Thursday, 14 January 2016

Day in court.

I met with Peter and Hamid at St German's, and Peter drove us to the court building, Columbus House, located just off the Chepstow Road on the far side of Newport. As we left Cardiff, Ashley phoned to brief me on an urgent business matter, which meant I wasn't concentrating on route finding. I heard Chepstow Road and knew it was on the east side of town, and before I could say otherwise, Peter had turned off on the west side junction leading into the city. We got stuck in traffic, so turning around and returning to the M4 lost us a good twenty minutes, so instead of arriving ten minutes early we arrive ten minutes late. 

Proceedings hadn't started, however. We went through security checks, then were briefed by Hamid's lawyer on court procedure for half an hour. We emerged to find that another immigration hearing was in court ahead of us. From ten until two thirty we sat around in the waiting room and chatted, not knowing when the previous hearing would finish. Then Hamid and the lawyer were summoned. The rest of us, five witnesses in all, waited our turn, I was last to appear, at five twenty five, and was interrogated for half an hour, largely around the question of how I could be certain that a convert was honestly sincere in requesting baptism.

I would like to have been better prepared for this, to have had an opportunity to think about the best way to convey what pastoral discernment is all about in a context that is used to a more forensic and analytic ways of delivering evidence. I had no problem discussing Hamid's journey into Christian faith with another Christian pastor who had accompanied him, even though his first language was not mine and his religious and cultural background were different from mine. The judge was a careful listener. She asked me questions, waited for an answer and asked me to slow down and repeat if I went too fast for her. The challenge was to be as precise as possible and not woolly and impressionistic. I wonder what she made of my testimony - my first ever appearance as a witness in a court of law.

Hamid's sister and brother-in-law were in court to testify on his behalf. While staying with them he had been studying the bible secretly. When his sister discovered this, she kicked him out, and not long after he was picked up, identified as having overstayed his visa. Since then, realising the threat to his life he now faces, she's had second thoughts and accepted his desire to become Christian, despite her misgivings. Hence her willingness to come down and testify on his behalf.

Hamid's first request for asylum was turned down, as were his appeals, but a change in legislation made possible a new request. The present appeal is the outcome of another refusal. During his time awaiting deportation in the Harmondsworth detention centre, he met and was helped by Amjad, the Urdu speaking pastor who assisted in his baptism last Sunday. Amjad couldn't testify as he's a Home Office accredited voluntary interpretor. It gave me confidence that Amjad spoke highly of Hamid and his journey into faith. 

While Hamid was in a hostel in Birmingham, prior to coming to Cardiff, his room mate was a Ukranian pentecostal pastor seeking asylum here. Through their limited grasp of English, despite the language barrier, over time they were able to talk about faith and even pray together. He too came to be a court witness. The four and a half hour wait for Hamid's case to start was not time wasted, but rather an occasion for some unusual and unexpected conversations.

The case lawyer wasn't the woman who had interviewed me on the phone from London, but a local partner, in his mid twenties. He seemed confident Hamid's case was credible and well supported. In closing the appeal, he quoted an eminent British judge who stated "We are not required to probe the depths of someone's soul to ascertain their motives or intentions in converting faith. We may ask about their behaviour. In this case, enquiring how often they go to church is what may be relied upon." The judge now has to read through all the submissions before deciding. Hamid's life will be on hold for the next three weeks, until he learns whether or not asylum will be granted.

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