Former Darlington priest claims asylum seekers brought 'week-in, week-out' for conversion

The Rev Matthew Firth spoke to the Home Affairs Select Committe on Tuesday 12 March. Credit: Parliament TV

A former Church of England priest has said he was brought groups of asylum seekers 'week-in, week-out' looking to convert to Christianity.

The Rev Matthew Firth, 41, a priest at St Cuthbert’s in Darlington between 2018 and 2020, said those brought to him then “melted away” when asked to become involved in the church first.

He made the claims as he gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday 12 March. The Diocese of Durham has refuted his claims.

The issue of baptism has come to the political forefront after the case of alkali attack suspect Abdul Ezedi, who successfully challenged his asylum refusal after converting to Christianity.

Ezedi, who lived in Newcastle, is believed to have been supported in his claim by someone from a Baptist church, rather than the Church of England, but the case has prompted debate on the issue of conversions.

The issue of baptism in the asylum process has come to the fore after the case of alkali attack suspect Abdul Ezedi. Credit: Metropolitan Police

Mr Firth left the church in 2020 and is now a vicar for the Free Church of England.

He told the committee that when he came to St Cuthbert’s in 2018 he found there was a “surprising number” of baptisms going forward with asylum seekers.

He said that he started to “look into” the trend, after honouring the baptisms that were already in process.

“I started to look into it a bit further," he explained. “After those baptisms, week-in, week-out, significant groups of mainly Iranian and Syrian young male asylum seekers were being brought to me in sizeable cohorts.”

Mr Firth said the cohorts were “six or seven” people “every two or three weeks”.

“At a time six or seven people brought to me by people saying these people need baptism,” he said.

Asked who brought the asylum seekers to him, Mr Firth said: “There was a particular individual who I think had received right to remain in the UK through the asylum application system.

“But I think this particular individual didn’t want baptism but was bringing lots of people who this individual said need to be baptised.”

It was put to him that only 15 people who may have been asylum seekers were baptised at St Cuthbert’s over 10 years.

The Home Affairs Select Committe met to consider the impact converting to Christianity had on the process to be granted asylum. Credit: Parliament TV

Mr Firth said that he did not have access to the parish registers, so was not familiar with those figures.

He said he “pressed a pause button on the process” of baptism requests after becoming concerned.

“There is a difference between the number of people being brought to me to request baptism, and the actual number of baptisms that happened,” Mr Firth said.

He said that he made sure the baptism process was “rigorous” after taking on the job, and “that made the numbers fall off a cliff”.

“You try to press a pause button which is to make sure that people are requested to come to church, start getting involved and attending church regularly and events,” he added. “That was the thing that kind of made the numbers fall off a cliff in a sense because those people melted away really.

“They were not really wanting to get involved in the life of the church so much after I requested them to do so.”

In response Mr Firth's claims, a spokesperson for the Diocese of Durham said: “As the Bishop of Chelmsford said to today’s Select Committee, we have not seen any evidence to support the claim made by Matthew Firth that the Church of England is being used as a ‘conveyer belt’ for baptisms in order for people to gain asylum status.

"We are extremely proud of St Cuthbert’s and the work the church does to ensure asylum seekers and refugees are welcomed and supported in Darlington.

"The baptism records before and during Mr Firth’s time at St Cuthbert’s, and the testimony of local church members, do not accord with Mr Firth’s evidence.

"The parish records show that since 2014 a maximum of 15 out of a total of 189 people baptised at St Cuthbert’s may have been asylum seekers, 7 of whom were baptised by Mr Firth himself.

"In the four years prior to Mr Firth’s arrival as Priest in Charge in 2018 only six people who may have been asylum seekers were baptised. As Priest in Charge it was his responsibility to check the authenticity of candidates and it is surprising that, as he acknowledged to the committee, he did not report any sign of anything amiss, at the time.

"Even so, it is not the Church’s responsibility to assess the veracity of asylum claims, and religion or faith is not a determinative reason for asylum.”

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