Iranians looking to emigrate to West converting to Christianity in Turkey - NPR

In Turkey and across the Middle East and Europe, evangelical Christians are converting Muslim refugees eager to emigrate to the West, NPR reported, highlighting a surge in Iranian refugees converting in Christianity Turkey’s western province of Denizli.

The refugees in Turkey escaped Iran, where conversion to a religion outside of Islam is illegal, and apply for asylum there, claiming they would face religious persecution if they return home, NPR said.

Even though the Turkish government allows freedom of religion and even protects churches in many cities, refugees are assigned to live in small conservative towns where they may face discrimination from the local population wary of evangelicals, the media organization noted.

‘’Many foreign evangelicals left Turkey after a botched coup attempt in 2016, when American preacher Andrew Brunson was jailed and charged with terrorism. The high-profile case strained Turkish-U.S. relations until Brunson was released in October,’’ it pointed out.

Refugees, however, have continued arriving in Turkey and the demand for more churches has grown.

"The numbers of Iranian refugees converting have grown tremendously over the years. A small church consisting of 20 to 30 families has become a much bigger congregation housing 80 to 100 people on a regular Sunday," NPR quoted Sebnem Koser Akcapar, a sociology professor at Istanbul's Koç University, as saying.

The professor maintains that only some of the refugees are genuine converts. ‘’Others are using religious persecution as a way to get to the West, which may be the only way for them to lead a normal life,’’ she said.

With U.S. sanctions on Iran making life for Iranians increasingly difficult, the refugees see this route as safe way out.

The United Pentecostal Church in Denizli is unable to keep up with the demand, the church's Turkey representative Rick Robinson, who has lived in the country for 13 years, said, noting that the church provides a spiritual outlet for refugees, not financial support.

Robinson told NPR anyone is welcome, regardless of whether they are genuinely converting or not.

Many of the Iranians in Turkey say they converted in Iran and had to flee, the article highlighted. However, their problems don’t ed there as they are only allowed to work in Turkey if a Turkish employer sponsors them. Many have under-the-table jobs earning half of what Turks do.

‘’They also face a backlash from local communities, especially if they're Christian converts,’’ NPR underlined.