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For Some Muslim Asylum-Seekers In Germany, Christianity Beckons

In Berlin, the Rev. Gottfried Martens lights a candle during a service to baptize Iranians in the Trinity Church. Iranian and Afghan converts make up most of the 900-member congregation.
Markus Schreiber
In Berlin, the Rev. Gottfried Martens lights a candle during a service to baptize Iranians in the Trinity Church. Iranian and Afghan converts make up most of the 900-member congregation.

Chancellor Angela Merkel says Islam is an integral part of modern-day Germany. But that hasn't kept thousands of Muslim asylum seekers from giving up their faith to become Christians in recent years.

The reasons they convert are complicated. Take Daoud Rahimi, for instance.

The 20-year-old Afghan, who arrived in Germany a few months ago, was one of dozens of asylum seekers attending a recent baptism class at the evangelical Lutheran Trinity Church in a Berlin suburb.

Like other Afghans seeking refugee status whom I've interviewed across Germany, Rahimi is quick to affirm his Muslim faith. After some prodding, he nervously admits he might convert to Christianity to avoid deportation, especially now that the German government is negotiating with Kabul to repatriate many Afghan migrants.

"If my country were safe, that wouldn't be a problem," says Rahimi, who is from a Taliban-rife province called Ghazni. "But it isn't, and if I return, my life will be in danger."

At Trinity, the Rev. Gottfried Martens says he sympathizes with Rahimi and others in his situation, but says that becoming Christian must be about faith and not fear. Martens says he or church elders interview students during their three-month baptism class to make sure their desire to convert is sincere. So far, Martens has converted hundreds.

"I talk to them personally to see whether they are really convinced that they are Christians, whether they really know the basics of the Christian faith," he says. "And when I see that this is not the case, then I don't baptize them, of course."

A Conversion Can Mean Permission To Stay

Those who are baptized here and at other churches get more than a new faith — they also get to stay in Germany.

Under EU rules, migrants aren't deported if they face persecution in their home countries for being converts. The EU provision can be especially important for Iranians and Afghans seeking asylum in Germany, given that they otherwise would have a difficult time gaining refugee status. In Iran and Afghanistan, penalties for conversion can include imprisonment or death.

Even so, converts are relatively few when compared to 4 million Muslims living in Germany. The exact number is unknown because German authorities do not track the religion of asylum seekers.

Martens says conversion is not an easy choice for these Muslims, since those who do convert are often ostracized, harassed or worse by relatives, friends and neighbors.

At Trinity, ex-Muslim converts dominate the active congregation of 900. Three-quarters of the congregation are Iranian. Most of the others are Afghan.

During the recent baptism class, Martens explained the meaning of Holy Communion in German, which a congregant translated into Farsi. The pastor said many of his Iranian students are already well versed in Christian practices, thanks to an underground evangelical movement in the Islamic Republic that comes from abroad and takes place in secret in people's homes.

"There is a big awakening going on in Iran at the moment," Martens says. "There are serious estimations going from 500,000 to 1 million secret Christians in Iran and the secret service is trying to find them. And when they find them, of course, they have to flee and so they come here."

New Continent, New Religion

Disillusionment is also a strong motivator for conversions, said Jörn Thielmann, who heads the Erlangen Center for Islam and Law in Europe.

"In many cases, they grew apart from Islam after seeing it politicized or misused," he says.

Silas, a 25-year-old Trinity congregant who goes by his adopted Christian name, says he experienced that kind of disillusionment. The Iranian Kurd, who wears a silver cross necklace, refused to give his family name because it would endanger his relatives back in the Islamic Republic.

"When I was a teenager, I lived in Tehran, and because I was Sunni, I was in constant conflict with Shiites," Silas recalls. "So I studied a lot about my religion because I wanted to understand why we were better. In the end, what I concluded is that Islam was a big lie that a lot of people were falling for," he says bitterly.

Silas says he fled to Norway in 2012, after Iranian authorities tried to recruit him to spy on Iraqi Kurdish clans connected to his own. His asylum claim was rejected and the Norwegians tried to deport him.

He says he fled to Germany last winter and has been granted sanctuary by the Berlin church, which is protecting him while a six-month statute of limitations on his extradition to Norway runs out. After that period, Germany can consider him for asylum.

But Silas said that's not why he converted. His belief, he says, was born in a German camp on the border with Poland, where he made a friend who had a Bible.

"When I started to read the Bible, it changed me," he says. "I had a lot of questions and Pastor Martens said I should come to class and ask my questions. At first, I didn't want to be a Christian, I just wanted to understand it. But the more answers I got, the more I wanted to stay and I realized I was finding God."

He was baptized in May. Silas says he's so committed to his new faith that even if he were to be deported back to Iran, he would never give it up.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.