Key Points:

There's no denying that Ali Reza Panah's claimed conversion to Christianity would be an unpleasant fact of life for him if he were returned to Iran.

Apostasy is a capital offence in his home country, and Amnesty International considers the Islamic nation unsafe for proven Christian converts.

I doubt if it would be much fun for the dubious converts either, especially if they've made well-publicised declarations in other countries.

Is Panah's conversion real? The Refugee Status Appeals Authority didn't believe so, but the Anglican Church argues otherwise.

Archbishop David Moxon, convinced of Panah's sincerity, says the secular state is in no position to judge the genuineness of a person's conversion to Christianity. And he has a point. How could the authority members have been so sure? How many of them have any idea what a religious conversion looks like?

As it happens, religious conversions are something of a favourite topic with me at the moment, having myself recently become a member of that tribe I used to scorn: born-again Christians. How could this have happened, inquirers ask, when they find I've suddenly, inexplicably, "gone religious"?

In the minds of many of those I know, it is a sure sign I'm suffering from some kind of intellectual and emotional deficiency. I might as well admit to going bonkers.

That old rocker Alice Cooper, whose conversion saved him from a suicidal lifestyle, was right when he said being a Christian these days is a "tough call", an act of "real rebellion". Of course, few conversions are as spectacular and world-changing as the apostle Paul's on the road to Damascus.

"About noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice." It was Jesus, reproaching him for his persecution of Christians. Blinded by the light, Paul had to be led by the hand into Damascus, where a "devout man" waited to restore his sight and give him his divine orders.

Some neurologists suggest Paul was having a brain seizure, even though it left his intellectual powers unimpaired, as shown by the many letters he wrote while shackled to a Roman jailer.

Yet most conversions don't happen in a hallucinatory-like flash of blinding light. They're much more gradual affairs. For me, there was the overcoming of intellectual objections, which had once seemed insurmountable but make me laugh now. And even after I'd crossed that divide, and taken my leap of faith, there'd been an intensely spiritual experience that literally knocked me off my feet. It was indescribable.

The scales fell from my eyes, as happened with John Newton, the former British slave trader, who described his conversion in his famous hymn Amazing Grace: "I once was blind, but now I see."

Even gradual conversions can change the world, as William Wilberforce proved. Wilberforce was the British MP who led the long, arduous and, for many years, hugely unpopular fight to abolish the slave trade in Britain.

His conversion - from a privileged, self-absorbed young man of high society to a determined anti-slavery campaigner - began through the influence of an exceptionally gifted friend whom he'd met at university. Such was the power of his conviction that Wilberforce had no doubt God himself had appointed him for the job of abolishing the slave trade.

St Augustine, David Livingstone, and Leo Tolstoy, to name just a famous few, have all described spiritual experiences that changed their lives. Several American Presidents have had conversion experiences while in office, including perhaps the greatest of them all, Abraham Lincoln.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is said to have had a conversion experience at university, although a journalist who tried to ask him about it was famously rebuffed by Blair's spin doctor with, "We don't do God."

Charles Colson, special counsel to Richard Nixon and widely known (and hated) around Washington as the White House hatchet man, didn't do God either, but that didn't stop a religious conversion that made him the butt of media jokes at the height of the Watergate scandal. In his book Born Again he chronicled the hubris and moral slide that led to Watergate, and his at-times painful conversion.

C. S. Lewis, the celebrated Oxford don, prolific author and literary critic, described his conversion from militant atheist to Christian apologist as "very gradual and intellectual and not simple". A pessimist who disliked sentiment, he hated the very thought of bowing down to some Ultimate Authority.

But circumstances conspired against him. Close friends at Oxford began to reject their materialist world view for a spiritual one, and then he came under the influence of other devout believers in the faculty, among them Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings. Lewis started to realise, too, that all the authors he most admired embraced the spiritual worldview, including G.K. Chesterton.

As he wrote later, "A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful in his reading". When a fellow militant atheist remarked that the historical authenticity of the Gospels was surprisingly sound (a fact strengthened by archaeology in the years since), Lewis was taken aback. He'd never entertained the possibility that the New Testament stories could be anything but myth.

In the end, it took an act of will. Lewis could "open the door or keep it shut". He opened his mind, and gradually, he felt "the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. I gave in, and admitted that God was God and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England."

* Tapu.misa@gmail.com