This is the text of an article (about the persecution of Christians) commissioned by the Times today:

Religious special pleading is rarely convincing or attractive. Overblown complaints about being picked on run the danger of diminishing or trivialising genuine suffering.

So, it is remarkable that when Christians are specifically targeted for the most appalling persecution, either politicians or media commentators find it difficult to name it for what is. To identify the persecution of Christians is not to diminish the targeted suffering of others.

It is reckoned that Christians represent the most persecuted people on earth in the twenty first century. And we are not talking here of a bit of ridicule or silly marginalisation. We are talking about men, women and children being singled out because of their Christian faith or identity and put to an unimaginably cruel death. Or, of course, being driven out of home, away from livelihood, deprived of identity and dignity. Or, for women and girls, being forced into sexual slavery and subjected to rape-at-will.

Everyone knows about ISIS/Daesh – how they systematically brutalise those they deem unholy. Yet pressure on Christians is being applied with renewed vigour and imagination in some surprising places. Just last week the Sultan of Brunei banned the celebration of Christmas on the grounds that this could damage people's commitment to Islam. And those who defy the ban face heavy fines or imprisonment. Who will defend Christians in Brunei?

It was timely, then, that 60 UK parliamentarians published a letter this week asking for government pressure to persuade the United Nations to designate ISIS persecution of Christians and Yazidis as genocide.

The specific nature of anti-Christian persecution in many parts of the world make it difficult to identify a single solution. What happens in Nigeria clearly has a different local manifestation from in Pakistan or Syria (or Brunei); but the complexity or ubiquity of the phenomenon should not lead to embarrassed silence on the part of the largely religiously illiterate western intelligentsia.

The first demand of such a phenomenon is to name it for what it is. Where Christians are being persecuted, then the word should be used without embarrassment. When my Christian brothers and sisters suffer in Sudan (and they do), they rely on the rest of us to tell their story and to use what powers we have to bring political pressure for an end to such suffering. The Anglican Communion and the links forged between dioceses across the world are essential in fulfilling this demand and vocation.

 

This is the text of this morning's Presidential Address at the first Diocesan Synod of the new triennium in the Diocese of Leeds (West Yorkshire & the Dales):

“As far as I am concerned, to die in Christ Jesus is better than to be king of earth's widest bounds.” So wrote Syrian-born Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and martyr, at the beginning of the second century. And not a bad way to start this first synod of the new triennium on the day we remember the remarkable saint.

If nothing else, it focuses our mind on why we are here, begs us to keep our business in a true perspective, and invites us to remember, as Ignatius did in his powerful final letters to early Christian churches, to heed the injunction of Jesus himself: that if we do not love one another, we are whistling in the wind. (Which I cannot pretend to be an entirely accurate translation of the Aramaic.)

Ignatius was clearly no romantic. He pleads with his fellow Christians in Rome not to allow anyone to get in the way of his martyrdom. But, although often questioned, this was not some maniacal death-wish, but, rather, an urgent plea for clarity and not compromise in his living and his dying. Like the Apostle Paul, “for [him] to live is Christ, to die is gain”.

I have to admit, this feels a little glib when said by me – and probably by you. We do not face the lions of the Colosseum or the bloodthirst of the Roman powermongers who thought human life cheap enough to provide fodder for the entertainment of their bored souls.

Yet, for many Christians in the second decade of the twenty first century, this is precisely the choice they face. In countries like Syria and Iraq, where Christians have lived, prayed and served for centuries, it is entirely possible that the next decade (or sooner) will see them almost completely absent. Persecution of Christians is something our own politicians and media appear to find difficult even to mention by name – as if to do so would, rather than being truthful or factually accurate, be selective or intolerant of the suffering of others. Needless to say, this is utter nonsense.

But, it also reminds us that easy recourse to claims of persecution in this country is equally stupid. Ridicule or marginalisation – either deliberate or by cultural default – is not persecution. That is a word that should be reserved for our brothers and sisters who are being crucified, butchered, driven out, abused, dispossessed and rendered homeless and, sometimes, hopeless in a world of violence and misery.

Well, you might think this is a bit of a miserable way to begin a new synod in this diocese. You might even be right. But, my intention is to locate the experience of many Christians in the world against the backdrop of our experience and business today. Are we building a diocese and a church that has its priorities right – one that creates the spaces in which people can come to faith in Jesus Christ, be nurtured in the community of his people, serve the world around them with a wide vision of God's grace, and so order their lives that people might look at us and listen to us and recognise that for us “to live is Christ, to die is gain”?

This is a question that I live with every day. Whether conducting worship, preaching, enjoying meetings, ordering the life of a diocese-being-created, or praying and reading, this is the one that won't let me go. And I know I am not alone. Colleagues both lay and ordained are doing their work in the light of and under the shadow of that question, even if not all would frame it in the language I am using here. Given that we face a million distractions every day, we have to keep coming back to the fundamental questions of who we think we are and why we do what we do.

I well remember, with some personal embarrassment, asking the former Archbishop of Canterbury which great divine the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann was quoting in a lecture at Cambridge when he paused in his lecture and said, deeply and meaningfully: “God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.” Rowan Williams looked sadly into my eyes and said, “I think he was quoting himself.” He was. Moltmann's autobiography was published just a week or two later and was given the English title of 'Broad Space'.

The wide space of our hope must be focused on the particular details of the choices we make.

Now, this pertains to the internal business of the diocese – for which this synod exists; but, it also applies to and shapes our response to the world in which we do our internal business. The budget for this diocese has to be debated in the context of a church that is reviewing how we might use our buildings in the future, how many clergy we can invest in (and how to train, equip and resource them for the task we decide we need them to do), how to shape our administration in the future, and how to nurture mature Christian disciples in West Yorkshire and the Dales. Yet, all of this will be debated in the light of an unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants into Europe – a test of what we really mean by 'solidarity' and 'union'.

Last Thursday we held at Bradford Cathedral the first Diocesan Clergy Study Day since our diocese was born at Easter 2014. The Chair of the West Yorkshire Methodist District, Dr Roger Walton, led us in the morning thinking about discipleship. In the afternoon we were led by the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, in thinking about a theology of place – coincidentally only two days after publication of the Church Buildings Review report by a committee that he chaired. These were not two separate and distinct topics. Rather, they hold together: discipleship is to be exercised by people who live in space and time, have bodies and use buildings. Discipleship, like worship, has to happen somewhere. And how we regard that 'somewhere' matters a great deal.

So, this is both the great opportunity and the great challenge we face in our diocese. How do we focus on evangelism, nurture, service and discipleship in a way that sees our buildings not as a burden, but as a resource? The answers are not easy, but the question must constantly be asked. In recent developments in the diocese this has been this has been central.

We have appointed two new archdeacons who will strengthen not only the leadership of the diocese, but also bring new capacity to supporting, encouraging, challenging and resourcing the parishes. I look forward to Beverley Mason and Andy Jolley beginning their new ministry towards the beginning of 2016, and am sure you will wish to encourage and support them as they embrace the changes in their own life and ministry and location. At this point I also wish to pay tribute to Archdeacon David Lee who stood down as Archdeacon of Bradford in the summer and who is conducting pilot studies on buildings review in the Bradford and Leeds Episcopal Areas. He will retire at the end of January 2016 and we will have an opportunity to thank him for his ministry during that month.

As you know, we have also finally bought a new office in central Leeds, only a five minute walk from the station. Bringing our administration under a single roof will bring enormous benefits as shape up to move in one direction and develop a common culture for the diocese. I pay tribute to those who have been involved in the often complex detail of searching for, identifying and finalising the purchase of this building – especially Ashley Ellis and Debbie Child and their colleagues, and members of the Diocesan Board of Finance.

We are making good progress. Consultations on a new parish share system are being conducted; reviews of training and communications have been completed – a review of mission activity is now being commenced. We are on track with our projected journey: by the end of 2014 to be legal, viable and operational – for which we owe a huge debt to the often unseen work of John Tuckett; by the end of 2015 to have reviewed the areas of diocesan life and mission and worked out options for shaping the diocese in the future; during 2016 to create the new shape, institute the new governance structures, set our direction, and agree how to finance it. From 2017 we should be up and running as a single diocese with the historic assumptions and ways of doing things united in a single system. This might not be the language that everyone will want to use, but it is the best I can offer at this stage.

I am personally very grateful to all of you for being willing to serve on this synod, bringing experience, perspective and commitment to the work of the diocese – constantly asking the fundamental questions, bearing one another in love (especially those charged with doing the detailed work behind the scenes), and praying for the mind of Christ in both what we do and say, and how we do and say it.

We will conclude our synod today by turning our eyes both outwards and inwards: outwards to the pressing needs of those – Christian, Muslim, Yezidi, Jewish, and those of no religious faith – who are being oppressed and driven out of their homelands. The plight of refugees is desperate. Yes, there might also be among them those who might ride on the back of genuine collective despair for their own individual interests and gain. But, the abuse by some should not blind us to the appalling choices faced by millions of people in this world. How we respond to their plight matters enormously. It is not a simple matter. As I wrote in the Yorkshire Post last month, we do need to engage both head and heart as we consider how to respond and at what level. Today we have an opportunity to share our wisdom on this, recognising that this is the beginning and not the end of this matter, and that the situation changes every day.

So, I commend the life of this synod in this triennium. Let us apply our best efforts to attending to the calling God has given. And not lose sight of the fundamental truth that our ministries derive from our discipleship, and that discipleship cannot be held distinct from the material stuff we live with and use.

To God be the glory. And to his people peace.

I am about to leave New York City having attended the second meeting of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief. The acronym IPPFoRB might need a bit of attention…

Convened last year by a small group of parliamentarians from the UK (Baroness Elizabeth Berridge), Norway, Brazil, Germany and Canada, this event brought together a hundred parliamentarians from fifty countries and from every continent – including from Myanmar, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq. The Church of England was involved in planning and running the event.

Not only was there informed and passionate discussion of the challenges in many parts of the world – including the naming and numbering of the persecution of Christians – but there was also the telling of stories from particular countries. This was a remarkable meeting, in the shadow of the United Nations and ahead of the meeting shortly of the General Assembly, of politicians (largely) who recognise the challenges across the globe.

Underlying the discourse lies two tough questions that go to the heart of a world that privileges rights: who, and according to which criteria, arbitrates between competing rights? Who, and according to which criteria, establishes the hierarchies of rights and freedoms? So, which takes precedence when freedom of expression collides with freedom of religion or belief? For some people this is an interesting – if challenging – conundrum; for others, it is a daily matter of life and death. There is a lot of work to do on this, and this coalition of parliamentarians from around the globe has engagaed with it with some energy.

There is too much to report here, but reports and the text of the Resolution will be posted on the website in due course. I tweeted through the main session yesterday, so have a look at my timeline to get a taste.

 

One of the burdens of having written a blog for some years is that when you stop for a while people read into it something that isn't there. Apparently, silence about urgent world events – or, in my case, developments in the church – means I am a coward or unwilling to commit (despite regular media engagement on these issues). It is always interesting to me that the first (rather than the last) assumption is my obvious lack of integrity.

The real reason, of course, is more prosaic: I have not had the time or head space to hit the keys. Starting a new role in less-than-ideal circumstances, then moving house and settling into a new one (most of which is office or 'public' space), shifts the immediate priorities.

So, here is a bullet point observation on some of the things that have gone on recently, or are going on now:

  • The Gaza crisis will not be solved without Hamas ceasing its indiscriminate rocketing of Israel. Israel's response has been appallingly disproportionate, but responsibility is shared. In the end, a negotiated settlement will be needed, but by then the next couple of generations of mutual enmities and grievances will have been firmly established. In the end, this sort of violence resolves nothing.
  • The UK government should open our doors to those Christians and other minorities seeking asylum from persecution in Iraq and Syria. Numbers won't be great, but we have a moral obligation to rescue those whose situation has been generated by our interventions. Germany and France have led the way – there has so far been silence on this matter from home.
  • Rescuing Iraqis will not address the religiocide in Iraq and Syria. It is staggering that we would invade to oust Saddam, but hold back from stopping the shockingly brutal violence deliberately being inflicted on large communities of vulnerable people.
  • Jon Henley in the Guardian reports a massive rise in antisemitism in Europe and observes: “Across Europe, the conflict in Gaza is breathing new life into some very old, and very ugly, demons.” Interesting use of language. Jesus once exposed the idiocy of cleaning out one demon, leaving a vacuum, then being surprised when the gap is filled by loads of demons – most of them far worse than the one they got rid of in the first place.
  • The rise of antisemitism itself demonstrates that the supposedly rational European societies are neither as rational nor discriminating as they would claim to be. When opposition to Israeli policy is turned into intimidation of Jews in England, Germany or France, there has clearly been a breach in the synapses somewhere. Or, perhaps, it just reinforces the fact that even people who claim to be rational actually react from deeper emotions rooted in unarticulated prejudices.
  • Clear out one demon, leave a power vacuum, and all you have done is clear the way for power-hungry demons to occupy the space. I am taken back to the historian (I think it was Niall Ferguson) who suggested that if you are an empire, you must behave like one and not pretend to be 'nicer'. In relation to Iraq, this means you can't just pop in, proclaim “Mission Accomplished” and satisfy domestic political concern by leaving quickly. He suggests that you have to be prepared to bed down for thirty years, change the infrastructure, let a generation go through, embed systems that work and allow the space for indigenous power to develop. Imperial? Yes. Patronising? Probably. But, the point is: don't do an 'Iraq' unless you are prepared to see it through … however uncomfortable this might make you at home.

And, in all of these cases, the ground will have shifted again by tomorrow.

 

 

One of the partnership links enjoyed by the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales is that developed over thirty years with the dioceses of Sudan. The Bisho of Khartoum and Archbishop-elect of Sudan, Ezekiel Kondo – a wonderful, wise and brave man – has issued a statement about the death sentence passed under Sharia law on a Christian woman who is pregnant with her second child.

It is important that politicians, religious leaders and leading Muslims at home and abroad raise their voice in protest against this barbaric and illegal judgement. In the meantime, here is the statement issued in Khartoum:

Re: Mariam Yahya Ibrahim and Death Sentence by Court in Sudan

Introduction:

On Thursday 15th. May 2014 in Haj-Yousif Court, Mariam Yahya was sentenced to death and 100 lashes for changing from being Muslim to Christian and for commiting adultery because she is married to a Christian man.

Mariam Yahya Ibrahim Ishag was born from a Christian mother (Ethiopian Orthodox) and a Muslim father. Her father left them when she was age 6, and she was raised by her mother as a Christian. Mariam is married to a Sudanese/American Christian husband. Mariam was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity simply because her father was a Muslim. The fact is that Mariam has been a Christian since as she was brought up by her mother who has been a Christian. According to the report, Mariam, the husband and their son were all arrested because they had changed their religon, but then, the husband was released, Mariam is sentenced to death and 100 lashed for her adultery because she accepted to marry a Christian man. Their marriage is revoked. Now, Mariam and her son are in prison until she gives birth, then she will be excuted.

1. According to the above, Mariam has never been a Muslim since her birth. The fact that she was born from a Muslim father, this does not make her a Muslim in any way because she was brought up by her mother as a Christian.

2. The verdict reached by the court on Mariam is a clear and direct perscution on Christians and the Church in the Sudan.

3. The verdict on Mariam Yahya is a Human Right and Religious violation against Christians in the Sudan.

4. This sentence is even against Sudan Constitution 2005 Article 38 on Freedom of Creed and Worship. “Every person shall have the right to the freedom of religious creed and worship, and to declare his/her religion or creed and manifest the same, by way of worship, education, practice or performance, subject to requirements of the law and public order, no person shall be coerced to adopt such faith, that he/she does not voluntarily consent”.

5. There is again another court case going on right now in Kalakla, Khartoum, of a young man who has been accused of being converting from Muslim to Christian according the Almeghar News Paper of today 21st May 2014. This young man may face the same fate as Mariam did.

Episcopal Church of Sudan Internal Province hereby condemns this court decision and requests the Ministry of Justice to review the case of MariamYahya and release her immediately. She is free to believe in religion of her choice. Episcopal Church of Sudan also requests the authorities in Kalakla to free the young man. The last judgment on the faith should be left to God alone.

The spirit of dialogue, coexistence and love that the President of the Republic called upon should be upheld.

The Most Revd. Ezekiel Kondo

Archbishop-elect and Bishop of Khartoum

21st May 2014

I came to London today to sit on a panel at the Christian Solidarity Worldwide annual conference in Westminster. Other panelists were Ruth Gledhill (Times Religion Correspondent), John Coles (New Wine) and Fiona Bruce (MP for Congleton), and it was chaired by Steve Clifford (General Director of the Evangelical Alliance). It was surprisingly good fun and stimulatingly lively.

My main point was to encourage greater confidence by religious people – Christians in particular – in occupying the space they have… and not to react to everything 'offensive' in victim mode. Ruth Gledhill articulately explained the role of journalists and editors, castigated religious people for not getting 'good news' stories into the press, and told them to use the clout they already have for raising concerns about issues of religious freedom. I concurred, noting that Christians need to look first in the mirror when moaning about failures to tell our stories – asking ourselves who is to blame for this. (Earlier Os Guinness had noted that the primary casualty of religious bad news was the failure of Christians to love one another in public.)

Of course, the other media angle is simply that religious groups often simply want to 'get their message over' – which is hopeless in the new world of social media in which 'interconnectivity' and 'interactivity' are the key features of discourse. We now engage in a conversation and not in a monologue. The message emerges from the conversation and its mode.

It is always a little difficult to deal briefly and concisely with complicated issues. However, I did describe the contemporary conflict of 'freedoms' as a 'crisis of liberalism': that once we claim equality and equal validity of any opinion (including the right to be offended, etc.), it becomes hard to deal with conflicts in rights/freedoms. We are left with having to establish hierarchies of value or rights, and this is problematic. In other words, if my freedom compromises your freedom, who judges which is to have priority – and against which criteria?

I also sat there recalling silently on the eve of Remembrance Day that more religious people died in non-religious conflicts in the twentieth century than in all previous nineteen centuries put together.

Anyway, I had to leave afterwards and missed the people who were to reflect on cases of religious persecution around the world. (Of course, we had agreed earlier that 'marginalization' and the 'religious illiteracy' of media people and politicians do not constitute 'persecution'.)

And my Fantasy League team is doing rubbish today…

It’s a funny old world. Last night I had a two-minute TV spot on Channel 4 and today has seen a barrage of responses.

4thought.tv has a theme for the week and this week it asks whether Christians are being persecuted in Britain today. Readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that I don’t think we are being persecuted. Some Christians have responded with anger at my betrayal of the cause and some atheists/humanists have commended what I said. The former think I should be more worried about what is going on out there and the latter think I can be recruited to their cause.

Inevitably, it is more complex than that. I recorded over an hour and a quarter and it was edited into two minutes. I have no complaints and they gave a fair representation of the sweep of matters we discussed. The producer asks questions, but the broadcast piece does not indicate to which questions the statements/views were given in answer. Again, I stress, I have no complaints. However, the one statement I wish had been included was along the lines of:

Being marginalised, misrepresented or misquoted is not the same as being persecuted. And it isn’t just a matter of semantics.

Christians are being persecuted in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, parts of Africa and the Middle East. Being ridiculed a bit or misrepresented by the religiously illiterate in Britain is a pain and poses challenges – but it is not persecution. My point in the broadcast was to encourage Christians to stop seeing themselves as pathetic victims, recognise the amazing freedom we have in (and massive contribution we make to) British society both locally and nationally… and get out there more confidently with the unique gift of Christian faith, service and apologetics. As Liverpool keep discovering, playing defensively allows the opposition all the creative space to attack – and you don’t win football matches by playing that way.

The websites that are claiming me as an ally in the ‘secularist’ cause shouldn’t celebrate too soon. My stance yesterday does not mean that I don’t get fed up with (and argue against) the rather stupid anti-Christian or ignorant/irrational secularist stuff around in the public square. But, rather than bleat about it, I’d rather we took up the creative challenge and engaged seriously with it.

I had no idea about any ‘Not Ashamed’ campaign until I saw it today. Whatever I said yesterday was not an attack on it – hard to do when you don’t know it exists. In fact, you could argue that the point of my 4thought.tv piece was to encourage Christians to stop seeing themselves as victims, to be confident about their faith and its ability to stand in the public square, and to do the opposite of being ashamed.

Although flattered to be commended by the humanist commentariat, they should also be a little bit worried: this isn’t a cave-in to secularism; it is a call to get stuck in with a bit more nous and a bit more confidence in the Gospel.