Courage in Sudan

The BBC report of the case concerning Dr Meriam Yehya Ibrahim Ishag makes horrifying reading: Allegedly brought up as an Orthodox Christian, married to a Christian and now eight months pregnant, she has been condemned to death by hanging for apostasy and in addition sentenced to 100 lashes for adultery on the grounds that, having had a Muslim father, she is an apostate from Islam and her marriage not merely invalid but adulterous. Local media are reported as saying that there will be a delay of a couple of years before the sentence is carried out, so that she can give birth and wean her child. Dr Ishaq’s lawyers are appealing against her sentence.

What struck me when reading this sad story was the fact that Dr Ishag was given three days to renounce her religion but remained steadfast and quietly told the judge, ‘I am a Christian.’ With those words and that action we are all at once back in the age of martyrs. In truth, we have never left it; the only difference is that today we are more likely to hear of such acts of courage because of the improvement in communications. I cannot help wondering, however, whether this particular story would have made the BBC headlines were it not for the fact that Dr Ishag is pregnant.

Religious freedom is not a right universally accepted. Even among the religious, it is often interpreted as freedom for what I believe but not freedom for what you believe. That holds good whatever country we are considering, although it seems particularly true wherever a more exclusive form of Islam holds sway, e.g. Sudan, Saudi Arabia. Christians in Britain are not persecuted, but many think it acceptable to mock Christian beliefs and challenge Christian values even in Christian societies and institutions. We have seen what happened with Catholic adoption agencies, and I think it would be fair to say that there is uneasiness about possible legal challenges to the Church’s position on same sex marriages. We cannot assume that we will never be required to make the same affirmation of faith as Dr Ishaq. As we pray for her, let us also pray for ourselves; that we may not condemn others but work for peace, understanding and religious freedom for all.

Note regarding comments
I’m sorry to say that I am now having to hold all comments for moderation which, since I do not spend my life glued to the computer screen, means that some may be very late appearing on the blog. I’m sorry about this, but I’ve been forced to take this action by the increasing number of abusive comments and hostile attacks on other readers/commenters that the blog has been receiving. Some comments are also potentially libellous, which adds another layer of complexity to things. One consequence is that, while I’m away from the monastery, I’ll probably have to stop blogging as I won’t be able to keep an eye on the blog in the way I usually do.


The Problem of Religious Language

Recently, I asked people on Twitter what they understood by the word ‘Church’. As expected, the answers differed widely. Some were more theological, others more sociological, others again tended towards what I’d call an attempt to express an aspiration or hope rather than a definition. Common to all of them was a use of language which I suspect didn’t make much sense to anyone who didn’t share the underlying assumptions or experience of the user.

As the British people become less and less familiar with the language of the bible and the cultural references of Christianity, attempts to find a common ground to talk about religion and its place in society become more and more difficult. Although I would not myself have used the language used in the column referring to the letter signed by 1054 Catholic priests in today’s Telegraph, I do share their concern that religious freedom is being eroded. We saw what happened with Catholic adoption agencies; we know that we cannot legally assert that Sunday observance is a constituent part of our religion (so much for the obligation to attend Mass); I am not at all sure  we can insist that people wishing to stay at the monastery should observe our moral norms. Government assurances to the contrary look like most Government promises: susceptible of being changed overnight.

Is there a problem? I think so. Those who think that religion is a private matter and should not intrude on the public sphere have no understanding of Christianity, certainly not in its Catholic form. I myself dislike emotive appeals, particularly when they are bolstered by a simplistic understanding of history; but I dislike them because I believe they obscure the genuine concerns we ought to have. It is easy to ridicule someone who likens David Cameron to Henry VIII. How to get David Cameron to understand and engage with those who see some unintended consequences flowing from some of his proposed legislation is much more difficult. We need a common language but, alas, that is what we don’t have. In the meantime, those who think society will be kinder, more generous, more perfect in every way if Christianity and all its works are removed from the public sphere might just spend a few moments thinking about all the voluntary/charitable work being done by people who call themselves Christian.