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‘A catastrophe and a crime’

02 January 2015

WHAT to do for the Christmas leader column is a problem that confronts the broadsheets every year. No one nowadays does the straight devotional, but it is felt that, in the absence of news, there should at least be moral exhortation.

It was revealing that the persecuted minority whose troubles the Telegraph chose to defend were the motorists, brutally slowed down in their prime by the lidless eyes of speed cameras. It is illuminating how people see speeding as morally unproblematic, even though the RAC reckons that speed cameras save 800 lives a year here, and British cars must maim for life almost as many people as the intelligence services of our allies.

The Times and The Guardian, though, went in for the rather more dramatic problem of Christians persecuted around the world. For The Times, "It is a catastrophe and a crime that those who celebrate the birth of Christ are, in many parts of the world, most numerously in the region that includes ancient Palestine, suffering ferocious persecution. The Prince of Wales remarked last month on the 'indescribable tragedy that Christianity is now under such threat in the Middle East'.

"Western governments need to make Christians' rights and religious liberties integral to diplomatic policy, lest their historic presence be scattered amid scarcely imaginable carnage."

This is certainly true, but it seems to lack a certain realism. There are no signs whatever that Western governments could exert meaningful diplomatic pressure on the various governments and quasi-governmental regimes currently persecuting Christians in various ways. All that actually lies within our power is to shelter refugees and help those who do. That's not going to happen on any significant level, and everyone knows it.

The Guardian, too, after a depressing tour of all the places where Christians are persecuted in Africa and Asia (sometimes, as in South Sudan, by other Christians), concluded with vague uplift: "Freedom of faith must be defended, irrespective of whether the attacks come from totalitarian atheist regimes or theocracies. For the faithful, what they believe about God is inseparable from what they understand about human beings. But God's rights must never be allowed to trample on human rights."

This is, of course, a formula that limits religious freedom, since it assumes for The Guardian the right to define humans and their rights; but it limits it rather less than the alternatives.

JUST to drag the conversation away from Islam, The Financial Times had a worrying piece about the rise of Hindu intolerance: "Now, with the BJP in power, the country is gripped by a fierce debate on how far the country's constitutional guarantee of religious freedom should extend and, in particular, whether it covers the right to convert to a faith other than the religion of one's ancestry and birth.

"Amit Shah, BJP president and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's most trusted adviser, put the issue squarely on the agenda last week when he declared that the government wanted a new law against 'forceful' religious conversions.

"Since the late 1960s, six states have adopted laws that ban conversion by 'force, allurement, inducement or fraud', sweeping terms that provide ample scope for the prosecution and persecution of proselytisers. In some states, conversions require official government permission."

BUT the most unexpected news was Pope Francis's onslaught on the Curia. Jesuits are supposed to be subtle and to attack their victims from ambush. I think he may have skipped that part of the training. "Existential schizophrenia . . . spiritual Alzheimer's . . . the terrorism of gossip." He really did not bridle his tongue.

In the report by the Associated Press, on which all the press seems to have based its coverage, the papal speech was received without much grace: "The cardinals were not amused. Few smiled as Francis spoke, and at the end they offered only tepid applause to a speech that was so care-fully prepared it had footnotes and bibilical references. Francis greeted each one, but there was little Christmas cheer in the room."

AND so to Argentina, where The Independent produced a truly magnificent headline: "President of Argentina adopts Jewish godson to 'stop him turning into a werewolf'".

In Argentinian folklore, apparently, the seventh son of a family turns into a kind of werewolf after puberty, "feeding on excrement, unbaptised babies, and the flesh of the recently dead", under a full moon. Such children were often abandoned or murdered; so the practice grew up that the President adopted them, which presumably worked better than telling families unable to feed their children that werewolves don't exist.

This is the first time the adoption has been extended to a Jewish child, and the piece was illustrated with a smiling family alongside the President. Still, I can't help feeling that the story was a bit of a let-down after that headline.

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