Michael Nazir-Ali: After the betrayal of democracy in Afghanistan, will other countries in the region ever trust the West again?

22 Aug

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali was Bishop of Rochester for 15 years. He is originally from Southwest Asia and was the first Diocesan Bishop in the Church of England born abroad.

I was born and brought up in neighbouring Pakistan and ministered up and down the land during the first civil war in Afghanistan, when five million Afghans took refuge in Pakistan. I was involved in the Church’s efforts to relieve their sufferings and to provide educational and medical facilities for them.

As Bishop of Raiwind, though, I warned both Pakistan and the West that the arming and training of extremist groups, from within Pakistan and Afghanistan and from the wider world, to fight the Soviet presence in Afghanistan would lead to the emergence of groups like the Taliban and would internationalise extremist Islamism.

This is, indeed, what happened. The Soviet threat was contained and, in fact, led to the dismemberment of the Soviet Union itself but, since then, extremist Islamism has flourished both in the region and more widely than that.

As General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), I worked closely with the local churches in supporting the vital work of hospitals, founded by CMS, all along the long Pakistan-Afghan border serving the neediest people of both countries. They will, undoubtedly, be needed again.

From such a long association with the region, what has struck me most forcibly this time is the way in which the American-led West has simply abandoned a society it has helped to create. The oft-heard nostrums of politicians, that the West had gone in simply to avenge Al Qaeda’s attack on 9/11 and to make sure it never recurred again, ring hollow. The establishing of a culturally appropriate form of democracy, encouraging and funding civil society, female education and much else besides was not extra to the task of eradicating the threat of regional and international terrorism from the soil of Afghanistan, but integral to it.

Will nations, for example in the Indo-Pacific area, even now being garnered to protect the West’s interests there, ever again be able to trust the West? When, they will ask themselves, will they be told that Western self- interest no longer needs their friendship? The unilateral American decision to withdraw all troops is morally irresponsible, as is collusion with it by other Western powers, even if some, like Britain, had reservations about it.

It seems to me, that the least that could have been done was to have made withdrawal conditional on a comprehensive peace agreement between the government in Kabul and the Taliban. Without such an agreement, withdrawal is tantamount to handing over large sections of the Afghan people to the whims of a movement known for its past and present brutality.

Sensing blood, the vultures are circling: ISIS is active already, and not only in the remoter parts of country. We can be sure that others like Al Qaeda and the notorious Haqqani Group, for long allied with the Taliban, cannot be far behind.

The resurgence of extremist Islamism on Afghan soil has significant implications for the region. The Central Asian nations, consisting of the former Soviet republics, are terrified of Taliban infiltration, and will become even more draconian in their determination to stamp out what they see as extremism. Most of them remain within the Russian circle of influence and Russia also needs to make sure its own southern flank is not radicalised further.

China, similarly, has become alarmed at what it sees as extremist influence permeating its Western region of Xinjiang and we can expect a further tightening there of the plight of the Uighur ethnic group. The security situation in Pakistan has greatly improved of late, but the Afghan Taliban owe a great deal to safe havens provided by radical groups in Pakistan. There will certainly be ‘quid pro quo’ demands for them now to find hospitality in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. What will be the implications of such cross border bases for security in Pakistan? I am not holding my breath.

Within Afghanistan itself, there is the possibility of civil war with Northern Dari speaking tribal groups and their leaders( sometimes misleadingly called ‘warlords’ in the West) likely to resist the Pashtun-led Taliban and their interpretation of Shari’a. Civil and military chaos, if not Taliban complicity, will surely result in the country, once again, becoming a base for extremist violence not limited to the region. If and when this happens, the West’s decision to withdraw unilaterally and unconditionally will begin to look not just morally weak but strategically foolish.

In the meantime, American female journalists in Afghanistan donning hijab and chador to report is a sign of what is coming for Afghan women and girls. Women have already been told to wear the burqa (the all enveloping veil which covers the face) or to wear the niqab (a face mask) and gloves in any public appearance. They will not be allowed to work with men and their access to education, especially higher education, remains in doubt. All the gains made by them in the professions, in public life and in civil society could be just wiped out as they were when the Taliban were last in power.

The situation of religious minorities is also parlous. The minority, and largely Shi’a, Hazara have already declared that they are facing genocide. My post bag and reports from aid agencies bear witness that Christians, Sikhs and Hindus are desperate to flee and the rich Buddhist heritage of the Gandhara Indo-Hellenistic civilisation is again in jeopardy.

The reimposition of Shari’a penal law could bring us the spectacle of public executions, mutilations and floggings, sometimes for minor offences like violating the strict dress code, petty theft or ‘obscene’ entertainment like mixed dancing, even in private.

Britain, of course, needs to honour its obligations to those who assisted its mission in Afghanistan but, in the face of such an apocalyptic situation, there must be urgent international agreement about the flood of refugees that is likely to result from a Taliban takeover

Europe should not be left to bear the brunt of such a mass movement, as it was with the war in Syria. North America, Australasia and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation must all take their full share of refugees. A condition of any recognition of a Taliban-led government should be respect for fundamental freedoms, especially for women, girls and religious and ethnic minorities. The Taliban should accept UN and other accredited rapporteurs to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Afghanistan from time to time. Such monitoring and reporting will include not only the condition of groups like women and minorities, but also matters like respect for the person in the application of penal law and the withholding of inhumane and degrading punishments. The rapporteurs must have access to the country and to the groups they are monitoring.

Many of these measures, whilst urgent and necessary, are but bandages for a wound which will take much time to heal. In the longer term, the aim must be the promotion of a culturally appropriate democracy, adherence to the UN Declaration on Human Rights, particularly Article 18 which deals with freedom of belief and expression, and guarantees regarding female access to education and employment. We must ensure, now western troops are home, that the world does not forget the vulnerable in Afghanistan and that may mean a majority of the population.

Profile: The Church of England, afflicted by a central bureaucracy which is mounting a takeover bid

15 Jul

“I am indeed in an absolute fury,” my friend, a liberal Catholic priest in the Church of England, said when I rang to ask about the latest row shaking the Church.

“It’s a coup led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s an evangelical take-over. It’s having a direct impact on clergy who are not evangelical. They are being ousted.”

“It’s Putinesque – silently under the radar they’ve been moving, and at this point it’s surfaced.”

What could have provoked such an outburst? Some words by Canon John McGinley, head of church-planting development at New Wine, who explained why the Church of England is right to have adopted the astonishing target of setting up 10,000 new, mostly lay-led churches in the next ten years, with a million new members:

“Lay-led churches release the Church from key limiting factors. When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church . . . then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form. It also releases the discipleship of people. In church-planting, there are no passengers.”

This suggests that parish clergy get in the way of growth, while some of the rest of us are mere “passengers”. Stipendiary priests are a “key limiting factor”, as are their education and the buildings in which they work.

Not surprisingly, many of the clergy are furious to find themselves described in this way. They have worked through the pandemic, surmounted innumerable problems to keep their churches going, ministered to any number of people in desperate need, and received little enough support from a hierarchy which during the first lockdown assented without a murmur of protest to the closure of church buildings and the exclusion of the clergy even for the streaming of services without congregations, as if that presented any risk to public health.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, led the way by celebrating Easter 2020 from his kitchen, rather than from the perfectly good chapel in Lambeth Palace.

Here was a practical demonstration of what it was like to conduct services in one’s own home, rather than from some traditional sacred building. Parish priests also had to get used to doing this, which is now officially regarded as the way ahead, the means by which the Church will grow, with meetings of the new converts held in houses rather than churches.

The financial savings from this way of doing things should be huge, there is in any case a need because of falling membership to economise, the pandemic has presented an additional pretext for sweeping change, and in dioceses such as Chelmsford, large number of clergy are already being laid off.

Funds are already being diverted to promote the founding of new House Churches, rather than maintain the parish system.

Welby has endorsed the church-planting strategy in the most emphatic terms, telling the online conference which was addressed by Canon McGinley:

“We don’t preach morality, we plant churches. We don’t preach therapeutic care, we plant churches. We
are not deists, we believe in a God who intervenes — and plants churches.” 

He himself was converted to Christianity on 12th October 1975, while praying with a fellow undergraduate, and Old Etonian, at Trinity College, Cambridge. During summer vacations they helped run the evangelical summer camps at Iwerne Minster, in Dorset, whose founder, Bash Nash, had set out to preach the gospel at the top 30 public schools in Britain, and to recruit from these an elite cadre of future Christian leaders.

While engaged in this work, Welby met John Smyth QC, a prominent evangelical who was later found to have committed atrocious acts of abuse against more than 20 boys.

As is often the case, Welby found it difficult to apologise in a credible way to the victims, while at the same time upholding the interests of the institution he now leads.

After Cambridge Welby worked in the oil industry and on returning from Paris to London, worshipped at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), a London church which from 1985-2005 underwent a celebrated revival under the leadership of Sandy Millar (Eton and Trinity), and has since been led by his successor, Nicky Gumbel (Eton and Trinity), who further developed its famous Alpha Course.

HTB became a shining example of charismatic evangelical Christianity, brilliant at converting young, friendly, sincere, well-mannered, newly arrived Londoners who were familiar with Christian observance from their private education, but had not yet undergone a conversion experience.

Here was a thriving church where it was unembarrassing, indeed the done thing, to become a committed, evangelical Christian, after which one set out to multiply the effect by making strenuous efforts to convert one’s friends. HTB was socially conservative on questions such as homosexuality, and was linked to conservative American evangelicals such as John Wimber.

From its overflowing congregation, it sent out teams under clerical leadership to rescue other London churches which had become moribund.

There was a tremendous esprit de corps in these teams, and they were successful in revitalising about seven churches. Welby, who with Millar’s help and encouragement set out on the path to ordination in 1989, had early and positive experience of church planting.

But one may note that this success was achieved by an inspiring leader, Millar, who was good at identifying and enlisting other leaders; knew how to instil confidence in them; himself preached the gospel with an engaging simplicity of manner; stayed in one place for a long time; had a similar background to the young people he was trying to reach; and while keeping the whole venture under clerical rather than lay supervision, benefited from the freedom to do things his own way.

One may wonder whether most or indeed any of those conditions will be met by the Vision and Strategy paper which was this week adopted by General Synod, to whom it was presented by Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, who said he wants to see “a Church where mixed ecology is the norm”:

“In the Church of England in the 2020s this notion of mixed ecology will be the way in which we fulfil, in our day, that historic vocation to be the church for every inch of England, and the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man (as well as to witness for Christ all across the Diocese in Europe as well) and every person therein. This is not a dismantling of the parish system. Neither is it a way of disregarding or devaluing ordained ministry.”

No bishop has challenged these soft and inclusive words, for the episcopacy had already been squared. But in other parts of the Church there is huge alarm.

Here is Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, questioning the assertion that 10,000 new House Churches will gain a million new adherents by 2030:

“At their last peak in the 1980s, the House Church Movement in the UK could perhaps claim a quarter of a million adherents. The number today is probably well under 10,000, with some estimates closer to 5,000. Many of those that were so popular in the last quarter of the twentieth century dissolved when the leaders died.  Or, were subject to intense question of financial and sexual probity.  Many of these House Churches would now be classed as case-studies in spiritual abuse, the misuse of power, and safeguarding nightmares…

“I also wonder if the drivers of this new initiative – a kind of ‘ecclesial final solution’ – have really done their homework on young people.  Even amongst evangelical youth, toleration or affirmation of same-sex relationships, people of other faiths and cultural diversity, suggests that the old conversionist paradigms are not engaging emerging generations of evangelicals.  Fellowship and worship may be cherished, but the teaching is received on an à-la-carte basis.,,

“Jung Chang, in her award-winning Wild Swans  – a withering critique of Mao’s China and the doomed Great Leap Forward – offers a parable that is a cautionary tale. She writes of a time when telling fantasies to oneself as well as others, and believing them, was practised to an incredible degree. Peasants moved crops from several plots of land to one plot to show Party officials that they had produced a miracle harvest. Similar ‘Potemkin fields’ were shown off to gullible – or self-blinded – agricultural scientists, reporters, visitors from other regions, and foreigners.  Although these crops generally died within a few days because of untimely transplantation and harmful density, the visitors did not know that, or did not want to know…”

Andrew Lightbown, Rector of Winslow, points out that if created (which admittedly is hard to imagine) the 10,000 House Churches would change the whole character of the Church:

“The Church of England is a church in the reformed catholic tradition.This means that we take things like orders, sacraments, and liturgy seriously. In fact these three are central to our understanding of what it means to be a church, or Christian community; reformed and catholic. We can’t get away from this, and neither should we try to do so… if approximately half of Church England Churches / Communities are under lay leadership, and as a consequence the Sacrament of Holy Communion or Eucharist isn’t a defining characteristic of congregational life, then the whole character of the Church of England, a character that is enshrined in both canon law and the liturgy, will have changed…”

Marcus Walker, Rector of St Bartholomew the Great in London, looks forward in The Spectator to “10,000 mansion churches led by the untrained super-rich”, for who but the wealthy have houses that can accommodate 30 people?

How unselfconscious these grand yet humble evangelicals are as they put forward proposals which will only work if people can be found who are at once very rich and possess large amounts of spare time, which they will devote to the foundation of House Churches, within which there will be, according to the strategy, “a doubling in the number of children and young active disciples in the Church of England by 2030”.

Giles Fraser, Priest-in-Charge at St Mary’s Newington, in the course of a tremendous philippic for Unherd, says he has never known such anger among the clergy, objects to Canon McGinley’s use of the word “passengers”, and challenges the assumption of some evangelicals that success can be measured by the number of converts:

“the Church is not called to be successful. It is called to be faithful. I would prefer for us to die with dignity, being faithful to our calling, rather than to turn ourselves inside out trying to be superficially attractive, thus abandoning the faith as we have understood it. Indeed, the Bible is full of stores of the faithful remnant. In Biblical theology, the remnant are those faithful people that survive some catastrophe. Today, these are the people who come to church, faithfully to say their prayers — people of devotion and not necessarily of evangelistic vim and vigour. They are the beating heart of the parish. Eleanor Rigby, Father McKenzie: these are my heroes. And long term, these are our most effective evangelists. I am deeply offended that they are now called passengers.”

This row has not yet made many headlines in the national press, for in a sense it has not yet happened. The explosive growth in House Churches will almost certainly not occur in the modest time set aside for it: three a day would have to be founded if the figure of 10,000 by 2030 were to be reached.

The Church of England will continue to live or die according to what happens in the parishes, and in many of these, it has become second nature to ignore anything containing the word “strategy” or “vision”, and to get on with the task in hand, which often means the laity have already shouldered a greater share of the burden.

Wonderful things, undreamt of by the central bureaucracy, continue to take place in thousands of parishes.

Richard Holden: Why Labour’s grip on seats like mine weakened. And how we can strenghten our own everywhere.

24 May

The Lazy Hollow Café & Patisserie, Mason St., Consett

Uma is, I’d guess, in her 50s. She’s buoyant, a good baker, and clearly one of those people who is not just hard-working, but also puts her heart and soul into everything she does.

A teaching assistant at a state comprehensive for the last quarter of a century, in December she took the plunge – “while I’m young enough”, she tells me – and decided to take on a café in Consett town centre. Duringg the final assembly at the school in which she worked, she tells me how she wept ,and speaks with real passion and care for the children she helped over the years.

I don’t know (and doesn’t ask) whether she voted for me or not. She gives me a little tour, and we have a couple of photos. Then we settle down to coffee and (the excellent cake she’s made), and just chat.  About education policy – an area of mutual interest – her new business and the challenges she’s facing, and the prospects of the largest town in my constituency.

She’s so positive and proud about what she and her team have done to this former job centre and amusement arcade, which is now a lovey café. And so they should be: it is fabulous.

Uma doesn’t fit the narrative that has developed of the normal Northern working-class voter that the media has portrayed as the “switch voter” that cost Labour the “Red Wall.” As a recent YouGov poll suggested – to the astonishment of many commentators – they’re pretty much like everyone else in the UK.

But, if that’s the case, three questions remain unanswered: first, why did these towns and villages continue to vote Labour for so long; second, why did they switch to the Conservatives and, third, why did they do so now?

So: why did they vote Labour in the first place? I think there are three historic differences in the political culture – the Red Wall ‘Holy Trinity’ that has slowly broken down over decades making these areas more similar to the rest of the country than before. Large unionised industries that re-enforced social class differences had an influence in everything from housing for the retired to the social clubs people went to of an evening; religion, via the non-establishment combination of Methodism and Roman Catholicism (both socially conservative – to varying degrees – but economically left-of-centre); and a traditional Labour Party of the people that was both of and in touch with these communities.

Over the last 60 years, especially since Wilson’s “White Heat of Technology” was accompanied by the pit closures of the late 1960s (people forget that Wilson closed more pits than anyone else) the beginning of the real decline in the traditional religious underpinnings took place.

These continued in the background for decades, but the break with Labour took longer. The party received a brief fillip in the early years of Tony Blair, but the break soon accelerated as ‘New Labour’ seemed to take votes but provide little in return. Many people stopped voting – and the Liberal Democrats made some moderate progressm, though rarely enough to more than dint in large Labour majorities.

Then followed a significant shift to the Britain-hating far left under Jeremy Corbyn – and the betrayal over Brexit further jolted these communities politically, too. On top of this, Labour just took their own voters for granted with too often lazy MPs (or at least MPs more interested in working on their interests rather than those of the communities they were supposed to serve) and that real, final, community orientated link between MP-Labour Party-constituency which had looked wobbly for a long time was broken.

All this can explain the move away from Labour: but why go Conservative – and why now? Well, it’s been a long, long process. The truth can be heard on the doorstep of seats like mine.

Many people barely saw a leaflet at election time, never mind between elections. And if they did get a leaflet or a knock-on-the-door they weren’t getting them from Conservatives. Conservatives were moribund, inactive and weren’t providing that alternative on the ground people were increasingly craving.

Votes spread out to the Liberal Democrats, Independents, UKIP and, sadly, to the “Won’t vote.” It was only in 2017 that the Conservative Party really realised that things could change in these seats, and started putting more effort in. That year saw a marked shift following Brexit towards the party. We must now use those results as a springboard to consolidate current constituencies, and push forward to more areas.

Moreover, there are these sort of former traditional Labour voters in every seat in the country. Ask any Conservative MP who campaigns hard in their patch. Traditional Labour wards in these areas – previously thought difficult to win – are now likely the strongest Conservative areas of these seats. These voters are there if people want to find them.

I read largely anonymous comments from some of my colleagues in other more ‘traditional’ Conservative parts of the country who put forward a variety of factors as to why seats were lost recently. Some put it down to national policy challenges but, given gains across the country from Cheltenham to Plymouth to Harlow to Delves Lane in Consett, and even Shaun Bailey in London trimming Sadiq Khan’s majority in what was meant to be the ‘heart’ of Labour, it’s clear that, actually, campaigning is what counts.

Given the national circumstances almost all seats we held could have remained Conservative if greater efforts had been made. I can see from the results across County Durham that the better the campaign, the better the result. For the first time in over 102 years, Labour may soon no longer run County Durham Council because of campaigning Conservatives.

Perhaps my thoughts are best summed up by one colleague from the South East England, apoplectic upon returning to Westminster having lost a council seat held by the Conservatives for generations. He said that he’d been telling his sitting councillor of ten years to campaign, but they kept brushing him off telling him they had “important meetings at County Hall to attend” – well, that councillor won’t be attending County Hall at all any more.

The Labour activists on the ground may still believe that someone’s so-called “class” defines their politics. That’s absolute nonsense and any Conservative who is idiotic enough to believe it needs their head examined. The “Holy Trinity” of why people voted Labour has broken down in the ‘Red Wall’ and elsewhere.

What counts is campaigning because, as that YouGov poll suggested, voters whether in the North of England of East London are not dissimilar. They want people out there and fighting for them and they’re open to voting Conservative if we’re prepared to put the effort in on the ground.

Peter Lynas: The Government is digging itself deep into trouble over conversion therapy

17 May

Peter Lynas is the Director of the Evangelical Alliance.

The Government has got itself into a pickle on conversion therapy. It has promised to end it, pledging legislation in this year’s Queen’s speech, but also to protect those seeking spiritual support.   In reality, those two things are not mutually exclusive, but delivering both objectives will require a much more nuanced approach from the government than has been displayed to date.

Some of the practices carried out under conversion therapy have been abusive and wrong. The Church must also recognise its own failings in this area, and commit to doing better.

The challenge for the Government is that much of what it is committed to ending is already illegal. So it has committed to banning something it is reluctant to define, and ending something that is already unlawful. At the same time, Liz Truss, the Minister for Women and Equalities, has committed the government to protecting those seeking “spiritual support”.

Seizing on the Government’s dithering around definitions, the lobby group Ban Conversion Therapy has argued that “any form of counselling or persuading someone to change their sexual orientation or behaviour so as to conform with a heteronormative lifestyle or their gender identity should be illegal, no matter the reason, religious or otherwise – whatever the person’s age.”

This expansive definition risks criminalising not just counsellors and pastors, but anyone seeking to persuade another person to conform with a heteronormative lifestyle. It raises two significant questions – what is a heteronormative lifestyle and what is meant by persuasion?

The Cambridge dictionary defines heteronormativity as “suggesting or believing that only heterosexual relationships are right or normal, and that men and women have naturally different roles.” This puts orthodox Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality in the frame for being banned – especially as the definition above also makes particular mention of religious settings.

So imagine a youth leader giving a talk to a room full of young people and setting out a traditional Christian sex ethic – sex is best kept for marriage between one man and one woman. If someone is ‘persuaded’ to change their behaviour in response, an offence would have occurred.

The young person might not say anything, and the speaker wouldn’t necessarily know but nonetheless, a crime would have been committed. The Rev Ed Shaw, a gay celibate Christian, has written about the potentially bizarre implications that mean he couldn’t pray with, or pastor, someone like himself.

If a male friend of mine is having an affair and I ‘persuade’ him to end it, my actions might be an offence depending on who he was having an affair with. If it’s a man, it’s an offence because I was persuading him to return to his wife – ie conforming to a heteronormative lifestyle. If the affair is with a women, I might be in the clear – because his actions will have been heteronormative throughout.

The bullish statements from the Government about what it intends to do in this area, combined with its failure to define conversion therapy, has already created a climate of the fear. Everyday practices such as prayer ministry and pastoral support have been put in jeopardy.

The irony is that to turn this into policy, the Government risks discriminating against gay people. To persuade or counsel a straight person to live a celibate life is fine. To do the same with a gay person is likely an offence, because they have suppressed their sexuality. Why can a straight person make that choice and a gay person cannot? Treating people differently based on their sexual orientation is discrimination.

The definition from Ban Conversion Therapy also mentions gender identity. Gender is a complex, psycho-social construction built on sexual biology. For most, our gender conforms to our sex. Some wish to adopt a different gender for a variety of reasons. I may well disagree with their choice, but in a free and tolerant society they should be able to do so.

LGBT and women’s organisations have raised concerns that the current push to ban conversion therapy is being used as political cover to promote an affirmation-only approach to gender identity – something they oppose. The differing views on this aspect of conversion therapy provide a further challenge for the Government.

Conversion therapy is a challenging and emotive topic to discuss because some have experienced significant harm in its name. However, the lack of definition makes meaningful engagement very difficult, threatening to shut down free speech and failing to help the very people it claims to serve.

Confusion also arises because the word conversion is at the heart of the Christian faith. In the death and resurrection of Jesus is the power to change our lives, our attitudes, our hearts and our sexual desires. To think otherwise is to empty the cross of its power.

Those calling for a ban, and those in Government drafting policy on this issue, must articulate exactly what they want to stop, end or ban. If it’s the horrific and coerced treatment of people forced to try and change their sexual attraction, then I for one am with them. If it’s about stopping people choosing how they express their sexuality, and attempting to redefine or limit the faith of others then they should be resisted.

The Government has made two commitments – to end horrific practices linked to conversion therapy and to protect those seeking spiritual support. Its challenge is to find a way to honour both.

Sarah Ingham: After the Batley protests and on this Easter Saturday, a case for tolerating religious belief

3 Apr

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

It says much about religion in this country that, during Holy Week, the Archbishop of Canterbury intervened in the ongoing row about freedom of speech and Islam.

The head of the Anglican Communion told La Repubblica: “We have to be open to hearing things we really dislike.” Justin Welby spoke as the storm over faith and free speech continued. It was sparked by a cartoon image of Mohammed which was allegedly shown to students during a religious studies lesson at Batley Grammar School.

As protestors gathered outside the school gates at the end of last week, the teacher involved was suspended and is currently in hiding. He reportedly fears that he and his family will be killed. A spokesman for the Batley Parents and Community Partnership, Yunus Linat, stated that the image was offensive and Islamophobic. Their children should be able to attend school “without having their faith – which is protected in law – or their culture, ridiculed, insulted or vilified”.

For those defending freedom of expression, there is no reason in heaven or on earth why faith should not be ridiculed, insulted or vilified. The sacred must take its chances with the profane. In a letter to Gavin Williamson, Toby Young of the Free Speech Union called for the Department of Education’s guidance on British values to be amended to ensure free speech is prioritised.

In Britain, ‘we don’t do God’ too much. Should we go to church, most are not C of E, but C and E; Christmas and Easter. This is confirmed by the Church of England’s Statistics for Mission. It reports that in 2019, on average 690,000 attended Sunday services, but 1.1 million went to church at Easter, while 2.3 million did so at Christmas, when one third of received Communion.

Perhaps swayed by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair didn’t “do God” until after he left office. Of recent Prime Ministers, only Theresa May seemed entirely comfortable with public displays of faith. Regularly caught on camera leaving her parish church, the middle-England, Waitrose-shopping vicar’s daughter perfectly embodies the description of the Church of England being ‘the Tory party at prayer’.

Looking like a man born to read a lesson at Matins, David Cameron famously said his faith came and went, a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns. In the Church Times, he also wrote about the Church of England being rooted in the fabric of nation. Describing churches in his Witney constituency that ‘take your breath away with their beauty, simplicity and serenity’, he called for Anglicans ‘to be more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.’

Since the Batley cartoon controversy broke, many commentators have rushed to the barricades to defend freedom of speech. Notably absent from the articles and blogs is any reproduction of the offending image, which allegedly first appeared in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015. Given that it led to the 12 people being shot dead, it is unsurprising that few are in any hurry to reprint: je ne suis pas Charlie.

For the commentariat to treat this cartoon as radioactive but then demand it be shown in schools is baffling. It is almost as baffling as the clumsy decision to include it in a lesson plan, especially after the execution of French teacher Samuel Paty last October, after it was mendaciously claimed that he showed images of the Prophet to his students.

Ten years ago, the 2011 Census seemed to highlight a move away from religion – or more accurately, from Christianity. Some 14 million people in England and Wales – 25 per cent – answered ‘No Religion’, up from 7.7 million in 2001. About 2.7 million people identified as Muslim, up from 1.5 million in ten years. Although the number of those identifying as Christian had dropped since 2001, it still stood at 33.2 million, accounting for 59 per cent of those who replied.

As we await the results of the 2021 Census, its predecessor probably did little to gladden the heart of zealous atheist Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. A decade ago, its findings underlined that Britain is a Christian country, but one where, with his usual prescience, Prince Charles was correct in talking about being a future defender of faiths.

Much of the comment surrounding recent events at Batley Grammar School has vilified sincerely held religious belief, while suggesting that British values are under threat. But many consider that the foremost British value which they hold dear is tolerance – which includes tolerating the creeds of others.

As the Archbishop stated, “Exercise your freedom of speech but don’t prevent other people exercising their freedom of speech”. He reminded us that the blasphemy laws were abolished comparatively recently, with the support of the Church. Blasphemy, he suggested, is “morally a bad choice, in the sense of denigrating other people’s faith in a bad way, but it should not be a criminal matter”.

Tolerance should be extended to the couple of dozen demonstrators who made their noisy protest outside the Batley school gate: equally those protestors should reciprocate that tolerance. Perhaps this weekend, above all, they should reflect on the Christian message of forgiveness.

Happy Easter. As the late, great comedian Dave Allen used to say, may your God go with you.

David Alton: The horror of this day, Good Friday, is a horror for our times

2 Apr

Lord Alton of Liverpool is a Crossbench Peer.

Without the certainties of Easter, there would be little cause to describe this day, this Friday, as “Good.” The origins and etymology of the word have been lost in the mists of time, but scholars suggest that its meaning is rooted in the use of good as a representation of holy or pious. In old English it was called “Long Friday” and in the East is sometimes known more graphically as Black Friday.

Whether you believe, or not, the story of this Friday was the story of a bad day for justice: an unjust trial, the violent use of torture, the degrading of human dignity. Mel Gibson left no doubt about the full horror of crucifixion in “The Passion of the Christ”. The harrowing detail is disturbing but undoubtedly accurate. The Romans perfected the art of the slow death and inflicted excruciating pain – intensified by scourging designed to lacerate and expose a man’s wounds.

The crucifixion of an innocent man is an old story, yes, but one that still stirs vast numbers of people. It’s a story with contemporary resonance.

More than two billion people world-wide today identify as Christian and, even in the UK, almost two thirds of the country (33.2 million people) describe themselves as Christian. With 84 per cent of the global population identifying with a religious group – and as the demographics of belief are  weighted in favour of the young  – the world has been getting more religious, not less.

For the non-believer, the religious beliefs of their acquaintances can seem incomprehensible and  threatening. But it cuts both ways.

How we accommodate one another, how we negotiate each other’s beliefs – or lack of them – and how we learn to live alongside each other, with genuine respect for difference, is a defining question for our times. It’s also one our forebears had to address..

In 1948, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and the abject failure to counter a murderous ideology rooted in the hatred of difference, world leaders promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Convention on the Crime of Genocide. As international institutions have fallen into disrepair, the declarations and treaties – and the duties and obligations which flow from them – need urgent renewal and recalibration.

The UDHR was the civilised world’s response to the infamies of the twentieth century—from the Armenian genocide to the depredations of Stalin’s gulags and Hitler’s concentration camps; it emerged from warped ideologies that elevated nation and race. The Declaration’s stated objective was to realise, “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”.

The four great murderers of the 20th century—Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot—were united by their hatred of religious faith. It was the bloodiest century in human history with the loss of 100 million lives. And now, in the twenty-first century, often in the name of a religion, millions more have died or been forced to flee their homelands.

Article 18 of the UDHR asserts the right to believe, not to believe,  or to change your belief. It’s a good place to start on a day like this. A defence of the article ought to unite believers and non-believers alike  – and might provide a common platform from which to call out those who violate so many of the other 30 Articles in the UDHR.

In 2019, having read The Times leader writer’s description of our muted response to such anti-Christian persecution as the actions of “spectators at the carnage”, Jeremy Hunt took the well-judged step of commissioning an independent review of the evidence.

The Truro Report concluded that “the level and the nature” of  the persecution of hundreds of millions of Christians was in some regions “arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide.”

Turn a blind eye, pretend you didn’t know, and the persecution leads to atrocity crimes; turn a blind eye, and it becomes open season on believers of all faiths; turn a blind eye, and every one of the other 30 Articles in the UDHR will be breached too.

That we still avert our gaze and have much more to do can be seen in these snapshots from the past few days.

Last weekend, on Palm Sunday, radicals acting, not for the first time, in the name of religion, laid bombs in a church – this time in Makassar in eastern Indonesia, injuring twenty people.

This week, the most important in the Christian calendar, is a favourite target of jihadists. Recall the Easter Day bombings in Sri Lanka in 2019, and the Easter murders of church goers in Lahore’s Gulsha-i-Iqbal Park, picnicking after their Service.

But for many the agonies of Good Friday are a daily occurrence.

Think of Northern Nigeria where Leah Sharibu, a young schoolgirl, remains in the hands of Boko Haram, having been abducted, raped, forcibly converted, and married. Since last Easter, more than 3,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria – a country which last year received an average of £800,000 in UK aid every single day.

In Pakistan, another Commonwealth country, Maria Shahbaz is just one of around 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls, aged between 12 and 25, who are abducted annually – with impunity. Ten years ago, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian Minister for Minorities, was assassinated. No one has been brought to justice. During the same period, Pakistan has been in receipt of £3 billion of UK aid, little of which reaches beleaguered minorities.

In Burma, the illegal military junta is stoking the fires of religious nationalism, targeting ethno-religious minorities such as Christian Kachin and Karen, and Muslim Rohingyas.  The appointment of my friend, Dr Sasa, an ethnic Chin, and a Christian, as the international envoy of Burma’s elected Parliamentarians.

Think, too, of the personal Calvaries of China’s religious minorities: the genocide against Uyghur Muslims; the incarceration of Christians in Hong Kong;  Tibet’s suffering Buddhists;  murdered Falun Gong practitioners ; bulldozed churches and arrested pastors – such as Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Church, now serving nine years in prison.

In neighbouring North Korea, another atheistic regime has created  what a UN report describes as “a State without parallel” .  A North Korean escapee from one of the concentration camps was a witness at a hearing I chaired in Westminster. She told us: “They tortured the Christians the most”.

These stories can be replicated in many other jurisdictions, from Sudan to Iran, Eritrea to Iraq – where genocide was the fate of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities.

The man who coined the word “genocide” was the Jewish Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, and his work led to the Genocide Convention. He  argued that “international co-operation” was needed, “to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge”.

As a Treaty signatory we are committed to prevent, protect, and punish. But as Parliament has made clear in recent weeks these promises have been honoured mainly in their breach. William Hague was right to say there is a significant “gap between the commitments States have made and the reality of their actions.”

Both the Genocide Convention and Article 18 of the UDHR  are secular documents.  They could still offer the best hope to the religious and non religious alike. Along with better focused and prioritised practical help, through UK aid programmes, we really could turn the tables.

On a day when we remember an unjust trial, the violent use of torture, the degrading of human dignity, and judicial murder, we  might ask whether we march to such a very different tune, too often acquiescing in the shedding of innocent blood?

Good Friday was a bad day for humanity – but even the most monstrous crimes don’t have to be the final word. Beyond the Cross is an empty tomb, giving reassurance, meaning and perspective to our seemingly endless ability to inflict wounds and suffering on one another.