This is the text of a letter I have sent to the Prime Minister and which will be referenced in national media tomorrow.

Recognising the complexities of such matters and the difficult role of the Prime Minister in them, I wrote the letter as a constructive stimulus to discussion of the wider questions provoked by what is happening in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Attempting to fix the immediate will prove costly in every respect, if we don't have a long-term, overarching and holistic vision for what we – along with other governments, agencies and partners (such as the churches) – need to achieve. The lack of clarity about such a comprehensive and coherent vision is being commonly remarked upon, and my letter seeks concisely and respectfully to elicit some response to these serious questions.

 

Dear Prime Minister,

Iraq and IS

I am conscious of the speed at which events are moving in Iraq and Syria, and write recognising the complexity and interconnectedness of the challenges faced by the international community in responding to the crises in Syria and Iraq.

However, in common with many bishops and other correspondents here in the UK, I remain very concerned about the Government’s response to several issues. I write with the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury to put these questions to you.

1. It appears that, in common with the United States and other partners, the UK is responding to events in a reactive way, and it is difficult to discern the strategic intentions behind this approach. Please can you tell me what is the overall strategy that holds together the UK Government’s response to both the humanitarian situation and what IS is actually doing in Syria and Iraq? Behind this question is the serious concern that we do not seem to have a coherent or comprehensive approach to Islamist extremism as it is developing across the globe. Islamic State, Boko Haram and other groups represent particular manifestations of a global phenomenon, and it is not clear what our broader global strategy is – particularly insofar as the military, political, economic and humanitarian demands interconnect. The Church internationally must be a primary partner in addressing this complexity.

2. The focus by both politicians and media on the plight of the Yezidis has been notable and admirable. However, there has been increasing silence about the plight of tens of thousands of Christians who have been displaced, driven from cities and homelands, and who face a bleak future. Despite appalling persecution, they seem to have fallen from consciousness, and I wonder why. Does your Government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others? Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any particular time?

3. As yet, there appears to have been no response to pleas for asylum provision to be made for those Christians (and other minorities) needing sanctuary from Iraq in the UK. I recognise that we do not wish to encourage Christians or other displaced and suffering people to leave their homeland – the consequences for those cultures and nations would be extremely detrimental at every level – but for some of them this will be the only recourse. The French and German governments have already made provision, but there has so far been only silence from the UK Government. Therefore, I ask for a response to the question of whether there is any intention to offer asylum to Iraqi migrants (as part of a holistic strategy to addressing the challenges of Iraq)?

4. Following on from this, I note that the Bishop of Coventry tabled a series of questions to HM Government in the House of Lords on Monday 28 July. All but two were answered on Monday 11 August. The outstanding questions included the following: “The Lord Bishop of Coventry to ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to resettling here in the UK a fair proportion of those displaced from ISIS controlled areas of Northern Iraq.” I would be grateful to know why this question has not so far been answered – something that causes me and colleagues some concern.

5. Underlying these concerns is the need for reassurance that a commitment to religious freedom will remain a priority for the Government, given the departure of ministers who championed this. Will the Foreign Secretary's Human Rights Advisory Panel continue under the new Foreign Secretary? Is this not the time to appoint an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom – which would demonstrate the Government’s serious commitment to developing an overarching strategy (backed by expertise) against Islamist extremism and violence?.

I look forward to your considered response to these pressing questions.

Yours sincerely,

The Rt Revd Nicholas Baines (The Bishop of Leeds)

 

 

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

A letter was published in the Daily Telegraph this morning, signed by fifty eminent people, in which they criticise the Prime Minister’s article of faith published in the Church Times last week.

The letter itself is fairly unremarkable – and certainly not a surprise – although why such people think it is worth all the energy, time and activity involved in getting such a number of signatures, still beats me.

The statistics cited are, of course, at variance to other published statistics (e.g. the 2011 Census), but that is in the nature of statistics and we draw to our defence those that suit our argument the best. So, I won’t waste time arguing with the numbers.

What is bizarre is the charge that the Prime Minister, by saying what he said, “fosters alienation and division in our society.” That ” this needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government.” Good grief!

First, if politicians were to refrain from saying anything ‘divisive’, they would be silent. Any stated viewpoint or priority is by definition ‘divisive’ as there will always be people who strongly disagree. The use of potential ‘divisiveness’ as a charge against anything inconvenient is ridiculous. Presumably, the divisiveness caused by publishing this letter is to be excused?

Secondly, why should ‘secular humanism’ be prioritised above other world views or identities? There is no neutral territory – something is always being prioritised over other preferences. That is a fact of life. And if you want a purely relativistic world view to dominate (which is a perfectly legitimate thing to want), you can’t then decide to absolutise certain priorities or assumptions.

‘Fostering division’ is a phrase that should be dropped as a threat. Anyone can use it and, being a threat, of course, there is no evidence that it has or does.

Any conference in Germany is haunted by the 20th Century. The fact that churches in Germany and England maintained their contact and solidarity during the worst years of that century gets forgotten amid the horror stories of war and holocaust and death. So, here at the eighth Meissen Theological Conference at Arnoldshain (near Frankfurt, Germany), the theme of reconciliation is neither merely academic nor idealistic.

We meet in the Martin-Niemöller-Haus to discuss papers that can never be abstract because of the history that brings us together and sets the context for our conversations. After all, this is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and the seeds of the slaughter that bore the Second. Since 1945 English Christians and German Christians have worked hard at confronting their history and the hard questions raised by their theological handling of political and economic realities.

This conference, co-chaired by the Bishop of London and Professorin Dr Friederike Nüssel (Systematic Theology, Heidelberg), takes conflict and reconciliation with the utmost seriousness. (Although, as usual, the friendship is funny, warm and very enjoyable.)

The conference began this afternoon – within half an hour of arriving – with introductions and then an initial paper by the Bishop of London on Perspectives on Religion and Reconciliation that took us from WW1 through WW2 to the challenges of today's world of religious (and other forms of) conflict. Rigorous questioning highlighted the importance of “symbolic act and apt liturgy” in enabling a society to take responsibility not for changing the past, but for shaping how we remember it and deal with it honestly.

The second paper was presented by Professor Dr Martin Wallraff from the University of Basel, Switzerland, and reached back into patristic considerations of Eucharist, Communion (Gemeinschaft) and communion (Kommunion) (a linguistic distinction that is too arcane, but too important, to deal with in detail here). The Christian tradition digs deep into the wisdom of the ages and does not satisfy itself with mere pragmatic reactions to current phenomena that always appear to be both original and 'ultimate'. Discussion addressed head on the scandal of division in a Christian church that lives with and works at the ideal of unity. The fact that the church even considers unity woth considering is, of itself, remarkable and worthy of proper consideration.

The third paper was presented by the Revd Peter Anthony, a parish priest from London, on 'Seeing and Being Seen' – in relation to texts in the Gospels of Mark and Luke regarding the Transfiguration of Jesus. Again, vigorous debate ensued – not least about what this means for us today.

So, the conference is typically rigorous and stimulating. Set in a centre named after a hero of the German resistance to Hitler, rooted in rigorous theological and biblical thinking and conviction, it isn't inevitable that such a conference would challenge comfortable 'truths' about theology, society, history or academic disciplines. But, we intend to do business on behalf of our churches – not in order to satisfy nice theological chat, but to bring our churches closer together… and to compel us to see through the lens of another culture and history the culture and history of our own people and church. This cannot but make us see differently and with a bit more questioning humility.

 

The Sandford St Martin Trust (which I chair) has just launched its new website here.

The first in a series of guest blogs is written by me, but to read it you will have to pop over to the website here!

 

The second book I have just read (see here for the first) from the imaginative Princeton University Press series Lives of Great Religious Books is John J. Collins’ The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography. Great stuff, again.

I have waited for a straightforward book about the Scrolls that not only introduced the contents and told the story, but opened up their implications and described the – often bizarre – academic controversies that have arisen around them. This book does it.

I haven’t the time or ability to deal with detailed academic scrutiny, important though that clearly is. I need something that gives me the big picture.

Towards the end of the book Collins concludes:

Despite sensationalist claims, [the Scrolls] are not Christian, and do not witness directly to Jesus of Nazareth and his followers. Nonetheless, they illuminate the context in which Jesus lived, and in which earliest Christianity took shape. (P.240)

Other works that do a similar job are (depending on whether you like film or book) Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Gerd Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilaean.

There are times when being a news editor must be the worst job.

What ought to lead the news today? What should be the order of priority? Which is most important in its implications for the world?

  • The continuing brutality in Syria and the dangers of a wrong move leading to a regional or global conflict?
  • The apparently uncontrollable brutality meted out in Nairobi, with Muslims being separated out for life and non-Muslims for execution in a shopping centre?
  • The suicide bombings in Pakistan aimed specifically at Christians? (Oops, this one has already fallen off the front pages, so no link.)
  • Ongoing violence in Egypt and violence against Christians there?
  • The latest warnings by scientists about global warming and the debate about human causes of this?
  • Potential rapprochement between the USA and Iran?
  • The re-election of Angela Merkel as Federal Chancellor of Germany and the most powerful political leader in Europe?
  • The continuing oppression and slaughter in Darfur, Sudan? (Oh dear, not on any page – old news.)

The disappearance of Christian communities from Asia and the Middle East might not seem to everyone in liberal Britain to be the most important phenomenon in the world – especially to those who think religion is just a slightly embarrassing matter of mere individual private opinion. Not only is it a scandal, however, but it might turn out to bring a really significant change to the balance of world politics – and human co-existence in parts of the globe where diverse cultures have lived alongside each other for centuries.

The loudest news isn't necessarily the most important.

 

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