In 2018, when the Reverend Matthew Firth took up his new post at St Cuthbert’s, the church which has been at the heart of the north-eastern market town of Darlington since the 12th century, he was eager to bring new souls to the faith he passionately believes in.
It didn’t take long, however, for Matthew to figure out that there was something suspicious about the large number of souls from the Middle East who were queuing up to be converted to Christianity.
“When I arrived, lots of adult baptisms were already booked in, which was highly unusual. The vast majority, if not all of them, were asylum seekers who had already failed in their initial application for asylum. Clearly, if you were rejected, the next step was to book in for baptism,” Matthew told me on Thursday on the phone from his home in York.
All of the candidates for baptism at St Cuthbert’s were men, mainly from Iran and Syria. The new vicar decided to allow some of the services to go ahead – “I felt I had to honour them, I wasn’t going to just cancel” – but, when they took place, he says the baptisms felt like a kind of performance.
“I got the distinct impression that people were trying to put on a sense of emotion that their baptism had happened, So, when the photos are taken, it looks as though they’re absolutely overwhelmed with emotion. To create a situation where it looks as though this is totally above board and genuine.”
Usually, the relatives of the newly baptised take a few discreet photos. A vast number of pictures were taken at the baptisms of the asylum seekers. To the astonished reverend, it looked like a professional job. “All of a sudden, literally, a couple of hours later, you’d spot on Facebook that all of their Facebook banner pictures and profile pictures have been changed to the baptism photos. All of them, just flooded with baptism photos.
“And, again, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is to present a case. It’s to say, ‘Look at my Facebook profile! It’s full of Christian stuff. I’m a genuine Christian.’ But this was literally overhauling a Facebook profile to create a new brand [for themselves].”
Money has changed hands
The Cambridge astrophysics graduate, who left the Church of England in 2020 and is now a vicar for the Free Church of England, realised he had stumbled upon “a conveyor belt, a veritable industry of asylum baptisms”. It was a blatant transaction.
As Matthew recalls, “There was one particular individual who was a Muslim who had gained permission to stay in England. He wasn’t seeking baptism himself, because he’d been granted asylum. And he was always around and he would bring cohorts of these people seeking asylum to the church. It would usually be after the service.
“So, I’d be at the back shaking hands with the regular congregation as they were leaving, and this Muslim guy would bring these people to me and he would immediately say, ‘These want baptism, these want baptism, these want baptism’.”
On occasions, Matthew claims he even saw money changing hands. “I observed things, you know, quietly slipping in the pocket, people slipping him money.”
Good grief. You mean actual physical cash? “Yeah, I saw that happening. Now, it’s obviously never as overt as, ‘Here you go, here’s the money, get me baptised.’ But you see people going away into corners and slipping money to the middleman who is bringing loads of them into the church.”
Once the asylum seekers had ticked baptism off their How to Win the Right to Stay in Britain list, approaches were made to Matthew to provide evidence for an immigration tribunal that their conversion to Christianity was genuine.
“I’d immediately get a letter. As soon as those baptisms happened, literally a couple of days later, I hear from their lawyer saying, ‘Right, can you tell me about this person’s faith and church involvement, their evangelistic work and what they do for the church’.”
The lawyers specialised in immigration law and Matthew got the impression that “a lot of it was on legal aid”. Was he under any pressure to provide a more convincing picture of these so-called Christian conversions?
“Yes, absolutely. So, when I sent emails to these lawyers saying all I can tell you is that such and such attends Sunday service, the reply came back, ‘Well, yes, but can you please say that our clients do evangelism? And please can you say that they help the adults around the church? Try to fill out a picture of them being really active Christians’.”
Matthew refused point blank. “Well, no, sorry, I’m not going to say that, because it’s not true. Or I don’t have any evidence of it.”
The genial 41-year-old grows more heated when he tells me he got the firm impression that immigration lawyers expect CofE vicars to be helpful and supportive to their clients. “Having experienced it myself, and spoken to colleagues where it’s happening in other areas, this is a well-known procedure amongst the asylum seeker community. That is what you do. If you fail in your first application, then the next step is to go to a church and to ask for baptism.”
The reverend put a brake on the asylum/baptism conveyor belt at St Cuthbert’s, although he never denied anyone the chance to be baptised. “What I did say is, ‘Well, great! Come to church for six months.’ And then they all just drifted away, because it’s not genuine.” He points out that a couple of the men who were granted asylum were never seen at church again.
Matthew’s principled stand upset what he calls “progressive activists” in his congregation. He was subject to what he calls “low-level bullying” and interpersonal hostility. Their attitude, he says, was, “Why aren’t you supporting the asylum seekers? Why aren’t you going to court to speak up for them?”
His answer was that he was just treating them like any other baptismal candidate. “I’m perfectly happy for them to go through the normal baptism process, which involves coming to church, but I’m not going to rush through certain baptisms. But there were one or two people who were clearly hostile towards me because of my approach. They were also involved in the local refugee group in Darlington.”
It wasn’t hard for the new vicar to deduce that a turn-a-blind-eye approach had probably been in operation at St Cuthbert’s before his arrival. “Actually, I’m aware of it going on in many parishes in England, I know of so many examples where it’s happening. It’s in the areas where the Government places people who are seeking asylum.”
But surely the CofE hierarchy must smell a rat? According to Matthew, senior clergy don’t want to know that asylum seekers are using the Church. It’s very encouraging for them to have lots of adult baptisms, he says, “Because it gives a sense that they’re being successful, that the faith or their ministry has been successful in winning converts”.
“It’s very good for their pride. And, of course, it is wonderful when you have lots of people who are adults who have come to faith. But, in their heart of hearts, I think they know that a lot of these people are not genuine.”
He cites Mohammad Eghtedarian, a former curate at Liverpool cathedral who fled Iran as a refugee and was a brave and genuine convert to Christianity. “He said to me that, in his experience at Liverpool cathedral, probably over half of the asylum seekers were not genuine in terms of their baptism requests.”
One of Liverpool cathedral’s asylum-seeker converts was Emad Al Swealmeen, who was taking a bomb in a taxi to a maternity hospital on Remembrance Sunday in 2021 when it detonated, killing him. Al Swealmeen had been refused asylum in 2014 and lost an appeal three years later before going through a Christianity course run for asylum seekers.
It has similarities to the case currently making headlines. Abdul Ezedi, an Afghan who converted to Christianity after being turned down twice for asylum, is now on the run after allegedly throwing drain cleaner at a woman and two little girls. Testimony from a priest is said to have swayed an immigration tribunal to grant Ezedi, a convicted sex offender, the right to remain.
It was partly the Ezedi story that inspired Matthew to get in touch with me. That, and the disingenuous response from the Archbishop of Canterbury, which infuriates him. “I think the church is allowing itself to be used by people who do not have pure motives, in fact, people who have pretty terrible motives.
“It’s not a direct thing, but it’s a sense of naivety; turning a blind eye. Vicars are acting in a way that increases the likelihood of many people who don’t have strong claims actually getting over the line. And a certain proportion of those people will be here with a background of criminality. So while it’s not direct wrongdoing from the church, there is complicity, which is not right. You know, it’s simply not right.
“I’m not saying that all clergy that conduct these baptisms are doing that, but there is a significant element. And when Justin Welby says it’s not the church’s responsibility to judge asylum applications, that’s the Home Office, that’s not being truthful.”
The Archbishop has been censorious of anyone suggesting that some asylum seekers are not worthy of welcome. What does he think about that? “It is insulting. There are a lot of Christians who are discerning and wise, and they can see what’s happening. And they are concerned about our culture and our society and the impact of huge, huge levels of illegal immigration on those things. They are rightly concerned about that.
“And for Justin Welby to sort of tar them all with this brush of being unwelcoming and uncaring and so on is frankly unacceptable. He’s suggesting the clergy shouldn’t be discerning. Well, we should; we have to administer the baptism in a discerning way.”
I mention a document called “Supporting Asylum Seekers – Guidance for Church of England Clergy”, which teaches vicars how to assist asylum seekers.
“Of course, again, they’ve been clever there. They’ll just say clergy are facing these situations and all we’re doing is producing a document to support those who asked us for advice. But there is an ideological support for the culture of mass immigration that we’re seeing.”
Matthew compares the situation with the Civil Service, where there is resistance to enacting Conservative policies like the Rwanda plan. “Actually, there’s an equivalent civil service at Church House, Westminster, which is producing all of this guidance.”
Hospitality for those in genuine need
He speaks eloquently about the need to be hospitable to people who genuinely need asylum. “But I liken national hospitality to the home. You could welcome people into your home and show the sacrificial hospitality and that’s fine. But if the hospitality that you’re showing fundamentally undermines the functioning of the household, then actually we’re not called to that in the Church.
“We’re not called to the hospitality that fundamentally undermines the ability of the household to function and to be hospitable. And that applies to when people sometimes, unfortunately, abuse our hospitality, whether that’s personal hospitality or national hospitality.
“So if people are receiving our national hospitality and then they commit crimes, or they go on huge marches or do something that undermines the values that our particular national home espouses, then the equivalent is somebody being welcomed into your private home and messing up the house. Or damaging our national home. And if that hospitality is being abused in various ways, then you have to look again and say, No, no, we can’t do this.”
He adds: “Also, there’s a cultural aspect, when you have very large population movements in a short space of time which we have had since 1997, then that does undermine the culture of the host nation.”
Matthew asks me if that makes sense. It really does. In a bitter irony, the Church of England may hasten its own demise by carrying out hundreds, possibly thousands of fake baptisms of men who remain devout Muslims.
He laughs. “I don’t think the Church of England has really thought that through. The House of Bishops and the vast majority of clergy in the Church of England are aligned with Left-wing politics. And they are very comfortable with what we’re seeing in terms of the levels of immigration. And they would regard somebody like me as being Right-wing and unkind.
“But actually, all I’m doing is just not misusing a sacrament. And also choosing not to be complicit in dishonesty. And also choosing not to be undermining of culture that happens with mass immigration, you know, I think I care about the people who are already here, you know, as well as people who may be genuine asylum seekers.”
We should all be hugely grateful to Matthew, I think. He is that rare thing: a good Christian gentleman who puts God before ideology.
“All I’ve done is told the truth,” he says as our conversation comes to an end, “And the real reason I’m telling the truth is because, increasingly, when I see people like Justin Welby, who’s in an influential, powerful position, when I see him not telling the truth, I’m just going to tell the truth. He’s not there on the ground. If he’s saying, ‘Oh, don’t worry, this isn’t really a problem’ – well, no.
“What I told you, Allison, is what’s happening – this conveyor belt of baptisms for asylum seekers – and I know from other colleagues that it’s happening in their patch. Welby’s been very careful with how he words things, he says that this has been ‘mischaracterised’. Well, no, it hasn’t.
“I think people like Suella Braverman, all they’ve been saying is that the church needs to wise up and needs to stop allowing itself to be used in this way.”
He cares a lot about honour and truth-telling, does the Rev Firth. It’s a pleasure talking to him.
“I am going on the record here because there’s a national untruth being told,” he says. “The churches say, ‘There are no faults. No, we’re just trying to welcome people. Nothing to see here.’ Well, there is something to see here. And Justin Welby, I think he’s been untruthful in the way he’s presented things. ‘Our vicars are just getting on with being welcoming,’ he says.
“But, actually, the story is one of being used by bad men like Abdul Ezedi who hurt innocent people. The Church of England needs to be exposed for its shameful part in all this.”
Read what Telegraph readers have to say on the Christian conversion loophole used by asylum seekers, here.