Discreet Faith and Political Conversions: Iran and the ECHR

Last year, on December 19, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Switzerland’s rejection of asylum to an Iranian national. The case, A v. Switzerland, raised numerous brows due to its treatment of the individual’s claim of religious persecution, in which the court recommended “discreet faith” as a solution to A’s perceived threat to their newfound Christianity. However, the circumstances facing A’s arrival to Switzerland, and political involvement prior and consequent to his arrival in the European country, faces numerous inconsistencies, resulting in a possible perception of their conversion as a political move for ensured acceptance.


A participated in the political protests concerning the 2009 presidential elections, for which he was imprisoned for 22 days and allegedly severely tortured. On the last day of his imprisonment, he was scheduled for a court hearing, but managed to escape during the bus ride there, due to an unrest. He later hid with relatives, and when he didn’t present himself after court summoning, was sentenced in absentia to thirty-six months imprisonment. He managed to flee the country a month later, with the help of a smuggler, and arrived in Switzerland.

In February 2013, his asylum request was rejected, on grounds of his account not being credible due to contradictions and insufficient substantiation, specially regarding his imprisonment. There was a lack of key documents describing the circumstances of his arrest, given the fact that papers such as those submitted are often falsified and sold in Iran. He did not contest the decision, and made no application to the appeals board. However, in November, he applied for asylum again, citing that the conditions had changed, since he had converted and had been baptized in August. Upon further questioning, A stated that the Christian community had helped him integrate, provided vital support, and he was now a devout believer, citing passages from the Bible. An important aspect of his application was his statement that for him, “being a Christian meant believing in Jesus Christ and spreading his message,” in accordance with the Gospel of Matthew, among other biblical sources. 

The second request was also denied, after which A appealed, iterating that his newfound faith would put him serious danger, and that such exposure would compromise his family’s security. The Federal Administrative Court rejected the appeal, even after new evidence was included, involving A’s participation in anti-Iran protests in Bern. The grounds for the rejection cited that his conversion would not warrant a personal state of danger for A, a reasoning brought forth similarly by the European Court of Human Rights. Additionally, there were no particular grounds involving A’s faith, and the reasoning for his conversion seemed to lean more on the support of the Christian community he had joined rather that Christian faith per se. Both courts’ responses recommended that A, upon return to Iran, would practice “discrete faith,” which is not illegal under Iranian law.

A, however, argued that this would not be the case. As a matter of fact, there have been numerous reports involving arrests on grounds of national security threats of members of house churches, in addition to Iranian law considering apostates, i.e. Christians who have converted from Islam, as criminals, for which individuals have been subjected to threats, arrests, detention, as well as torture. These are among the primary reason for the backlash that activists have cited in their critique of the ECHR’s decision. However, one must remain attentive to the legal mechanisms that are at play. There have been precedents, among which the case F.G. v. Sweden, for Christian converts appealing to the ECHR for asylum. What appears curious is that all of these cases, which have given the precedent for A v. Switzerland, involve individuals who have converted not upon arrival, but rather upon rejection of their original asylum claim.

There is a danger in the inherent politicization of faith. Skeptics would argue that the conversion of A, among others, is nothing but a desperate move to call upon local cultural values, and ensure an acceptance in the country in which he applied for asylum. The government of Iran has stated on numerous occasions that although there have been arrests in house churches, there were based on actual threats and possibilities of them acting as hubs for insurgencies, and has pointed out that there are a number of churches active in the country in which Christians may practice in peace. Moreover, as much as a Muslim conversion may be considered a criminal offense, this does not include the portion of the population that converts outside of the country, and with regards to practicing faith, said individuals should not be subjected to serious risk, as long as their practice does not involve proselytism.

It is on this last point that the ECHR’s refusal hinged. We are to ask if it is in their position, however, to state how one ought to practice their faith. It seems that demanding for someone to repudiate a central aspect of their dogma, such as that of sharing and peacefully encouraging conversion, would be unwarranted under the Western understanding of freedom of religion. At the same time, however, accepting this would provide a guarantee for asylum admittance, which could potentially upset relations with Iran, as well as enable a precedent very difficult to determine and control. Given this situation, there is a tough balance to strike, between what de jure would not be qualified as serious risk, but de facto implies a vulnerability to arbitrary rule. That religious belief has been used as a proxy for political control in Iran is a concern that few would put into doubt, but such behavior happens on a level that is outside, or rather, underneath the scope of the rule of law. For such, it would be too easy to shun the ECHR’s decision, yet an easy alternative is not to be found, not as much because of the legal treatment and demographic implications that an asylum acceptance would bring to political conversions, but rather because the question in itself lies outside of the standards which the ECHR ensures.