Iranian Shi'a Converts to Christianity: Seeking Asylum While Transiting Through Tukey

By Navid Fozi
Submitted to Session P5001 (Triangulated Subjects: Displacement, Transit, and Activism, 2017 Annual Meeting
Iranian Studies;
Drawing on my fieldwork, conducted in diverse Iranian churches in Turkey during 2015-2016 and based on documented migration stories and transit processes, I analyze the formation of migratory path for Iranian Shi'a converts to Christianity. I address the mushrooming of evangelical home-churches in Iran, harsh reaction of the Islamic Republic, transition through Turkey to seek asylum in a third country, and the resettlement. My data show that while every phase of this diasporization process is governed by particular geopolitical and legal regimes, it is nevertheless the entirety and complex interactions of the national, international, and transnational forces that forge the path for such a globalized movement of human bodies, practices, and ideas.

Based on personal testimonials and lived experiences, the impetus for the new converts to seek religious freedom outside Iran is rooted in the success of Christian churches that has worried the Islamic Republic in particular its religious apparatus, resulting in crackdown and shutting down churches. This condition simultaneously and ironically provide the so-called economic migrants to strategically convert, hence instrumentalization of religion. This initial push factor is coupled with the bureaucratic migration processes in Turkey as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The transition period entails acquiring police permit and city assignment in order to access right to work, healthcare, and education. Nevertheless, these procedures are challenged by the overwhelming and diverse refugee crisis due to the Syrian civil war since 2013 and earlier Iraq invasion in 2003.

Another important constituent of the migratory path, vital in the diasporic identity formation, are transnational practices sustained by the presence of Western priests and missionaries who offer classes and hold seminars for the new converts. They also circulate a narrative in which the converts become agents of a “divine plan” to re-Christianize Turkey, “a once-Christian nation.” Other issues include the international laws, United Nations regulations, and legal systems of migrant countries most recently the anti-migration policies of President Donald Trump’s administration. These various factors produce the direction and speed of migration, and their confluence creates the preconditions for Iranian converts to leave their homes and embark on an arduous and dangerous resettlement path.