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Olympics spur many messengers

10 August 2012


International: the Indian guitarist Benny Prasad performs outside St John's, Stratford, near the Olympic Park, as part of "Ultimate Gold", an initiative to welcome visitors. St John's is also the hospitality centre for the Anglican Communion during the Games

International: the Indian guitarist Benny Prasad performs outside St John's, Stratford, near the Olympic Park, as part of "Ultimate Gold", an initia...

Take any of the exits from Stratford station at the moment, and you run the gauntlet of missionaries. There are young Muslim men eager to explain why the Qur'an was right about the earth's being shaped like an ostrich egg; Christians handing out Games-inspired tracts such as "What if your thought life was broadcast at this year's games?"; and a man in a cagoule reminding the crowds, through a placard, of the Sixth Com­mandment.

Some new arrivals had barely stepped out of the ticket turnstiles before they encountered a woman loudly reciting verses from her Bible to them.

For the most part, people seemed uninterested on Monday afternoon. Tracts were refused; questions were dodged; preaching was scurried past. But not everyone walked on by. One young man listened intently for a good 20 minutes while another with a long beard and a "Team Islam" ("Always number one!") T-shirt, chatted to him. Next to him, a young woman cheerfully discussed the hijab with another member of the team. Another asked for a pamphlet from the Christian pastor who was handing them out.

"It's mostly the same everywhere you go - just like it was when Jesus preached," said Kevin Williams, the pastor of Grace Fellowship Man­chester, who was there with a team of 12. "Some believe; some mock; some get angry; but it's been quite mild today. We leave the results in God's hands."

He had had some interaction with the Muslims near by. "It's hard to speak to them, because they go off in a programmed reaction"; but it had been easier talking to a Muslim from Russia, he said.

Most of the members of Team Islam were young, some of them, perhaps, on their school holidays. The young man I spoke to was very keen to emphasise the rationality of his faith.

Muhammad split the moon in two, he explained. Science had provided evidence of this. He had a book in his rucksack ("I would give it to you . . . but it's worth £15") about how science and the Qur'an are compatible. Undeterred to hear that I was a Christian, he suggested that it was important not to pray through Jesus, and advised me to ask God to guide me. Hellfire was the destina­tion for those who rejected the message.

For Anjem Choudary, another member of Team Islam, there was a political point to be made. Although he was there to "propagate Islam" ("the invitation to Islam is an obligation on every Muslim"), the Olympics, he sug­gested, were about "the promotion of division, nation­alism, alcohol, and drugs". There were "tyrants coming here" - Russia and the United States, for example. And those who looked on Britain as a "peaceful host" needed to know what Muslims here thought  about foreign policy and British actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A few feet away, Solomon Nagalla, of Stratford Zion Christian Fel­lowship, was giving out leaflets ("Why did Jesus Christ come to the world?"). "This is a way to reach different nationalities of people, to share the peace that changes their heart . . . peace, joy, happiness," he said.

Music made a difference, he suggested, on the basis of his experi­ence of street evangelism in other areas. "Singing gospel songs some­times really encourages people."

Meanwhile, a man in a cagoule was strolling around with a sign: "You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, but you shall honour your father and your mother and love your neighbour as yourself," read one side. "Jesus said 'I am the way the truth and the life'" proclaimed the other.

When I left, he was still quietly parading up and down, pulling up his hood when it started to rain through the sunshine.

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