The Muslim refugees converting to Christianity 'to find safety'
Josie Ensor, Beirut
THE TELEGRAPH, 30 JANUARY 2017 • 12:24PM
Lebanese and Syrian Christian Maronites pray for peace in Syria. The majority of Lebanon's two million refugees are Syrian CREDIT: REUTERS
Ibrahim Ali remembers his first church service well. The smell of the candles, the cheap plywood pews, and the hymn singing that sounded so foreign to him at the time.
The 57-year-old Muslim Syrian never imagined that when he fled to neighbouring Lebanon to seek refuge from the war that he would end up converting to Christianity.
But Mr Ali is not alone. Hundreds of Muslim refugees living in Lebanon have been baptised in the past year alone.
The situation for refugees in the country - which is hosting more than a million and a half Syrians that make up a quarter of its total population - has become increasingly dire over the course of the six-year conflict.
Some say they converted to benefit from the generous aid distributed by Christian charities, others to help their asylum applications to Europe, the United States, Canada and elsewhere.
Christian converts are more likely to be persecuted in the Middle East than those who stay Muslims, and are thus more eligible for asylum.
Converting to Christianity is virtually unheard of in Syria, where Islam is dominant and freedom of religion is limited. But Lebanon has a sizeable Christian population and a growing number of evangelical churches, which began springing up across the country in response to the crisis over the border.
Mr Ali fled his home in the countryside of Aleppo for Lebanon shortly after the war started in 2011. He left his wife and seven children behind in the hope of raising some money to send back.
He got a job as a street cleaner and lived in basic accommodation provided by the company. He kept most of his salary with his boss - with no bank account and no home he thought it was the safest place for it.
After three years he decided to leave, but his boss refused to pay him the $10,000 in wages he was owed.
CREDIT: SAM TARLING
As a refugee he had no recourse. While he had had a valid residency permit when he first arrived, Lebanon had since tightened the rules, meaning Mr Ali was now considered to be living in the country illegally.
He could not return home as Aleppo was plagued by fighting, so he resorted to begging on the streets.
One day in spring of last year he met an Iraqi Christian in a cafe in the poor Beirut suburb of Bourj Hammoud. He told Mr Ali that the church nextdoor was handing out food packages to refugees.
He went the next day to the Anglican Church of God.
They offered him a bed, two hot meals a day and a small monthly stipend, on the condition he agreed to attend their weekly Bible study sessions.
“Almost everyone attending the classes was Muslim. Mostly Syrian and Iraqi refugees. I’d never seen anything like it - Muslims singing about Jesus,” he laughed.
He was asked if he wanted to convert and - along with a dozen or so other members of the group - was baptised last April. He was given a new Christian name - Abed al-Massih, meaning Slave of Christ in Arabic.
“Changing religion in the Middle East is a very big thing,” said Mr Ali. “In Syria you very occasionally hear of Christians converting to Islam but never the other way round.
“A lot of people are doing it to get to Europe, the US and Canada. While I plan to stay in Lebanon, I know hundreds who been baptised just to help their applications. They would do anything to have security for their family.”
Alia al-Haji is one of them. The 29-year-old, her husband and three young children, attend a church in the nearby Christian neighbourhood of Achrafiyeh.
“The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) tells us it doesn’t help your application to be Christian, but that’s not our experience,” she said.
“The Lebanese hate the refugees, so they make life as hard for us as possible. My son is sick and we can’t afford medicine. My husband is not allowed to work - I feel we will die here if we stay,” said Mrs Haji, who uses a pseudonym as her family in Syria do not know of her plans to convert.
Once baptised, she plans to apply to Canada for asylum.
The Hajis live in a one-bedroom apartment with two other families, none of whom have work permits.
Mrs Haji is considered one of the lucky ones. Most Syrian refugees spend years in camps, dependent on handouts.
Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s new president, last week warned that the country could no longer support the burgeoning number of refugees and that the government would begin sending them back to “safe zones” in Syria.
Pastor Said Deeb at the Church of God, where Mr Ali was baptised, said scores of refugees come to him every week.
“I have people begging me to help them become Christian,” he told the Telegraph from his office above the church in Bourj Hammoud. “They think it will help them claim asylum abroad. They say ‘just baptise me, I will believe in whoever just to leave here’.”
Some charities accuse the evangelical churches of exploiting the refugees’ situation by pressuring them to convert.
In response to claims of encouraging “rice Christians” - a pejorative term used to describe someone who has formally declared themselves a Christian for material benefits rather than for religious reasons - Pastor Deeb said that he expected people to first come to Christian agencies for practical help.
“But even if they come for the food and clothing, we see that God changes their hearts," he said. “We never force anyone into the religion, it must be their choice, they must accept Jesus.”
Conversions in the Middle East are fraught with difficulties and dangers. People that decide to change their religion often face being cast out by their communities.
Pastor Deeb said he has received dozens of calls and messages from the friends and relatives of those he has baptised, threatening to kill him for encouraging “apostasy”.
When Mr Ali’s family, who come from a small, conservative village outside Aleppo, found out what he had done they refused to accept it.
“They told me I was dead to them, that I was to never come back to Syria as I had bought shame on them. They even held a funeral for me and told everyone I had died. They’d rather that then tell them I had left Islam."