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Paper: Neo-charismatic congregations offer asylum seekers 'express' baptisms in public swimming pools

Christian media report that not all new converts understand which demonination of Christianity they have taken on or the meaning of baptism.

Mies rukoilee kirkon alttarin edessä.
Image: Wasim Khuzam / Yle

Asylum seekers in Oulu have been baptised as Christians in quick ceremonies in public swimming pools, according to reports in the Kotimaa Pro publication.

It appears however that not all of the new converts understand which denomination they have converted to, with some erroneously assuming that they were baptised into the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church.

A Lutheran pastor working in Oulu, Arpad Kovacs, told Kotimaa Pro that he is familiar with the phenomenon.

"Independent Christian congregations baptise asylum seekers and give them a certificate of baptism after a course lasting just one hour," said Kovacs. "This is misleading people."

An independent Christian group, Oulun Lähetysseurakunta, baptised about 10 asylum seekers in the Raksila swimming pool last year, according to Kotimaa Pro.

Jari Ruonala, a pastor at the congregation, said the baptisms had been administered without a big fuss, and is surprised that the issue has received so much attention.

“This is not something people need to know about. The matter should be buried.”

A worrisome practice

Finland's established Lutheran church has been a strong voice advocating for asylum seekers since a spike in the numbers seeking refuge in the country two years ago. They have also seen large numbers of conversions among the new arrivals, and Pentecostal congregations have actively recruited among asylum seekers.

Amid controversy over the conversions, Finland's Immigration Service published guidance on how it treats conversion to Christianity by asylum seekers.

The National Church Council considers the practice of 'express baptism' worrying if asylum seekers do not understand the meaning of the ceremony.

“If the baptism is very quick and asylum seekers are uninformed about its symbolism and the community performing the baptism, of course it is troublesome,” said Marja-Liisa Laihia from the Council.

For persons coming from Islamic countries, for example, the many different denominations within Christianity can be confusing. Therefore the Council recommends that religious teaching of the new converts should last several months.

Naturally, there are asylum seekers who think that converting to Christianity will help their application with immigration authorities, but churches cannot promise anything like that, Laihia adds.

City not keen on baptisms

Ruonala said that the baptisms are performed at quiet times when not many visitors are at the pool. In the summer he says they baptise outside in lakes and rivers.

Oulu city authorities said they were surprised to hear about baptisms administered in public pools. Jari Leviäkangas, an estate manager for the pool at Raksila, said he was confident that common sense would prevail. “If this matter comes up again, our position is that the pool is reserved for swimming,” he said.

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