Sunday, 1 September 2013

Freedom to believe

Some images of suffering are unforgettable and the stuff of nightmares. Photographs which emerged after the liberation of Nazi concentration camps are as horrific today as they were in 1945. Few people who saw the picture of a little Vietnamese girl as she ran down a road, the naked victim of napalm bombing, will ever forget it and were not surprised that it became the iconic image of the Vietnam War. There is no need to suggest other photos which have appeared in the media over the course of the years. We have all seen them and wish that we had not. The problem is that the innocent victims of violence might also wish that they could forget, but they cannot, and for different reasons.

In 2009, appalling photographs arrived in my e-mail account in a desperate plea for help. Interestingly, although they had come from Pakistan on this particular occasion, I had actually first received the identical set of images from India in 2008, during the brief but blood-soaked attacks against Christians by Hindu extremists. Wherever they originated, the ghastly photographs were genuine and could not have been faked, even by the greatest experts.

For a couple of weeks, Orissa was headline news and then, just as suddenly, silence fell. Yet inter-religious dialogue and peace had, in no way, been restored: it was simply that the interest of the world’s media drifted towards the credit crunch and its consequences.

Anti-Christian violence continues in this troubled region of India. In 2012, the ‘Evangelical Fellowship of India’, an organisation which brings together several evangelical Christian communities, built a small village church, made of wood and straw. On the night of 2 April 2013, the building was set on fire, and destroyed in spite of the best efforts of the local faithful to put out the flames. Villagers had donated the land and their labour to build the church, which catered for worshippers from a wide area in the locality, but, within the space of a couple of hours, the building was a mound of smouldering embers and heartbroken parishioners.

Yet the destruction of the church was not all that happened. The following day, Hindu fundamentalists belonging to a group called the ‘Vishwa Hindu Parishad’, publicly insulted and threatened believers, accusing them of forced conversions to Christianity. A complaint to the local police is unlikely to bring results. Elsewhere in Orissa, on 13 March, a group of Hindu fundamentalists, helped by some police officers, demolished a church, claiming it was built illegally.

Fides, the official news agency of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples and hence of Missio, recently reported that, “Five years after the anti-Christian massacres that shocked Kandhamal district in the Indian state of Orissa, justice is still far and impunity prevails. In the "pogrom" of 2008, over 400 villages were "cleansed" of all Christians; more than 5,600 houses and 296 churches were burned, the victims were 100 (but the government recognizes only 56), thousands wounded, several women raped (including a nun), 56,000 men, women and children became homeless.”

Dr John Dayal, one of India’s foremost voices on human rights, and particularly on the situation of religious minorities, recently pointed out that, regardless of media silence, the people of Orissa have found neither peace nor justice. “Five years after she was gang-raped in Kandhamal, Orissa, on 25th August 2008, people have almost forgotten Catholic Nun Sister M. There has been no justice yet in the case. The Magistrate charged with recording her evidence in identifying her rapists falsified the record. She has gone to the Supreme Court against the magistrate. But the Media and the public seemingly no longer remember her.”

In the light of continued inaction on behalf of the legal system in India, Dayal has recently published the Sister’s statement. It does not make for light bedtime reading! Both she and the priest who tried to defend her suffered greatly at the hands of the mob. It was an experience that neither will ever forget.

During the past five years, Christians have repeatedly sought justice, only to find that this was often denied by the police and judiciary. As a result of the pogrom in Orissa, Dayal reported that Christians filed 3,232 criminal complaints of which the police only accepted 1,541 and gradually reduced these to 828. In a system in which corruption is the norm, little imagination is required to explain why so few complaints led to criminal charges. Eventually 327 cases went to court and as a result, in 169 trials, a total of 1,597 were acquitted of the violence of which they were charged.  Key witnesses were threatened. Intimidated and afraid of reprisals against themselves or their families, many withdrew their complaints or changed their testimony... and so the suffering and injustice continue.

Meanwhile, in Britain, we complain that Christians are increasingly marginalised and point to the few cases which have gone through our courts. Some have been taken to the European Court of Human Rights. In some verdicts gender equality has played a greater part than freedom of conscience. So, for instance, there have been arguments for and against Christians having a right to refuse to register or perform a gay marriage or to provide psychosexual counselling to gay couples. Midwives have fought for their right to non-participation in abortions. Others have struggled to wear a Crucifix at work or to display a palm Cross in a taxi cab. We have seen blasphemous and insulting posters and media aimed at Christians and all that we hold sacred. We can all think of other examples – but it is a while since we were called upon to face martyrdom. Even if we disagree with verdicts handed down by the courts, we do not normally complain that our judiciary is guilty of bribery and corruption. If even Abu Qatada is able to appeal that his human rights be upheld, the chances are that most of us will not witness or experience the violence and bloodshed which threaten the lives of Christians elsewhere.

A Somali immigrant recently said that the reason why he applied to come to Britain was because there are so many mosques in our towns and cities. He had no intention of frequenting them even if he did happen to be a Muslim, but it was, for him, a sign that people in this country are able to practise their religious beliefs in freedom, without fear of reprisal. That is a tremendous compliment. For sure, we have had times of persecution. We have our Catholic martyrs before, during and after the Reformation, but when was the last massacre of Orthodox Jews in Golders Green, of Hindus in Tooting or of Muslims and Sikhs in Wolverhampton or Coventry? For all that our history in this country includes the horrors of disembowelling, burning at the stake and various other unthinkable methods of capital punishment, they are no longer on our statute books. We can hope to live in peace and a good measure of security denied many people in other parts of the world.

We cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into complacency, but, whatever the shortcomings, we have cause to be grateful for religious freedom in Britain.