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Seeing the Light: Rejected Muslim Migrants in Finland Switch to Christianity

© REUTERS / Panu Pohjola(File) Asylum seekers arrive at a refugee reception centre in the northern town of Tornio, Finland September 25, 2015
(File) Asylum seekers arrive at a refugee reception centre in the northern town of Tornio, Finland September 25, 2015 - Sputnik International
Finland has recently seen a rise in the number of Muslim asylum seekers who have converted to Christianity. Despite the fact that the conversion has most often taken place after a refusal, the Church of Finland has faith that they are telling the truth.

All the more asylum seekers have been expressing their desire to convert to Christianity after arriving in Finland and having their applications declined, Finnish national broadcaster Yle reported.

According to Tirsa Forssell of the Finnish Immigration Service (Migri), the recent "crop" of converts includes newcomers such as Afghans and Iraqis, who were seen among proselytes before.

"The change of religion usually occurs after having one's asylum application denied, that is in the appellate period," Forssel said.

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Cases are returned to the Immigration Service by the Administrative Court, if new grounds for obtaining asylum emerge. According to Forsell, the conversion to Christianity accounts for up to 70 percent of appealed cases. This year alone, up to 700 cases have been registered, Yle reported.
Most often, asylum seekers are interested in Pentecostalism and Christian Awakening movements, whereas traditional denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church, are less popular.

Forssell attributed the rising interest in Christianity to the Church's active help in aiding the asylum seekers. However, there may also be a more artificial cause for conversion, as the deportation of a Christian to a Muslim country may be deemed unsafe by the authorities.

Although many maintain that these last-hour leaps of faith are driven by the asylum-seekers' fears of deportation, the Church maintains that they are more concerned about their immortal souls. Jouni Lehikoinen, the vicar of the St. Michael Parish in Turku, emphasized that many expressed a keen interest in church services and Christianity immediately upon arriving in Finland, long before receiving a refusal. Nevertheless, Lehikoinen admitted that he himself has seen people whose religious beliefs could be called into question. Additionally, he claimed that some lawyers are appealing to religion for selfish reasons.

At the same time, Finnish priests want to play a bigger role in deciding whether the faith of asylum seekers who convert to Christianity is genuine. Over 400 Finnish priests, mostly Lutheran, signed a petition requesting that Migri make better use of the clergy's knowledge in dealing with converts. Lehikoinen claimed that the parishes have real experience with people who have converted to Christianity from Islam and other religions.

Sankt Nikolai kyrka (Church of St. Nicholas), Stockholm - Sputnik International
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Lehikoinen stressed the fact that Muslim apostates may be facing persecution in their former countries, yet claimed that the Church goes to great pains to dissuade asylum seekers from converting with the sole intention of advancing their applications.

"We try and make it clear to the would-be converts that furthering their application is not a reason to become a Christian," Lehikoinen said.

Previously, Finnish church officials estimated the number of immigrants who have renounced Islam in favor of Christianity at several hundred. Many of the new Christians cited a profound dissatisfaction with Islam as the impetus for their conversion, alongside a long and harrowing asylum process.
In recent months, Finland has been toughening its asylum procedures and is now rejecting the majority of asylum requests from Iraqis, Afghans and Somalis. The only exceptions are made for refugees from especially troubled or war-torn areas.

Over the past 12 months, Migri has reviewed 3,510 applications for refugee status and refused 1,849 of them, the Finnish newspaper Aamulehti reported. Many of those who aren't chosen are sent to their respective homelands forcibly, which has ignited protests among Finnish human rights activists and fellow asylum seekers.

At the same time, over 5,000 refugees have been reported as missing, having disappeared from the authorities' radar shortly after receiving a refusal.

Recently, a survey from Turku University showed that people with Arabic-sounding names (particularly men) have significantly lower chances of getting an apartment on the private market in Finland than their European counterparts. Earlier, a foreign-sounding name was also found to constitute a significant handicap for a jobseeker.

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