the event of return to Afghanistan.

“I therefore allow his asylum appeal,” he added.

The judge found the “most compelling evidence” was from Reverend Roy Merrin, former ministry team leader at Grange Road Baptist Church in Jarrow, who said he had known Ezedi for four years and that he attended church regularly.

Abdul Ezedi court case
Abdul Ezedi (left) handing out church leaflets in the street (Judicial Office/PA)

The Reverend told the court he was “aware of people who fraudulently claimed conversion with ulterior motives in relation to asylum but did not consider the appellant (Ezedi) was such a person”, the court documents said, adding: “This showed he (the Reverend) was alive to the possibilities of being used by asylum claimants but did not consider that appellant was such a case.”