Maria Stankiewicz is a second-year undergraduate student of Arabic and International Development at University of Leeds. In this post she shares some findings of the research project she undertook through the ‘Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholarship’ under the supervision of Dr Mel Prideaux.
In the summer of 2017, I received a chance to undertake my very first research project on the study of religion in the city of Leeds. Beaming with anticipation, I was eager to delve into trying to understand the growing presence of Iranian migrants in Christian communities in Leeds. The preliminary stages of my research coincided with a conference on Anglican Ministry to the Persian Community in Britain; followed closely by the Home Office’s note and policy guidance on Iranian Christians and Christian converts, as well as the more recent Farsi-translation of liturgy, becoming available on the Church of England website and actively used at Wakefield Cathedral.
In this post, I will share some of the key themes that emerged from my research, providing a snapshot of the factors that shape the church membership experience of Iranian congregants, as well as the efforts undertaken by clergy to provide necessary support. However, the full findings can be read in the report here.
Whilst recognising that the active participation of my respondents in their congregations may mean a positive reason for their motivation, I had a feeling that this was not the whole picture and there would be a diversity of reasons for the increasing Iranian Christian community in Leeds. These reasons included a diversity in their religious history, their socioeconomic background, the causes for their migration; as well as what they have done since being in the UK. Unsurprisingly, this meant that individual motivations for joining specific congregations not only differed person to person, but at times contrasted dramatically with one another.
For instance, many participants were drawn to churches in Leeds where their compatriots constituted the largest minority, and where they could enjoy studying the Bible in a dedicated Farsi or ‘English as a Second Language’ (ESL) group. Others made a conscious choice not to participate in those gatherings and to join Churches where they would be less likely to encounter other Iranians, most likely to avoid gossip but it could also be out of mistrust and concern that someone in the group may be reporting their conversions back to Iran. However, all were bonded in their individual search for belonging, feeling welcome, and want for kindness.
All interviewees, most of whom were converts from Shia Islam, spoke highly of their congregations and when asked about challenges mentioned mostly hardships of seeking asylum in a hostile environment; learning a foreign language, as well as navigating a new culture. Central factors mentioned to have contributed to their wellbeing in churches was receiving continuing support and acceptance both in terms of personal matters and legal procedures. This included being treated kindly; having a chance to grow spiritually while expressing faith openly, and feeling that one belongs in the community, especially if they had been separated from their families.
Projects run by churches to help those in need were seen as an expression of a Christian ethos. Many of those that I spoke to who have become Christians since being in Leeds described their first contact with Christianity in the UK to be through receiving material support in their churches. Most respondents I was able to interview quickly added, however, that religious participation was not a condition for taking advantage of this help and those who took interest in Christianity did so out of their own will and curiosity. Many Iranians that I encountered through the research process were involved in some kind of voluntary work in those projects; seeing it as a way to live their faith, give back to the community, and help those in the position similar to that in which they had previously found themselves. The perceived unconditional hospitality of congregations in welcoming and supporting everyone, including non-Christians and non-believers, seems to have played a major role in Iranian congregants’ positive perception of the church and their involvement in it.
Leaders of all the churches in the study are involved in some kind of advocacy work, particularly writing letters of support to the Home Office and accompanying congregants to hearings. The clergy and lay-leaders admitted lack of thorough preparation to work with Iranians, and other vulnerable migrants, in their congregations and recognised their own cultural limitations. One of the ways in which they tried to address needs of multicultural congregations was through engaging clergy with missionary backgrounds to lead services aimed at non-native English speakers or by potentially inviting an Iranian leader to work closely with the Iranian community.I remain under the impression that cultural diversity within those communities is seen as a value, despite challenges that arise from it. Individuality of members of the minority groups was stressed, and a desire to learn about, accommodate, and support them in appropriate ways were shared. At the same time, the need for minority congregants to be seen as full members of an already existing community was emphasised to me. A specific example is the Anglican churches in Leeds who have establisheda network aimed at sharing experiences, seeking support, and developing consistent responses problems that arise when providing support and ministry to Iranian congregants. A similar network exists nationally, and some interviewed clergy members mentioned having sought advice from more experienced leaders from churches outside of Leeds, as well as Christian organisations working with Farsi speakers in the UK and abroad.
A common theme I encountered in the research process was a sense of caution and the desire to protect on the part of the churches. A few of the clergy contacted my supervisor to ensure my credibility, and some only agreed to participate after I was referred by another contact. There seemed to be a prevalent assumption that the focus of my research lays in persecution of Christians in Iran and numerous lay members approached me during observations to express care and ensure that I am aware of the risks that disclosing participants’ identity would bring.
The Iranian Christian community is growing and becoming increasingly visible in congregations across Leeds. The data I gathered seems to reassure that despite numerous personal challenges and structural injustices, Iranians joining Christian churches in Leeds are welcomed into communities and receive support, kindness and a warm welcome. Many congregants that I spoke to have established strong relationships with their “Church family” and return to Sunday services even after having relocated to other parts of the city. Additional research is, however, necessary in order to gain further insight into individual’s experiences and struggles, particularly among those who decided to leave their church; those who have moved around congregations before finding a permanent one; and those who do not speak English. Until this can be done, I want to leave you with a message from one of the participants:
“In my view, Iranian Christians, when they come here, they need people to have more trust in them. And… Because when they come here they’re (…) with that background in their head, back of their minds, they all think… this is like back home, you know. Still, we have fear of police, and these kind of things around us. But as soon as we overcome these barriers, and the people get to understand us, it’s very easy to deal with us, you know. We are not difficult. So we can be, same as you, normal people. Very normal.”
Written By: Maria Stankiewicz
Image Credit: Tim Green @Flickr