Muslim detainees in Australia convert, win review

Sydney, Australia -- A group of 30 Iranian and Iraqi long-term detainees in Australia who had their asylum claims rejected have won a review of their cases after some converted to Christianity, government officials said on Monday.

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said the 30 boatpeople, most of them Muslims and some who have been in detention for more than three years, had won the review after some claimed to be converts about two weeks ago.

The spokesman could not say how many had converted to Christianity but added that, in some cases, new information had also arisen about the dangers of them being returned to their homelands.

Prime Minister John Howard said Australia, which has a tough policy of automatic detention of asylum seekers who arrive illegally, was not discriminating in favour Christians.

"There's no denominational or religious-specific clause in the administration of our immigration policy," Howard told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

"Concerns about religious persecution can vary from one religion to another (and) are always factors in deciding how we deal with people," Howard said.

"The idea that we would introduce something that is peculiar only to people who convert to Christianity -- that's not correct," he said.

Australia's opposition Labor party and Muslim leaders warned against reviewing asylum claims based on religion, saying Australia's international reputation could suffer and that other detainees might convert merely to stay in Australia.

"To see that Australia is actively encouraging Muslims to convert to another religion is something that we don't need to be stigmatised with," Lebanese Muslim Association president Keysar Trad told reporters.

"Muslims generally aren't known for using their religion for worldly advantage, but there will be some weak in faith who will see it as a way of getting a visa," Trad said.

Refugee advocate Marion Le downplayed fears of other Muslim detainees converting to Christianity to gain visas.

"There's never been an idea that by becoming a Christian you will be allowed to stay. They would know by converting they are doing a very serious thing and that other people who are Muslims in the detention centres could turn against them," she said.

Strict interpretations of Islam regard conversion as an offence, sometimes punishable by death.

Greens party senator Bob Brown, a staunch critic of the government's asylum seeker detention policy, said religion was only relevant if it was the reason detainees had been persecuted before arriving in Australia.

"The rule here is humanity, not the religious belief of some of those poor people who are facing export to countries where they face punishment," Brown said.