I use the word “Oppression” rather than “Persecution” about the ways Christians are maltreated in the western world because Christians elsewhere are suffering in far worse ways. Nevertheless the trend in the west is a cause of real concern.

Good news

Of course, there is some good news. The police apologised to a street preacher in Bath who was threatened with arrest in May 2018. Another Christian street preacher was cleared of all charges after being falsely accused of making abusive comments towards a homosexual couple. A nurse in Kent who was dismissed for offering to pray with patients was officially allowed to return to her job by the Nursing and Midwifery Council. The Government has ruled that employers must allow staff to wear religious symbols at work as long as it does not interfere with their job. After widespread public opposition, Ofsted (the government’s the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) has abandoned plans to inspect Sunday Schools and other religious groups as to whether they promote extremism.

Then, of course, there is the Supreme Court’s reversal of the High Court’s conviction of the Christian Asher’s Baking Company for not making a cake with a pro-homosexual slogan. However we need to take note of the Equality Commission’s response: “There is a concern that this judgment may raise uncertainty about the application of equality law in the commercial sphere, both about what businesses can do and what customers may expect; and that the beliefs of business owners may take precedence over a customer’s equality rights, which in our view is contrary to what the legislature intended.” This case may be finished but that attitude shows there can be pressure for a different approach in the future.

Discrimination against Christians

However, the situation and trends are still serious. Tim Farron, ex-leader of the Liberal Democrats, said “If you actively hold a faith that is more than an expression of cultural identity … you are deemed to be far worse than eccentric. You are dangerous. You are offensive.” A recent study by ComRes found that up to a million workers in Britain may have faced harassment, discrimination or bullying because of their religion or belief.

In the United States US a report, entitled ‘Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America’, indicated a 15% rise in cases threatening religious liberty between 2015 and 2016. It was based on research by the First Liberty Institute, a legal organisation dedicated to protecting religious liberty. Following complaints by residents, a US apartment complex implemented a zero-tolerance policy over any Bible studies being held in its community space, and sent letters to residents stating the faith-based meetings weren’t permitted there. First Liberty commented: “It’s frightening that a management company would use the threat of eviction to stop residents from meeting together to discuss any issue, let alone their faith.”

Ex-US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said: “In recent years, the cultural climate in this country-and in the West more generally-has become less hospitable to people of faith. Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.”

In Australia an Elim church in New South Wales paid for digital Easter signs to be displayed at the local shopping centre. But the authorities asked them to remove the word “Jesus” from the signs because it had been causing offence.

Discrimination and intolerance of Christianity in Europe was debated for the first time in the European Parliament in June 2018. Speakers, highlighted recent instances of violence, marginalisation, and discrimination against Christians across Europe. Nathan Gill, MEP, who hosted the debate, said: “It’s the first time that Christianophobia within Europe has been discussed in the EU Parliament. There has often been a focus on Christian persecution around the world, but seldom do we look at what is happening on our doorstep. It’s important to raise awareness that our rights as Christians are being eroded. We need to stand together as practising Christians to oppose religious intolerance.” Hendrik Storm, Chief Executive of the Barnabas Fund (which assists persecuted Christians), stated, “It’s easy to sit back and ignore the damage because like erosion, it’s not always immediately visible on the surface. But look a little closer and you can begin to see the cracks. You can’t pick and choose which types of freedom you want to defend. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, academic freedom or freedom of religion. You must defend all of them. Those freedoms are only one generation away from being lost.”

Undermining freedom of speech

South Yorkshire Police used Twitter to urge citizens to “put a stop” to hate, by reporting what it called “non-crime hate incidents.” They acknowledged that “police can only prosecute when the law is broken” but added that non-crime hate incidents like an insulting comment “can feel like a crime to those affected.” Someone responded

“Just to be clear: you want me to phone the police when there hasn’t been a crime but someone’s feelings have been hurt?”

Then reports are emerging from universities about speakers with what are considered as minority (but legal) views (e.g. pro-life) being banned because their views were considered insulting. In 2017 the Junior Common Room of Balliol College, Oxford banned the college Christian Union from attending its freshers’ (new students’) fair over concerns at the “potential for harm to freshers.” The vice-president said: “Christianity’s influence on many marginalised communities has been damaging in its methods of conversion and rules of practice, and is still used in many places as an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism.” Eventually the CU was told that a single multi-faith stall would be allowed to display leaflets, though no representatives would be allowed to staff it.  Later a motion was passed unanimously at the college accusing the JCR committee of “a violation of free speech [and] a violation of religious freedom”. The motion prohibited the barring of official religious societies from future freshers’ fairs.

Christian MP Fiona Bruce commented: “University should a place where ideas can be explored and free speech is so important, it’s important from my perspective as a parliamentarian, to protect and preserve democracy, so we need to ensure students, very importantly, honour and respect the freedom of others … There is no legal right not to be offended, people can say things which might offend others but if they don’t, for example, go as far as to incite violence or terrorism under the Prevent legislation then that speech is lawful.”

One of the most worrying trends in western society is the extreme application of laws against extremism! This can easily lead to Christians being legally prevented from appropriately expressing some of the Bible’s more challenging truths.

Freedom of speech over sexuality

It is quite obvious that freedom to express biblical views on sexuality, including homosexual practice, are seriously threatened. There have been many examples of this trend. Here is one.

Matthew Grech, a contestant in a Maltese talent show, described on TV how he left a homosexual lifestyle and became a Christian. He said: “I stopped following my passions to follow Jesus. There can be love between two men and two women, yes – but only friendship love. Everything else is a sin.”  Helena Dalli, The Maltese Equality Minister, commented: “That interview should never have been aired in the first place. It did untold damage to our efforts to change social attitudes towards minorities, including LGBTQ youths. Gay youths don’t need forgiveness or healing, they need understanding.”

One of the sad things is that some of the oppression of Christians in the West comes from fellow Christians. One example is about “gay conversion therapy.” This is, of course, a highly controversial practice and even the Church of England General Synod voted to disapprove of it as an insensitive, harmful, practice which should be avoided. But, as is often the case with such action against harmful extremism, it can be taken too far and hinder helpful action. Basically the effect of what the synod did was to vote to ban anyone praying for a homosexual to be transformed by the power of God into a heterosexual. Who does the synod think it is, voting to ban prayer for a healing miracle! There are claims that homosexuals have been transformed in this way. Other people will have been prayed for and not changed – but that is the case for all healing. Of course, people must be handled with great sensitivity and loving care. They must not be pressurised. But to say that no one is allowed to pray for a miracle for a homosexual person is extremely serious. Homosexual orientation is not a sin, and it shouldn’t be implied that it is. But the Bible teaches that God created humans “male and female.” He did not intend people to have a homosexual orientation. So why can’t Christians pray for it to be changed? The church is selling out to our secular society in this respect.

I have had a good deal to do with homosexuals and have always treated them with respect. They can be subject to major traumas which should be met with real compassion. But to allow the emotional pressure of such traumas to cause us to take the wrong approach to helping them is a serious error.

However, this trend is going further. There is a strong move against what is called “Spiritual Abuse.” Jayne Ozanne is an evangelical on the Church of England General Synod who ‘came out’ as a lesbian. She has become a campaigner against ‘spiritual abuse.’

Ozanne writes: “The most typical incidents involve those in leadership who have frequently achieved a ‘cult-like’ or ‘guru’ status due to their charismatic personality and strong leadership style. This is most evident in large evangelical churches, particularly those with a Charismatic or Pentecostal background, where leaders exercise ‘gifts of the Holy Spirit’ and are therefore recognised by their congregations as being ‘chosen and anointed by God’. As a result, their word can become infallible and their authority unquestioned. For the purposes of this document this type of abuse will be called the ‘Individual Leader Model of Spiritual Abuse’” She goes on to speak of unhelpful pressure from charismatic worship and prayer ministry sessions, including teaching on the Baptism of the Spirit in contexts such as the Alpha Course, New Wine, Spring Harvest, Soul Survivor, healing ministries and even the Lydia Prayer Movement, etc. My comment is that obviously there can be unhelpful extremes in anything, but such a blanket condemnation is appalling, set against the amount of good achieved.

She then begins to speak of the damage these experiences can (allegedly) do to homosexuals and says “It is imperative that professional organisations external to the religious institutions call for better safeguarding measures against spiritual abuse. Indeed, they should look to recognise it as a key form of abuse at a national level so as to ensure that some of the most vulnerable in our society are afforded the same protection as those facing other forms of abuse.”

She is calling on the government to recognise the alleged spiritual harm some churches can do to people and claims current church safeguarding procedures do not go far enough to protect them. Since she wrote a major article on the issue in the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Journal the government is likely to take her seriously despite the fact that she has no professional qualifications or experience in either psychiatry or statistical research

The potential serious damage this campaign could do is very clear. I’m not saying it is Jayne Ozanne’s intention but it could lead to real oppression of especially charismatic evangelicals in their worship, prayer ministry, etc. In fact, experience suggests it is highly likely to do so. The church is rightly concerned about safeguarding but it has become OTT in its procedures. The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service is accepting the sort of opinions Jane Ozanne is expressing so the denominations are likely to follow suit. It is another case of the modern practice: Take proper action against genuine extremism/abuse then go too far and restrict good practices.

Conclusion

We need to be alert to dangerous trends both outside and inside the church which are leading to serious oppression of Christians in the West and particularly to those who still believe the teaching of Scripture on what have become controversial issues. We should take whatever action is appropriate but also remember that these trends show how urgently we need to pray for and to see God bring Revival.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. I have read through the lengthy documents outlining the British Governments Counter Extremism Policy and related publications. Clearly there is a need for such a policy in view of the alarming number of people who have been radicalised by Islamic extremists in this country. Clearly the government has good intentions. But it is not its motives which are the concern. Rather it is the fact that it is trespassing into areas in which it is ignorant, such as theology. It is a cause of concern that already the government’s inspectors and other representatives have shown a certain amount of serious incompetence in this area. Then there is the danger of drift whereby well-intentioned legislation could drift into an abuse of people’s (especially religious people’s) human rights and freedom of speech.

The government wanted to scrap the Human Rights Act of the European Convention on Human Rights. This convention, has nothing to do with the European Union, but membership is a condition of being in the EU. It protects numerous rights including right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, right to freedom of expression, right to freedom of assembly and association. The government wanted to replace it with our own British Bill of Rights so that they have ultimate control of decisions.

Government reassurances

The government has published documents about its counter extremism policy which contain numerous reassuring statements. In its Counter-Extremism Strategy document it states: “All people living in Britain are free to practise a faith or to decide not to follow any faith at all” (para 2). “It is not government’s role to regulate faith leaders, but government does have a responsibility to ensure that those working in the public sector are suitably trained. The Government will therefore work in partnership with faith groups to review the training provided to those who work as faith leaders in public institutions” (para 87). “The powers will not be able to be used against privately held views or people expressing their religious beliefs. They will not curtail the democratic right to protest nor will they close down debate or limit free speech: these are rights we will always protect” (para 113).

In its Prevent Strategy document it states: “The ideology of extremism and terrorism is the problem; legitimate religious belief emphatically is not” (Foreword). “We remain absolutely committed to protecting freedom of speech in this country” (para 3:10). Prevent “must not seem to pass judgment on faith or to suggest only a particular kind of faith is appropriate or acceptable” (para 3:26). “The holding of extremist views is protected by Article 10 of European Convention on Human Rights and cannot be addressed through criminal law” (para 6:18). This latter quotation is not too reassuring however in that, as we have noted, the government is seeking to scrap the Human Rights Act of the European Convention on Human Rights. “It must not appear to pass judgment on faith in general or to suggest only a particular kind of faith is appropriate or acceptable” (para 8:1). It refers to “the difficulty of the Government taking a position on matters of theology” (para 8:36). It refers to the idea “that Government is taking upon itself the role of theological arbiter” as a misconception. It adds: “We will not want to engage in matters of theology but we recognise the imperative for theologians, academics and communities to do so. We will support their efforts by providing information on the texts which are being used to radicalise people in this country; we want to ensure that counter-narrative work is widely circulated and in a form that reaches as many people as possible” (para 8:56).

Weaknesses in the government’s position

We should take these reassurances seriously and avoid cynicism and paranoia. However we should also avoid naivety. A lot depends on how the people who activate the policy (OFSTED, police, etc) understand the policy and define extremism. We should also take seriously the growing ignorance of the Christian faith in society which could lead to fundamental beliefs coming to be regarded as extreme. In addition, whereas we shouldn’t “see demons everywhere” we would be naïve if we ignore the satanic opposition to the Christian faith. Jesus recognised this opposition and so should we. The devil won’t miss a trick in opposing the Gospel. What a great opportunity he has to use the necessary policy of counteracting actual or potential violent extremism to undermine the truth that Jesus is the only way of salvation and other religions are mistaken. Given human failings, this is no unrealistic threat.

I have been fair in quoting the government’s reassurances at some length. But there are other statements which cause concern. A lot depends on the definitions of certain key words. The Counter-Extremism Strategy document states: “there are concerns that some supplementary schools may be teaching children views which run contrary to our shared values, encouraging hatred of other religions” (para 73). But what is hatred of other religions. If a Christian believes other religions are false and influenced by satanic deceit is that hatred of other religions? Besides, it is one thing to “hate” what another person believes and quite another to hate the person themselves. A Christian may legitimately hate beliefs that undermine the Christian Gospel and hinder people coming to eternal salvation. But to hate the person who holds those beliefs is quite wrong. It is hatred of people which matters not hatred of beliefs. Here we see the government, in its ignorance, publishing confused statements.

Having said that, I add that a Christian must be careful to avoid unnecessary offence in how he speaks of such differences of belief. The Counter-Extremism Strategy document refers to a video which “shows a speaker at an anti-Muslim rally in Newcastle describing Islam as a ‘disgusting, backward, savage, barbarian, supremacist ideology masquerading as a religion’” (para 11). That sort of grossly offensive terminology should be avoided.

The document continues: “In assessing drivers of and pathways to radicalisation, the line between extremism and terrorism is often blurred. Terrorist groups of all kinds very often draw upon ideologies which have been developed, disseminated and popularised by extremist organisations that appear to be non-violent (such as groups which neither use violence nor specifically and openly endorse its use by others)” (para 5:34). In July 2015 David Cameron made a speech about countering extremism is which he said: “As we counter this ideology, a key part of our strategy must be to tackle both parts of the creed – the non-violent and violent. This means confronting groups and organisations that may not advocate violence – but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative.” Yes, but could that be understood (or become understood) to include Christianity which does not teach violence but regards other religions to be false and influenced by satanic deceit?

Brendan O’Neill, who is an atheist, described David Cameron’s comments that the Government will “tackle” all those who “may not advocate violence” but who do promote “other parts of the extremist narrative” as a “step too far.” He said that non-violent extremism could even cover Christians who do not support same-sex marriage, because this could be seen as not having “respect for minorities”. He concluded: “What May and Cameron view as the pesky distinction between action and speech, between violent and non-violent extremism, is actually the foundation stone of all free, enlightened societies: we police criminal behaviour, but not thoughts, ideas, words.”

The Prevent Strategy document quotes the Public Order Act 1986 which “makes it an offence, amongst other things, to say or do something or to possess or display written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting and which is intended to stir up racial hatred or make it likely that racial hatred will be stirred up.” It also quotes the Public Order Act 1986 (amended in 2006 and 2008) which “makes it an offence to use threatening words or behaviour, or to display any written material which is threatening, if it is intended to encourage religious hatred ….” In the past such legislation would not have seemed relevant to orthodox Christianity. Admittedly both quotations refer to the intention to stir up racial or religious hatred. But experience teaches that such intention can easily be assumed (for example, it tends to be assumed that holding traditional views of sexuality is to be antagonistic to homosexuals). I certainly don’t favour “roasting people over Hell” but could a sensitive and compassionate reference to the reality of judgment and hell come to be regarded as “threatening”?

The document continues that independent schools must “promote tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions” (para 10:14). It continues: “There is further evidence that some schools – and some supplementary schools – have used teaching materials which may encourage intolerance” (para 10:44). But what is the definition of tolerance and harmony? Does it require a view that all religions are legitimate ways to God – a view I believe to be incompatible with Christianity?

In 2015 it was revealed that the government intended to “require all faiths to maintain a national register of faith leaders” and that the Government would “set out the minimum level for training and checks” before faith leaders could go on the register. Haras Rafiq, director of the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, described the proposal as “Orwellian and totalitarian.” Fortunately, the government appears to have gone back on this policy. However it shows the extremes to which the government was prepared to go.

Jonathan Dimbleby gave the 2015 Prix Italia lecture in Turin in September. He criticised the Public Order Act which criminalised using threatening or abusive language with the intention of causing “alarm or distress” or inciting “hatred.” He pointed out the crucial distinction between causing “distress” which may be a crime and causing “offence” which may not. He commented: “The distinction is not easy for the layman to define, and the two are only too easy to elide.”

He went on to quote Salman Rushdie as saying the law meant that, instead of being supported over The Satanic Verses he would have been accused of “insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.” He added: “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.”

Dimbleby went on to express dismay that the Home Secretary had been considering “pre-transmission regulatory regime” for radio and television which he believed would muzzle them in the hope of stamping out extremism.

Whilst avoiding paranoia these facts are a cause of real concern. At the very least, the questions I have raised need to be borne in mind because. As I said, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

It was interesting to read a recent article by Sandi Dunn who claimed she was radicalised at her Catholic school. She quoted Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, who said his inspectors have found “appalling misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semite teaching material” in textbooks being used by unqualified teachers in private schools. Now I’m certainly against misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes. But how does OFSTED define them? Do they regard someone who opposes the appointment of women priests misogynistic? Do they regard someone upholding traditional views of sexuality homophobic (which is normally defined as against homosexuals themselves)? If so, they are mistaken. Such views can be held without any wrong attitudes to people.

Dunn went on the say that the school’s teaching about Hell meant she was radicalised. She added: “Abrahamic faiths in particular hold that women are inferior, teach homophobia, and often discourage marrying out of the community or ‘mixing’ in their most conservative forms. This anti-‘mixing’ ideology has to be seen for what it is: institutional racism.” That sweeping statement is based upon ignorance and prejudice. True Christianity does not teach women are inferior or legitimise antagonism to homosexuals or discourage mixing with non-Christians. The issue of a committed Christian marrying a non-Christian is a more complex issue. It means the couple cannot share in the most fundamental aspects of the life of the Christian partner, which is not good for the marriage.

Dunn goes on to say that she aims to petition UNICEF: “for a rethink of their Convention of the Rights of the Child (ratified by 194 countries). My request will be that all children, up to the age of 18, should have the right not to be given religious instruction under any guise, including in the home. The indoctrination of young minds, driven by the fear of Hell, is something that has to be cut off at the source if we want to avoid further radicalisation. Religious teaching is not proper education – it’s old-fashioned brainwashing. And having been exposed to that myself, I know how important it is to root it out and stop it becoming extremism before it’s too late.”

Dunn may seem extreme at present but recent developments in our increasingly secularised society suggest her views may not remain so. Things which at one time would have seemed impossible now happen.

For example, at one time it would have been unthinkable that a Christian bakery which refused to bake a cake which included captions promoting gay marriage would be successfully sued. But it has happened. This is an example of the increasing radicalisation of our secularised society. The judge said: “The defendants have unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff on grounds of sexual discrimination. This is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification.” A YouGov poll in November 2014 found 56% of people thought the bakery was justified. 65% disapproved of legal action being taken against them.

Similarly, it would have been unthinkable that cinema chains would ban a Christmas church advert containing the Lord’s Prayer. It shows that the danger of our society oppressing Christians needs to be taken seriously. Even Richard Dawkins condemned this action: “I … strongly object to suppressing the ads on the grounds that they might ‘offend’ people. If anybody is ‘offended’ by something so trivial as a prayer, they deserve to be offended.” The assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, said he was “flabbergasted that anyone would find this prayer offensive to anybody, including people of no particular religious belief”.

Fortunately the banning will be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The chief executive said: “We strongly disagree with the decision not to show the adverts on the grounds they might ‘offend’ people. There is no right not to be offended in the UK; what is offensive is very subjective and this is a slippery slope towards increasing censorship. We also understand why people were confused that a commercial Christmas can be advertised but the central Christian prayer cannot. We will therefore examine the issues raised by this case as part of our major review into the law protecting freedom of religion or belief, and publish our findings in the new year.”

Should we trust the government?

The Rev Dr Mike Ovey is a theologian and former lawyer. He was a parliamentary draftsman in the 1980s when anti-terror legislation to deal with the IRA threat was being framed. He expressed deep concern over the government’s anti-terror policy and said it would be easy to argue that there was a “clear trajectory” between, for example, teaching mainstream Christian ideas about subjects such as abortion and the actions of violent anti-abortion groups. He added: “They are going to say this is far-fetched and will never happen. That is essentially a government saying trust us with your civil liberties. I would say frankly human experience tells us the last thing you ever want to do is trust a government with your civil liberties. The Government is going around saying it is all a time of national emergency. I think I want to say we have been there before and got the T-shirt. It doesn’t work.”

This article contains an update to my main paper “Discrimination against British Christian” which is on our Christian Teaching Resources website at

http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/DiscriminationAgainstBritishChristians.pdf

UPDATE 2 March 10th 2015

Oppression of Christian schools

Because of an incident of extreme religious views being taught in a British school there is now an emphasis on schools encouraging knowledge of other religions and tolerance – what are called “British values.” This is a good thing but it has led to most unhelpful results. A Christian school has been told it must invite a Muslim imam to take collective worship. The government seems unaware that many Christians would be willing to accept an imam coming to talk about Islam and answer questions but would have conscientious objections to their children being obliged to be led in Muslim worship. The right of a Christian school not to have Muslim worship must be protected (just as a Muslim school must have the right to refuse to have Christian worship). Schools are being required to “promote” other religions. If this means to learn about them, that is acceptable. But if it means a Christian school has to promote another faith as equally true to Christianity, that is a gross infringement of religious freedom.

Oppression of Christian organisations and individuals

A recent survey by the Evangelical Alliance found that 53% of British Christians believed they thought that they could get into trouble for saying what they believe in a work or professional context.