Mohammed Ali Zonoobi bends his head as the priest pours holy water over his black hair. “Will you break away from Islam?” pastor Gottfried Martens asks the Iranian refugee.
“Yes,” Zonoobi replies. Spreading his hands in blessing, Martens then baptises the man “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”
Mohammed is now Martin — no longer Muslim, but Christian.
Zonoobi, a carpenter from the Iranian city of Shiraz, arrived in Germany with his wife and two children five months ago. He is one of hundreds of mostly Iranian and Afghan asylum seekers who have converted to Christianity at the evangelical Trinity Church in a leafy Berlin neighbourhood.
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Like Zonoobi, most say true belief prompted their embrace of Christianity. But there’s no overlooking the fact that the decision will also greatly boost their chances of winning asylum by allowing them to claim they would face persecution if sent home.
Martens says that some convert to improve their chances of staying in Germany — but for the pastor motivation is unimportant. Many, he said, are so taken by the Christian message that it changes their lives. And he estimates that only about 10 percent of converts do not return to church after christening.
“I know there are — again and again — people coming here because they have some kind of hope regarding their asylum,” Martens said. “I am inviting them to join us because I know that whoever comes here will not be left unchanged.”
Being Christian alone does not help an applicant, and Chancellor Angela Merkel went out of her way this week to reiterate that Islam “belongs in Germany”. But in Afghanistan and Iran, for example, conversion to Christianity could be punished by death or imprisonment, and it is therefore unlikely that Germany would deport converted Iranian and Afghan refugees back home.
None will openly admit to converting in order to help their asylum chances. To do so could result in rejection of their asylum bid and deportation as Christian converts. Several candidates for baptism at Martens’ church would not give their names out of fear of repercussions for their families back home.
Most said their decision was based on belief, but one Iranian woman said she was convinced most people had joined the church only to improve their chances for asylum.
Congregation member Vesam Heydari initially applied for asylum in Norway and converted there in 2009. But his case was rejected because the Norwegian authorities did not believe he would be persecuted as a Christian in Iran, so he moved to Germany to seek refugee status here — and is awaiting a decision. He criticised many of the other Iranian church members, saying they were making it much harder for “real, persecuted Christians’’ like himself to get asylum.
“The majority of Iranians here are not converting out of belief,’’ Heydari said. “They only want to stay in Germany.”
Meanwhile, as other churches across Germany struggle with dwindling numbers of believers, Martens has seen his congregation swell from 150 just two years to more than 600 parishioners now — with a seemingly unending flow of new refugees finding the way to his congregation.
Some come from cities as far away as Rostock on the Baltic Sea, having found out by word-of-mouth that Martens not only baptises Muslims after a three-month “crash course’’, but also helps them with asylum pleas.
Other Christian communities across Germany, among them Lutheran churches in Hannover and the Rhineland, have also reported growing numbers of Iranians converting to Christendom. There are no exact numbers on how many Muslims have converted in Germany in recent years — and they are a tiny minority compared to the country’s overall 4 million Muslims. But at least for Berlin, Martens describes the number of conversions as nothing short of a “miracle”. And he says he has at least another 80 people waiting to be baptised.
Zonoobi, who dressed all in white for his baptism on Sunday, said he had attended secret religious services in Iran ever since friends introduced him to the Bible at age 18. He decided to flee to Germany after several Christian friends were arrested for practicing their religion. For Zonoobi and his wife Afsaneh — who now goes by Katarina — the christening marks a new beginning.
“Now we are free and can be ourselves,” she said. “Most important, I am happy that our children will have a good future here.”