A recent op-ed by a theologian in one of Sweden’s largest newspapers describes the “religious illiteracy” with which the migration office here addresses the cases of asylum seekers who have changed religion since arriving in Sweden.
He argues that as a country which has religious freedom enshrined in its laws, and a high value for human rights, those who act as judges over the legitimacy of asylum applications should at least have basic competencies in understanding religion and religious journeys.
Unfortunately, it is usually the opposite, with migration officers having little more understanding of conversion processes than your average non-religious Swede.
At the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 I carried out fieldwork among unaccompanied refugee minors who had converted to Christianity in the Church of Sweden.
In the lead up to this project, I had conversations with many friends and acquaintances on the research I would be doing and I noticed a surprising trend. Almost everyone I spoke to said the same thing:
“Aren’t they converting so that they can stay in Sweden?”
It didn’t matter where the person came from or what their level of academic expertise, the question seemed to come up in every conversation.
Over time, I began to feel outraged at this default assumption, since conversion journeys have been shown to be much more complex than this in both academic literature and my own experience.
The young men I interviewed and spent time with for my study struck me as more genuine than most young people of their age I had met from Europe. They were devoted members of their churches and had often been part of the churches for several years before they were able to be baptised and be considered officially part of the congregation. By the time they were baptised, many had already received their residency.
Some had been shunned by their families and friends because they had decided to convert. Some had faced persecution from people from their homelands within Sweden. And yet they stood by their decision.
Priests described how these young men had revitalised their ailing congregations. They were extremely committed and very serious about learning the Bible and putting it into practice.
One priest told me that working with these young men had given him a love for his job that he didn’t have before, that he now got to do the things that the church are meant to be doing.
All of this brings me back to an important point. We need to learn to listen to those we judge. To really listen.
And when we don’t understand what we hear, to spend time developing the competency we need to make sense of it.
Because in this situation lives depend on it. We can’t let illiteracy and incompetence lead to the pointless deaths of those who have embraced European life to the full, who have begun to believe that they can decide how they self identify.
I hope that the Swedish migration office heeds this advice and reconsiders how it judges cases of religious conversion.