Category Archives: Religion

Show your support to Christian activists on trial for protesting at London arms fair

Symon Hill
In September 2013 someone who I deeply respect took the decision to create a blockade to stop arms dealers entering Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEi) 2013.

Symon Hill is a Christian and an activist. He also represents the better thought out wing of these two categories. He is someone that I have a lot of respect for.

In September when he joined a human non-violent blockade he was arrested (alongside James Clayton, Chloe Skinner, Chris Wood and Daniel Woodhouse) under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

They all pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The date of their trial has now been announced as the 3rd and 4th February at Stratford Magistrates Court. Those who want to are encouraged to join a vigil outside the court at 10:00am each day.

It would be great if enough people showed up so the story was subverted from ‘Christian activists on trial for public disorder’ to ‘Hundreds gather outside court in solidarity with Christian peace activists’.

Sadly I am a few thousand miles away in a different continent so I can’t make it. That is why I would love you, yes you, to head down there and offer your support to both a friend and a principle on my behalf.

For more information:

  • Christians arrested in blockade protest at arms fair – reported in Ekklesia
  • Rowan Williams pledges support for arms trade activists – reported in The Guardian.
  • Send a personal message of support or ask Symon Hill a question on Twitter
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“We have been unspeakably cruel to our prisoners in the post war period and that includes Iraq and Afghanistan”

These are the words of Reverend Mercer. They were sent to Shaker Aamer, the last remaining Brit in Guantanamo Bay. As soon as Shaker read them he wrote back to his lawyer saying:

“I want to make sure that my brothers and sisters see that the struggles we face here in Guantánamo are universal and not just about Muslims. Guantánamo is an issue of justice for human beings and nothing shows that more than Rev. Mercer’s sermon.”

So, in respect of Shaker and his on-going struggle in Guantanamo I urge you to spend 5 minutes reading the Reverend Mercer’s words:

Salisbury Cathedral 17th October 2013 – Amnesty International ServiceThe Reverend Lieutenant Colonel N J Mercer

Two weeks ago in our Benefice we had a week of fasting for “Stand Fast For Justice”. Stand Fast for Justice is a campaign which is currently being sponsored by the Charity Reprieve. In this week of Benefice Fasting, parishioners – aged 12 to 90 – fasted in sympathy with the prisoners at Guantanamo who are currently on hunger strike and being force fed. In particular we remembered Shaker Aamer. Shaker Aamer is British and has been cleared twice by the Guantanamo authorities for release. Once by George Bush and once by Barack Obama.

Yet he remains in custody.

It appears that he is nothing more than an innocent bystander, caught up in the fog of war for which he has lost eleven years of his life. Most alarming – is his claim that he was tortured at Bagram Airbase and at Guantanamo – and that MI5 have been complicit in his torture.

The reason for his delay, some allege, is that if he is released he will reveal details of his treatment. The authorities want him sent back to Saudi Arabia even though he is British Resident. His family live in South London and he has a son whom he has never seen.

The service this evening is the Amnesty International Service which remembers, in particular, prisoners of conscience. These are individuals who are held in prison for their conscientiously held beliefs and lose their liberty for no other reason than holding the wrong beliefs or opinions. They are wholly innocent of any crime and this category of wholly innocent prisoner is my own nexus for me being asked to preach this evening, for there is another category of wholly innocent prisoner, and that is the prisoner of war.

As their title suggests, these individuals are imprisoned for no other reason that they were on the opposing side in armed conflict. As the Geneva Conventions state, they become prisoners of war when they fall “into the power of the enemy” and for no other reason (Art 5 1949 GCIII).

Some of you may know my background, but I was the senior legal adviser in Theatre for the Iraq War in 2003. I had legal responsibility for all operations in the field and this included the difficult issue of prisoners of war. I became embroiled with this issue arose quite by chance whilst visiting the Prisoner of War camp in Um Qsar in March 2003. I went down to visit the camp – on a totally unrelated matter – and, as I entered the facility, I glanced down a hessian corridor at the entrance.

Unknowingly I was looking at the Joint Force Interrogation Unit and to my horror, I saw about thirty – forty Iraqi prisoners, hooded and in stress positions, kneeling in the sand in 40 degree heat with a generator running outside the interrogation tent.

As a soldier, I knew exactly what was going on. The interrogators were trying to intimidate the prisoners. I intervened and demanded to know what was going on. The Officer Commanding replied that he didn’t take his orders from me but “direct from London”. I was told that such practises were “in accordance with UK doctrine”.

Needless to say, I was unable to change the situation there and then – but I reported matter to the British Commander that evening. It led to an unseemly row between lawyers/interrogators/higher Headquarters. It was only the intervention of the Red Cross which turned the tide in my favour. There was, as many have remarked, a general indifference to prisoners.

Six months later however, a prisoner called Baha Mousa was beaten to death during tactical questioning. The whole episode was examined first at Court Martial and then in the Public Inquiry that followed. It was revealed that not only were prisoners hooded and in stress positions, but were also being deprived of food and sleep and were probably being subjected to what is termed “white noise”. Indeed, one prisoner had been chained to a generator whilst it was running and belching out carbon monoxide.

These so-called Five Techniques were banned in 1978 after the United Kingdom was taken to the European Court of Human Rights (Ireland v UK) – yet somehow they had remained. This episode was to have a profound effect on my life. Like so many pivotal moments in our lives, it set me on a journey that I neither expected nor desired.

I left the Army in 2011. Not long afterwards however a book called “Cruel Britannia” dropped through my letter box. The publishers (Portobello Books) asked me to review the book and I felt flattered as I had never been asked to review a book before – but the book horrified me.

It revealed a catalogue of torture by the British from the end of the Second World War and throughout the colonial campaigns of Malaya, Kenya, Cyrpus, Aden and then onto Northern Ireland and Iraq and the episodes which I have just described.

There was one particular quote I want to share with you about the treatment of Mau Mau prisoners in Kenya:

“Men were whipped, clubbed, subjected to electric shocks, mauled by dogs and chained to vehicles before being dragged around. Some were castrated. The same instruments used to crush testicles were used to remove fingers. It was far from un-common for men to be beaten to death”.

The assistant chief of police in Kenya at that time (Duncan MacPherson) said that: “The conditions I found existing in some camps were worse, far worse, than anything I experienced in my four and a half years as a prisoner of the Japanese”.

The British narrative is that we are a people who pride themselves on decency and fair play, except it is a myth. We have been unspeakably cruel to our prisoners in the post war period and that includes Iraq and Afghanistan.

I recently spoke at a dinner hosted by the Tablet where I met a young SAS Trooper called Ben Griffin. You may or may not have heard of him, but he was first in the Parachute Regiment and then the SAS and a thoroughly decent soldier. However, he was so appalled by the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan that he refused to soldier on. He said that Coalition Forces were treating prisoners as “sub-humans” and that we were “accepting illegality as the norm”. Rather than Court Martial him – he was discharged – honourably – from the SAS. His Commanding Officer described him as a”balanced and honest soldier who possesses the strength and character to genuinely have the courage of his convictions”.

He now lives under a High Court injunction; Reveal what he knows about prisoners – and he goes to jail. But he is not the only one whose silence has been wrought.

Those former prisoners, like Shaker Aamer, who seek to bring a claim against the British Authorities now have to do so in a secret court where they can neither have their own lawyer, see the evidence against them, or challenge the witness/judgement against them, thanks to the “Justice and Security Act” which was skilfully managed through Parliament this year.

I recently preached on the Roman Persecutions in the Early Church where the historian Tertullian – a lawyer and a priest – wrote in his Apology (197) how the Roman Authorities similarly rigged the trials of the early Christians. Now we rig the trials of prisoners and silence those who seek to speak out on their behalf. As an Army Officer, I expected the State to behave honourably.

What I stumbled upon was what one commentator described as “Britain’s dirty little secret”,what the Telegraph journalist Peter Oborne recently described as a “ghastly cloud” which overshadows this country.

We have as a nation kidnapped innocent men and women. We have been complicit in their torture. We have covered it up. Wholly innocent prisoners – be they prisoners of war or prisoners of conscience -it amounts to the same thing.

In this service,in this beautiful Cathedral,in this rural idyll of Salisbury,most are oblivious to our own sordid history. The psalmist tells us that God “hears the groans of the prisoners” (Psalm 102:20). The United Kingdom still actively supresses those groans on threat of imprisonment or injunction. This, of course, happens all over the world, but if it can happen so easily in one of the world’s oldest democracies on our watch, just think how easily it can flourish elsewhere?

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Why would Channel 4’s decision to broadcast call to prayer ‘inflame community tensions’?

Channel 4 has announced that it will broadcast a call to prayer every day during the Islamic month of Ramadan.

As you could imagine, the tabloids have jumped on this.

The Sun goes with the headline ‘Ramadan a ding dong’ and goes on to explain:

“Daily broadcast of Muslim call to prayer ‘stunt’ could inflame tension”

The article expands on this point through the ever valuable medium of the UKIP’s spokesman. The Sun writes:

“But UKIP accused Channel 4 of a cynical PR stunt and said it risked further inflaming tension between communities in the wake of the Woolwich killing of soldier Lee Rigby – allegedly linked to Islamic extremists.

A spokesman said: “This is a priceless piece of attention seeking. I cannot believe that the majority of mainstream Muslims want to see this. It will inflame community tension.”

In light of this, I have a few questions for the editor of The Sun:

  • Can you clarify why you think the broadcasting of the call to prayer will inflame community tension?
  • Would you agree that quoting “Radical preacher Anjem Choudary, accused of encouraging terrorism” and “Abu Zakariyya, of the radical Islamic Emergency Defence Group”  as your two Muslim representatives might be more of a cause of ‘inflaming community tensions’, than the broadcasting of the call to prayer?
  • Did you approach the Muslim Council of Britain for a quote? If yes, why did you not run with it? If no, why not?
  • Why did you use a UKIP quote in this story? What connection do they have to broadcasting, Islam, sociology or any other element to this story?
  • Do you accept that the structure and nature of your article perpetuates the false link between Islam as a religion adhered to by millions and the extremist violent ideology adhered to by a minority and that this link risks ‘inflaming community tensions’?

And of course a few questions for UKIP:

  • Can you clarify why you think the broadcasting of the call to prayer that will inflame community tension?
  • Do you feel that The Daily Express’ use of the adjective ‘fury’ to describe your party’s reaction to the news is accurate? If so have you considered collective anger management for the party (it could be part of the membership deal)?
  • Can you explain how Channel 4′s decision to broadcast the call to prayer differs to the BBC’s decision to broadcast a Sunday morning service? If you’re answer is numbers (more people are Christian) can you explain why you think a broadcaster should not show minority interests?
  • Can you really not believe that the majority of Muslim’s would want to see Ramadan highlighted like this?
  • How would you respond to the accusation that your party is a baseless bandwagon jumping parasite?

Lastly, an open question to anyone:

  • Why would Channel 4′s decision to broadcast the call to prayer ‘inflame community tensions’?

This list of questions is by no means exhaustive….feel free to suggest others.

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A liberal case for why it’s OK to believe in creationism

Sat with a group of Ugandans, I found out most did not believe in evolution – in addition, most of them were also medical professionals and all but one (that I know of) are strongly religious.

The above constitute three facts ascertained through a couple of conversations. Facts which must be contextualized with another three statements: All of then are lovely people – they are all highly intelligent, well educated and I have a lot of respect for each of them.

None of this though stops me being slightly astonished that so many dismiss so easily the idea of Darwinian evolution (most hadn’t heard of Darwin). This was, for me at least, surprising.

If my face told of surprise though, it paled into insignificance with their jaws on the floor response to my assertion that I didn’t think there was a God (although of course I could never prove this) and that I thought some of the teachings in the bible were, at best, highly unpleasant.

A meekly worded statement in comparison to Dawkins’ comparable assertion in his book, ‘The God Delusion’:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” 

Unlike many of Dawkins’ conversations with the strongly religious though, my conversation ended in good spirits. Importantly, I think we all came away from the conversation with a slightly more accurate understanding of the diversity of human thought. Even if I thought they were wrong and vice-versa.

However much I talk of the improbability of God, I cannot nor should not escape the importance of religion to both other people and societal structures here in Uganda and across the world.

This is a conclusion which is almost universal in its applicability.

In the UK, according to one poll, half of my fellow countrymen do not believe in evolution with one in five preferring the theory of creationism or intelligent design. When engaging, talking and debating them I have to be aware of their thoughts for the sake of friendships but also for the sake of open discussion and debate (something that I hold to be incredibly important).

There is a time and place for the Dawkins battering ram approach but I have rarely found it useful in my day to day life.

I think it important to acknowledge that humans are inundated with irrational beliefs and as such perform irrational actions. What sets religiosity apart however is the scope and impact it holds on contemporary society.

When I buy bottled beers because I think they taste nicer than in a can (although there is no evidence to support this) I am not hurting anyone or anything other than my bank balance.

Sadly, religion in too many of its current manifestations fail J.S. Mill’s basic harm principle – you can do (think) what you want as long as it doesn’t harm others.

Most people who are Christian – including most of my colleagues – would consider themselves on the positive side of J.S Mill’s basic harm principle and this is true for as long as you adhere to one basic liberal principle – your religion is your private affair, not your families, not your neighbours and not societies as a whole. It is there to be discussed and respected but not inflicted onto others.

This thought is contradictory though to the teachings of most institutionalised forms of religion who throughout history have bound themselves up interchangeably with power structures (monarchs, governments, schools etc etc).

If someone doesn’t believe in evolution, so be it – what harm is caused? If a school teaches creationism though, the harm to the children is clear – they are growing up learning in an atmosphere where scientific evidence is considered secondary to belief.

Worse still, if a religion teaches someone is a lesser person for their personal thoughts or feelings then it can actively encourages division and hatred – as commonly manifested throughout history.

If you want to believe a collection of (and again I quote Dawkins) “chaotically cobbled-together…disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and ‘improved’ by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries” then so be it – for as long as you don’t take those beliefs outside of your personal sphere.

The question is though; can you believe in the bible in an absolute sense without it impacting on others? Would the slave trade still exist if people took Exodus 21:7 too seriously? Or would we just of shrunk this global atrocity to an inter-regional one following the advice of Leviticus 25:44. Should we be putting to death anyone who works on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2)?

I cannot help but to conclude that only a highly selective relativistic understanding of the bible is compatible with many modern morals.

The belief in creationism flies in the face of modern science but, as far as I can see, the belief in itself doesn’t hurt anyone.

But the foundation on which this belief is often based – the absolute truth in a religious script or idea – is deeply problematic.  It is this belief that then spawns related problems – the teaching of children misinformation and the inability to debate because you believe in an absolute truth…to give just two examples.

People can think what they want, we all do. Belief isn’t the problem but the basis for beliefs and the actions it spurs is.

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Power not sexuality is behind the Cardinal’s resignation

You have to understand, the relationship between a bishop and a priest. At your ordination, you take a vow to be obedient to him. He’s more than your boss, more than the CEO of your company. He has immense power over you. He can move you, freeze you out, bring you into the fold … he controls every aspect of your life

These are the words of the ex-Priest whose accusations have partly caused Cardinal Keith O’Brien to resign.

None of the accusations against O’Brien have yet to be proved. His resignation stokes speculation but proves nothing.

Cardinal Keith O'BrienThe liberal press has been quick to jump on these revelations and to highlight O’Brien’s long and vocal opposition to LGBT rights. The Guardian writes:

O’Brien…has been an outspoken opponent of gay rights, condemning homosexuality as immoral, opposing gay adoption, and most recently arguing that same-sex marriages would be “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved”. Last year he was named “bigot of the year” by the gay rights charity Stonewall

With “inappropriate acts” in speech marks the whole affair has been reported with a wink wink approach to sexuality. The whiff of hypocrisy from a deeply conservative institution proved just too strong to resist for many on the left.

It goes without saying that his attitudes towards sexuality are archaic at best. The Cardinal didn’t win the award of ‘Bigot of the year’ for nothing.

This emphasis however misses the pertinent point regarding sexual abuse – it’s about power.

Sexual abuse often occurs because of an abuse of a power dynamic.  The sexuality of the victim or the perpetrator is more often than not inconsequential.

By highlighting O’Brien’s staunch opposition to same sex marriage, the liberal media is playing into an idea that is used by the establishment that the problem is with the gays – not the unaccountable power structures.

He controls every aspect of your life

These words, more than anything else strikes me as hitting on the crux of the problem the Catholic Church faces.

The problem of course, is that by tackling these accountability issues, you also have to tackle vested interests.

This is just one of many challenges for the new Pope will face to bring the Catholic Church back from crisis point.

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Christmas for Christians in occupied Bethlehem

mary_and_joseph_s_journey_compWe all know the story….the divine bump turns out to be the son of God, 2000 years later Coca-Cola has painted him red and we all eat too much to celebrate…it’s Christmas in the UK.

It has once again, come and gone.

Bethlehem though – the place where many think Jesus was born – remains.

It remains under military occupation. The following Christmas story, the story of modern day Bethlehem, is one for Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists alike.

When people sing about the little town of Bethlehem what do you think of? Donkeys? For me, I cannot help but to think of the modern, not so little, town of Bethlehem that I visited earlier this year. The town that is virtually surrounded by the Israeli military separation barrier.

Christmas cards often avoid modern images of the Holy Land. When they dare venture into the present day, you will normally see images of the Church of Nativity in the centre of Bethlehem. For some reason, it is less common to see images of the 8m high separation barrier that surrounds the town…I wonder why?

bethlehem-ghetto

Bethlehem, however much Clinton Cards would have us believe otherwise, is a city that is still under military occupation. Those of faith and those without are living with the consequences of this – the illegal settlements, the separation barrier and the checkpoints that people are forced through daily.

As the Palestinian president Abbas recently said, “For the first time in 2,000 years of Christianity in our homeland, the Holy Cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem have been completely separated by Israeli settlements, racist walls and checkpoints”.

For me, no number of Christmas card images will take from me the image of Checkpoint 300 – a place that is devoid of any sense of humanity let alone Christmas cheer.

Checkpoint 300

Checkpoint 300

What many don’t realise though, is that Bethlehem is not just the historical home to Christians but also the literal home to many Palestinian Christians. These Christians are suffering – in many of the same ways other Palestinians are.

The EAPPI report, Faith under Occupation highlights this point stating, “Palestinian Christians face daily violence. Their homes are confiscated or demolished. They rarely get permits to build new houses on their own land. Jobs are scarce, medical assistance is sparse and water is routinely cut off. While Christians from all over  the world can freely visit the church of the Holy Sepulchre, Palestinian Christians are denied the right to freely worship, as they need special permission to enter Arab east Jerusalem”.

There is nothing here that is unique to Christians though.

There are many Muslims in the West Bank whose only desire is to be able to worship in Jerusalem but they are unable to obtain a permit from the Israeli state.

This Christmas, many who live in the ‘Holy Land’ are facing hardship that we cannot begin to imagine.

Christmas will soon be over, but the human suffering in Bethlehem remains. It doesn’t matter if you are Christian or Muslim in Bethlehem…you live under the same military occupation.

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St Andrews Church offers an inspiration

In 2004 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that the separation barrier that had been constructed by Israel predominantly on Palestinian land was illegal. The ruling stated that

“The construction of the wall being built by Israel… [is] contrary to international law”

Significantly however it also stated that,

“all States parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention…have in addition the obligation…to ensure compliance by Israel with international humanitarian law”.

This includes the UK.

I raised this point when I spoke to the ‘Men’s Prayer Breakfast’ at St Andrews Church in Gloucestershire. I finished my talk with a request that each member of audience writes to their MP to ask him to remind the Foreign Office of this ruling and to ask how the government feel they are fulfilling this obligation.

I had been invited to talk about my experiences of working in the occupied Palestinian territories. I have recently returned from 5 months of doing human rights monitoring work with the organisation EAPPI.

I focused on the role of the separation barrier and how it has come to define life in Jayyus – the village in which I was based. I talked of the difficulties Palestinians faced obtaining permits to cross the separation barrier to access their own farmland. I also talked of how the Israeli army maintains a strong presence within the village.

Most of all however I tried to focus on stories of empowerment. How the Mayor of Jayyus would resolutely carry on working for the community despite having his house raided and his son arrested and attacked. I talked of how Israeli peace activists would come and work with Palestinians breaking down divides between the two communities.

When I finished my talk I was up-lifted to be met by a wave of enthusiastic questions. One member of audience told me of his recent trip to the Holy Land and visiting Hebron (and being shown round by an EAPPI colleague). Time and tme again, the question was asked, what can we do?

It was great to meet ordinary people living in Gloucestershire that felt inspired and empowered to work on the behalf of others. The congregation at St Andrews showed so much empathy towards strangers, and significantly also a willingness to act. It has left me inspired; I hope that I will be met with this sort of audience throughout my talks.

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The Women in Black and freedom of speech in Israel

Crinkles collected in the corner of her eyes as she smiled and said “I have been coming here for the last twenty four years. I sometimes wonder why, but I come. We have to show our belief as Israelis, as humans, in peace”. I was standing with a handful of women who were dressed in black, collected in the middle of a busy road junction in West Jerusalem. They come at same time, to the same place, every Friday. They stand with large cut out plastic hands with the message “Stop the Occupation” written on them in three languages. Collectively they are referred to as the “Women in Black”.

As the protesters began to assemble I was standing with three women, all in their seventies, all smiling and all opposed to the occupation. It was hard not to be won over by them.

The Women in Black movement started in 1988, a month or so after the first intifada broke out. The first protests began in Jerusalem but the idea spread internationally taking on local relevance. In Germany for example, Women in Black protests became active in countering the neo-Nazi movements. Everywhere they appeared they were organised by women and condemn violence in whatever its form.

Defying any stereotype around age or gender or nationality, the Women in Black are a powerful striking image on the road side making those passing by stop and take notice. Even through the smiles you could sense a steely determination which brings these women out onto the streets every Friday. This determination resonates to those around.

Before the demonstration I had been told about a ‘counter demonstration’ that occurs on the opposite side of the street to the Women in Black protest. At first this ‘counter demonstration’ played out like I would have expected. A small group of predominantly men gathered waving Israeli flags. One held a placard with the slogan, “Get an occupation and support Israel” (You have to give credit where it is due, it is a witty slogan). These two demonstrations happened alongside each other with little interaction.

Cars passed by honking their horns in support, and both protests took the noise and commotion to be in support of their cause. It was unclear to me who was honking to who but I got the feeling that most people were supporting the ‘counter demonstration’.

A taxi driver with a small Israeli flag flying from his window puts two fingers up at the women and drives off.

One passer by stopped and asked one of the Women in Black why they thought there was a counter protest. The answer showed, at the very least, an ability to understand what drives those who attend the ‘counter demonstration’. Glancing out from her black sun hat she answered, “For them, we are calling for half of Israel to be given away. Not only that, but we are asking for it to be given to a group of people who they think want Israel, and by extension their families, driven into the sea”. When the Women in Black call for an end of an occupation of a foreign land, many Israelis see it as ‘giving away’ part of greater Israel.

This back-story is important to understand as it provides a partial explanation (different to a justification) to why then the protest took a nasty and unpleasant turn.

A small group from the ‘counter demonstration’ crossed over the street and started accusing the Women in Black of being everything from ‘Nazis’ to ‘supporters of Ahmadinejad’ (Iranian leader). No slur appeared to be too extreme. To the credit of the Women in Black protesters, and perhaps because of previous experience, they showed almost no reaction to the provocation. Silently they continued to hold their signs calling for an end to the occupation.

This was until one ‘counter protestor’ approached me and accused me of being a “German, Nazi, Christian” (wrong on all three fronts). At this point one of the Women in Black came over encouraging me to ‘not talk to this man’. You can hear me at a number of points say “it’s ok” to her, trying to calm the situation as the ‘counter protester’ continued his hate speech. I only managed to record a small part of what he said and missed some of his worse comments. Still, both the recordings are truly shocking in places (see video below).

The Women in Black are on the street every Friday, keeping the Israeli opposition to the occupation in the public’s mind. Many involved in the protest want the counter demonstration banned, feeling that it is ‘threatening’. I agree it is certainly unpleasant.

For me however, Israel as a modern democratic state has to support the plurality of views and enable this ‘counter demonstration’ to take place for as long as remains peaceful and non-threatening. I did not witness any behaviour which was ‘threatening’. Of course the same has to be true for Palestinians who routinely have their right to protest violated.

As Voltaire didn’t actually ever say, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

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Necrophilia in penguins leaves Christian Conservatives with an icy question

Image: a penguinThe 2005 smash hit documentary “March of the penguins” was a interpreted as ‘proof’ by the religious conservative right, proof that all of their pre-existing prejudices were supported by nature. Their argument went something like, ‘we are right because nature said so’. Compelling. Taking this logic, I started to wonder to myself what else nature could teach us.

The film was taken as proof that they were right about global warming, right about intelligent design and perhaps most importantly (for them), right to support ‘traditional family values’.

The conservative film and radio critic Michael Medved went on to describe the ‘March of the Penguins’ in the New York Times by saying that it, “passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing”. Curious.

The chances are you can spot one or two problems with this assertion. But just in case…

I wonder what they think make penguins so special? Why would they want us to take our sexual and social moral guidance from penguins over any other members of the animal kingdom. For example, I wonder what Medved and the Christian right would have us learn from the practice of traumatic insemination as exhibited by the spider ‘Harpactea sadistic’? I am just asking.

Maybe I misunderstood them, maybe it was not nature per se with all its arsenic, venoms and traumatic insemination, but it is something specific about penguins that we should be learning from. Well…

If, for some inexplicable reason, you did chose penguins as the one true incarnation of natural morality, you may still stumble across one or two problems. The Natural History Museum has recently unearthed research (that supports a body of research compiled over the last fifty years) about the Adélie penguin’s sex life. To say it doesn’t sit comfortably with the Christian right’s outlook is an understatement.

The research notes, “the frequency of sexual activity, auto-erotic behaviour, and seemingly aberrant behaviour of young unpaired males and females, including necrophilia, sexual coercion, sexual and physical abuse of chicks and homosexual behaviour”. Wow.

Scott’s team’s research didn’t stop at sexual norms. It notes, the penguins would gather in “little hooligan bands of half a dozen or more and hang about the outskirts of the knolls, whose inhabitants they annoy by their constant acts of depravity”.

Is anyone else having fun? Nature…that’s right, nature tells us its natural to hang around and annoy inhabitants with “constant acts of depravity”. Friday nights will never be the same again.

So if nature, and by “March of the Penguins logic” – the Christian right, would have us believe, necrophilia, sexual coercion and ‘gangs’ are all to be welcomed as ‘natural’ phenomena.

I wonder if anyone has contacted Michael Medved for a comment?

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Reflections from Israel & Palestine – “this is not what religion is about”

This article was written by my partner Anya Whiteside.

‘Somehow’ I say to Steve with sweat dripping off my nose  ‘I kind of understand the old testament God in this landscape’. We are scaling the spectacularly arid mountains next to the dead sea, unwisely enacting the phrase ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’. We are in the desert and the sun beats down on nothing but dust and rock and below us the dead sea shimmers blue in a landscape of reds, violent ocres and browns.

I have always struggled to understand the old testament God, capable of sending plagues and striking down disbelievers. I have also always wondered how my Christian friends reconcile this with the loving and forgiving  God that they seem to relate to. As we walk I think how it must be easier though to understand a God of judgement and violent retribution when surrounded by such an extreme landscape than it is when walking through the gentle English pastures.

During my week-long visit in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories I found it hard to escape the violent edge of religion.

In Jerusalem Abu Mohammed served us falafel before asking ‘why are you here? People like you should just go home to your own country’. I asked him if he thought that there would be more violence if all the internationals went home? He responded, ‘Of course but this is the only way to sort this out – it will be the biggest war between the Arabs and the Jews  and there will be much killing, but at the end we will know who God wants to be on the land’. I explain to Abu Muhammad that I do not agree that an apocalyptic battle with mass slaughter is the only way to get peace and he smiles, ‘ah but you must study the Quran more and then you will know. Even the Jews know this – it is God’s will’.

Religious intolerance and violence though only made up a small part of my time in Israel/oPT.

I went with the EAPPI accompaniers to monitor the Friday prayers in Silwan, the so-called roughest and most dangerous part of Jerusalem. The men prayed in the street and the sound floated up to us as we watched from the slopes above, keeping one eye on the Israeli Army on the rooftops nearby. Afterwards one of the men approached the EAPPI observers and said, ‘thank you, thank you for always being here for the prayers’.

I met Michael in Hebron. He was an Israeli from near Tel Aviv who was taking months out of his life to travel around Israel and learn about ‘his country’ and his deeply-felt religion. There were many things we disagreed on from politics to theology, but as we stood looking at a street with a foot high wall running down it separating Palestinians on one side and Israelis on the other we agreed that this is not what religion should be about. Something, at the very least, I hope everyone from all religions can agree on.

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A response to Richard Dawkins and Michael Gove, can we also have a Koran in every school?

Someone has once again let Richard Dawkins lose in the Guardian. When will we learn?

In his latest attack on The Bible (and in turn Christianity), Dawkins has managed to miss the pertinent point when it comes to The Bible, religion and society. In an effort to show support for placing a copy of the King James Bible into every school, Dawkins inevitably looks to the place he seeks comfort, in the secular art of literature, rather than the place where The Bible draws its significance – the spiritual.

I would love to know why Dawkins considers literature to be more important in schooling than the fact that The Bible is one the very foundations of modern spirituality. Whether Dawkins likes it or not, spirituality is pretty important in determining how we live our lives.

Dawkins (I feel rather blandly) points out that The Bible is the source of much of modern language that secularists use without thinking, “the salt of the earth; go the extra mile; I wash my hands of it; filthy lucre; through a glass darkly; wolf in sheep’s clothing” etc etc. Very nice, very true but so what? Dawkins argument’s miss the point of why people read The Bible.

The same linguistic arguments can be said of bland, uncultured, secularism. “Back to square one” for example originates from BBC radio commentators using a grid of a football pitch split into six squares to help the listener visualise the football match. As such when the ball was hoofed down the field and the build up play would start again the commentator would say “back to square one”. Interesting, but I would suggest not a reason to have a copy of an old radio times in every school.

People read the bible because they believe it to be holy. In the eyes of Jews and Christians The Bible represents a collection of primary religious texts that is central to their very being. This has resulted in the range of three to six billion copies being sold worldwide. It has also resulted in it becoming one of the most powerful tools in shaping both the secular and religious modern world. To understand me, you and every other person floating around on this mass of atoms we call Earth we need to hold an understanding of this text. Not because of the metaphors, the imagery or the prose but because it provides the very foundations on which people (rightly or wrongly) build their lives.

Christians (a demographic that I feel most comfortable talking about despite not being one) do not pick up the bible because they either agree or disagree with The Bible but because it is a central tenant of their faith. As my colleague commented to me “it is how I know what God is”. It goes beyond the realms of rationality, of culture or anything comprehensible to me or you. It is, for some, the very basis for life. How it is then interpreted and understood provides the cornerstone for millions, potentially billions of people’s lives around the world. For me, this is a pretty strong argument for why we should learn about. This argument only grows in strength as the UK increasingly moves away from organised religion in a world where Christianity is globally growing.

I will finish however in support of one of Dawkins arguments, his assertion that we have to break down the secular myth that The Bible represents a good ‘moral guide’. As Dawkins rightly points out there are a plethora example of quotes from the bible that could be used to rub my secular morality up the wrong way. Whilst a lot of these can be explained away with a bit of context there are some things that even the most blinkered of devotee would be doing well to argue away. Think about old testament war crimes, genocides and murder.

The Bible isn’t going anywhere, and our kids need to learn about what are in those dusty pages. This for me, provides a compelling reason to why it should be taught in every school (practical note to Gove though…teachers may need more than one if they are to be used as an effective teaching tool).

All of these arguments however could be equally applied to any other holy book. To understand the thousands of Muslims in the UK and the millions worldwide we have to understand the importance of the Koran in their lives for example. It is not, just pretty prose but the basis of their spirituality.  I wonder if Gove will be pushing a Koran onto every school in the UK? If not, why not?

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Cana – “Jesus was here”

A man wearing a “Jesus was Here” t-shirt strolls past me with his less than enthusiastic family in tow. In the opposite direction I see a small mob of elderly Italian tourists silhouetted in the evening sun, hobbling their collective way up through the cobbled streets of the old city. The melody of church bells play over the continuous drone of horns from the impatient tour bus operators waiting nearby. The streets are filled with an electricity that can only be found amongst those who are resolute in their faith.

I turn to a young American stood near to me and make an acknowledging smile. I wanted to share with this stranger that I wasn’t drawn into this touristic interpretation of history and religion. If Jesus did change water into wine here in Cana, then I am sure he would not have appreciated the inflatable replicas of him doing so. I was about to say something dry and snide along these lines when the young American smiles back and says, “You know, when I step on this soil, I feel like I am closer to God than in any church I have ever been into”. Such a genuine sentiment is hard to ignore.

The conflict between the crass and cultural that I experienced in Cana is not unique.  I had a comparable experience when visiting Carcassone in the south of France and it can be found in cultural, historical and religious sites around the world.

Cana is where people come to celebrate Jesus’ first miracle, the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast. For the materialists who dominate the town’s tourist trade however this results in novelty t-shirts and bottles of wine with Jesus’ face painted on them.

Cana is also recorded as the site where Jesus healed a royal official’s son. I try asking a few locals if they can show me where Jesus was supposed to have performed this second miracle. I am met with baffled looks and offers of “good price” on wedding wine.

In desperation I turn back to my American friend looking for inspiration. I ask him how long he is staying in Cana for and he tells me that he is just here for one night stopping off on the Jesus Trail. I am interested to find out what brings a 20 something from the deep south of the US to the Galilee region of Israel. “I became desperate to find what sits at the heart of a billion people’s faith. I wanted to feel it with my own hands”. I paused, desperately hoping that he would kneel down and pick up some dirt and let in run through his fingers. Instead he meets my eye, smiles and looks up at the spectacular Franciscan Wedding Church.

Cana didn’t ignite my imagination like I had hoped but I wonder how it looks through the eyes of those who have faith like my new American friend.

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Spending the pink pound in Israel

This is a feature piece written for OUT magazine.

Sat in the evening sun Shaun shifts closer to Paul as the temperature drops in the fading light. I meet the couple sat on a beach in Tel Aviv, Israel. The two men in their mid thirties are on a couple of weeks vacation from their home in south London. I ask them if it is OK to talk to them about the gay scene in Israel and they happily suggest going for beer in the bar a hundred meters away on the beach front.

Sweet smelling smoke fills the air inside the bar as hookah pipes are shared between friends. We are sat with panoramic views of the now silhouetted beach front.  Passing the hookah pipe across the table to where the two men are sat side by side I start the interview by asking them why they chose Tel Aviv for their holiday. Paul exhales a plume of smoke, takes a sip from his beer and jokes, “cheap easy jet flights”. Shaun laughs and adds, “I just love the rub down at the [Ben Gurion] airport” (referring to the notoriously inhospitable welcoming foreigners receive at the airport).

With a smile I try a less subtle approach and asked if it had anything to do with the internationally renowned LGBT scene in Tel Aviv. Paul does not hesitate this time and comments, “We want to holiday somewhere that we feel relaxed and welcome. A friend of mine told me about Tel Aviv and so we thought we would check it out”. As an afterthought, as if recalling a distant memory, he adds, “everything is set up for us here”.

Tel Aviv is a well known destination for ‘gay tourism’. Last year Tel Aviv launched a $90 million campaign to present itself as, “an international gay vacation destination.” Leon Avigad, owner of the gay-friendly Brown hotel, explains the city’s popularity, “We are cosmopolitan, we’re very Western, European and American but on the other hand we’re very much into the Middle Eastern warmth and welcoming, and this combination attracts”.

Our visit to Tel Aviv coincide with the holiday of Pesach (Passover), the celebration of the story in Exodus where the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. As such it is very difficult to buy certain things such as beers and certain breads. I ask Shaun if this has been a problem and he responds with more depth than I was perhaps expecting. “I think it is beautiful that this society can hold onto its traditions and religious celebrations and still be so open minded”. I wondered how much Shaun had ventured much beyond the city since being here.

On cue, they ask me what I am doing in Tel Aviv and I tell them all about EAPPI and they seem genuinely interested. I ask them if they have ever been to the occupied Palestinian territories. Paul responds with a degree of defensiveness in his voice that he assumed he wasn’t allowed, “I thought there was a war there”. I explain to them, the best I can, the problems caused by the occupation and what I have experienced since living there. I elaborate my point about why I think it is bad for both Israelis and Palestinians. There is a more than awkward silence and I begin to worry that I might have pushed the conversation both metaphorically and literally too far from Tel Aviv.

As if reading my mind Paul comments, “all of that seems a long way from here”. I take this opportunity to try and relate what is happening in the conflict to their experiences here in Tel Aviv and ask if either of them have ever heard of the phrase, “pinkwash”. They respond in unison, “no”. I try my best to offer a definition of Pinkwash – the idea that Israel has created a deliberate strategy to conceal their continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity, illustrated through the booming  gay scene. Both men looked troubled at the idea, clearly concerned that “their community” and “their choices” could somehow be linked to the troubles I had just described about the military occupation.

I try to reassure my two new friends and joke with them that they are not responsible for Israel’s occupation. For Paul however this was not enough. Playing with the beer mat in front of him he almost apologetically comments, “I guess we have only seen a part of life here”. I smile and again try to reassure them both that they are meant to be on holiday relaxing, not peacekeeping. They sheepishly smile back.

For many in the LGBT community it is an ethical dilemma whether or not to boycott Israel as a holiday destination. On one hand it is a beacon of LGBT rights in an otherwise very hostile environment. Some Palestinian activists have tried to persuade me that there is a growing gay rights movement in Palestine. If there is I have yet to stumble across it. Netanyahu told Congress last May that the Middle East was “a region where women are stoned, gays are hanged, and Christians are persecuted.” Sadly, this rhetoric may be alarmist but has also an element of truth in it.

On the other hand however Israel is accused by Amnesty International of “ill-treatment and torture of detainees, excessive use of force, the detention of conscientious objectors, and forced evictions and home demolitions” as well as having a “disregard for international law”. For anyone within the LGBT community who is concerned about equal rights and equality there are some clear moral concerns here.

As an LGBT activist who fundamentally believes in an equality of rights, I cannot settle on Israel having a progressive attitude towards LGBT rights whilst routinely violating other rights through the conflict and occupation.  As Haneen Maikay, the director of Al Qaws (a Palestinian gay rights group) recently said in the New York Times, “When you go through a checkpoint it does not matter what the sexuality of the soldier is”. The LGBT community are not separate from the rest of society who suffer from the occupation.

We are now three beers into the conversation and Shaun’s tongue as well as his sense of moral outrage has been loosened, “So what can we do to highlight all this. It’s f***ed up that people can come here and are not told about any of this s***”. Partly through tiredness I decide to avoid the minefield of BDS (boycott disinvestment and sanctions) and instead simply comment that I think it is important to make sure that everyone who comes to Tel Aviv is aware of what is happening just 20 kilometres to the east.

Paul however looks concerned. I have been talking for the last ten minutes and Paul has not spoken. “I don’t know” he says between regular slugs of beer. “there are so many f***ed up countries in the world where you can get hung for just glancing at another guy. It doesn’t feel right to be criticising a country who are opening their arms and welcoming us”. This concern reflects a very real issue within the LGBT community. To criticise Israel is to break an unspoken pact where those working on LGBT issues stand united in their struggle.

The answer to this dilemma presented itself to me in Yad Veshem, the Israeli holocaust museum. Here they have on the wall in large letters the poignant words of Martin Niemöller “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me”.

If the 20th century taught us anything it is that silence can allow terrible things to happen. The LGBT community cannot stay silent while Israel uses its progressive attitude towards LGBT tourism to deflect attention from the continual violations of basic human rights standards in the occupied territories. Equally however, I believe we have to welcome Israel’s pioneering approach towards LGBT tourism, and encourage these attitudes to spread to less hospitable parts of Israeli society.

Stood outside the bar, the air is now cold and so our good-byes are short. As the two men turn to leave Paul says to me that “next time we come, I think we should spend a few nights somewhere in the West Bank”. I smile and say that they definitely should. Parts of Israeli society may be a beacon for LGBT rights in the middle east, but it is also an occupier of another land. To understand Israel, I think you have to visit that other land.

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What is EAPPI?

Thank you to everyone who has contacted me regarding my last 3 or 4 posts. Your words of support and kindness are really appreciated.

A number of people however have pointed out that I have not explained the basics of what I am doing…the what, who and why. Instead of trying to put everything that EAPPI and I do into words, I thought I would show you this video produced by a fellow EA in July 2011. It is set in a different placement to my own but many of issues are comparable.

If you are interested to read more, please do add your name to the ‘Email sign up’ section in the top right hand corner of this page to receive occasional updates. If you are on twitter, you can also follow me (@steve4319).

Please do continue to share articles with friends, family and colleagues. Thanks again for all your support.

Steve

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A photo speaks a thousand words – Jayyus

A fellow EA monitors an agricultural gate outside of Jayyus.

Nature does not respect human divisions.

2 groups who feel connected to one piece of land.

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Why the left needs to keep the faith

An edited version of this blog was first published on Liberal Conspiracy blog.

‘Politics and religion should not mix’. This is the mantra that is lazily wheeled out by self congratulating lefties as they marvel in their own enlightened wisdom. I come across well meaning social progressives who openly shun the role of faith based organisations as either an evangelical force that should be scorned, or, at best, a tool by which individuals can act out their selfish desire to please the big man upstairs. This lingering stereotype of faith based organisations not only alienates billions around the world who see their faith as their primary moral compass but also pragmatically restricts social movement’s ability to bring about the change they are so desperate to see.

Many, at this stage might assume that I am one of those rather smug Christian types who go around asking people to accept Jesus’ warm love into their hearts – I am not. I am, like many in 21st Century Britain, painfully middle class and going through and an existential crisis as I try to work out ‘what it all means’. I am as unsure about the existence of any deity as you can possibly be. So don’t worry, I am not trying to convert you, and neither do I see this article as my one way ticket to heaven. I am fairly sure that God doesn’t read blogs anyway.

I am however, excited about the truly radical potential of Christianity to bring about social change. All around the world, we can see different denominations working progressively on a range of issues. This could be The Salvation Army offering support to the homeless, The Quakers campaigning for peace or the Catholic Church fighting global poverty.

At this point, the sceptics out there will point to Christianity being used to discriminate against entire communities (LGBT for example) or the Catholic Church and their opposition to contraception. If you, dear reader, were felling particularly pernickety, you might start pointing to George Bush claiming that God told him to invade Afghanistan or wars that have been fought in the name of God. Religion, in many peoples mind is a bringer of war, the perpetrator of hatred and an opium for the ill informed masses.

My response would be to point to the fallibility of all human organisations, including organized religion.  There is nothing inherent within any faith to suggest that it will always work for a positive social agenda, neither is there to suggest it will always cause harm. If we on the left are too smug to engage, we will leave ‘doing God’ to those who want to justify oil wars, invasions or subordinating an entire gender. It is time for us then to throw off the shackles of conformity and acknowledge a very simple truth – Christianity can be really radical!

It has taken me a while to get to a position in my life where I can work comfortably and confidently with people of faith knowing full well that they believe in something that I don’t. When working for Amnesty International, I started to spot the myriad of backgrounds and experiences that had drawn people to become human rights activists. It is clear to me now that somebody’s faith is just one of those reasons. Why are many on the left happy to work with those of faith but not faith based organisations? In the past I have had a pleasure of working for The Quakers, who are just one example of a faith based organisation who are putting their faith into practice to work towards social causes.

I am excited to be (once again) putting this theory into practice. In February I will be heading out to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel which is coordinated through the World Council of Churches. This is an organisation bringing different denominations, faiths and backgrounds together to work progressively for a non-violent solution to the conflict. It is an exciting example of a faith based organisation working inclusively with Israelis, Palestinians and the International Community to work towards the end of the occupation and for all in the region to enjoy basic human rights standards.

We on the left need to incorporate faith based groups into all of our work. They unlock the door to millions in the UK and billions around the world. We need to show we are truly inclusive by illustrating that faith can be used positively. If we fail to do this, we run the risk of George Bush and the like becoming the public face of Christianity. There are inspiring people out there from Archbishop Desmond Tutu through to the Archbishop Dr John Sentamu who are working on causes I would be proud to support. All we on the secular left need to do, is show that we can get over these outdated stereotypes of faith based organisations and embrace their progressive potential.

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Lifting the Nobel Peace Prize

 OK, so I will admit, I didn’t actually win the Nobel Peace Prize. The Quakers did and they were recently nice enough to let me see it up close. I think this is pretty cool. Although not half as cool as why the Quakers won it in the first place.

Before going to see the prize I read the speech by Gunnar Jahn, the then Chairman of Nobel committee. It makes me really proud of the loose connections I have with the Quakers. It makes me proud of all my friends who are still activley involved with them. I would really urge you to read this speech, it makes for compelling reading.

“The Nobel Committee  of the Norwegian Parliament has awarded this year’s Peace  Prize to the Quakers, represented by their two great relief  organizations, the Friends Service Council in London and the  American Friends  Service Committee in Philadelphia.

It is now three hundred years since George Fox1 established the Society of Friends. It was  during the time of civil war in England, a period full of the  religious and political strife which led to the Protectorate  under Cromwell2 – today we would  no doubt call it a dictatorship. What then happened was what so  often happens when a political or religious movement is  successful; it lost sight of its original concern: the right to  freedom. For, having achieved power, the movement then refuses to  grant to others the things for which it has itself fought. Such  was the case with the Presbyterians and after them with the  Independents. It was not the spirit of tolerance and humanity  that emerged victorious.
  George Fox and many of his followers were to experience this  during the ensuing years, but they did not take up the fight by  arming, as men customarily do. They went their way quietly  because they were opposed to all forms of violence. They believed  that spiritual weapons would prevail in the long run – a belief  born of inward experience. They emphasized life itself rather  than its forms because forms, theories, and dogmas have never  been of importance to them. They have therefore from the very  beginning been a community without fixed organization. This has  given them an inner strength and a freer view of mankind, a  greater tolerance toward others than is found in most organized  religious communities.

The Quaker movement originated in England, but soon afterwards in  1656, the Quakers found their way to America where they were not  at first welcomed. In spite of persecution, however, they stood  fast and became firmly established during the last quarter of the  century. Everyone has heard of the Quaker, William Penn3, who founded Philadelphia and the colony of  Pennsylvania. Around 1700 there were already fifty to sixty  thousand Quakers in America and about the same number in  England.

Since then the Quakers have lived their own lives, many of them  having to suffer for their beliefs. Much has changed during these  three hundred years. Outward customs, such as the dress adopted  by the early Quakers, have been discarded, and the Friends  themselves now live in a society which is outwardly quite  different from that of the seventeenth century. But the people  around them are the same, and what has to be conquered within man  himself is no less formidable.

The Society of Friends has never had many members, scarcely more  than 200,000 in the entire world, the majority living in the  United States and in England. But it is not the number that  matters. What counts more is their inner strength and their  deeds.

If we study the history of the Quakers, we cannot but admire the  strength they have acquired through their faith and through their  efforts to live up to that faith in their daily life. They have  always been opposed to violence in any form, and many considered  their refusal to take part in wars the most important tenet of  their religion. But it is not quite so simple. It is certainly  true that the Declaration of 1660 states: «We utterly deny  all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons,  for any end and under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our  testimony to the whole world.» But that goes much further  than a refusal to take part in war. It leads to this: it is  better to suffer injustice than to commit injustice. It is from  within man himself that victory must in the end be gained.

It may be said, without doing injustice to anyone, that the  Quakers have at times been more interested in themselves and in  their inner life than in the community in which they lived. There  was, as one of their own historians has said, something passive  about their work: they preferred to be counted among the silent  in the land. But no one can fulfill his mission in this life by  wanting to belong only to the silent ones and to live his own  life isolated from others.

Nor was this attitude true of the Quakers. They too went out  among men, not to convert them, but to take an active part with  them in the life of the community and, even more, to offer their  help to those who needed it and to let their good deeds speak for  themselves in appealing for mutual understanding.

Here I can only mention some scattered examples which illustrate  such activity. The Quakers took part in creating the first peace  organization in 1810 and since then have participated in all  active peace movements. I would mention Elizabeth Fry  4, John Woolman5, and other Quakers active in the fight  against slavery and in the struggle for social justice. I would  mention the liberal idealist John Bright6, his forty-year fight against the principles  of war and for the principles of peace, his opposition to the  Crimean War7, and his struggle  against Palmerston’s8 policies.  Many other examples could be mentioned to show how their active  participation in community work, in politics if you prefer,  increased during the nineteenth century.

Yet it is not this side of their activities – the active  political side – which places the Quakers in a unique position.  It is through silent assistance from the nameless to the nameless  that they have worked to promote the fraternity between nations  cited in the will of Alfred Nobel. Their work  began in the prisons. We heard about them from our seamen who  spent long years in prison during the Napoleonic  Wars9. We met them once again  during the Irish famine of 1846-1847. When English naval units  bombarded the Finnish coast during the Crimean War10, the Quakers hurried there to heal the  wounds of war, and we found them again in France after the  ravages of the 1870-1871 war11.

When the First World War broke out, the Quakers were once more to  learn what it was to suffer for their faith. They refused to  carry arms, and many of them were thrown into prison, where they  were often treated worse than criminals. But it is not this that  we shall remember longest. We who have closely observed the  events of the First World War and of the inter-war period will  probably remember most vividly the accounts of the work they did  to relieve the distress caused by the war. As early as 1914, the  English Quakers started preparation for relief action. They began  their work in the Marne district in France and, whenever they  could, they went to the very places where the war had raged. They  worked in this way all through the war and when it ended were  confronted by still greater tasks. For then, as now, hunger and  sickness followed in the wake of the war. Who does not recall the  years of famine in Russia in 1920-1921 and Nansen‘s appeal to mankind for help? Who  does not recall the misery among the children in Vienna which  lasted for years on end? In the midst of the work everywhere were  the Quakers. It was the Friends Service Committee which, at  Hoover’s12 request, took on the mighty task  of obtaining food for sick and undernourished children in  Germany. Their relief corps worked in Poland and Serbia,  continued to work in France, and later during the civil war in  Spain13 rendered aid on both  sides of the front.

Through their work, the Quakers won the confidence of all, for  both governments and people knew that their only purpose was to  help. They did not thrust themselves upon people to win them to  their faith. They drew no distinction between friend and foe. One  expression of this confidence was the donation of considerable  funds to the Quakers by others. The funds which the Quakers could  have raised among themselves would not have amounted to much  since most of them are people of modest means.

During the period between the wars their social work also  increased in scope. Although, in one sense, nothing new emerged,  the work assumed a form different from that of the wartime  activity because of the nature of the problems themselves.  Constructive work received more emphasis, education and teaching  played a greater part, and there were now more opportunities of  making personal contact with people than there had been during a  time when the one necessity seemed to be to supply food and  clothing. The success achieved among the coal miners in West  Virginia provides an impressive example of this work. The Quakers  solved the housing problems, provided new work for the  unemployed, created a new little community. In the words of one  of their members, they succeeded in restoring self-respect and  confidence in life to men for whom existence had become devoid of  hope. This is but one example among many.

The Second World War did not strike the Quakers personally in the  same way as did that of 1914. Both in England and in the U.S.A.  the conscription laws allowed the Quakers to undertake relief  work instead of performing military service; so they were neither  cast into prison nor persecuted because of their unwillingness to  go to war. In this war there were, moreover, Quakers who did not  refuse to take an active part in the war, although they were few  compared with those who chose to help the victims of war. When  war came, the first task which confronted them was to help the  refugees. But the difficulties were great because the frontiers  of many countries were soon closed. The greater part of Europe  was rapidly occupied by the Germans, and the United States  remained neutral for only a short time. Most of the countries  occupied by the Germans were closed to the Quakers. In Poland, it  is true, they were given permission to help, but only on  condition that the Germans themselves should choose who was to be  helped, a condition which the Quakers could not accept.  Nevertheless, they worked where they could, first undertaking  welfare work in England and after that, behind the front in many  countries of Europe and Asia, and even in America. For when  America joined the war, the whole Japanese-American population,  numbering 112,000 in all, of whom 80,000 were American citizens,  was evacuated from the West Coast. The Quakers went to their  assistance, as well as opposed the prevailing anti-Japanese  feeling from which these people suffered.

Now, with the war over, the need for help is greater than ever.  This is true not only in Europe, but also and to the same degree  in large areas of Asia. The problems are becoming more and more  overwhelming – the prisoners who were released from concentration  camps in 1945, all those who had to be repatriated from forced  labor or POW camps in enemy countries, all the displaced persons  who have no country to which they can return, all the homeless in  their own countries, all the orphans, the hungry, the starving!  The problem is not merely one of providing food and clothing, it  is one of bringing people back to life and work, of restoring  their self-respect and their faith and confidence in the future.  Once again, the Quakers are active everywhere. As soon as a  country has been reopened they have been on the spot, in Europe  and in Asia, among countrymen and friends as well as among former  enemies, in France and in Germany, in India and in Japan. It is  not easy to assess the extent of their contribution. It is not  something that can be measured in terms of money alone, but  perhaps some indication of it may be given by the fact that the  American Committee’s budget for last year was forty-six million  Norwegian kroner. And this is only the sum which the American  Committee has had at its disposal. Quakers in all countries have  also taken a personal and active part in the work of other relief  organizations. They have, for instance, assisted in the work of  UNRRA14 in a number of places  such as Vienna and Greece.

Today the Quakers are engaged in work that will continue for many  years to come. But to examine in closer detail the individual  relief schemes would not give us any deeper insight into its  significance. For it is not in the extent of their work or in its  practical form that the Quakers have given most to the people  they have met. It is in the spirit in which this work is  performed. «We weren’t sent out to make converts», a  young Quaker says: «we’ve come out for a definite purpose,  to build up in a spirit of love what has been destroyed in a  spirit of hatred. We’re not missionaries. We can’t tell if even  one person will be converted to Quakerism. Things like that don’t  happen in a hurry. When our work is finished it doesn’t mean that  our influence dies with it. We have not come out to show the  world how wonderful we are. No, the thing that seems most  important is the fact that while the world is waging a war in the  name of Christ, we can bind up the wounds of war in the name of  Christ. Religion means very little until it is translated into  positive action.»15

This is the message of good deeds, the message that men can find  each other in spite of war, in spite of differences in race. Is  it not here that we have the hope of laying foundations for peace  among nations, of building it up in man himself so that the  settling of disputes by force becomes impossible? All of us know  that we have not yet traveled far along this road. And yet – when  we witness today the great willingness to help those who have  suffered, a generosity unknown before the war and often greatest  among those who have least, can we not hope that there is  something in the heart of man on which we can build, that we can  one day reach our goal if only it be possible to make contact  with people in all lands?

The Quakers have shown us that it is possible to translate into  action what lies deep in the hearts of many: compassion for  others and the desire to help them – that rich expression of the  sympathy between all men, regardless of nationality or race,  which, transformed into deeds, must form the basis for lasting  peace. For this reason alone the Quakers deserve to receive the  Nobel Peace Prize today.

But they have given us something more: they have shown us the  strength to be derived from faith in the victory of the spirit  over force. And this brings to mind two verses from one of Arnulf  Överland’s16 poems which  helped so many of us during the war. I know of no better  salute:

The unarmed only can draw on sources eternal.  The spirit alone gives victory”

As I said, pretty compelling!

 

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A victory for religious liberty

Friends Meeting House

Today’s announcement removes the assumption that religion and homosexuality are incompatible. In 5 weeks time, religious settings will be free, if they so chose, to host civil partnerships. It is shameful that in 2011 we still had a ban on religious organisations from hosting civil partnerships.

It should be reiterated that no religious group will be forced to host a civil partnership registration. For those religions that wish to host these ceremonies however this is an important step forward.

When those inevitable shrill voices pierce the media screaming of secular views being forced onto discriminated Christians, it should be made clear that this move holds no obligations. It is a form of deregulation if anything, the removal of barriers. A faith, such as the Quakers who have already decided to host civil partnerships will now be free to do so without the risk of facing persecution.

This is a victory for religious liberty that should be celebrated. The state has no place to interfere in these circumstances. A religion should be free, if it so chooses, to host civil partnerships. This is a step closer to the liberal society that I strive for whilst also breaking down some outdated discrimination.

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In response to John Mason MSP – why Israel’s illegal occupation cannot be compared to Berwick

The following letter is to the editor of ‘Third Way’ in response to a letter by John Mason MSP in the October 2011 edition.

Dear Sir,

I believe John Mason MSP attempted to calm the Israel/Palestine debate when writing into ‘Third way’ on the subject. Sadly all he managed was to show a worrying degree of ignorance, flippancy and illogic.

Giving an example of how both Scotland and England have been ‘anti-Jewish and anti-Israel’ Mr Mason stated, “For example the phrase ‘Israel’s illegal occupation ofPalestine’ was trotted out”. Firstly I would like Mr Mason to explain how that is an example of Scotland and England being consistently ‘anti-Jewish or anti-Israel’. Secondly, I would like Mr Mason to outline what objection he has with this as a phrase at all.

The Israeli illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories is inhuman and is the cause of extreme suffering. Attempts to claim otherwise have no legal validity, are morally bankrupt and politically dangerous. Having an MSP suggest that to consider the occupation illegal is anti-Jewish is illogical, unhelpful and ultimately dangerous.

Finally, Mr Mason puts a final nail in his respectability coffin by comparing this ‘border dispute’ to that of Berwick, suggesting it could be argued that Berwick should be returned to Scotland. This is an embarrassing trivialisation of the problem. 80% of the good residents of Berwick do not live on less than $2 a day because of English blockades. The good people of Berwick do not suffer water shortages because England taps their reservoirs. The good people of Berwick and not separated from their families, friends, employment and medical care because the English have set up military check points and built (illegal) security walls. The good people of Berwick do not send rounds of rockets indiscriminately into English towns in retaliation.

At the very least, I hope that Mr Mason will write to apologise for his comments which I do believe were meant as a call for moderation.

In anticipation,  

Steve Hynd

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Islam and Human Rights

The media doesn't always help!

When you think of religion and human rights, the mind wonders to conflict, religious wars and extremism. Religion and human rights are often presented as dualistic, secular and religious. I think that this is unhelpful and ultimately detrimental to both religion and human rights.

The potential antagonism that sits between Islam and human rights is a media favourite. In the UK we never hear of human rights being discussed in a religious sense, and equally never hear about Islam in a positive sense (let alone in relation to upholding human rights standards).

If we cannot show that Islam and human rights are reconcilable, then we alienate millions around the world and fail to realise the potential universalism of human rights. Equally, if you fail to acknowledge the role of human rights within religion then you leave your institutionalised faith open to abuse. You leave yourself open to men who use the faith for the most despicable acts. Religious discourse feels itself with absolutism, so why not a human dignity/rights discourse?

There is no shortage of examples where an interpretation of Islam can be seen to be in violation of what we consider to be our human rights. The persecution women of all classes suffered under the Taliban in Afghanistan, honour crimes in Kuwait, Stoning to death for having no marital sex in Nigeria, marital rape not being recognised as an issue in Syria etc and the list could go on. In a few countries religious freedoms are violated with capital punishment available for apostates from Islam; these include Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia. The widespread and controversial issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) is still justified by many under religious grounds. It is clear that for some, Islam acts as justification for some heinous acts. In the same light, Christianity and other world religions can act as justification for these terrible acts.

I would argue therefore, we have a responsibly to put forward positive arguments to how Islam (and perhaps more widely religion in general) and human rights can be reconciled.

The academic Biedfelt suggests there are a number of ways a Muslim might square their passion for human rights with their religious belief. These vary from  ‘Islamisation’ which is the belief that Sharia, by its divine nature represents human rights and human dignity; through to ‘Political secularism’ that suggests it is right to remove religion from power politics as the Quran offers no advice in governance. This would suggest that Islam acts as a guide for individuals but not governments.

What Bielefeldt’s analysis clearly illustrates is that there is no such thing as an “Islamic” understanding of human rights. Islam is lucid and is based on individual interpretations (as are all religions).

It is clear that the two variables here, Islam and human rights can both be interpreted and changed to fit into either partly antagonistic or partly supportive understandings of Islam or human rights. There is nothing inherent about any antagonism or overlap.

I am under no illusion that Islam is often used to justify the most heinous actions. In the same way Christianity can be or a plethora of secular ideologies are.

It strikes me that Islam is no more predisposed than any other faith to be compatible with or antagonistic towards human rights. It has the potential to be supportive. It is essential that human rights theorists take a serious look at how human rights fits with the different world religions, because if you do not you risk alienating billions of people around the world whose primary moral compass is religion.

Equally, if religious leaders arrogantly dismiss human rights as a modern secular discourse; they run the risk of removing a moral core from their faith and leaving it open to abuse through misinterpretation and human fallibility.

This article was adapted from the my thesis Human Rights and Religion: A case study of Christianity

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