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Strasbourg continues orthodox approach to Iranian Christian converts


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In A v Switzerland (application no. 60342/16), the European Court of Human Rights considered the risk of ill treatment on return to Iran for Christian converts. In this case the applicant had converted to Christianity whilst seeking asylum in Switzerland; a sur place asylum claim.

The applicant was unsuccessful, primarily on the basis that regardless of whether it was accepted that A had in fact converted to Christianity, the evidence about how he practised or manifested his faith showed that he was unlikely to come to the adverse attention of the Iranian authorities. The court found that the applicant’s deportation to Iran would not give rise to a violation of Articles 2 or 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

This conclusion relies on the widely accepted position amongst decision-makers in this field that ill treatment by the Iranian authorities is only likely in the case of a Christian convert who seeks to evangelise or proselytise upon return to Iran. The court referred to the decision of the Grand Chamber in F.G. v. Sweden (application no. 43611/11) which extensively considered the evidence on Christian converts in Iran. The court also quoted from our own beloved Home Office and its Country Policy and Information Note on Iran, amongst a number of sources, to update the position since F.G. v Sweden was decided in 2016.

The question of whether or not a Christian convert will seek to proselytise upon return to Iran will be a familiar one to asylum lawyers. In this case it was concluded that the applicant’s claim had undergone significant scrutiny “at two levels of jurisdiction in two sets of proceedings”. There was no evidence put forward that the applicant would seek to publicly practise his faith in Iran.

As the court noted at paragraph 43:

…the domestic authorities in the present case did not base their conclusions on a rejection of the applicant’s conversion as not being credible. Albeit expressing doubts as to whether his conversion was genuine and lasting, they considered that Christian converts would, in any event, only face a real risk of ill-treatment upon return to Iran if they manifested their faith in a manner that would lead to them being perceived as a threat to the Iranian authorities.

The applicant’s case was distinguished from the circumstances in C‑71/11 and C‑99/11 Bundesrepublik Deutschland v Y. The applicants in those cases were found to be at risk because the public practice of their faith was essential to their religious identity.

This decision comes hard on the heels of the Court of Appeal’s decision in AS (Iran) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2017] EWCA Civ 1539, discussed in a recent Free Movement post by Thomas Beamont. While ostensibly based upon a similar assessment of whether the appellant would seek to proselytise, AS was arguably a more nuanced decision. As Thomas explains, the court in AS was asked to consider if conversion to Christianity was part of one’s identity and, if so, whether it would be inconsistent with the Supreme Court decision in HJ (Iran) [2010] UKSC 31 to be required to conceal that identity to remain safe.

A v Switzerland does not significantly alter the law but should serve as a further reminder that when considering the claims of Iranian Christian converts, it is necessary not just to consider whether as a matter of fact someone has converted, but in addition whether, as part of the nature of their own belief, they will seek to convert others in their country of return.

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Individual religious belief is often an extremely personal matter, and may not lend itself easily to an assessment based simply upon knowledge of religious doctrine. As Colin Yeo noted in an informative post on the subject, “actions speak louder than words” when dealing with claims based on religious belief. Often a detailed assessment of a claimant’s own religious practice, their engagement with other believers, and their understanding of the duties of their faith will be instructive. In this way it is possible to say whether someone will be forced to modify their behaviour upon return to avoid ill treatment (which would give rise to a viable claim for asylum), or whether they can continue to manifest their faith as they have since conversion without a modification of their behaviour on return to their home country.

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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