Monday, February 05, 2024

Catholic Church refutes accusations of helping alkaline attacker gain asylum

The Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle today denied assisting an Afghan fugitive wanted for an alkaline attack on a woman and her two children amid claims that an unnamed priest helped him to gain asylum in the UK.

Abdul Shokoor Ezedi is suspected of throwing a corrosive substance over the three in Clapham, south London, on 31 January, leaving the 31-year-old woman with such “life-changing” injuries to her face that she is being kept under sedation in hospital. Her two daughters, aged eight and three, are being treated for burns.

Ezedi, 35, who is still on the run after four days, entered the UK in a lorry in 2016 and claimed asylum but was refused. He nevertheless remained in the country, living in Newcastle, and went on to commit sexual assault and indecent exposure. He escaped jail with a two-year suspended sentence.

A second application for asylum was also rejected, even after he claimed that his life was in danger from the Taliban because he had allegedly become a Christian. He was not deported from the country, however, and went on to make a third application for asylum in October 2020.

According to some press reports, this third application succeeded after a “priest” gave Ezedi a reference, saying he was “wholly committed” to the Christian faith. Friends of Ezedi, however, have since told the Daily Telegraph that he remained a “good Muslim”, and would buy half a Halal sheep every two weeks.

The Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle has come under pressure from the media to identify any priest who might have assisted Ezedi with his successful application.

A diocese spokesman says exhaustive checks have failed to produce any evidence that the Catholic Church assisted Ezedi beyond the provision of toiletries and food tokens from the diocesan Justice and Peace Project.

“After checking local parish records and central records and after consulting with clergy we have no indication that Abdul Ezedi was received into the Catholic Faith in this diocese, or that a Catholic priest of this diocese gave him a reference,” the spokesman says. “We do not know which Christian church received him nor which Christian minister gave him a reference.”

The spokesman confirmed that Ezedi “visited our diocesan Justice and Peace Refugee Project, a charitable venture which assists a wide range of people who come to us in need”. 

He added: “The diocese will assist the police investigations in any way we can. We keep the victims in our prayers and hope that justice is done soon.”

The Justice and Peace Refugee Project gives support only in the form of food and toiletries to clients referred by the St Vincent de Paul Society. It directs clients to further support that might be available from other organisations; in a minority of hardship cases it gives out supermarket vouchers. 

The project is not involved in any casework around asylum claims and therefore does not employ caseworkers. Nor does it seek to recruit converts to Christianity. 

Further concerns about Ezedi possibly gaming the asylum system by claiming to be Christian were raised on 4 February when it emerged that as many as 40 asylum seekers who have entered Britain illegally and are now held on the Bibby Stockholm barge have converted, or are in the process of converting, to Christianity.

David Rees, a church elder and education consultant, told the BBC’s “Sunday” programme that nearly one in seven of the 300 migrants on the barge in Portland, Dorset, are allowed to attend churches under supervision.

“Obviously, we need to make sure that they believe in the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit and repent of their sins and also they want to start a new life in the Church,” Rees said. “So those are the sort of questions that we ask them, and they have to give a public testimony, at their baptism, which they did in their native language, and it was translated into English.” 

He added that “there were no qualms at all about the content of that testimony, which was clear and conclusive about their faith in Jesus Christ”.

The problem of fake conversions came to the fore in 2021 when Emad Al Swealmeen, a Jordanian asylum seeker who became an Anglican in 2015, attempted to blow himself up in at Remembrance Day parade in Liverpool.

The attack led Monsignor Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Anglican Bishop of Rochester who now serves as a priest in the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, to accuse churches of naivety in their treatment of asylum seekers.

The police have offered a reward of £20,000 for information leading to the arrest of Ezedi.