This essay is part of a series that explores the human costs and policy challenges associated with the displacement crises in the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas. The essays consider the myths or misconceptions that have pervaded discussions about these two crises, as well as the constraints or capacity deficiencies that have hampered the responses to them. See more ...

The focus of this essay is on the practice of the Christianisation of refugees in Turkey. Firstly, it is important to note that Turkey has maintained a geographical limitation to the 1951 Refugee Convention so that all non-European refugees are only tolerated in Turkey and must be resettled to a third country. I do not suggest that all the cases of conversion are opportunist, but rather that they need to be understood as embedded within a context in which the Muslim refugee is objectified through a security lens and the Christian refugee is favored for resettlement.[1] The politics of conversion can be interpreted as part of a struggle to be mobile and to increase resettlement prospects to the United States, the main country of resettlement for refugees in Turkey.

The containment of ‘undesirable’ refugees in highly precarious states in Turkey has created conditions that encourage refugees seeking resettlement to manipulate their identities in order to favorably influence their resettlement. This manipulation of self-identity is influenced by how people perceive the way others perceive them. This is particulary true where the subject is vulnerable to ‘othering.’

Franz Fanon has offered a particularly vivid exploration of the formative process within the problematic of othering.[2] In his essay The Fact of Blackness, Fanon talks about how he is judged on the basis of the very sight of his blackness, which in ironic vein he called his uniform. A stereotypical, racialized view of black people encounters Fanon before he can introduce himself. This view inhibits a common, equal encounter between human beings. It is in this context that Fanon writes that he is not free to define himself without addressing how he is defined:

For my body, for my race, for my ancestors. I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slave-ships…[3]

Thus, Fanon is weighed down by a white gaze that prevents him from simply and freely being. The effects of subjectification Fanon discussed in the specific context of black and white intersubjectivity resonates with the Christian and Muslim encounters between refugees and gatekeepers in Turkey. Similarly, Edward Said[4] noted in his seminal study of Orientalism that ‘non-Western,’ ‘Arab,’ and ‘Muslim’ are othered categories which are set against the idea of the Christian ‘West.’ It is this simplistic dualism with which the Muslim refugee must engage despite its misrepresentations.[5]

Conversion to Christianity among some Afghan and Iranian refugees awaiting resettlement to the United States is perceived by them to enable the symbolic passage from East to West and thus to ease the crossing between Turkey and the United States. Thus crossing ‘meta borders’[6] is entangled with strategies aimed at crossing state territorial borders. What is of concern is the subject formations within this dual space of the spiritual and the territorial and the place of Orientalist discourse in them. Both Edward Said and Fanon encourage us to unravel the way in which othering may be sustained, and even reproduced, by the othered. Said and Fanon invite us to ask: to what extent do Orientalist representations of the Muslim refugee as potentially dangerous become manipulated? Does the shedding of a Muslim identity make for favorable positioning for border crossing within refugee and resettlement governance? Orientalist prejudice not only permeates global refugee governance, through the security practices designed to keep out terrorists, but also includes missionary practices in Istanbul, which set Christianity against Islam. There is evidence that some refugees appropriate and subvert Orientalist discourses in order to improve their mobility prospects to reach the West. One recruitment ground for these conversion practices is provided by Istanbul Migrant Charities (IMC).[7]

The IMC was initially set up in 1991 in the context of the Gulf War. It provides, inter alia, food distribution, health care assistance, pychosocial counselling, assistance for voluntary repatriation, and emergency shelter and food subsidies. Three days a week, the IMC would open its doors to a hundred or so migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees seeking various kinds of assistance. Revealingly, on the IMC webpage there is no information on proselytizing in its mission, although there are missionaries serving as officers on the IMC board.[8] This mission appears to be delegated to Istanbul based missionaries, who work cautiously and perhaps surreptitiously in their quest to convert.

While IMC staff operated according to a seemingly non-religious approach to their daily activities, on the surface the IMC space was unmistakably a Christian one, taking place as it did in church facilities. During the free meal distribution to which many refugees attended, the missionaries would bring copies of the bible in several languages including English, Turkish, Arabic, and Farsi, which they would put on display in the garden. These missionaries, almost all American nationals, had spent time in Iran and Tadjikistan, and they all spoke fluent Farsi. 

It was clear that the missionaries with whom I spoke had a conception of themselves as doing valuable work as a calling. For instance, one told me that “the church was the first organization helping refugees in Turkey. It is not surprising, Christians created the first hospitals and the first universties in Turkey.”[9] He added that he saw the church as a “hospital for broken people.” One conclusion to be drawn from this would be that Christianisation exploits the fragility of the refugee condition. While I did not doubt the integrity of the missionary’s comments, it seemed to me that vulnerable refugees were a kind of prey for missionary predators.

According to Hess,[10] the European Union’s (E.U.) policies for the externalization of migration have the effect of decelerating ‘undesirable’ migration, and in so doing they create highly precarious transit zones at Europe’s borders. The transformation of these border spaces into zones of transit are concomitantly produced by Turkey’s asylum system, which, as indicated, only tolerates non-European refugees on a temporary basis; they must be resettled to a third country. ‘Transit migration’ towards Europe and the refugee making process are dynamically linked. Faced with difficulties in crossing the border toward the European Union, many so-called transit (irregular) migrants end up applying for asylum in Turkey. At the same time, faced with years of waiting in uncertain states, a significant number of asylum seekers in Turkey finish by trying to cross the border illegally into Europe, and a minority resort to Christianisation, aware that their Muslim identity is seen as toxic.

The ‘undesirable’ migrant is often framed as single, male, illegal, and from the south,[11] and as such sits on a security continuum connecting migrants, asylum seekers, transnational crime networks, and terrorists.[12] Enmeshed within this continuum is the construction of the Muslim threat, which trades on a reductive amalgamation of Islam with Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. The entanglement of the war on terror with a war on migrants has strengthened the conflation of immigrants, refugees, Muslims, criminals, and terrorists in discourses and policies. Mobility rights associated with international protection as enscribed in the Geneva Conventions are supposed to be accorded in relation to human rights law. However, resettlement is governed through humanitarian reasoning which rests on an act of generosity by states who have the discretion to choose who they consider to be ‘desirable’ candidates. This choice is also based on integration potential, which has often been associated with social status and faith. Moreover, since 9/11 states have increasingly implemented risk management through security checks to the resettlement selection process. This, in practice, often negatively affects young Muslim males who are perceived to be in a high-risk group, as we have seen. This is a message that refugees clearly seem to be picking up. While fear of persecution is a critical part of the refugee condition,[13] clearly refugeeness is also about being feared. The refugee has to display fear for his security, while displaying safety to allay fears of him. Addressing being feared and frightened requires a level of emotional management that is able to create a distance from that part of oneself that is feared.  

The United States favors the resettlement of Christian Iranian refugees over other minority groups. An expression of this is echoed in U.S. resettlement criteria and can be found in the Lautenberg amendment, which has shifted from a focus on the resettlement of religious minorities in the former Soviet Union to a similar focus in Iran since 2004.[14] Accordingly, the United States accords preferential treatment through reduced evidentiary standards to Iranian religious minorities (Baha’is, Jews, Christians) including converts.[15]

The relationship between being a Christian refugee convert and performing being a Christian refugee (i.e., playing such a role) is blurred. There are three reasons for this: firstly, for the missionaries there is an acceptance that some who seek to convert offer masked performances. However, from the missionaries’ point of view even a cynical reading of the bible might ultimately draw them into the fold. Secondly, refugee eligibility criteria rests more on how you are viewed rather than how you present yourself. As one U.N. High Commission on Refugees official put it: “our job is not to find out if the claim is real, it is just to decide if it is credible. We are not doing police work.”[16] Thirdly, the mental boundary crossing involved in conversion is emotionally complex and characterized by ambivalence and risk.

It could be argued that just as some smugglers may welcome the desperation of refugees for their business, so too do the missionaries. One missionary with whom I spoke said that: “suffering brings people back to a spiritual reality.”[17] The amenable condition for conversion, for this missionary, concerned the depths of the refugees’ despair. His work of salvation exploited the refugees’ fall. The missionary was aware that refugees were living in states of physical and emotional vulnerability; however, his view was that they were, above all, spiritually impoverished. From the missionaries’ point of view these states of vulnerability served as a basis for Christianisation; from the refugees’ point of view it offered the chance of new beginnings.

It seems to be the case that conversion is inserted in a supply and demand relationship between missionaries and refugees. One NGO official remarked that Christian conversion as a resettlement strategy has become such an established business in Turkey that baptism ceremonies are in high demand. He commented:

From some countries, Sweden, Finland, the United States, missionaries are coming to the satellite cities with plastic swimming pools, they are recognising the baptism ceremony, and with these photos then they apply to the U.N.H.C.R.[18]

In a similar tone, a representative from the IIMP referred to some churches as acting like ‘paper factories’ for the issuing of baptismal certificates.[19]

It would seem that missionaries and smugglers have a common client population in refugees. Alongside, transnational smuggling networks and the sale of counterfeit identification documents, missionaries and baptism cereremonies have inserted themselves into the ‘illegality industry’[20] in Turkey. Indeed they both deal with inflated rubber—paddling pools for baptism ceremonies or boats for sea crossings. In a context in which the European Union is strengthening its borders and rendering border crossings ever more hazardous, perhaps conversion to Christianity seems like a less dangerous option to cross the border into ‘the West?’


[1] My study of the Christian conversion of refugees in Turkey includes Afghans, though previous studies concerned the Iranian community. See J.A. Leman, “A ‘Lucan Effect’ in the Commitment of Iranian Converts in Transit. The case of the Pentecostal Iranian Enclave in Istanbul,” Revue du monde Musulman et de la Méditerranée (2007): 101-114; S. Koser Akçapar, “Conversion as a Migration Strategy in a Transit Country: Iranian Shiites Becoming Christians in Turkey,” International Migration Review 40, no. 4 (2006).

[2] Franz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1952).

[3] Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, 2.

[4] Edward Said, Orientalism, 5th edn (London: Penguin Books, 2003).

[5] I should acknowledge at this point that Islamophobia is an effect of Orientalism. I take Islamophobia to be more derivative of Orientalism in that it describes the problem of prejudice, while Orientalism addresses the questions of power and knowledge more broadly. For this reason, throughout this essay I will use the term Orientalism.

[6] Michel Foucher, L’obsession des frontières (Paris: Perrin, 2007).

[7] Istanbul Migration Charities (IMC) is a pseudonym. The actual name of the organization and the identities of staff and beneficiaries have been anonymized in order to ensure their privacy and safety.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Missionary, Interview with author, Istanbul, Turkey, May 2012.

[10] Sabine Hess, “‘We are Facilitating States!’ An Ethnographic Analysis of the ICMPD,” in Martin Geiger and Antoine Pécoud, eds., The Politics of International Migration Management (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 96-118.

[11] Frank Düvell, “Transit migration: a blurred and politicized,” Population, Space and Place, 18, no. 4, (2012): 415-427; Shoshana Fine, “La gestion des migrations internationales en Turquie,” in Migrations en Méditerranée: Permanences et mutations à l’heure des revolutions et des crises, ed. C. Schmoll, H. Thiollet, and C. Wihtol de Wenden, (Paris: CNRS Editions, 2015), 103-112.

[12]Didier Bigo, “Security and Immigration: Toward a Critique of the Governmentality of unease,” Alternatives 27 (2002): 63-92.

[13] Peter Nyers, Rethinking refugees: beyond states of Emergency (Oxon: Routledge, 2006).

[14] The Lautenberg Amendment on immigration is part of Pub. L. 101-167 and 8 CFR 245.7. In 2004, the U.S. Congress added a new provision, called the Specter Amendment [Pub L. 108-199, Division E, Title II, §213], which designates categories of Iranian nationals, specifically religious minorities, for whom the evidentiary standard to prove their refugee status is lower than for other candidates. For details, see Andorra Bruno, “Refugee Admissions and Resettlement Policy,” Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report for Congress, February 15, 2015, accessed April 4, 2016, 7-8,

[15] Ibid.

[16] U.N.H.C.R. Ankara, Case worker, Skype interview with author, November 2014.

[17] Missionary.

[18] Asam, Project Officer, Interview with author, Akara, Turkey, January 2013.

[19] Danish Immigration Service, Update on the Situation for Christian Converts in Iran Report from the Danish Immigration Service’s fact-finding mission to Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey and London, United Kingdom (Coopenhagen: 2014), 37, accessed April 4, 2016,….

[20] Ruben Andersson, Illegality, Inc. Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).

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