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Commentary: Faith confusion in Canada

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent

GURAT, France, Oct. 17 (UPI) -- The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington seem to have caused two hitherto unknown casualties. One is evidently the knack of Canadian immigration authorities for determining a refugee's identity, the other the sharp separation between church and state.

Would-be immigrants have an increasingly tough time throughout North America since that day of infamy. But now picture this: An Iranian health care worker, let's call her Nancy, said she converted to Christianity, a perilous decision in a Muslim country where the penalty for apostasy can be death. Nancy's contacts with Christians were found out. She was attacked and now bears scars in her faith, according to her current pastor in Montreal, a Lutheran. Nancy managed to flee to Canada under unclear circumstances. Her daughter went into hiding in Iran.

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Then Nancy's case took a strange turn. An immigration judge in Montreal -- by definition a secular official -- questioned the validity of her baptism and decided that she was not really a Christian and must be deported to Iran, where she may well be imprisoned or even executed. Judge Helene Panagakos ruled out an appeal to her decision, at least on the question of Nancy's religion.

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Now her last chance is a Pre-Risk Removal Assessment. Her lawyers must convince another court that sending her back would endanger her life. Nancy's minister, the Rev. Harold Ristau, pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church in Montreal, told United Press International Thursday, "Only 10 percent of the applicants in this procedure receive a favorable ruling."

It would be gratifying to hear the government's side at this point. However, when UPI telephoned the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board, a spokeswoman declared, "We do not comment on judgments; this would be against the law."

Said Ristau, "Alas, this is all you'll ever hear from the authorities in these kind of cases. Even Members of Parliament fare no better with their inquiries."

This evidently being so, one has to play the devil's advocate. Indeed, it might prove to be a successful ruse for a bogus refugee from a strictly Muslim country to claim: "I have become a Christian, and so now you must let me in, lest I be beheaded after Friday prayers back home."

True enough, many of Iranians, especially women, are turning to Christianity. As the saying goes in their country, "The Ayatollah Khomeini is the world's best evangelist, for he has shown us the true face of Islam."

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Many international and religious sources -- including the late Rev. Steve Snyder of International Christian Concern, Paul Marshall of Freedom House in Washington, and pastors around Europe -- have apprised this writer of this phenomenon.

Is Nancy for real? Could she not have used the religious argument to camouflage her true status as an economic exile?

And was it not a trifle suspect that she had herself baptized not in a secret ceremony in some Persian catacomb but only after her arrival by a Pentecostal cleric -- in a swimming pool, if you don't mind? How in the world did she then find her way to a small Lutheran congregation of Slovak origin in Montreal, saying that Pentecostal spirituality did not really appeal to her; she wanted so good, solid doctrine?

These are reasonable questions, and Judge Panagakos was right to ask them. She is a Greek Orthodox, and her branch of Christianity certainly does not baptize in pools. Was Nancy's baptism authentic, if it has taken place at all? "Reverend, forgive my ignorance pertaining to the Lutheran/Protestant faith," the judge told Ristau.

Well, Lutherans don't normally baptize in swimming pools, either. But as long as the sacrament is administered with water and in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, it is a valid in Lutheran eyes -- and not only in those.

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Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and indeed the Eastern Orthodox affirm this view because all adhere to the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D., whose third article states a belief in "one baptism."

This is what the Rev. Ristau explained in his testimony before Judge Panagakos, and he assured her that he had received an e-mail from the Pentecostal minister confirming Nancy's baptism with the Trinitarian formula and with water -- and not just with the Spirit, Pentecostal style.

Ristau wasn't happy with the way the judge treated him.

"I felt that the judge minimized my testimony in favor of her doctrinal bias," he wrote to her superior, "I felt a suspicion of myself and our Church Board throughout the trial. ... I felt myself to be on trial during an unexpected examination of my credibility which lasted about 90 minutes."

But leaving all that aside, one wonders: What makes the Canadian immigration system tick in such a case where life and liberty of a would-be immigrant is a stake?

How is it possible that in a democratic country, where church and state are separate, a secular judge presumes to overrule a minister of the cloth in determining who is a Christian and who is not -- especially if by her own admittance the judge knows nothing about the denomination in question?

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Perhaps Nancy is an imposter -- perhaps she is not. Short of definite proof, one surmises, only the latter assumption should apply in a state of law, especially as immigration judges are not equipped to probe a person's faith. That's what pastors are for.

If Nancy is sent back to Iran and hanged or beheaded as an apostate, she'll be a martyr, regardless of whether her Christian convictions are genuine. She'll be a martyr of judicial arrogance that presumes to read a person's soul.

And she'll be a martyr of the flustered immigration system, which has succumbed to terror.

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