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Bathos at home, barbarism abroad

28 November 2014

TEXT messages are now the staple of salacious court reports, and I sometimes wonder why people choose to be indiscreet in a medium so very long-lived. Love letters could at least be burned, but anything you write electronically is going to hang around more or less for ever, until it turns up at a disciplinary hearing.

These melancholy thoughts were inspired by an assistant curate in Staffordshire, whose entanglement with a woman parishioner was given the full treatment by The Sunday Telegraph, and the next day by the Daily Mail, which condensed the meat of the story into a single sentence: "In June, three days after his ordination, they met at a bar and afterwards had sex against a wall in an alleyway."

According to the Telegraph, he claims this encounter was in a courtyard and not an alleyway. On such details can our self-esteem depend.

ALL this is trivial, of course, compared with the sufferings of some Christians abroad. The Guardian put Asia Bibi on its front page on Friday, with an appeal by her husband that she be freed: "Lahore's high court recently upheld the conviction against Aasia Bibi, who is among the best-known victim of laws that have been internationally condemned.

"In a public letter, Ashiq Masih said his wife's only hope was for an official pardon from the president, Mamnoon Hussain.

"'No one should be killed for drinking a glass of water,' the letter said, referring to the incident in June 2009 when Bibi was accused of insulting the prophet Muhammad, after a group of Muslim women in her home village of Itanwali, Punjab province, refused to drink from a glass used by a Christian."

The story went on to explain that she is extremely unlikely to be released from prison, not least because anyone who ordered this might be murdered by their bodyguards. The only bright spot is that she is also unlikely actually to be judicially murdered, since Pakistan would lose trade privileges with the EU if that happened.

What is so astonishing about the whole story is the way in which Pakistan has reached a state in which it takes enormous bravery to see, and still more to say, that the treatment of this poor woman is entirely monstrous. It can't be unprecedented. "Witch children" are treated with complete inhumanity in parts of Africa, and the families of "Enemies of the People" were routinely shot or exiled to the camps under Stalin. I don't suppose anyone much spoke up for them, either.

But the particular horror of Pakistani barbarism is that it feeds on popular prejudice, just like the attacks on witches, but uses it to fuel the apparatus of state persecution, as under Stalin. Perhaps the nearest equivalent is some forms of anti-Semitism in the 20th century.

RELATED to these were the flurry of comment articles after the latest murders in a Jerusalem synagogue, asking whether the conflict in Israel/Palestine would turn into a religious war.

The Guardian's leader said: "The fear . . . is that what has long been a bitter and bloody territorial conflict will escalate into something even more intractable: a holy war. By attacking men as they pray - not, it is worth stressing, in the occupied West Bank or in annexed East Jerusalem, but inside the boundaries of pre-1967 Israel proper - Tuesday's killers risk turning the conflict of Palestinian against Israeli into a battle of Muslim against Jew."

But two days later the paper published a comment piece by the Ha'aretz columnist Anshel Pfeiffer, pointing out that the killers were from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine: "The PFLP once portrayed itself as a staunchly secular, Marxist-Leninist liberation movement. Founded by a Christian doctor, it even had a handful of radical anti-Zionist Jewish supporters.

"PFLP today is a shadow of its former self, and no ally of Islamic State (IS), seeking instead the patronage of IS's mortal enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Hamas, which has also been at pains to distance itself from IS, also rushed to congratulate the synagogue murderers.

"Celebratory images of blood-stained cleavers, popularised in Isis beheading clips, quickly flooded many Palestinian websites and Facebook pages. It did not matter that the chosen targets were elderly civilians inside Israel's pre-1967 borders.

"This is what a religious war looks like, and we should stop kidding ourselves that this is not what has been happening in the Middle East. In various degrees it's been going on for a century."

I think this is undeniable, and that the slow, tragic transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle into a religious struggle between Jew and Muslim is a testimony to the inadequacy of secular frameworks to bear the sort of passionate, self-sacrificing hatreds that wars require. Yet without passionate self-sacrifice, how could any great thing ever be achieved?

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