Salman Barbari was born in Iran to a strict Muslim family from Afghanistan. But last month he got baptized and became a Christian at Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin, creating dire potential consequences for his future and safety in the process.
That's because under Islamic law, Barbari could be sent to jail in Iran for converting to Christianity. In Afghanistan, he could be put to death. But his conversion could also allow Barbari to stay in Germany. He is applying for asylum here, and under German law, migrants like himself can’t be deported if they face persecution at home.
Barbari told VICE News his conversion is sincere. “I didn’t get baptized to get asylum or anything like that.”
The German government may not believe him. It has rejected more than 90 percent of recent asylum applications submitted by members of Trinity Lutheran’s congregation.
Pastor Gottfried Martens’ ministry has focused on migrants since 2015. Today, 1,400 of his 1,600 congregants are Iranian and Afghan. Martens is furious that the German government is getting ready to deport both long-time Christians and recent converts like Barbari, who have completed three-month-long baptism classes at Trinity Lutheran as well as baptism exams.
“The state is a kind of secular version of the Holy Inquisition,” Martens told VICE News, “because the state says we can look into the heart of those people and can say who is the true Christian and who is not.”
The rejections themselves come in the form letters filled with template text blocks that often question the authenticity of a convert’s beliefs. The fact that the decisions are based on short interviews conducted by administrators who have no religious background is particularly frustrating to Martens.
“I think a secular state is not able or not allowed to make such judgments about the faith of people.”
The increase in rejections may seem surprising given who is running the German government. Chancellor Angela Merkel is both the head of the Christian Democratic party and the daughter of Lutheran pastor. But she also faced significant backlash against her migrant-friendly policies in the months leading up to Germany’s national elections last year. During that time, Germany processed more asylum applications than all other EU countries combined. Since then asylum approvals have dropped.
Andrea Lindholz, a member of the governing Christian Social Union, says rejections are not politically motivated.
“Different aspects play a role. How did the person live his life in his country? How did he practice his faith there? Why did he decide to convert and how is he living his faith day to day?” Lindholz told VICE News. “In that context the pastor can only be one consideration and not the only one.”
Lindholz emphasized that simply converting is not enough to receive asylum, even if converts could face repercussions in their home countries.
“I don’t want to rule out that wrong decisions were made, but there is the possibility” of appealing rejections in court, she said. “It is a tough topic, and you will never find a satisfying solution.”
This segment originally aired March 21, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.