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Press: Home Office exegesis, Richard Dawkins-style

29 March 2019


THE story of the week was the almost incredibly crass Home Office letter turning down the request of an Iranian convert to Christianity for asylum, on the grounds that his conversion had not been to a religion of peace because Christianity enjoined violence on its followers.

The letter quoted selected verses from Genesis, and Revelation, and even Jesus himself saying that he came not to bring peace but a sword. In a particularly surreal touch, these quotes were footnoted not with traditional chapter and verse but with hyperlinks to BibleGateway.com. It read as if written by someone whose entire knowledge of religion derived from Richard Dawkins.

The letter was publicised almost everywhere but The Guardian — it even made The New York Times. As soon as the coverage spread, the Home Office said that it did not represent official policy. I am not so sure. In one sense, this is obviously true, in that no one is meant to say such things, still less to put them on paper.

But consider the implications: if both Islam and Christianity are to be regarded as religions of war, or extremist ideologies, no one professing either faith should ever be granted asylum here. Since that is pretty much Home Office policy anyway, I think the only error committed by the nameless civil servant was spill­ing the beans.

THE New York Times had another story of Christian persecution, perhaps of wider implications. Ian Johnson, one of its China correspondents, wrote about his friend Wang Yi, a Protestant pastor detained last year as part of a crackdown on Christianity (Features, 29 June 2018). Johnson’s story was more a marker that Wang Yi is not forgotten than a carrier of any particular news. But it still contained some important nuggets: “The crackdown is part of a broader effort to subdue China’s fast-growing religious groups. This includes detaining a million minority Muslims in internment camps in China’s far west. . .

“But while Islam is practised by about 20 million non-Chinese minorities in largely far-off provinces, Protestant Christianity is followed by about 60 million ethnic Chinese in China’s economic heartland. About half worship in churches that raise their own money and run their own affairs.

“In the past, many of these were called underground churches, but over the past decade, some have become public mega­churches. Run by well-educated white-collar professionals in China’s biggest cities, the churches own property and have nationwide alliances — something anathema to the party, which tightly restricts nongovernmental organizations.”

Two statistics jumped out at me from this. The first is that five per cent of all Chinese Muslims (men, women, and children) are now imprisoned. This assumes that the estimate of one million “re-educated” Uighurs is accurate; a colleague I trust thinks that an even higher figure of 1.5 million is also credible. In any case, it is an astonishing rate of persecution. The second important fact is that there are three times as many Christians as Muslims in China today.

WHILE on the subject of irreligion, the obituaries of Baroness Warnock were illuminating.

The Daily Telegraph’s was remarkably waspish: it read like a Roman Catholic paying off some long-nursed grudges: “When a liberal Catholic moral philosopher was proposed as a member of the embryology committee she vetoed his appointment, though she later claimed that this was because he was a ‘creep’ and a ‘horror’, not because of his moral views.

“Colleagues at Oxford . . . recalled her as being good at becoming an instant expert, never inhibited by lack of knowledge . . . she never had any pretensions to be an original thinker. . . Yet journalists who interviewed her often came away with an uneasy picture of immense self-confidence based on less rational foundations than they had been led to expect.”

That “yet” rather gives the game away. It is a conjunction generally deployed to indicate a change of tack, but the attack here is remorse­lessly pursued.

THE former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams had a piece on democracy in the New Statesman. It nicely showed the strengths and weaknesses of his conception of politics: he thinks that democracy is about whole people and not just their conscious interests. But, at the same time, he is consistently blind to the part played by force in human affairs: he laments “the erosion in the past few decades of notions of public and shared goods — the things we can only enjoy if it is not just us enjoying them”.

True, important — and only half the picture. Public goods, in Lord Williams’s sense, exist, but so do goods of the other sort: those that can be enjoyed only if other people are deprived of them.

Real politics, in any real democracy, always involves dealing with both sorts at once — and neither can simply be defined out of existence.

Read our obituary of Baroness Warnock

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