June 17, 2017

Until quite recently, he was called Ali. But, since Easter, life of this Iraqi of Muslim confession has fundamentally changed. Seven months after his arrival in Germany, he decided to convert. He is now a Protestant, and his name is Adam, a name that he always liked. “I experience an indescribable sentiment, this is a new birth for me,” tells this technician who, in Iraq, was specialised in the maintenance of medical appliances.

Adam is far from being a unique case. Even if churches do not provide any number, it is clear that at least a few thousands of refugees, who arrived in Germany recently, have been converted to Protestantism. In Stuttgart, priest Hanna Josua, responsible of the Evangelical Arab Community of the city, who baptised Adam and seven other people coming from Syria and Iraq on Easter, will be baptising an entire family in the upcoming weeks. In other German cities, this phenomenon is even more evident. In Hamburg, 196 Afghans and Iranians have already been baptised by the priest Albert Babajan, responsible of the Church of Alpha and Omega of the Persian Christian community. According to him, five hundred more cases will follow this year. In Berlin, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Trinity encounters a similar flood of refugees. Each hour of the day it is possible to hear more Persian than German at this Protestant Church on the calm street of Stieglitz, situated in the south of Berlin.

On April 23, not less than twenty-five people coming from Iran and Afghanistan— in majority men, but also a few women with children, were baptised there. On February 27, fifteen others were converted to Christianity. And twenty-five on March 12… Each time, Church is jammed, with only a handful of Germans, often aged. At the head of a community that counts 945 believers, against 659 a year ago, Gottfried Martens is an overwhelmed pastor. For the first time, this lively fifty-year-old could not achieve to write his annual activity report before the assembly of March 1. Intrigued by the surprising phenomenon of conversions, president of the Christian Democrat group at the German Parliament, Volker Kauder, even visited this exceptional parish.

All started in 2008, when two converted Iranian refugees quit Leipzig for Berlin and joined this Church, considered as conservative. Since then, hundreds of Iranians and Afghans came there regularly. On May 4, only fifteen minutes were necessary for Gottfried Martens and for his translator to fetch and browse through the document of presence listing 222 names. People listed on this document, who want to convert, and who will pursue, during an hour and a half, a course on ‘prayer’, also pursued a week ago, meticulously, a course on a different aspect of Christianity. ‘Contrary to Islam, Christian prayer is not a duty to fulfil in a precise moment of the day. There is not a precise formulation of prayer either. God is our father. Neither God nor anybody else tells us how many times in a day we should talk to him, or what to tell him’. ‘We can tell everything to him. The important thing is to thank him. It is good to thank him at least once in a day. We should be honest when we pray. Certain attitudes can help. Putting the hands together and closing the eyes, for example… But, if you pray while driving, I don’t advise that,’ he continued, colouring his lesson with notes of a rather dry humour.

Even though only a small minority of the audience takes notes, the participants are quite attentive. Smartphones stay in the pockets. It is true that, in front of each pew, small papers written in German and Persian are quite direct: ‘God is always present. We respect him. One who talks during the mass or uses his smartphone shows that he does not respect Jesus Christ.’

‘I don’t want a sad God’

At the end of the course, Gottfried Martens hugs the men and women that he did not have the occasion to meet in the beginning of the meeting. Clearly, he knows them all. This man, direct and wholehearted, and who speaks a little of Persian, inspires confidence to his flock. Some travel more than an hour to be able to listen to the pastor. Like Artemas, a 33-year-old Iranian who was converted four years ago, and who comes to Steglitz almost each week, despite the fact that he lives in quite a remote neighbourhood. ‘In Iran, I have compared different religions. Catholicism appeared to me to be the strictest, almost like Islam. I preferred Protestantism’ explains Artemas, who sells cars in Germany. According to him, ‘a lot of people renounce Islam, because they find this religion too severe.’

It is not easy to convert. Even he follows the courses of Gottfried Martens, an Iranian, aged 29, who arrived in Berlin a few months ago and who wants to stay anonymous, still hesitates. ‘I am a Muslim, but I don’t want a sad God and a God that kills. In Iran, I already started looking for information on other religions, but police surveils the places where we can obtain knowledge. Here, I look for what corresponds to my convictions. Catholicism is too strict. I don’t fear being Christian, but it is not easy to renounce Islam without renouncing by the same account one’s family’. In Stuttgart, Adam confides that he converted to Christianity, because, when he quit Baghdad, his mother, a Chaldean Catholic, gave him the green light. Besides, his father, Muslim, is deceased.

Suspicion lingers over these converts. Did they convert to Christianity only for making their eventual return to their countries more dangerous, and thereby forcing Germany giving them residence permit? Some large Churches, especially the Catholic, don’t feel at ease with this curious rise of conversions. ‘The majority of priests are not favourable to the conversions,’ concedes Hanna Josue, of Lebanese origin. ‘Big Churches hesitate talking about this phenomenon, because they want to avoid conflicts, and they fear problems in their inter-religious dialogue. This is a very sensible matter for Muslims’ explains Jörn Thielmann, who leads the Centre for Islam and Law in Europe, at the Bavarian university of Erlangen-Nuremberg, and who edited an important collection titled Islam and Muslims in Germany.

Protestant Church published, by the end of 2013, a booklet of thirty pages for helping pastors to ‘manage the desire of asylum seekers to baptise’. Certainly, these demands of conversion are positive for the parishes that are slowly deserted. ‘However,’ adds Thielmann, ‘the pastors are sometimes hunted by the doubt: was this conversion seriously thought through? Was it only for assuring the stay in Germany? Have I, as a pastor, sufficiently indicated that a conversion does not automatically protect from a possible expulsion? Should I recommend a longer preparation period before approving the conversion?’ Catholic Church comes across as more meticulous before proceeding to the conversion of an asylum seeker; it demands a year of preparation. To its part, the Ministry of Interior declares that conversions do not guarantee obtaining the right of asylum.

For Gottfried Martens, the fear that asylum seekers try to convert to Christianity because simply of personal interest is not unfounded. Despite the announcements, some refugees consider that conversion would increase their chances of staying in Germany. A 47-year-old Afghan tells, ‘I came to Germany five years ago, but, since two moths, I haven’t received any money and they tell me to go back to Afghanistan. It is impossible: Taliban threatens me, because, when I was there, I had worked with Médecins sans frontières. It is only due to this reason that I left Afghanistan with my family. I also converted to Christianity, because, I need to believe, and I want my kids to stay in Germany. My wife remained Muslim.’

When he received in his parish the deputy of Christian Democrat Party, Volker Kauder, Gottfried Martens denounced the violence that converts face in shelters. Perpetrators are not only other refugees, but also, more surprisingly, the security agents who are, to a large extent, Muslim. For this reason, many converts refuse to declare their conversion. Gottfried Martens thinks that, given the violence they suffer, we cannot say that these conversions were solely motivated by self-interest. ‘Only six percent of parishioners who are of Afghan or Persian origin did not take part in the communion last year against one-third of German parishioners,’ he adds, checking his activity report.

Hanna Josua is determined, ‘I don’t baptise the one who does not belong to our community, who did not follow our intensive courses, and who is not himself convinced, and who insults Islam’. ‘I started baptising the converts in 1990s. They are, even today, the first to wish me a merry Christmas or Easter,’ he adds. The role of Hanna Josua and Gottfried Martens is not only spiritual. It is, without doubt, what lies behind their success. Hanna Josua resumes, ‘Baptising is only a small part of our work. We translate the documents, look for accommodation, we try to find some close-by friends when they move to a different area. We have a network everywhere in the south of Germany. We know how difficult it could be to integrate.’

In regard to Gottfried Martens, he installed two little dormitories in the basement of his parish for welcoming homeless refugees. Each Sunday, after the mass, volunteers prepare ‘delicious Afghan and Persian dishes’ for approximately four hundred people. An important initiative for refugees who are often overwhelmed by loneliness.


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