Chang Qiang Zhu is a Chinese citizen who seeks asylum in the United States on the grounds of religious persecution: He claims he was persecuted because he was a Christian. Here’s what happened before the immigration judge, in the words of the 2nd Circuit, which reverses the Board of Immigration Appeals’ decision to deny asylum (Zhu v. Holder (2d Cir. Jan. 23, 2014), paragraph break added):

The agency based its credibility determination primarily on Zhu’s testimony concerning his telling of the story of the biblical figure Paul to Chinese authorities during his detention. The agency found that Zhu’s demeanor while testifying was “hesitant” and “evasive” and his account of the story was inconsistent. The record, however, reveals that Zhu’s demeanor began to suffer only when the IJ required him to provide highly detailed information regarding the story of Paul. Indeed, while Zhu was able to explain that Paul was a disciple of Jesus Christ who persecuted Christians, and later converted to Christianity after being blinded on the road to Damascus, he struggled to answer more detailed questions such as what form Paul’s persecution of Christians took or in what year Paul converted to Christianity.

By inquiring of Zhu and expecting him to provide this extensive detail, virtually all of which he testified to accurately in any event, the IJ contravened our holding in Rizal v. Gonzales, 442 F.3d 84, 90 (2d Cir. 2006), which prohibits relying on a petitioner’s lack of doctrinal knowledge as the basis for an adverse credibility determination or denying relief.

The 2nd Circuit decision also goes into some other aspects of the board’s and the immigration judge’s credibility determinations. Check out the opinion, which is short, if you want more details. The decision also doesn’t conclude that Zhang should be given asylum — it sends the case back down for further fact finding on Zhang’s credibility “as to his practice of Christianity in China or in the United States, or both,” as well as whether “there is a ‘pattern or practice’ of persecution of Christians in China” or whether Zhang failed to “sufficiently present[]” the claim to the American immigration authorities. But the discussion of the questioning about Christian doctrine struck me as interesting enough to mention on its own.

By the way, although such doctrinal questioning is misplaced, I can see the problem that the immigration authorities are trying to deal with: If all it takes to get asylum in the United States is to claim that one is a Christian, lots of people will find it very tempting to just make up such claims. (Indeed, since one can claim asylum based on the credible danger of future persecution, after having converted to Christianity in the United States, one wouldn’t even need to show past mistreatment of oneself back in the home country; see my Miami Is Worth a Mass? post from a few years ago.) Nonetheless, I think the 2nd Circuit analysis in the earlier Rizal case is correct:

To the extent that the [Immigration Judge’s] conclusion stemmed from the rationale that a certain level of doctrinal knowledge is necessary in order to be eligible for asylum on grounds of religious persecution, we expressly reject this approach. The critical showing that an applicant must make to demonstrate eligibility for asylum on religious persecution grounds is that he has suffered past persecution, or fears future persecution, on the basis of religion. 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42). Both history and common sense make amply clear that people can identify with a certain religion, notwithstanding their lack of detailed knowledge about that religion’s doctrinal tenets, and that those same people can be persecuted for their religious affiliation. Such individuals are just as eligible for asylum on religious persecution grounds as are those with more detailed doctrinal knowledge.

So immigration judges are faced with very difficult credibility questions in such cases, likely even more difficult than the usual credibility questions, given the extra scrutiny that appellate judges are likely to give to such credibility determinations (and the variety of applicants’ potential approaches to religion).

By the way, here is a note that I got from a reader back in 2009 about the subject, though of course it’s just one observer’s view of the matter:

I want to assure you that immigration judges are well aware of the potential for abusing asylum by making sham conversions. However, it is not the IJ’s job to marshal evidence of a true religious conviction. As in the Article III courts, the IJs are there to provide a neutral venue for determining an alien’s removability and any possible relief from removability under immigration laws.

The IJs have a bit more leeway than Article III judges when it comes to addressing respondents and witnesses, but it is ultimately the respondent’s to demonstrate religious conviction — the burden is on the alien to establish eligibility for relief. Then, the DHS trial attorney [TA] may present evidence — including by cross-examining the respondent — demonstrating that the respondent does not sincerely hold the claimed religious beliefs.

Some standard questions asked by TAs to establish Christian bonafides:

Who is Jesus Christ?

What is your favorite story from the Bible?

What is your favorite prayer? Can you recite that prayer or a part of that prayer?

These seem like rather basic questions, but it is astounding how often Christian claimants cannot answer them. It is also fairly easy to spot the respondents who have been coached since they know one and only one story from the Bible, which is inevitably short-handed as: “water to wine.” This is a reference to Jesus’ first public miracle at a wedding in Cana and is considered an anti-Shibboleth by TAs and many IJs. Most frequently, Chinese applicants can name only this Bible story, as a result of being coached by the smugglers they use to enter the United States. Similarly, applicants who have been coached will say “the Lord’s Prayer” is their favorite, and then recite some variation of the traditional Catholic grace before a meal (i.e. not the Lord’s Prayer). The smugglers abroad and “immigration consultants” here in the United States are not very imaginative and have no real interest in their victims, so these responses do not change that often.

If the respondent satisfactorily answers these questions, the TA may then escalate to more complex questions of Christian theology. That is a matter of individual discretion, however. Often, you can get a pretty good idea as to the sincerity of the respondent’s religious conviction with just those few questions. (Additionally, the TAs deal with many religions on a regular basis, not just Christianity. I suspect — without knowing, mind you — that they have a list of questions and answers prepared for the most common religions. They also prepare in advance of proceedings for this type of inquiry.)

You are right to point out that a person can know the theology of a religion, its practice, and its procedure without genuinely having religious conviction. As with many areas of law, we cannot actually know a person’s state of mind, thoughts, and beliefs. However, a person’s knowledge and behavior can be a good indication of same. Typically, an applicant for asylum making a religious claim will provide three types of evidence of belief: his testimony, the testimony of others who worship with him or see him at worship or know of his long-standing belief, and documentary evidence like baptismal certificates, photographs from religious ceremonies, etc. All three types are open to inspection and attack by the TA.

Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer to the Zhu case.