Parisian suburbs aren't the only trouble spots in Europe. The church where I was married, in a London suburb, was attacked by vandals recently. They scribbled a large swastika on its main wall.
Was this a deliberate anti-Catholic attack? I doubt it. The church stands on a main road, near a car park and bus stop where the local drunken youth gather to shout, leer, vomit and hit each other on Saturday nights.
I daresay the graffiti was simply part of their normal Saturday evening's entertainment. They may not even have recognized the building as a church: It is of extraordinary ugliness, even by the standards of 1970s ecclesiastical architecture, and its one redeeming feature, a statue of the patron saint placed in a niche in the wall, was ripped out and destroyed by other vandals some while ago.
The Government is planning to bring in new legislation to curb “religious hatred.” So that ought to cover things like the damage done to this suburban church, right? Wrong. The legislation does not suggest special penalties for defiling places of worship or interrupting people engaged in sacred worship. Instead, it concentrates specifically and entirely on banning statements, publications and activities that might be seen or heard by people “in whom it is likely to stir up racial or religious hatred.”
The push for this has come largely from Islamic lobbyists who want to see an end to public criticism of Islam, and who argue that they are in need of special protection in a largely non-Islamic Britain. It is being opposed by many Christian groups, because they believe it will restrict them in announcing the Christian Gospel. An essential part of Christianity is its claims to uniqueness. Under the proposed law, making such a claim could be deemed to might “stir up religious hatred.”
A straw in the wind is the difficulty already being faced by Premier Radio, a small Christian radio station operating in London and the South East. In 2001 the Radio Authority — which is supposed to control all radio broadcasting in Britain — received a number of complaints from a small obscure group called the “Mysticism and Occultism Federation.”
This group complained that its members were hurt and offended by the repeated statements of preachers on air that salvation can only come through Jesus Christ. The Radio Authority upheld their complaints on several occasions. Premier Radio — concerned that it might lose its license — has received the message that preaching a strong traditional Christian message is unacceptable.
But so far, the Radio Authority's strictures are not part of a wider law. If the “religious hatred” legislation now being proposed by the Government — through the Home Secretary David Blunket, who has vigorously defended them — the whole notion of freedom to evangelize will be altered.
The chief concern among Christian groups is that churches will start to practice “self-censorship” — much as some already do on the subject of homosexuality for fear of being called “homophobic.” Rather than risk prosecution, clergy and others will soft-pedal on the idea that Christ is our Savior and that through Him — and not through any other gods — we can find forgiveness and hope for eternal life.
Government spokesmen have so far pooh-poohed the idea that there is any risk to religious freedom under the proposed new law. And Church leaders do not, so far, seem to be unduly worried — they await the full details of the legislation and in general have indicated that they will not offer outright opposition. Some may believe that the law will actually be helpful in protecting Christians from criticism — after all, the stated aim is to reduce religious hatred.
But do Christians really mind their religion being challenged and criticized?
We already have laws against libel and slander. For Catholics, engaging in religious debate and dialogue can often open up paths to conversion. Historically, groups such as the Catholic Evidence Guild, founded by the late Frank Sheed, and the Catholic Truth Society — still producing excellent booklets and other material, more than 150 years since it first came into existence in Queen Victoria's reign — have thrived in an atmosphere of lively and sometimes downright acrimonious debate.
While we may urge each other to be charitable, we accept that sometimes those who disagree with us may express themselves rudely and angrily, and thus offend us — but free speech is important, and it would be wrong to attempt to crush it merely in order to protect our own sensibilities.
What, then, about things like vandalism of Church property, thefts from churches and deliberate damage done to sacred vessels or other items? We already have laws against vandalism and theft — what we must demand is that these are enforced. Why has it taken so long for a scribbled swastika to be removed from the wall of a suburban church? Why do we have to keep our churches locked so that people cannot drop in to pray?
Ordinary people in Britain are asking questions like this about all sorts of crimes — vandalism, theft and burglaries increase year after year, the police seemed swamped with paperwork, and, increasingly, when criminals are caught they receive mild punishments that prove no deterrent to further crime.
Graffiti and litter dominate our cities, and vandalism of trains and public buildings is routine. Commentators speak with envy of American cities where “zero-tolerance” inner-city crime policies have produced good results. Britain seems to be sinking into a morass of crime.
Into this scene, a law banning incitement to religious hatred means yet one more politically correct piece of sloganeering slotted into a government timetable already overloaded with plans for same-sex unions and a form of euthanasia aimed at the mentally incapacitated.
A number of groups, led by an evangelical organization, the Barnabas Trust, which helps people in different parts of the world who are suffering for their Christian beliefs, have joined together in a coalition to oppose the planned legislation. The Barnabas Trust has a particular interest in the matter, as it works with Christians in Islamic countries who have been imprisoned for their faith.
Under the proposed new law, it may be that describing such incidents, or drawing attention to them by means of booklets and publicity material, will be deemed to “stir up religious hatred” — because Muslims in Britain will object — and thus be illegal.
Britain does not need a law on religious hatred. There is no evidence that most ordinary Muslims in Britain want it — they are in fact much more offended by gratuitous displays of nudity and explicit sexual activity on TV and in advertising, than they are by open religious debate. And Catholics — the only religious group in Britain still officially restricted by law — we cannot hold certain public offices of state, nor marry into the Royal Family without special permission — do not want it either.
We can live with criticism and even with insults to our faith. But we do need freedom — and we believe that freedom of religious freedom is a precious right, which we do not want taken away.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.