BERLIN—When I first met Mattias in July at a refugee shelter just north of Berlin, he went by the name Mohammed. He had arrived in Germany from Iran the previous fall, along with thousands of other asylum-seekers—sometimes up to 10,000 arrived in a single day. After the German government assigned him to this shelter, he converted to Christianity. “I wouldn’t say I was a Muslim” before, he told me. “I didn’t go to a mosque for an entire year. Now I am going to church every week.” He expects it will take about three weeks to get off his church’s waiting list to be baptized. Perhaps once he’s more settled in Germany, he’ll be able to change his name legally to Mattias, his chosen Christian name.
We sat together in a sparse dormitory room at the shelter with three other Iranians who had converted from Islam to Christianity. They attend a Protestant church together, but asked that I not provide the exact location nor give their full names. Two of them said they became Christian while living in Iran. Another, like Mattias, had converted after arriving in Germany as an asylum-seeker.
Throughout Germany, the pews of churches like theirs are filled increasingly by asylum-seekers. Though two umbrella church organizations told me that they couldn’t provide exact statistics or comment on the nationality of the asylum-seekers attending church, Christoph Heil, a spokesman for the Protestant Church of Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Upper Lusatia—which includes 1,300 parishes—confirmed the pattern. “Normally we don’t count the number of asylum-seekers who are baptized because we don’t differentiate between who is an asylum-seeker and who isn’t, but [asylum-seekers asking to be baptized] appears to be a new trend,” he said.
Muslim converts to Christianity that I spoke to in Germany cited the redemptive power of Jesus’s story, and disillusionment with Islam. It’s also worth noting the more earthly forces potentially at work: Germany does not grant refugee status to Iranians as easily as it does Syrians and Iraqis. Around 27,000 Iranians applied for asylum in the EU in 2015, with Germany hosting the overwhelming majority; according to Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, 60 percent of Iranian requests for asylum received positive answers that year. Iranians seeking refugee status must prove that if they are sent home, they stand the risk of being persecuted for their beliefs. In Iran, that often means Christian converts.
During conversations with newly converted Iranian asylum-seekers, it struck me that being born again after arriving in Europe was not only an act of faith, but a practical matter: Europe is largely Christian, after all. Some converts, like Mattias, weren’t particularly devout Muslims to begin with anyway. “There are asylum-seekers looking to get baptized who have converted in their home countries and others are getting in touch with Christianity now after seeing a certain way of life in Germany," Heil said. "They ask themselves, what is the root of this way of living, [of] freedom and democracy."
At his shelter, Mattias and three of his friends, who all appeared to be in their 30s and 40s, pulled a metal folding table into the middle of the dorm room to prepare for lunch. One of them told me he hoped Donald Trump would become president of the United States, since he’d heard he was a Christian. Before we ate, another of Mattias’s friends prayed as we bowed our heads, giving thanks for the food. “In Jesus’s name, Amen,” he said. “Amen,” the others echoed. Then we dug into rice pilaf from a frying pan.
The man who led the prayer said he had converted to Christianity in Iran after getting hold of a smuggled Farsi-language Bible. “Before it was just theoretical to me, but now I can see it and feel it by my pastor’s kindness,” he said. Another said he converted in Iran because of an old neighbor who had been born Christian. Christians, he said, “were kind people. In Islam, the person who does the killing and the person who dies yells Allahu Akbar,” he said. “In Iran,” he noted, referring to the Arab occupation of Persia that began in the seventh century, “we became Muslim by force.”
A week after that meal, I visited Trinity Lutheran Church, which also hosts a large Iranian congregation. A pale, yellow, sterile-looking structure set just off a residential street in Berlin’s southwestern Steglitz neighborhood, it appears modest compared to the grand churches of Europe. On the lawn out front, some of the Iranian congregants greeted each other with smiles and overzealous, welcoming handshakes. Others shuffled inside, their eyes averted. Notices written in Farsi were posted all over the church.
The pastor at Trinity is Gottfried Martens, 53, an affable man with a salt-and-pepper widow’s peak and kind smile. He explained that Trinity’s sister congregation in the adjacent district of Zehlendorf had been helping new migrants adjust to life in Germany since the 1990s, adopting a welcoming stance that eventually turned his church into a destination for Iranian Christians seeking help. Once a few Farsi speakers began attending, more arrived. In 2013, Trinity began its service focusing on “refugee work,” in Martens’s words, providing translations in Farsi and English during services and other church activities.
Before the service began that day, I talked with Saeed, another Iranian asylum-seeker. Up the stairs and past the Iranian ushers, we poked our heads into the nave. There were few seats available, so we crowded into the choir loft along with the other stragglers. There appeared to be around 300 people in attendance, mostly Iranians, but my translator pointed out that a line of men seated behind us included Hazaras from Afghanistan—also current or former Shia Muslims—like the Iranians. Only a dozen or so in attendance appeared to be German. A woman in the front pews still wore a hijab.
During the service, much of which was translated into Farsi, the Iranians and Afghans tried to follow along in the church bulletin, concluding each section with a hearty, accented “Ah-meeen” (familiar to the Iranians and Afghans from Muslim prayers) that filled the sanctuary.
“Do you want to go take communion?” Saeed asked when people began lining up in the center aisle after the sermon. I told him I would stay seated, since I didn’t know how to cross myself, which, naturally, confused him: earlier, I had told him that I was a Christian. He was a new believer, steadfast and eager about the outward signs of devotion like partaking in the sacraments, crossing himself at the appropriate times, and eating pork. The outward trappings of Christianity I grew up with in a non-denominational church in rural Maryland, by contrast—using euphemisms rather than cursing (darn rather than damn), voting Republican, eating Chick-Fil-A, and doing nothing remotely Catholic—were difficult to explain.
After the service ended, the Iranians and Afghans gathered downstairs for a meal of rice, lentils, and cabbage salad. Asylum-seekers had often complained to me about the German food at their shelters, which they found bland. But the church’s lunch menu seemed tailored to their tastes. During the meal, one Iranian man was filling out a baptism questionnaire that asked for his personal history. It soon turned into a group activity. “How do you write ‘engineer’ in German?” he asked the crowd that had surrounded him.
Martens made an announcement shortly thereafter, saying that a handful of members of the congregation had recently been granted asylum and residency visas by the German authorities. “We’re happy they were awarded asylum and then came back to church,” he said with a quick smile. Everyone clapped.
Several weeks later, I returned to the church. I could feel a sort of happy chaos in the air that contrasted to the despair prevalent in refugee shelters I’d visited elsewhere in the country. Germans and asylum-seekers hung around drinking tea as children ran around playing; their arts projects hung across one wall. The church provides what is essentially pro-bono social work for refugees, assisting them with housing and other needs as they navigate Germany’s complex bureaucracy. People there were taking an active role in changing their situation or that of others, receiving a healthy dose of Christian optimism along with it.
Martens said his congregation was “lucky” to have its pews filled with asylum-seekers from the Muslim world. Being around them, he said, brought meaning to his life. “It’s such a job to be together with these wonderful people who have risked so much for their Christian faith,” he said. “I can hardly imagine [working] in a normal German congregation anymore.” His church currently counts some 1,000 baptized Iranian and Afghan members with 300 on the waiting list, he said. Before someone is baptized, he must pass a kind of Christian entrance exam by taking classes on what it means to believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. It’s one way of making sure people aren’t just becoming Christian for the visa, to ascertain whether “they really understand what the Christian faith means,” Martens said. “I know Germans who would fail as well,” he added.
People in Martens’s congregation have, in a handful of cases, had to appeal their legal deportation decision. In one district, Martens said, a woman who determines refugee status “simply does not believe that Muslims can become Christian.” He takes this as a personal affront.
“If there are so many [converts] then this can’t be true. I cannot help it,” he said. “There is a Christian awakening among Iranians and Afghans on a large scale. That’s something that these German atheists cannot understand at all. Why don’t they come here for just one Sunday and then they will know better?”
Reporting for this article was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.