Sometimes a news organization will report that migrants are converting to Christianity, and it’s obvious that the conversion allows them to make a refugee claim, if they come from a country where Christians are persecuted. As new Christians, they can say they will be punished or even killed if they are deported to their home country, since they have converted away from the approved religion. In Iran, for example, the only religious conversion permitted, is to Islam, and I imagine that means to the approved sect of Shia Islam. Saudi Arabia has a similar policy, and conversion away from Islam, apostasy, can be punished by death.
There are many places in the world where conversion away from the religion of the ancestors, and of the government, can bring severe punishment. Many of those countries are Islamic, but I’m sure a Buddhist in Myanmar (Burma) or possibly Thailand would cause an offense if they converted away from the national religion. I don’t know if they would be punished severely, but I’m sure they would be criticized.
I have met a woman from a conservative Dutch immigrant family in Canada, and she has decided to attend a church that the family does not approve of. They are fiercely loyal to their Christian Reformed Church, and they don’t like the choice that she made, so many of them have cut off contact with her. This is a painful experience for her.
When I was a young man, I lived in my parents’ house after graduation. I am grateful that they gave me a home while I struggled to start a career, but I learned there was a cost. I met some Christians in a small church, and went to some of their meetings and made some new friends. It all ended when one of them phoned my parents home to invite me to a meeting, and my mother took the call. She informed them that no-one from our family attended a church like theirs. I don’t know what else she said, but they never contacted me again.
In defense of my mother, I mostly forgot the incident, but it really bothered her. Before she died, she talked to me privately and apologized for what she said. I don’t know what else she said on the phone, but points for Mom. She did apologize.
Many years ago, a family that I knew, moved to a rural county in Canada to start a new church. Strangely, many of the old families that settled in that region were radical socialists, and even communists. It was like a Bible belt, but without the Bibles. Family members told me, when they sat down for supper, angry neighbors would walk into the house and shout at them. Those neighbors didn’t want any Christian churches in their district, and they drove the family away. Eventually the family moved to the city, where I knew them.
Forced conformity is a human problem, and it’s the way the world is. Many countries have national religions, and many families have an approved faith, and conversion away, to some other belief, is often a crime. Leaving the received orthodoxy is apostasy.
Now, new converts to Christianity are appearing in large numbers among migrants and refugee claimants. We all know that millions of people are migrating from poverty and oppression to places with better economies and more freedom. The news is filled with stories about migrants traveling over land and sea, for a better life, and many among them are converting to Christianity. One example is Iranians who travel to Turkey. Many of them become Christians in Turkey and then apply to move to western countries.
So, how should we respond to these possibly fake Christians?
- We can’t force anyone to follow the religion of the home country, if they don’t want to. Shallow conformity at home is not sincere belief. All forms of slavery are wrong, including religious oppression, and we should expect people to explore and make new choices, in a free society.
- Many of the “fake” Christians are really sincere. Jesus said “Come unto me” and that is what I did. My new brothers and sisters are welcome when they make the same choice. For example, I know Bibles are common in prison, and many convicted criminals claim to be Christian believers. Religion is not a get-out-of jail card, there is no social advantage, so again, welcome to anyone who is sincere.
- This is a chicken-and-egg question. What came first? Did people move away from an oppressive society because they wanted to explore a forbidden option? One of the fastest growing Christian communities in the world is in Iran, for example. The faith of Jesus is often secretive and underground there, and believers and inquirers might be escaping to freedom, so they can grow in their faith.
- Some might be faking, using the faith of Jesus to gain some social advantage. But if they quickly flipped from the old religion, I’m sure they didn’t believe that either, and not believing is always an option. I used to lead a Bible study group in a church, and people from other religions would join us to improve their English. We tried to be honest and bold about our faith in Jesus, and some stayed, while others moved on. We could not see into their hearts, and we let them not-believe.
- For all Christians; we are supposed to be kind. If anyone comes to a church, for any reason, I hope they will be welcomed. We must be who we are.
When we think about it, the problem of refugees who convert is no problem at all. God made us all to be free, and so did the United Nations.
This “problem” is not a new idea, it was an issue among the early Christians, and the answer in the Bible is clear;
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice (Philippians 1: 15 to 18)
I believe that there are millions of Christian believers who keep their faith secret. I also believe that God is working in this world, and there will be millions more in the next few years. Technology like the Internet, and cell phones, and portable computers allows us to communicate without controls. I know from experience, one of the topics in this electronic universe is Jesus.
Are you reading this on a computer or on your phone? How hard was it to dial in, and who else knows what you are reading? Multiply your experience by seven of eight billion, and you have the new world. Jesus said:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11: 28 to 30)