Will anyone resign because we are failing Iraqi Christians?

iraqi-christiansA minister resigns over the government’s policy in Israel and Gaza. And the shock is not so much that Baroness Warsi resigned, but that the government had a policy on Gaza over which one was able to protest.

Because the government seem as helpless as you or me. And it’s not just in that particular corner of the Middle East that violence is leaving its bloody scars. In Syria, the war continues, in Iraq, the illusion of peace is extinguished.

But those stories slip down the agenda, and each new insurgence, coup or catastrophe demotes the last to also run status. The fragile ceasefire and hope for peace in Gaza comes after horrendous loss of life and humanitarian vandalism in the previous month. I struggle to understand the right and wrong, whose side has the just cause and who is the aggressor, I want things nice and simple, I want options laid out on a menu, and if I don’t like what is chosen then I can protest. Then I could, if I were a government minister, tender an honourable resignation in support of a cause I am passionate about.

If only more people would resign, like Baroness Warsi, because of government inaction to support those who share their faith in the hardest corners of the earth.

Today two senior officials from Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge were found guilty of crimes against humanity. In their eighties they still remain resolute of their ignorance and innocence of the atrocities committed. In March I walked around the killing fields, I saw the fragments of bone still rising through the soil nearly four decades later, I walked around the school turned into a torture facility – a place where thousands passed through over four years but just 11 walked out alive. This was genocide, this was horrific: this was man killing man for no other reason than they could potentially pose a threat to one man’s idea of what society should be like. I wondered at the time whether it made it better or worse that this wasn’t killing an ethnic or religious group, it wasn’t like the holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, and that’s a moot point because it was horror laid on horror, a legacy that haunts a country grappling to find its way out of poverty, searching for ways to rebuild trust among its population – who had been taught to hate one another.

A13310755845_038146b4d2_ond I wished someone had resigned over that. What if there was a Cambodian in the British cabinet, or the American administration, who caught an inkling of what was happening and stood up and said no more. No more vacillation, no more vague good intentions, but something has to be done when children are being taken from their families and smashed against trees.

So often we call for advocacy on behalf of the voiceless regardless of their faith or ethnicity, and we should and it’s important. But those who share my faith are dying today, and we should speak for them. It is for them that I cry out, and for whom we should shout. And Christian politicians looking at the plight of Christians, especially in Iraq, should despair at the inaction of their government and resign.

The violence against Christians in Iraq is not negligible, it is horrific. The deaths caused by an insurgency seeking to create an Islamic State covering Iraq and Syria are not just of Christians, but as Christians we should be especially vocal in speaking out for their protection. This is not a simple act of self-interest, it is the defence of freedom which benefits all. The thousands of Yazidi Iraqis forced to shelter on a mountain top, and slowly dying because that is no place to shelter. They too need protection and advocacy, this morning I had no idea who they are, a small group which blends Christian and Zoroastrian beliefs and branded by ISIS as devil worshippers.

What’s happening in Iraq is genocide.

As Philip Jenkins writes: We often read of the birth and growth of churches, very rarely of their deaths. In Mosul, however, we may be seeing the end of an astounding example of Christian continuity that lasted nearly two millennia.”

The US Catholic Bishop’s Conference wrote last week to National Security Advisor Susan Rice, they said: “The urgent situation in Iraq demands both our prayers and action. U.S. humanitarian assistance for the victims of the conflict is critical. In addition, our nation must take diplomatic measures. Our nation bears a special responsibility toward the people of Iraq.”

There is no doubt that this is a hard situation to respond to, and made harder by the legacy of US and UK military involvement in Iraq, the opposition to that involvement and the problems it created. Because of the loss of life British military action caused then there is understandable, but regretful, hesitancy about getting involved in any way now. But abstinence out of fear is shameful. Especially when we think of Canon Andrew White and others who are committed to serving in Iraq and have refused to move regardless of the threat to their life.

I know of no Yazidi politicians in the British government who can resign in solidarity and in protest that we are not doing enough, that we are not doing anything. But I know of plenty of Christians. I know of Christians committed to their faith and passionate about defending religious freedom, and above all, thinking death is never a suitable sentence for refusing to convert.

I wonder if there are any men or women of principle, who seeing the violence, hearing of the persecution, witnessing the horrors that scar the landscape of where the church has its ancient foundations, turn down the privileges and the prospects that their post affords and hand in their resignation. It is shameful that as a country we are doing nothing.

As Dan Hodges puts it, lets not wait for the books and the films, lets not wait to shed a tear as we read the next We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, or wait to stare in horror at the next Hotel Rwanda.

Is there an honourable man or woman in today’s government who cannot stand that we stand by while Christians are slaughtered and forced from their homes? Who instead of standing by, stands up and says that something must be done.

Who will resign out of protest that we are not coming to the aid of the Christians and the Yazidi: the persecuted and the hounded of Iraq?

The Daily Mail: What an insult to Christians

Jan Feb 2012 008The Daily Mail splashed their front page this morning with “An Insult to Christians”. No, that’s not how I’m describing it, that is their actual headline.

They might think it is a descriptor of the dreadful events they outline in their story, but it is a far closer label for their own treatment of Christians. And in particular in thinking that the situation they discuss is an insult to anyone.

The “insult” is that followers of other religious belief systems including paganism and non religious deeply held belief systems such as vegetarianism will receive the same protections as Christians. Firstly, this is not news. Secondly, it is not controversial (although a little tricky to implement). Thirdly, this is not an insult.

The law has for a while placed all religious and non religious beliefs on a par with regards to their protection under the law. Although only in the last decade has it been codified into statute through regulations following the 2003 Equality Act, and then drawn together in the 2010 Act, court precedence has provided strong protection for non-Christian beliefs in a similar manner (although due to differences in beliefs never quite the same).

The dreadful situation before us today has occurred because the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued guidance last month on how employers should handle religious beliefs and their manifestation. This in the wake of Nadia Eweida’s successful claim in the European Court of Human Rights that her employer had failed to protect her freedom of religious expression when they said wearing a visible cross was against their uniform policy. Legal precedence on religious belief protection is often carried across from one belief to another so there was absolutely nothing of controversy or even interest in the EHRC saying the judgement would affect employers responsibilities towards those with other beliefs.

The controversy has been whipped up because a gaggle of Tory MPs on the right of their party were baited into giving a critical judgement of the EHRC. This is hardly a difficult topic to exploit for that effect, it is high on the list of bodies those of their ilk would prefer were scrapped. What is most controversial about the guidelines is that they had to be written at all, because one would have thought it was common sense. But apparently this morning has demonstrated just why it is necessary.

The requirement to protect non-religious beliefs is also not a new one. A key legal case in 1978 Arrowsmith v United Kingdom found that the applicant’s beliefs in pacifism were deeply held and sufficient to warrant protection under Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The court found against the claimant for wider reasons but importantly held her beliefs were worthy of protection. The ECtHR judgement in the case of Eweida et al also found that the actions of all four claimants were borne out of religious beliefs and therefore worthy of protection. The Court also went further and said that it was not up to them or any other applicable body to decide what was or was not of sufficient centrality in a belief system to merit protection, or what actions arising from those beliefs should be counted as a manifestation of belief. What the court held to matter was that the belief and action was of importance to the applicant.

Therefore, while this eases the difficulty of deciding when a belief or action becomes sufficiently meritorious for protection, it opens up a whole other can of worms in potentially allowing any belief or opinion protection on these ground. While this is a tricky situation for courts to adjudicate it is not a particularly controversial one. While the beliefs and actions may come under Article 9 jurisdiction it does not mean an employer is forced to allow them. In the case of Eweida the court found that the uniform policy was insufficient grounds to restrict the wearing of a cross, but in Chaplin found the health and safety concerns in a hospital, coupled with the proposal of alternative ways of wearing the cross, were sufficient grounds and found against the claimant. The court also found in Ladele and McFarlane that the equality and anti-discrimination policies of their employers also provided the latitude for their requests to be denied. (This is a more controversial decision and what is at the heart of an emerging hierarchy of rights among equality strands.)

Therefore I doubt that a vegetarian employed in a kitchen role would be granted a request not to handle meat. If it is a central part of the job which would put an unreasonable burden on the company and other staff I suspect the request could be legitimately denied. If however, the staff member is employed in another role but is asked on occasion to assist in the kitchen the request may well be expected to be granted. If we expect a common sense type of accommodation of reasonable requests we also have to understand situations where without any hint of an attack on Christian belief they might not be accommodated.

Finally, this is not an insult. An insult would be to suggest that Christian beliefs alone are worthy of protection. Or moreover that Christian beliefs and practices need more protection than other beliefs. I want the freedom to practice and promote my beliefs and I think the surest way of ensuring that is to fight for others to have the same rights that I do. I may think they are wacky, I may find them absurd. I may even find them offensive. But I want to fight for their freedom of belief: I want them to be as free to promote their beliefs as I want to be to promote mine.

Freedom of belief means freedom of belief for everyone. And at the heart of the Christian message is a voice of freedom that calls into the wilderness. That releases slaves from their captors. It is freedom to choose to worship a God who chose to send his Son so that we could have life and life in all its fullness.

It is the freedom not to worship that makes the choice to worship such a precious gift we have to offer.

To suggest that Christians would rather others were not free to follow their beliefs is an insult.