Monday, January 28, 2013

Remembering six million dead

Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day and the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army.

In the Holocaust, apart from gypsies, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses, six million Jews were killed by Nazi Germany. Old men and old women; young men and young women; babies, boys and girls. Of the Jews who died, something like a million and a half were children.

Extermination camps were built. Killing squads followed the German Army into Soviet Russia. Jews were shot and buried. Some had to be dug up and burned. Others were shot and burned, but that was slow work. Then came mobile gas vans; finally, gas chambers and crematoria.

In Auschwitz, more people died than the British and American losses in World War II combined. More than a million perished in Auschwitz, 90 per cent of them Jews.

The largest gas chambers each held 2,000 people at a time. By 1944, 8,000 were being gassed at Auschwitz every day. About 400,000 Hungarian Jews were exterminated there in three months.

On January 27, 1945 the Red Army entered Auschwitz to liberate several thousand prisoners, including 180 children suffering from acute frostbite. The only reason the children had survived was because they were required for Josef Mengele's medical experiments. Three thousand twin children had entered the camp. Fewer than 200 survived to tell of its horrors.

Yesterday an Israeli government study presented to the Israeli cabinet showed a rise in antisemitic attacks over the past year. The biggest increase in attacks was in Europe. Parliamentary victories by a number of far-right antisemitic parties in Europe, it said, was a worrying trend.

The US-based Anti-Defamation League reported "dangerously high levels" of antisemitism in Europe last year, with antisemitic beliefs held by almost a third of the people surveyed. In France, 24 per cent of the population had antisemitic attitudes, compared to 20 per cent in 2009; in Spain, 53 per cent, compared to 48 per cent; in Hungary, 63 per cent, compared to 47 per cent. In the UK, antisemitic attitudes were up to 17 per cent, compared to 10 per cent four years ago.

Never again?

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Same-sex marriage: the battle intensifies

David Cameron and Nick Clegg appear determined to push through legislation redefining marriage in order to allow same-sex marriage. ("David just won't be told," the Prime Minister's mother, Mary Cameron, is reported as saying.)

The bill outlining the change had its first reading on Thursday and was published yesterday. MPs will have a debate and vote on it for the first time on Tuesday, February 5.

The Government says there will be adequate protection for religious bodies who do not want to hold same-sex marriages and for teachers who do not want to teach homosexual marriage as part of sex education. Opponents deny this; they say such protection or lack of it will be in the hands of European judges, who have already shown that people with a conscientious objection to homosexual marriage can lose their jobs.

It is not certain that the bill will be passed. Considerable numbers of MPs say they are ready to vote against it, and if the House of Commons passes it, it is said to be likely to have a hard time in the Lords.

Christians say marriage has been between one man and one woman throughout history, and is the basis of a stable society. They suggest the proposed change will not give homosexuals rights they do not already have with civil partnerships, and will have the effect of destroying traditional marriage.

It is remarkable how Christians came together to fight the proposed change. They quickly formed the Coalition for Marriage, which organised a petition that gained a record-breaking 600,000 signatures, which the Government is now trying to ignore.

Organisations including the Christian Institute, CARE, Christian Concern and the Christian Medical Fellowship have now called a national day of prayer on the issue for Sunday, February 3 - a week tomorrow. Suggested prayer topics can be seen here. Voice for Justice UK says that although the Government will place all its resources behind the bill, the result is not yet sure. "If something is right, it remains worth fighting for."

The organisations continue to ask people to write to their MP, asking him or her to vote against the bill. A CARE briefing, Twelve compelling reasons for rejecting same-sex marriage, can be downloaded here.

The World Prayer Centre in Birmingham calls the bill "an attack on the social and spiritual life of our nation." It points out that the following prayer has been said every day that Parliament has been in session since the 17th century:

Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her Government, to members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of Your Spirit.

May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals; but laying aside all private interests and prejudices, keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind.

So may Your Kingdom come and Your name be hallowed.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Christianity 'the world's most persecuted religion'

Imagine the unspeakable fury that would erupt across the Islamic world if a Christian-led government in Khartoum had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese Muslims over the past 30 years. Or if Christian gunmen were firebombing mosques in Iraq during Friday prayers. Or if Muslim girls in Indonesia had been abducted and beheaded on their way to school, because of their faith.

Such horrors are barely thinkable, of course. But they have all occurred in reverse, with Christians falling victim to Islamist aggression.

So wrote Rupert Shortt in the Telegraph.

A couple of months ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world. Shortt, who has been responsible for writing biographies of Archbishop Rowan Williams and Pope Benedict, has now written a report titled Christianophobia, published by the UK think tank Civitas. In it, he agrees with her assessment.

Christians, he says, are targeted more than any other body of believers. An estimated 200 million Christians are socially disadvantaged, harassed or actively oppressed for their beliefs.

Shortt lists atrocities in Egypt, where whatever the results of the Arab Spring, "Copts remain deeply concerned about the future of their battered Church"; in Iraq, where the number of Christians has fallen from 1.2 million in 1990 to less than 200,000 today; in Pakistan, with its blasphemy laws; in Nigeria, where thousands, including children, have been caused to disappear, hacked to death, burned alive or pulled off buses and murdered; in India, where Hindu extremists have killed or displaced thousands; in Burma, and in China, where more Christians are imprisoned than in any other country in the world.

"One reason," he says, "why Western audiences hear so little about religious oppression in the Muslim world is straightforward: young Christians in Europe and America do not become 'radicalised,' and persecuted Christians tend not to respond with terrorist violence."

In addition, "Parts of the media have been influenced by the logical error that equates criticism of Muslims with racism, and therefore as wrong by definition."

His conclusions: "The Qur'an does not set out specific punishments for apostasy in this life. The notion that converts to other religions should be killed fed into all the main branches of sharia law via later collections of teaching, especially the Hadith. . . Muslim attitudes should not be considered immutable."

Christianity has evolved, he says, and there are reasonable grounds for thinking Islam will do so too.

But "there is now a serious risk that Christianity will disappear from its biblical heartlands."

I greet his conclusions with some scepticism. I am reminded that Christianity's founder said that He would build His church, and the gates of hell would not prevail against it - and that Christianity has a habit of flourishing under persecution, painful though it is.

You can read the 41-page report here.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Letters from an Iranian prison

Saeed Abedini, recruited in high school in Iran by a radical Muslim group, was being trained as a suicide bomber. The more he tried to be a devout Muslim and the more he went into training, the more depressed he became.

When he was 20 years old, he was converted to Christ. He loved evangelism, and became a leader in the house church movement. In 2005, he moved to the US, where he and his wife are now US citizens.

On a vist to Iran in 2009, he was arrested and threatened with death for having converted to Christianity. He was released, his wife says. after signing a written agreement that he would not be charged and would be allowed to visit Iran provided he gave up house church activities.

Saeed, now 32 and the father of two young children, was on a visit to Iran last year to visit family and help build an orphanage, which had no religious affiliation. He was taken off a bus by Revolutionary Guards, subjected to "intense interrogation" and placed under house arrest.

In September he was transferred to Teheran's notorious Evin Prison, placed in solitary confinement and reportedly badly beaten by guards. Transferred to a communal cell, he was severely beaten by fellow prisoners who claimed to belong to al Qaeda.

In a letter, Saeed wrote:

Prison is a test of faith. I was always worried that the storms of this life would break the ship of faith, but when you stand in the steadfast ship of faith, the storms are like a nice breeze. Nothing can break the ship of faith. These walls have created more fervor for me to love others through sharing the Gospel, but more than that, the walls have deepened my love for my Savior. I feel the prayers of all who are praying for me.

In a letter brought out of prison by relatives, he says:

When I think that all of these trials and persecutions are being recorded in heaven for me, my heart is filled with complete joy. . . 

I always wanted God to make me a godly man. I did not realise that in order to become a godly man we need to become like steel under pressure. It is a hard process of warm and cold to make steel. The process in my life today is one day I was told I will be freed on bail to see my family and kids on Christmas (They are all lies) and the next I am told I will hang for my faith in Jesus. One day there are intense pains after beatings in interrogations, the next day they are nice to you and offer you candy. . . this is where you learn you can love your enemies with all of your heart. . .

I am looking forward to the day to see all of you who are behind me with your prayers. . . 

Saeed is due to appear before a court today charged with "actions against the national security of Iran," a charge which can lead to a long period of imprisonment or possibly the death penalty.

Christian authorities in the US have appealed for prayer.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Not much help for UK Christians in Europe

UK Christians didn't find much help at the European Court of Human Rights yesterday.

Lillian Ladele, a registrar, was disciplined by Islington Council for asking to be excused from conducting same-sex civil partnership ceremonies on the grounds of religious conviction. She lost her claim for discrimination on the basis of freedom of conscience and religious belief.

Gary McFarlane, a Relate marriage counsellor dismissed for gross misconduct after suggesting he might not be able to counsel same-sex couples because of his Christian faith, also lost his claim.

Nadia Eweida, a British Airways check-in clerk sent home by her employers after refusing to remove a necklace with a small cross, won her case. The court ruled the UK had failed to protect her freedom to manifest her faith in the workplace.

The judges said that manifesting religion was a fundamental right. This was because "a healthy democratic society needs to tolerate and sustain pluralism and diversity, but also because of the value to an individual who has made religion a central tenet of his or her life to be able to communicate that belief to others."

Shirley Chaplin, a nurse ordered by her hospital to remove a small cross on a chain she had worn for some 30 years, lost a similar claim. The judges said the hospital should be able to refuse permission to wear a cross on health and safety grounds.

The Telegraph said in an editorial: "Instead of the application of a little common sense, we have seen protracted and costly legal action, followed by a judgment that severely curtails people's rights to manifest their faith at work. This is part of a wider trend to nudge religion to the margins of society. People of faith are depicted as being not part of the mainstream, as being quirky and different.

"We are not only a Christian country, we are a tolerant one - but it seems the new secularism has no room for toleration."

Mike Judge, of the Christian Institute, said "What this shows is that Christians with traditional beliefs about marriage are at risk of being left out in the cold. If the Government steamrollers ahead with its plans to redefine marriage, then hundreds of thousands of people could be thrown out of their jobs unless they agree to endorse gay marriage."

Turtle Bay and Beyond, a blog covering international law, said it was not proportionate to dismiss an employee when he could have been accommodated in other positions or tasks. The refusal to accommodate the applicants was merely an ideological sanction meaning that, as a question of principle, there was no room on the staff for "intolerant Christians."

Canon Chris Sugden, of Anglican Mainstream, said homosexual rights were stifling the rights of people to live lives of faith openly. "Human rights were introduced to protect minorities but not to give them supervening rights over the rest of society. Gay rights have now become a separate privilege and a specially protected group of rights which trump all others, including freedom of conscientious objection and to hold religious conviction without fear of discrimination."

Dr Dave Landrum, of the Evangelical Alliance, said "Christianity is not about a set of rules, but a God that brings people into a new life of freedom. This new life is then lived out 24-7, and cannot ever be restricted to just our private lives.

"If UK courts are going to protect religious freedom more fully in the future they need to better understand the nature of Christian belief. . . We need solutions that will allow for the reasonable accommodation of the expression of religious belief."

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Do Christians have human rights too?

Yesterday I wrote on this blog about Open Doors' World Watch List of countries where the persecution of Christians is the most severe.

A blogger at God and Politics in the UK decided to investigate how much the British Government paid to those countries in international aid. The UK Department for International Development website shows that in a year £146million was paid, for instance, to Afghanistan, £101million to Somalia, £162million to Nigeria, £212million to Pakistan, £324million to Ethiopia, £139million to Tanzania and £284million to India. All those countries appear on the list.

The writer says that the UK Government has the potential to exert huge pressure on some of these countries over the persecution of Christians if it chose to do so.

On the occasion of a conference promoting the right to freedom of religion or belief for all, the UK Government said: "Promoting the right of freedom of religion or belief is a key human rights priority for the British Government. Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief is one of the fundamental freedoms that underpins other human rights and is a key building block of any democracy."

Some months ago it was reported that Prime Minister David Cameron had threatened to withhold UK aid from governments which continued to ban homosexuality. He said those receiving UK aid should "adhere to proper human rights" and that "British aid should have more strings attached."

I am not personally aware of any similar threat with regard to the treatment of Christians. Are Christians of less worth than homosexuals?

I have written to Mr Cameron as follows:

The Rt Hon David Cameron MP,
10 Downing Street,
London SW1A 2AA

Dear Prime Minister,

Some months ago you were reported as having threatened to withhold UK aid from governments which continued to ban homosexuality, saying that those receiving UK aid should adhere to proper human rights and that British aid should have more strings attached.

Countries like Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Tanzania and India, all of them recipients of generous UK aid, are also countries where Christians are severely persecuted.

Would you please use your good offices to alleviate the severe persecution of Christians in these lands?

Yours sincerely,

Would you like to write to Mr Cameron too? His address is above. Trying to write to him by e-mail is not recommended.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Where Christians are dying for their faith

Open Doors has published its annual World Watch List of the 50 countries where the persecution of Christians is most severe.

For the 11th successive year, North Korea tops the list as the most difficult place to be a Christian. In North Korea, Christians face arrest, detention, torture and public execution. One prison camp alone reportedly holds 6,000 Christians. Despite severe oppression, there is a growing underground church movement of an estimated 400,000 Christian believers.

Second is Saudi Arabia, where conversion from Islam to another religion is punishable by death. Evangelising Muslims and distributing non-Muslim materials are illegal. Public Christian worship is forbidden. Worshippers risk imprisonment, lashing, torture and deportation.

Third is Afghanistan, where there are no church buildings, even for expatriates, and gatherings in private houses require extreme caution. Both foreign and local Christians are subject to kidnapping, abduction, killing and having to flee the country.

Persecution of  Christians generally has increased during 2012, most dramatically in Africa. Violence in Mali increased after a coup in March. Christians are being killed by the Islamist organisation Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Islamism has increased in every country that experienced the Arab Spring, with massively increased pressure on Christians in the Middle East and North Africa. Tens of thousands of Christians have fled Syria in recent months.

Western governments need to be reminded of their responsibility to stand up against religious persecution in other countries. Christians should pray for persecuted believers - and seriously consider giving financial help to organisations providing aid for the persecuted.

Making up the 20 at the top of the list with North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan are Iraq, Somalia, Maldives, Mali, Iran, Yemen, Eritrea, Syria, Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Libya, Laos, Turkmenistan and Qatar.

You can see the list, and details of how the placings are arrived at, here.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Questions that demand answers

The oldest man in Britain died in Wirksworth, Derbyshire, last week. He was 110 years old.

Rev Reg Dean was born in Tunstall, Staffordshire, in 1902. He was ordained to the Church of England ministry as a young man, and was a Church of England minister and later a minister in the United Reformed Church until he was 80. At 80 he took up painting, and in his mid-eighties founded an award-winning male voice choir.

He had been married three times.

In World War II he was an Army chaplain in Burma. He told his son that at one point he was surrounded by Japanese. They taunted him, shouting "Johnny, we will come and kill you tomorrow." He spent the evening in prayer. The following morning, all the Japanese had disappeared.

In 2011, speaking (at his 109th birthday party?) to an audience of elderly people, he told them: "There are three questions you must learn to try to answer. One is 'Who am I?' Two is 'Why am I here?' And three is 'Where am I going?'

Spot on. Those are questions that plague all of us at one time or another. Those questions do have answers. It's so important before you go right through life and tumble into eternity that you're sure you've found them.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

A man with a message

Rob Joy, the son of a recovering alcoholic, grew up on a troubled estate. He longed to be accepted by his father - but his father died suddenly one night after a blazing row.

Rob had begun drinking at an early age and was treated for alcohol poisoning at 14. After losing his dad, he decided if he couldn't go straight, he would go for a life of serious crime.

He was nicknamed "Bobby the gun" because he carried a weapon. He was "always drunk, always high and always fighting."

He put two men in a coma in gang violence, allegedly blew £250,000 on drugs and slid into paranoia. People said he was going to wind up dead.

His mother and two sisters had become born-again Christians. Rob wasn't having any of that because he knew that Christians were all brainwashed nutters, but his mother and sisters continued to pray.

One night in a filthy drug den, Rob fell to his knees and pleaded with God to forgive him for a life of crime.

He's now pastor of a church in Wellingborough, Northants, and a gifted evangelist. He's married to a Christian girl amd has two young children. Their story is told in a book, Internal Revolution.

Carl Beech, leader of Christian Vision for Men in the UK, says "Rob is a living testimony that your past, no matter what has happened to you, does not need to govern your future."

Rob's former pastor says of him: "His zeal is real. He loves to see people brought into a new life that only Jesus can give. I thank God that He occasionally releases a man with a message to build His church and encourage us all. I see this in Rob Joy. He's a man with a message, born on time."

You can read his story here.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Care programme with 'a lethal character'?

The Liverpool Care Pathway is a programme which allows medication, food and water to be withheld from hospital patients, and patients to be sedated, during the last days and hours of life to prevent unnecessary distress during the dying process.

Newspapers claim that patients have been placed on the pathway who have not been dying, with the result that they would have died from use of the pathway. They also claim that thousands of patients have been placed on the pathway without the patients being informed or their families consulted.

Of the 450,000 who die in Britain each year, 130,000 now - almost a third - are said to have been on the pathway.

Dr Jacqueline Laing, senior lecturer in law at London Metropolitan University, says only a year after the Department of Health recommended the LCP as its end-of-life care strategy in 2008, 300 hospitals, 560 care homes and 130 hospices had introduced the programme.

One enterprising journalist, using provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, discovered that hospitals have been given financial rewards for placing patients on the LCP. NHS trusts have received payments totalling millions of pounds for reaching targets relating to use of the pathway. Some hospitals doubled the number of patients dying on the pathway in one year.

The Christian Medical Fellowship has called for financial incentives to be scrapped immediately and for patients to be treated solely according to their need.

Dr Laing, writing in the New Law Journal, says some fear the LCP has a homicidal character not acknowledged by its proponents. "When a patient is clearly in the last hours of life, it may well be that acts recommended by the strategy are entirely appropriate. The problem arises when they are not indicated, ie on the strength of misdiagnosis, or when the sedation-dehydration regime is implemented to satisfy managerial targets or countless other unjustifiable possibilities.

"Part of the difficulty is that, where a patient is diagnosed as terminal and imminently dying, the combination of morphine and dehydration is likely to undermine a patient's capacity. Persistent dehydration of even the fittest sedated patient will kill him. This was the problem with the Pathway from the very outset. . . 

"Recent revelations of financial incentives and staggering compliance in rolling out the managerial programme radically alter the debate. Diagnostic concerns in the context of arguably self-fulfilling sedation-dehydration regimes and overarching financial and political pressure to implement the Pathway suggest that the regime may have acquired a lethal power of its own. This lethal character is almost certainly one that exists independently of the best intentions of those who formulated or apply it. . . 

"Incentivised and managerialised death targets become problematic in the context of uncertain diagnosis, a steadily ageing population, spiralling healthcare costs, and the philosophical dehumanisation of the vulnerable pervasive in contemporary bioethics. The targets themselves constitute improper pressure on healthcare professionals' employment and livelihood. As such, they predictably invite and rationalise grave human rights abuse with tragic consequences for the defenceless."

Some critics ask what benefit the LCP or any other integrated pathway brings to patients which traditional pain relief and symptom control, pioneered by Dame Cicely Saunders, could not. They say there have been no controlled trials.

Results of an inquiry into the use of the Liverpool Care Pathway are eagerly awaited. What effect they will have in practice remains to be seen.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Not such a happy New Year for some

As we sit around our firesides wishing one another a happy New Year, spare a thought for Syria's Christians.

Thousands have fled the country, and are currently in neighbouring countries with very little to keep them alive. The situation of those still in Syria is even more dire, with Christians, their property and their churches the target of violent attack.

A senior church leader in Syria says they also face "inflation, poverty, growing of sectarian enmity, shortages of supplies of food and fuel, cold weather, revenge, kidnapping for big amount of ransom, risks of travelling, frequent internet cut off and many such things."

Barnabas Fund says while the  Christian population of Homs was once 50,000 to 60,000, just 80 Christians remain in a Christian neighbourhood of the old city. One by one they are dying because of severe hardship and lack of medicines. Rebel groups keep them there as human shields.

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, director of Barnabas Fund, said in Aleppo some children suffering from malnutrition now had the distended stomachs more often seen in famine situations in Africa. He warned that rebel forces and Islamist extremists among them "want to see an end of the Christian presence in Syria."

A UN investigation concluded last week that the war in Syria is becoming increasingly sectarian, with minority groups, like Christians, in more danger than ever.

Last week a rebel group warned the Christian towns of Mharda and Sqilbiya to stop permitting Syrian government forces to take up positions there or face a merciless attack. The two towns used to have populations of tens of thousands, but most locals have already fled.

One Syrian rebel leader, Ahmad al-Baghdadi al-Hassani, speaking on Egyptian television, warned that Syria's Christians are "friends of the Zionists" and must choose between "Islam and death."

It is estimated that more than 45,000 have died in Syria since the fighting began.