The dangers in controlling extremists

 

One of the great dangers facing us in a free society is that seeking to control extremists will lead to control of those who are not extremists. This is a current issue in Britain today. In February Conservative MP Michael Fabricant said that some of the views of conservative Anglicans “differ little from ISIL” (or ISIS). The Archbishop of Canterbury commented that some modern politicians can’t see “the difference between an extremist Muslim group like the Muslim Brotherhood and a sort of conservative evangelical group in a Church of England church”.

 

Fabricant’s profoundly ignorant and offensive comment illustrates the danger very well. The implication seems to be we must control ISIS so we should control conservative Anglicans too! He added that the Church of England risked becoming “out of step with 21st century Western liberal values.” My response is that it should be out of step with some 21st century Western liberal values and long may that continue. Fabricant is so ignorant of the Christian Faith that he imagines the church must change its views to suit society. To be fair though, some church leaders seem to agree with him!

 

Sadly, Fabricant is not alone in his ignorance of Christianity. The government’s counter extremism policy suffers from the same weakness and theological illiteracy. Of course, we must respect people of other faiths but that does not mean we should accept or support their beliefs or avoid reasonable criticism of them. The government’s official definition is: “Extremism is the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” This could mean that Christians may be penalised for expressing opposition to beliefs or practice we disagree with.

 

The Archbishop also reported a conversation with a ‘very senior politician’ who asked: “Are you seriously going to tell me that I don’t call someone an extremist if they say that their faith is more important than the rule of law?” The Archbishop responded: “Well, you’ve got a real problem here because for me personally my faith is more important than the rule of law so you’ve got an extremist sitting in here with you … We do not believe as Christians that the rule of law outweighs everything else, we believe that the kingdom of God outweighs everything else.”

 

Speaking to the House of Lords in February 2016 he said: “It is widely agreed that all statements that tend towards causing hatred, contempt, violence, for other faiths should not be permitted. Nevertheless, it is not extremist in any way, and should be encouraged, that there are statements that are frank and categorical assertions of faith, or no faith, and that there is no right not to be offended, or to be hurt, by such statements.”

 

David Anderson QC said it was “dangerous” to introduce measures to silence people simply because they oppose certain Government-approved values. He added “the police are going to feel they have to investigate all sorts of people who are miles away from being terrorists but may just practise religion in a conservative way or may have eccentric political views … Silence coerced by law is a very dangerous business particularly when you’re looking at something as vague as extremism”.

 

The prime minister, speaking in the House of Commons in November 2016 stated that the ability to “speak freely, respectfully and responsibly about one’s religion should be a jealously guarded principle” She added: “I am sure we would all want to ensure that people at work do feel able to speak about their faith.” However, the way the government’s anti-extremism policy is being interpreted threatens freedom of speech about one’s faith.

 

The indoctrination of children

 

We should be particularly concerned that children are a main target of the theologically illiterate counter-extremism activists. If they have their way these activists will gradually undermine Christianity much more seriously than it is undermined in current society.

 

In a particularly sinister development, despite earlier reports of it deciding not to do so, the government plans to register church groups and Sunday schools which involve children for a total of six hours a week and to make them open to OFSTED inspections. True, many church groups won’t qualify but not to see this as the thin end of the wedge of government interference in all church groups is naïve. The government arrogantly assumes that it is capable of defining mandatory “British values” whilst not informed about, respecting or understanding the centuries of Christian history in this country.

 

Simon McCrossan, Evangelical Alliance head of public policy, accused the government of treating religious freedom as “an after-thought at best” and added: “These plans could lead the way to a register of Sunday schools, and making the government the arbiter of what doctrine is or isn’t desirable.” Stephen Timms MP, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, accused the government of seeing religious faith as “a problem.” Sir Gerald Howarth MP said, “regulating groups such as Sunday schools is clearly absurd. It would place a huge administrative burden on such groups, would severely damage volunteering and would be a serious infringement of personal liberty and freedom of association.”

 

UN condemns compulsory school assemblies

 

A recent report by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child says that the fact that pupils are legally required to attend assemblies which are “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character” violates their human rights. They recommend that the UK government “repeal legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective worship”. Parents can already withdraw their children from assemblies but the committee wants to give children the right to act independently of their parents.

 

Parents fear children will be rejected if they express faith

 

A recent ComRes survey commissioned by the Theos think tank found that 23% of parents didn’t pass on their faith to their children for fear the children would be alienated at school. 18% of parents said it was not their responsibility to pass on their beliefs to their children. Only 40% of parents said they had spoken to their children about their faith.

 

Moves towards enforcing support for gay marriage

 

UK Communities Secretary Sajid Javid wrote in the Sunday Times in December 2016 that people in public life should accept basic British values: “I’m talking about tolerating the views of others, even if you disagree with them. About believing in freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from abuse. I’m talking about a belief in equality, democracy and the democratic process. And about respect for the law, even if you think the law is an ass. Because if you do disagree, you can change it. That’s what freedom and democracy are all about.”

 

This all sounds good but it all depends on how it is worked out. Of course, all human beings are equal, but equality is sometimes referring to equality, not of people but of behaviour. This is particularly the case with the whole gay marriage issue. The danger is illustrated by the comments of Dame Louise Casey who works for the British government and conducted a review into integration and opportunity in isolated and deprived communities, published in December 2016. She supports an “equality oath.” Shortly after her review was published she called church schools who supported traditional marriage “homophobic” and accused them of using “religious conservatism as a veil for anti-equality views.” And this is despite the official line that schools do not have to support and endorse same-sex marriage. On being criticised she backed off. The Department for Communities and Local Government stated: “Dame Louise is a supporter of the right to gay marriage now enshrined in law, however she does respect and understand the Catholic Church’s long-held view that marriage is between a man and a woman, even if that is not her own view.

She is not threatening the right of the Church or individuals of faith to hold that view, or to include it in teaching it as a fundamental tenet of faith. That is indeed an important aspect of a shared British value of freedom of religious expression.” But the dangerous trend continues.

 

In November a school in St. Austell issued an apology to a teaching assistant whom they had disciplined for saying to a pupil who asked her about the matter that she did not support gay marriage.

 

Former MP Ann Widdecombe wrote about the case of the Ashers Bakery Co (a Christian bakery prosecuted for refusing to make a cake with a slogan promoting gay marriage). She said that historically being forced to affirm beliefs contrary to conscience was “rightly recognised as the hallmark of totalitarianism itself.” She added: “In the Ashers case, the principle of not being allowed to express a view has been extended to being forced to affirm one – an infringement of individual liberty that would have been unthinkable not so very long ago.” She warned Christians not to “sleepwalk through this”, or they would risk seeing more of their civil liberties gradually removed.

 

Even Peter Tatchell, a long-term campaigner for gay rights, strongly disapproves of the judgment against the Ashers:

“Although I strongly disagree with Ashers’ opposition to marriage equality, in a free society neither they nor anyone else should be compelled to facilitate a political idea they oppose. Ashers did not discriminate against the customer, Gareth Lee, because he was gay. They objected to the message he wanted on the cake: “Support gay marriage.”

Discrimination against LGBT people is wrong and is rightly unlawful. But in a democratic society, people should be able to discriminate against ideas they disagree with. I am saddened that the court did not reach the same conclusion.

This judgment opens a can of worms. It means that a Muslim printer could be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed and a Jewish printer could be required to publish a book that propagates Holocaust denial. It could also encourage far-right extremists to demand that bakers and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim opinions. What the court has decided sets a dangerous, authoritarian precedent that is open to serious abuse. Discrimination against people should be illegal but not discrimination against ideas and opinions.”

 

Queen’s chaplain urged to resign over defending Jesus as divine

 

The Rev Gavin Ashenden was clearly pressed to resign as a Queen’s chaplain after he opposed a reading from the Koran in Glasgow Cathedral which denied the deity of Jesus. The reading was about the birth of Jesus but denied that he is the Son of God and says he should not be worshipped. This is a very serious error and if the cathedral authorities were aware that this was going to be read they should resign. If they weren’t they should profoundly apologise. Here we have another ‘equality’ confusion. People of different faiths (or no faith) are equal as human beings and we must regard them as such. But we are not required to regard different religious beliefs as equally valid. So I will respect our Muslim friends but I regard their beliefs as seriously wrong, and have the right to say so publicly. Christian leaders who allow public contradiction of basic creedal beliefs in church services are incompetent and seriously failing in their duties. Gavin Ashenden said: “After a conversation instigated by officials at Buckingham Palace, I decided the most honourable course of action was to resign.” In other words he was pressed to resign.

 

It is obvious that the trend in society is moving towards serious oppression of Christians and we need to be alert to this without falling into paranoid overreaction. We need to pray and, where possible, act to oppose this trend.

Concerns here are not only about the replacement of democratic national governments by remote world government but also about the danger of oppression inherent in world government.

 

Reaction against globalisation

 

Supporters of globalisation point out its economic benefits. However global economic growth has fallen from 3.5% to 2% since 2008. Also there is an awareness of rising inequality, e.g. the wealthy pay less tax proportionately than the poor. The banks have been producing money which, instead of funding wages and job growth, has found its way into the assets of the rich and is pushing up prices. In Britain, whilst wages rose by 13% the stock market rose by 115%. World trade talks have been disappointing and the issue of immigration has come to the fore. Globalisation has produced a volatile economy. Industries, jobs and careers which used to be secure are no longer.

 

In fact, there is a growing trend against globalisation, and in favour of nationalism, led by right-wingers such as Donald Trump. Experts say that ISIS wants to induce western countries to become more right wing, nationalist, intolerant and xenophobic so that many citizens turn against Muslims, and therefore encouraging greater radicalisation, providing more terrorists and suicide bombers. Closer economic integration is seen as to some degree incompatible with national sovereignty and national democracy. There is a growing anti-establishment movement. Successful re-election of existing political leadership has virtually halved since 2008. Brexit is one evidence of a reaction against globalisation.

 

On the other hand, many issues call for close global co-operation, e.g. terrorism, global warming, world poverty and undermining of human rights. Also economists warn that anti-globalisation will worsen the global economic slowdown we are experiencing.

 

Despite the current reactions against it, the trend towards globalisation will not go away.

 

Disturbing definitions of ‘non-violent extremism’

 

This is one of the most serious areas of concern and could lead to government oppression, including over those (including Christians) who teach conservative values.

 

Britain is at the forefront of preparing legislation to prevent violent extremism. Theresa May, now prime minister, has been a leading figure in this process. Yet the government proposals have been subjected to very serious criticisms. In July 2016 the Joint Committee on Human Rights found that the proposals:

  • gave “no impression of having a coherent or sufficiently precise definition of either ‘non-violent extremism’ or ‘British values’”.
  • Would give the authorities “wide discretion to prohibit loosely defined speech which they find unacceptable”.
  • would “potentially interfere with a number of human rights including freedom of religion, expression and association”.

The committee also said that the government assumed “that there is an escalator that starts with religious conservatism and ends with support for jihadism”. They expressed “very grave” concerns about proposals to compulsorily register out-of-school education settings, such as church youth work. It said this could penalise Evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews and others who have conservative religious views but do not promote violence.

 

Fiona Bruce, MP for Congleton warned that Sunday Schools and other church groups could still face inspections by the school regulatory body Ofsted. Several MPs have warned that the legislation could be used to target Christian groups that teach marriage is between a man and a woman.

 

Simon Cole, Chief Constable of Leicestershire, said the plans risked creating thought police – judges of “what people can and cannot say.” Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland, said the definition of extremism as “the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs” could be used against those who oppose the government, believe the monarchy should be abolished or disagree with same-sex marriage. He added that it would only be a matter of time before the powers are used in a way for they were never intended.

 

Commenting on the government emphasis on “British values”, the Bishop of London said: “The business of the State is to ensure that the living traditions in our pluralist society have space to flourish without the State itself being drawn into the role of an ideologically driven Big Brother, profligate with ever more detailed regulation.”

 

In February 2016 a Hampshire school called the police after a 15 year old pupil viewed the UKIP website on a school computer. He was interviewed by police for viewing “extremist views.”

 

The Scottish Government Named Person Scheme

 

In a very disturbing move, the Scottish Government proposed to assign a state guardian to monitor every child’s ‘wellbeing.’ This would undermine the parent-child relationship. It would also allow public bodies to share sensitive private information about children and parents without their knowledge or consent. Christian parents would be particularly concerned that such a system would undermine the Christian upbringing of their children.

 

Fortunately, in July 2016 five judges of the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the scheme was unlawful. However it is a cause of deep concern that the Scottish Government ever embarked upon this oppressive course of action and it shows the danger of such ideas being repeated in the future.

 

 

The failed Arab Spring

It was in January 2011 that the “Arab Spring” began with the ousting of the President of Tunisia. The overthrow of repressive regimes throughout the Middle East was inspiring. But now, five years later, Islamic State is creating mayhem. There are civil wars in Syria and Yemen. The Sunni-Shia conflict has increased in Iraq which has been destabilised further by the civil war in Syria. There are authoritarian governments in Egypt and Bahrain and the Tunisian government is becoming more dictatorial. The Libyan central government has collapsed. Turkey is attacking the Kurds across its border in Iraq and Syria. Then there is the huge number of migrants fleeing the conflicts.

One of the causes of the failure of the Arab Spring has been the fact that the removal of dictators has not been followed up by the establishment of democracy and a trustworthy state. The Islamic movement was seen as the means for opposition. Initially, the west failed to see that the opposition in Syria and Iraq was becoming dominated by extreme Islamists.

So the Middle East has become more unstable than for at any time in the last century.

The colonial background

One of the factors which has caused tension in the Middle East and which drives the extreme Islamists is what the colonial powers did back in 1916. Britain and France secretly agreed to divide up the old Ottoman Empire between them. They created modern Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine without regard to the people groups and religious affiliations. This did not go down well with the Arabs and led to distrust of the West.

More recently the Western powers have not supported various Middle Eastern countries as well as they should. During the Cold War the US and the Soviet Union supported weak regimes because their collapse could have given an opportunity to one side or the other. That need is no longer relevant. So there are numerous conflicts in the region.

Christianity disappearing

A report has been published by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), entitled “Persecuted and Forgotten? A Report on Christians oppressed for their Faith 2013-15.” In it John Pontifex, ACN Head of Press and Information, said: “A cultural genocide of Christians is erasing the presence of faithful from large swathes of the Middle East, the very heartland of the Church. Far from laying the entire blame for persecution against Christians at the door of extremist Islam [the report] demonstrates that many of the problems stem from non-Muslim extremist – nationalist – faith groups and historically communist totalitarian regimes.” The Middle Eastern countries where Christians are most at risk include Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria.

Saudi Arabia

I have written elsewhere about the secret agreement between the UK and Saudi Arabia to ensure that both countries are on the UN Human Rights Council. Yet Saudi Arabia has a bad human rights record and executes one person every two days, normally by beheading. When Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary, was asked if the UK should be urging the Saudis to reform their policies he responded: “That is not the way the world works. You can’t just trade with the countries you approve of, otherwise you would be ruling out trade with China, Russia, and probably three-quarters of the world.” However, that should not involve the UK doing such things as helping Saudi Arabia to be on the Human Rights Council. Little wonder that The Independent carried an editorial in January 2016 which stated: “Britain’s policy towards Saudi Arabia is a disgrace.”

Syria

Saleh Muslim, a Syrian Kurdish leader, warned that if Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, is defeated by the rebels it would be a world calamity because they are dominated by Isis and al-Qaeda terrorists. Yacoub el-Hillo, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Syria, warned that because of the conflict in Syria “Europe will be faced with a refugee situation similar to the one that led to the creation of [the UN Refugee Agency] UNHCR in 1950”.

Egypt

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, President of Egypt, is becoming increasingly dictatorial. There are 40,000 political prisoners in Egypt, half of them supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and many of them sentenced to death. This has encouraged extremists like Isis. Sinai is now as much under Isis control as Egyptian control.

Iran

Despite the agreement that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons (for 10-15 years), it is still a threat. Many countries don’t trust the Iranian regime. Iran backs Assad’s government in Syria, as well as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which do not accept the legitimacy of Israel. It also backs the Shia Muslim rebels in Yemen. The new freedom which Iran now enjoys could provoke a major Sunni versus Shia conflict throughout the Middle East. This could lead Saudi Arabia and Egypt into a nuclear arms race. Iran’s antagonism to Israel continues with Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan calling Israel “the world’s centre of evil, espionage and warmongering.”

Conclusion

The Arab Spring has turned into the Arab Winter. There is great instability and ominous rivalry. Amongst the many innocent people who are suffering from the situation in the Middle East are millions of Christians. We need to pray for them and for the Middle East generally.

I haven’t normally agreed with Peter Tatchell, the pro-homosexual campaigner, over the years since we appeared together in various TV discussions. But credit where credit is due. Peter has recently written in The Guardian that he has changed his mind about the prosecution of the Christian-run Ashers Bakery in Belfast over its refusal to produce a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan for a gay customer. He commented: “Much as I wish to defend the gay community, I also want to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion … on reflection the court was wrong to penalise Ashers and I was wrong to endorse its decision.”

He asked: “Should Muslim printers be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed? Or Jewish ones publish the words of a Holocaust denier? Or gay bakers accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? If the Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far-right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim opinions.”

He concluded: “In my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas.”

I agree. The law is an ass for making this decision. But will the legal ‘experts’ and their political colleagues correct it? I’m not holding my breath.

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 want 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 want 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.”

Introduction: the Bible and the Church

My concern about the homosexual issue is to be clear as to what the Bible says about it. It is then up to the individual and the church to decide whether to follow that teaching or not. The Church of England’s position on Scripture is quite clear. Its Canon Law, which has legal status, states: “The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.” Canon Law also supports the 39 Articles of Religion which state: “It is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” Every Anglican bishop and clergyperson is legally bound to follow these rules. So ensuring an accurate interpretation of Scripture is important.

The official position of the Church of England on Sexuality is stated in a General Synod decision in 1987 based upon a Private Members Motion I put to the synod. The Bishops modified my wording but then the synod voted by a 98% majority that sexual intercourse belongs properly within a permanent heterosexual marriage and that just as fornication and adultery falls short of this ideal so “homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion.”

We now live in a very different society from 30 years ago. It has different attitudes towards homosexual practice. Homosexual marriage has been legalised. Even some evangelicals have changed their minds on the issue. But the Church of England is still committed to the 1987 decision and has been granted exemption from having to celebrate homosexual marriages. However, the pressure will increase and there are clear indications that the homosexual issue will be a cause of oppression and ultimately persecution for Christians who stand by the traditional biblical teaching.

We are called to love our homosexual neighbour, as we are called to love all of our neighbours. There is no place for antagonism towards or rejection of homosexuals as people. But loving our neighbour does not necessarily involve loving their behaviour. Homosexuals will, of course, claim that those who don’t accept their sexual behaviour are rejecting them as people. That reaction is understandable but it is illogical. We should strongly affirm that homosexual people are equal to heterosexual people. But that is not the same as saying that homosexual practice is the same as heterosexual practice. All people are equal but not all behaviour.

The marginalisation of the church

The fact that many in society do not make this important distinction leads to the church being seen as intolerant and judgmental. So Ireland, which in 1987 voted overwhelmingly against the legalisation of divorce, and only legalised homosexual practice in 1993, in 2015 became the first country to approve same-sex marriage after a referendum. But there were other factors. The influence of the Roman Catholic Church has hugely diminished. This is largely due to what is seen as hypocrisy, namely the allegations of sexual abuse amongst Irish clergy and of the church’s failure to deal with it properly.

A recent poll found that 52% of Americans favoured same-sex couples being allowed to marry and only 32% disapproved. Another poll found that 53% of Americans were favourable towards gays and lesbians compared with 42% towards evangelicals. 18% were unfavourable towards gays and lesbians compared with 28% towards evangelicals.

In July 2014 the UN stated it would recognise the same-sex marriages of its staff. An Ipsos MORI poll in April 2014 found that “the proportion of Britons who think homosexual couples should be able to marry has more than quadrupled in the four decades since 1975. 69% now agree with the statement that “homosexual couples should be allowed to marry each other”, whilst just over a quarter (28%) disagree. When the same question was asked in November 1975, support for gay marriage stood at 16% (with 53% disagreeing). Simon Atkinson, Assistant Chief Executive at Ipsos MORI, commented: “It is very unusual, even over a period of 40 years, to see such a sea change in public attitudes. People in Britain are clearly behind the recent legislation on gay marriage – a rare example of Parliament and public opinion being very much in tune with each other.”

Pro-homosexual evangelicals

Many Christians uphold the biblical teaching on homosexuality but some, including Evangelicals, support same-sex marriage. Jayne Ozanne is a prominent evangelical I know who was a member of the Archbishop’s Council. She describes herself as “a staunch evangelical … a fully signed up charismatic evangelical … an ardent evangelical” who has “an extremely high regard for scripture.” However she has been in a “gay relationship.” She lays down the challenge that if this is sinful “why then do I see so much fruit in my life? As Jesus said, “Do people pick grapes from thorn-bushes or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7). Why does God continue to answer my prayers? Why do I see his power constantly at work in my life; his voice whispering in my inner ear; his healing power touching the lives of people who have been deeply hurt and broken by a Church that has shunned them.” She said that back in 1999 her views on sexuality were “extremely black and white” and added “I did not believe it was compatible to be gay and a Christian.”

Jayne also wrote that in a General Synod debate she read “a draft suicide note written by someone struggling with their desire for love, but knowing that the only thing that could satisfy this hunger was ‘forbidden fruit’. The letter was my own, written during this time of pain – a cry from the created to the Creator, asking why I had been created with such a cruel dichotomy.”

One cannot read this last paragraph without one’s heart going out to Jayne and others like her. We need to pray especially for homosexuals and lesbians who face such trauma. We also need to be sensitive in our approach to the subject.

However, one cannot base moral decisions on emotion or on people’s motives. The crucial question remains: What is the biblical teaching on homosexual practice? The fact that Jayne experiences answers to prayer and spiritual fruit in her life is an evidence of God’s mercy. After all, we are all sinners and don’t deserve answers to prayer and spiritual fruit. Such experience does not justify what is wrong in our lives. Also, it is not just homosexuals who experience great traumas about their circumstances and who cannot understand why God has put them in such a situation. We need to understand them but that does not mean we approve of everything they do.

The Rev Steve Chalke, a very well-known evangelical leader and leader of the Oasis Trust which seeks to provide housing, education, training, youthwork and healthcare in various countries, similarly disclosed his change of view over homosexual practice. Ultimately this led to the Evangelical Alliance terminating the Trust’s membership.

The Evangelical Alliance has been criticised for this decision. Critics point to its “Evangelical Relationships Commitment” which states: “We respect the diversity of culture, experience and doctrinal understanding that God grants to His people, and acknowledge that some differences over issues not essential to salvation may well remain until the end of time. We call on each other, when speaking or writing of those issues of faith or practice that divide us, to acknowledge our own failings and the possibility that we ourselves may be mistaken, avoiding personal hostility and abuse, and speaking the truth in love and gentleness.”

Like Steve Chalke himself, the critics say that the issue of homosexual practice is a secondary one. Chalke commented: “It is extremely disappointing that this matter of sexual ethics has again been seen as more significant than central matters of the Christian faith. I would call on the Evangelical Alliance to reverse its decision and declare that acceptance of same sex relationships can be compatible with evangelicalism.”

Dr Justin Thacker, lecturer in theology at the evangelical Cliff College, wrote “My concern is that this looks like a decision, not born of confidence in the gospel or trust in the power of the Scriptures to transform, but rather one born of fear – fear that the church is becoming inevitably compromised by the world and that its time to pull up the drawbridges.”

Accepting Evangelicals is an organisation which states: “We are an open network of Evangelical Christians who believe the time has come to move towards the acceptance of faithful, loving same-sex partnerships at every level of church life, and the development of a positive Christian ethic for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.” It has 960 members. It commented that the Evangelical Alliance “can … no longer claim to represent ‘the UK’s two million evangelical Christians’ as there are clearly many evangelicals who they no longer represent, or who they are unwilling to represent.”

Other Christian response

In May 2015 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland passed by 309 votes to 182 the idea that individual congregations could opt out of the tradition view of marriage and appoint a minister in a same-sex civil partnership.

However when Canon Jeremy Pemberton married his male partner the Church of England removed his licence to minister. The Bishop of Buckingham, who supports equal rights for homosexuals, said this was unjust and that homosexual clergy are subject to “harassment and victimisation.”

Steve Chalke’s Oasis Trust did a survey and found that the attitudes of churchgoers has undergone an “ethical earthquake” in the past decade, “despite the more hostile tones of the denominations they belong to.” Around a quarter of churchgoers believe that same-sex relationships should be affirmed by the church, but are reluctant to share their views, a new survey has found. 49.6% of Christians across the main 11 denominations believe that monogamous same-sex relationships should be fully embraced and encouraged. 68% said that their views have become more inclusive over the past decade, with 61% noting that the shift had come as a result of “understanding or interpreting the Bible differently.”

In October 2014 the Vatican published a synodical report which stated:
Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman. Nor is it acceptable that pressure be brought to bear on pastors or that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology.

Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York put out a statement in February 2014 about the views of the Church of England House of Bishops which said: “We are not all in agreement about every aspect of the Church’s response. However we are all in agreement that the Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged.”

The legal situation in the UK

In a March 2014 poll BBC Radio 5 Live found that 59% of people believed a person should not be considered homophobic for opposing the legislation that allows gay marriage. However there are increasing attempts to bring legal action against those who do not approve of homosexual practice. In April 2015 The Guardian published an editorial which stated: “It’s at least possible that conservative Christians might at some stage end up as despised and disadvantaged a minority as some of their victims have been in the past … In the west we privilege conflicting but broadly liberal values. We no longer privilege the authority of the Bible. So, once we have determined that discrimination against homosexuals violates the principle of equality – and that is the settled position in both law and public opinion now – the fact that some people are compelled by their consciences to disagree does not exempt them from behaving as if it were true. There cannot be a special exemption for mistaken beliefs held on religious grounds when these harm others.”

The same month an article in The Guardian stated: “Hostility to homosexuality, abortion or extramarital sex may be justified as the teachings of gods, prophets or scriptures … and anyone has the right to follow them. But actions based on those beliefs should have no particular privilege and, if illegal, the fact that the person undertaking them believes in the Almighty should be no defence.”

However the Equality and Human Rights Commission has stated that the UK Same Sex Marriage law provides “protection under equality law for ministers of religion who do not wish to marry same sex couples. The Commission stated that “churches and individual ministers will not find themselves forced by litigation to conduct same sex marriages and no one will be required to promote views about same-sex marriage which they do not support.”

Welcome though this is, it is also evidence of the increasing marginalisation of the church in today’s society. How long will it be before such protections are removed? There are already calls for that. For example Lord Fowler, former chair of the Conservative Party has said that the government should be able to prevent the Church of England from sacking clergy who enter same-sex marriages. We are seeing Christians accepting homosexual practice, despite the biblical teaching on the matter. We are also seeing a further trend towards oppression of those who uphold the biblical teaching. We need to recognise the seriousness of these trends.

On the 4th August the Manchester Evening News reported that Councillor Pat Karney Manchester’s “city centre chief” said that street preachers do not have the right to speak about morality. I’d be the first to say that insensitive, condemnatory street preaching hinders the gospel. But if Mr Karney thinks preachers should not preach about sin (i.e. morality) he doesn’t know much about Christianity. Christianity is about Jesus dying for our sins but we don’t appreciate that if we don’t know we’re sinners! Of course preachers must be free to preach about morality – sensitively, lovingly and in the context of God’s mercy and forgiveness. If people who are ignorant about the faith are allowed to control the expression of faith that will lead to oppression and ultimately persecution. http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/thousands-goods-seized-during-council-9787370

Mark Spencer, Tory MP for Sherwood, said that teachers could express their opinion that they didn’t agree with gay marriage but they are not allowed to teach that it is a sin because that would be “hate-speech.” He says that Christians disagree with gay marriage are “perfectly entitled to express their views” but says that it could constitute “hate speech” in some contexts. This is a disturbing development which indicates that persecution of Christians will eventually come to the West.

I said recently that, although I have serious problems with Islamic belief, I will publish significant positive news about Muslims when it arises. It is part of loving our Muslim neighbour. I want nothing to do with hateful attitudes towards Muslims. The same is true with respect to homosexuals. Although I accept the Bible teaching on homosexual practice, I will publish significant positive news about homosexuals when it arises. It is part of loving our homosexual neighbour. I want nothing to do with hateful attitudes towards homosexuals. With that in mind, I want to share the following news item.

Jesse Bartholomew, a homosexual pastry chef, wrote on Facebook: “I cannot tell you how disgusted I am with my fellow gay and lesbian community that they would stoop so low to force someone to bake a cake for them who simply doesn’t agree with them. They don’t have to bake a cake for you. You are forcing someone. You are being a Nazi and forcing someone to bake a wedding cake for you when there are hundreds of other gay and lesbians that would gladly have your business. Shame on you.”

The “Arab Spring”

The so-called Arab Spring was a remarkable series of events including the following:

December 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire because the authorities had confiscated his produce. This was the culmination of many years of such maltreatment and it sparked protests in Tunisia and elsewhere, including Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Syria and Yemen.

January 2011 The Tunisian President fled to Saudi Arabia. A few days later protests in Egypt forced the Egyptian President to resign.

March 2011 Protests against President Assad began in Syria leading to a prolonged war with many atrocities.

October 2011 Lybian President Gaddafi was killed after a 9-month conflict.

February 2012 The President of Yemen resigned after protests.

June 2012 Mohammed Morsi of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was elected President of Egypt.

July 2013 Millions of Egyptians demonstrated against Morsi forcing his resignation.

May 2014 Former army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was elected President of Egypt

Many people saw all this as a positive revolution which would establish democracy in the Middle East. But it was not to be. Instead, there were many sinister developments. One early example happened in August 2013 when Muslims set fire to over 70 Christian churches in Egypt. Since then extreme Islamists have come to the fore, especially in Iraq, Syria and Lybia. The most prominent is, of course, the so-called Islamic State (Isis). The removal of dictators has opened the way to far more extreme leadership taking over. This had happened much earlier when the Shah of Persia (Iran) was overthrown in 1979 and replaced by hard-line Islamists. On June 29th 2014 Isis announced that it had re-established the Islamic Caliphate (global Islamic state) led by the Caliph Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi. One Iraqi politician said that the Arab Spring had become an Islamic Spring.

International chaos in the Middle East

Isis seems to be aiming at weakening Arab states and their armies so that it will be able to gain more influence and make it easier to ‘liberate’ the Palestinians from Israeli control. Turkey, Iran and Israel are the only strong states in the Middle East.

Syria and Iraq

Syria and Iraq are, of course, deeply divided and largely ungovernable. They are well on the way to becoming failed states. Isis (which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is now in control of more than half of Syria and controls all the border crossings between Syria and Iraq. Their intermediate aim is a Middle East Islamic state which includes the territories of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. Syria is crucially important for Isis because they see it as the heart of the Islamic State on the border of Palestine. They see it as the road to Jerusalem. Isis is known to have some chemical weapons but there is fear that they will gain more from Syrian sources. Israel is afraid that Hezbollah, the Islamist group based in Lebanon, also could get hold of Syrian chemical weapons and smuggle them into Lebanon. Some experts are afraid that people could be exposed to biological weapons such as anthrax, plague, and cholera which could cause pandemics that are very difficult to control.

Iraq is divided between a Shia Muslim majority and a more traditional Sunni minority. But Isis (which is Sunni extremist) also holds large areas of the country and at times the Iraqi army has shown it is not up to withstanding it.

Egypt

Egypt initially accepted 300,000 Syrian refugees but since Morsi was deposed has turned against them. President Sisi is authoritarian and there have been unfair trials and an increasing number of executions. Morsi has been sentenced to death and the Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed.

Militant Islamists have mounted attacks particularly in North Sinai. Hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed. One terrorist group called Sinai Province has links with Isis.

Egypt receives financial support from the Saudis and the Emirates. It is regarded as supporting Israel against Hamas in Gaza which is seen as a terrorist group.

Iran

Iran is an oppressive regime which restricts human rights. It is strongly opposed by the Saudis and the Gulf States. It co-operates with Hezbollah in Lebanon to support President Assad of Syria. The US is, of course, seeking to ensure that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons. President Obama stated in April 2015 that Iran will accept “the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear programme in history. If Iran cheats, the world will know it. This deal is not based on trust. It’s based on unprecedented verification.” However Israel is very suspicious of the agreement and believes Iran will not keep to it. Clearly the Saudis share this suspicion.

Jordan

Jordan has received 600,000 Syrian refugees. This, together with the surrounding chaos in Iraq and Syria is creating a serious crisis in Jordan and fears that the conflict could spill over into its territory.

Kuwait

Kuwait is an oppressive regime which curtails freedom of speech. David Cohen, Deputy Director of the CIA, once described Kuwait as the “epicentre of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria” However Kuwait is regarded as an important ally by the West.

Lebanon

Lebanon has suffered by being caught up in battles between countries such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia and it fears that the Syrian conflict could spill over into its territory. Fears are also raised by the strong connections between Iran and Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon and is regarded by many as a terrorist group.

It is a country where citizenship is only available to members of one of 18 approved religious groups. Power is shared out between these groups and, especially in the context of a weak state, this leads to an acceptance of compromise.

Lebanon has one million Syrian refugees, the equivalent of one fifth of the Lebanese population. The presence of the pro-Assad Shia group Hezbollah in the country has caused violent reactions from the Sunni community

Libya

Since 2014 there has been civil war in Libya. Central government has collapsed and the numerous militias are out of control. The country is moving towards being a failed state. Libya is very dangerous and journalists tend not to go there. Isis has moved into territory which is not controlled by the state and set up training centres for extremists. It was from there that the recent massacre in Tunisia was mounted.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is dominated by Wahhabism, a very strict version of Sunni Islam. It is repressive and carries out severe punishments, including many beheadings. No political parties are allowed. The Saudis, assisted by Qatar, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates have funded Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq. However Saudi Arabia has 25% of the world’s oil supplies so western governments want to maintain good relationships with the country despite its bad human rights record. Hence Saudi Arabia has recently hosted a conference on Human Rights run by the UN Human Rights Council. The country is also the British arms industry’s largest customer.

Although the Saudis have funded Islamic fundamentalists around the region, it has now rebounded on them as extremist groups are threatening the Saudi leadership. They are also very threatened by the extensive influence of Iran in the Middle East, especially in Iraq. They have made it clear that if the US is not successful in preventing Iran developing nuclear weapons they will acquire them too. It is thought that the Saudis funded 60% of the development of the Pakistan nuclear weapons on the basis that they would be allowed to obtain some of those weapons if necessary. Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal has said: “Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too.”

Tunisia

Many Tunisians have joined Isis to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey

Anxieties in Turkey about growing Islamisation and the authoritarianism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister led to riots and in 2015 Erdogan did not do too well in the election.

Turkey is very concerned to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state by both Syrian and Turkish Kurds. They are sending troops to fight against the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish Kurds live in SE Turkey.

Turkey has accepted 1.8 million Syrian refugees.

Yemen

There has been an undeclared civil war in Yemen for some time. Iranian-backed rebels gained control of government institutions. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait is close, not least because about half the Saudi army is of Kuwaiti origin. The Saudis are afraid of the Iranian influence in Yemen and they are also afraid that Kuwait will become a failed state controlled by terrorists. So in 2015 a Sunni Muslim coalition of nine Arab countries plus Pakistan invaded Kuwait.

Summary

Much of the conflict in the Middle East is between the more traditional Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. They are at war with each other in Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. Isis is an extreme form of Sunni Islam.

Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are torn by war. They are becoming failed states. Egypt is facing serious division. Saudi Arabia is an oppressive, anti-Christian regime. Jordan and Lebanon feel threatened and Turkey intends to prevent the Kurds establishing a state by violence if necessary.

In March 2015 a joint Arab military force was set up to face the unstable situation in the Middle East. The 22 states involved in the Arab League are to combine forces.

Many refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Other refugees are crossing the Mediterranean to find safety in Europe – causing problems within the EU.

The effects on Christians

One thing that complicates the position of Christians in Muslim countries is military action by western nations which are seen as Christian nations. Consequently, Muslim countries persecute Christians. The Arab Spring and the growth of Isis has led to much greater oppression of Christians in the Middle East.

In Egypt, where there is a long-established Christian community, the removal of President Morsi in 2013 led to the worst persecution of Christians in 1400 years. It was against Coptic Christians and 65 churches, Christian bookshops, schools and convents were burned down, looted or destroyed. There has been some similar persecution since then.

In recent years in Syria over 450,000 Christians have fled and hundreds of thousands are in hiding. Christians and Christian leaders have been abducted, ransomed or executed.

Since the 2003 Gulf War over a million Christians have fled from Iraq. In 2014 when Isis captured Mosul and much of the traditional Christian area around Nineveh 200,000 Christians fled to Kurdistan.

The chaos in Libya has meant that persecution has increased, with Christians being afraid to meet together. The only religious gatherings allowed are Islamic. Isis has executed Christians.

Saudi Arabia officially bans churches and Christian meetings, even amongst ex-pats. Sometimes the authorities take oppressive action to enforce this ban against Christians meeting in homes. Bibles are prohibited. Converts from Islam to Christianity face the death penalty. Nevertheless for economic and political reasons the Saudis are treated as respected allies by western countries.

The Israeli perspective

I write as a friend of Israel but I am a genuine friend who, unlike some Zionist Christians, faces up to her failings as well as defending her when appropriate. She is not treating the Palestinians justly and currently she is becoming increasingly isolated in the world through the unwise leadership of her present government.

However, some of the criticism of Israel is unjust and there is some which is based on thinly veiled anti-Semitism. In fact, some Christians have decided that Israel is in the wrong and don’t wished to be confused by the facts. There is a growing movement to boycott Israeli goods but, as Israel points out, there is no such boycott of other countries deemed to be guilty of injustice – Saudi Arabia, for example. It is essential that we seek to look at the world through Israeli eyes, as well as through Palestinian eyes.

Israel is still affected by centuries of persecution and the trauma of the Holocaust. She also knows that a large number of people dispute her legitimacy and would like to see her destroyed. Against that background she looks at the chaos in the Middle East around her – the extreme Islamism, the wars, the advance of Isis (which is now speaking of taking over from Hamas and ‘liberating’ Palestine), the threat of Iran, which wants Israel destroyed, gaining nuclear weapons after all (which is perceived as possible by the Israelis and others) and the danger the Saudis would follow suit. Yes, Israel should provide justice for the Palestinians but she also needs to protect herself. After all, Isis is getting too close for comfort.

It is all very well for the Christian armchair critics in the West to be calling for justice for the Palestinians. But they must also take the fears of the Israelis seriously. Yes, of course, sometimes politicians over-emphasise threats for political reasons but the fact is that Israel is seriously threatened – and things will get worse.

We need to pray for the countries of the Middle East, for Israel and for Christians in that region facing grave difficulties, persecution and violent death. We should also recognise that the growing persecution of Christians and the increasing threats to Israel are in harmony with the New Testament’s teaching on the End Times.