Christian Today Digest – Issue 10 2019

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Hostility towards Christians on the rise in Europe, report claims

Christians in Europe experienced 325 incidents of intolerance in the past year, a new report has found.

In its 2018 Hate Crimes report, the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe warns that believers in the region are being “squeezed” in various ways.

These include “negative stereotyping in the media”, legal action against Christian-owned businesses under so-called equality laws, and Christian parents being hindered in raising their children according to their faith.

But they also include acts of violence, aggression and vandalism towards Christians and Christian sites.

“Across Europe, Christians have been fired, sued, and even arrested for exercising their freedom of expression or conscience,” the report reads.

“Christian-run businesses have been ruined financially, Christian student groups have been silenced, and Christian symbols and celebrations have been removed from the public square.

“As we have noted in the past, Christians in Europe are not simply experiencing social discrimination, prejudice, or restrictions on freedom.

“Christians, including clergy, have been attacked or killed for their faith. As in previous years we have continued to see threats and attacks against Christian converts from Islam.

“We have seen churches all over Europe vandalized, robbed, and burned, and Christian symbols destroyed.”

The report cites “troubling” instances of Christian converts being refused asylum across Europe and cites in particular the “problematic” case earlier this year of an Iranian convert whose application was rejected by the UK Home Office because it disagreed with his claim that Christianity was a “peaceful religion in contrast to Islam”.

The Home Office rejection letter quoted Matthew, Revelation, and Exodus from the Bible to challenge the asylum seeker’s claim. Following public outcry over the letter, the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid ordered an urgent investigation into how the asylum applications of Christian converts are handled.

Other instances of discrimination against Christians drawing concern from the Observatory include the introduction next year of a new Relationships and Sex Education curriculum by the Government that will teach about LGBT relationships. Being introduced in September 2020, parents will only have the automatic right of withdrawing their children from the sex education component at primary school age.

Elsewhere, the report criticises the arrest of street preachers, including Oluwole Ilesanmi, who won damages for wrongful arrest outside a London Tube station earlier this year; buffer zones around abortion clinics preventing Christians from praying or handing out information about alternatives to abortion; and the prevalence of ‘no-platforming’ at British universities.

It also warns that in spite of a victory in the UK courts, the Ashers bakery case could have long lasting negative consequences for Christian bakers.

The Ashers bakery in Belfast was sued by a gay rights campaigner after refusing to make a cake decorated with a pro-gay marriage message. The Christian family who own the business eventually won their case at the UK Supreme Court.

Commenting on the case, the Observatory said: “The chilling effect of the protracted litigation against the bakery, despite its eventual UK victory, is likely to be that other bakeries will either just agree to make a cake with a message they disapprove of, or to stop making custom cakes altogether.

“Further, there is nothing in the court’s judgment that protects the right to refuse to bake a custom cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony.”

Later in the report, the Observatory said that acts of vandalism against churches and Christian sites were on the rise in parts of Europe.

“Acts of vandalism and desecration take place more frequently than many would expect — and are increasing in many countries in Europe,” it warned.

Speculating on the motives, the Observatory said that churches as well as Christian cemeteries and symbols could be “lightning rods” for different groups.

“For Islamists, they represent the Christian West; for anarchists, they are symbols of authority; for radical feminists, they represent the patriarchy. Finally, for other vandals, churches and other Christian sites are simply easy targets,” it said.

The report concludes with a call for greater respect and tolerance to be shown towards Christians and the Christian faith perspective.

It makes a number of recommendations, including asking employers “to reasonably accommodate the Christian beliefs of your staff, especially with regard to Sunday observance, the wearing of religious symbols and the expressions of faith and values, in the workplace or in private, as well as to accommodate conscientious objections.”

It also asks national governments to protect religious freedom and to “refrain from introducing laws, including hate speech codes, that discriminate directly or indirectly against Christians or interfere with freedom of religion or freedom of expression.”

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Freedom of religion or belief ‘continues to be a priority’ for the UK

The Government has told the United Nations that freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) “continues to be a priority for the United Kingdom”.

In a statement marking the end of the UN’s 34th Universal Periodic Review of human rights, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said that the Government remained “deeply concerned by the scale and severity of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief around the world”.

Lord Ahmad, the Government’s Minister of State for the UN, said that work was “already underway” to implement the recommendations of an independent review into religious freedom violations undertaken by the Bishop of Truro on behalf of the Foreign Office.

The review warned that the persecution of Christians worldwide was coming close to “genocide”, but it also profiled the plight of other minority groups suffering for their faith, including the Yazidi and Rohingya.

The final report recommended that the Government initiate a new Security Council Resolution calling on all governments in the Middle East and North Africa to protect Christians, and impose sanctions on countries guilty of the worst religious freedom violations.

At the time of its release in July, the Government pledged to accept all of the recommendations.

Lord Ahmad, the Government’s former Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief said: “Although the UK already does a lot to stand up for the millions of people around the world who are denied the right to have and practise a religion, belief, or no belief at all, according to their conscience, we know there is always more we can do.

“That is why, last year, we commissioned an independent Review into the support that the Foreign Office provides to persecuted Christians around the world. Work is already underway to implement its recommendations, which will not just support Christians, but members of other persecuted faith and belief communities too.

“I hope our Review encourages other Governments – even those where human rights are well established and upheld by the law – to explore what more they can do to support some of the most vulnerable people around the world.”

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The Church’s enthusiasm to mentor new leaders often doesn’t include the disabled

Kay Morgan-Gurr, co-founder of the Additional Needs Alliance, calls on the Church to see disabled people as leaders too.

It was a while ago now. I’d done a training day on working with children who have additional needs. I’d taken it on at the last minute as the original trainer was ill, and despite the short notice the day had gone well.

Then came a comment that was meant as a compliment: “You were actually quite good for a disabled person.”

The person who said it meant well, and I accepted it as a compliment. It happened a long time ago, but it came to mind as I saw various adverts online using a negative phrase to promote services.

So, I decided to test this. I suggested to friends and colleagues that maybe I should use that compliment on my blog as advertising. One colleague suggested a different wording: “Disabled speaker actually turned out to be very good... who knew?”. That made me splutter my coffee as I read it!

Laughter aside, let’s look at this a little more seriously.

This compliment shows an unintentional bias on who is considered able to be a volunteer, leader or speaker in our churches.

I still get the “not bad for a woman” comment when I speak, preach or train (sometimes tongue in cheek), but it’s so old now it just washes over me. I see there is a theological debate that some are still struggling with and I can leave it there.

But there is no such theological debate behind being a person in ministry when you have a disability. So why the reaction?

It’s partly the history of charity and pity in the church towards ‘the deserving poor’, which included people with disabilities.

Much of the charity and pity remain, not deliberately, but it’s there.

Often, when I speak at conferences, the steward on the door won’t let me in, saying “I can’t let you in yet, the speaker isn’t here”. I’m quite naughty and sometimes string the steward along as they ask me if I’m looking forward to hearing the speaker. The need to set up then takes over and I have to admit it’s me. We have a laugh, move on and they have learned a valuable lesson. I’ve even been turned away from a leader’s prayer meeting by a guest refusing to open a door for me – because “disabled people can’t be leaders.” This is the more politically correct version of what the guest said.

I’ve been fortunate in having people who mentor me and believe in my gifting. This is something very few disabled people are afforded, but should be.

Here’s a question for you: in your quest to find and mentor young leaders, would you consider a disabled young person?

Some autistic young people are often overlooked because of misinformation. For example; many believe they don’t have empathy, but the truth is – they have so much it can physically hurt.

I recently heard of a visually impaired person being turned down for ministry because the person in leadership couldn’t ‘see’ how it could work (the pun wasn’t intended!).

Again, I am fortunate to be in a church where the leaders see my giftings above my physical limitations, but I know from stories I hear that my situation is unusual. All the difficulties I face with preconceived ideas happen in the itinerant world of ministry, not with my sending church. For many with disabilities they fall at the first hurdle of persuading their leadership they can serve and minister.

Regularly, when speaking at conferences I get a face shoved too close to mine with a shouted, over-articulated comment along the lines of “well done for coming, especially with, err your struggles. Why did you want to come?” Once this was followed by “Such a lovely outfit, did you choose it yourself?” When I reply with “oh, I have the privilege of speaking this afternoon,” I get an awkward silence, followed by an incredulous “really? No, I mean.... that’s great....”

What can we do about this unintentional bias about disabled people in ministry?

We need dialogue. Not in a patronising way, but in a way that the conversation is heard and understood in all levels of the church.

Our churches need to be challenged to look for gifting in all areas of the church and not be afraid to disciple and mentor those who may be different.

There is much to be given by those with an intellectual disability. You don’t have to be able to see and hear to serve, lead or teach. And I prove on a daily basis that wheels are not an obstacle to mission – the structures involved might be, but not my inability to walk far.

People often quote Matthew 9:37: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” They are right. Maybe this is because we overlook the one in five people in our churches who are disabled, just because they are disabled. We need to remember that those with disabilities are often uniquely placed to minister where others are not.

Here’s a challenge. Over the next year, actively look for people with disabilities in your churches and help them to either find or hone their giftings. Disciple and nurture them and release them into their ministry. Then tell the stories of blessings that have come from this, because you may encourage another church to do the same.

Then hit repeat.

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Church minister who used to guard Berlin Wall says collapse was a ‘triumph’

Today Peter Sutton is a minister in the Church of Scotland but 30 years ago he was a soldier patrolling one of the most famous checkpoints in history – Checkpoint Charlie.

The concrete barrier represented both the physical and ideological division of Berlin – and Germany – separating the west of the city from the east between 1961 and 1989.

Saturday marked the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the wall that was despised by so many Germans on both sides, a feat that many in the country had feared would never happen.

Rev Sutton used to sleep just yards away from the Wall while serving as a guard at the checkpoint.

The former platoon commander with the 1st Battalion Black Watch was responsible for the 30 men whose job it was to protect the British sector of Berlin up.

“I really enjoyed my tour in West Berlin because it was an exciting, vibrant place to be,” he said.

“Our role was to ensure that the Russians did not take over the city and make it part of East Germany.

“It was a city full of ‘spies’ and an exciting posting everyone wanted because historically it linked you back to all those War films and commando comics we had grown up with.

“I was stationed there until a few months before the Wall fell and although Berlin did not feel dangerous per se, people were still being shot if they came over it.

“You would not climb over it for a joke.”

The Wall was erected by the German Democratic Republic in 1961 to stop the mass defections to the West.

It ran just behind the base where Rev Sutton was stationed, although one barrack in the compound was not allowed to house British soldiers because it was technically in the Russian sector of the city.

“Visitors would stay in the officers mess and we would go to the Wall with them and chip off a bit of it for them to keep as a souvenir,” he added.

Rev Sutton, who two years earlier was a guard at Berlin’s Spandau Prison where Adolf Hitler’s deputy, Rudolph Hess was held, remembered making frequent trips to East Berlin and finding it a very different place from the West.

“It was a different world with a different mindset and was like going back in time by 30 years,” he recalled.

“It was grey and drab, nothing really had been repaired and you came back with a splitting headache because of all the fumes from the fuel used in Trabant cars.

“I speak a little German and I remember one time when I was in my uniform a little girl pointed at my kilt and asked her mother ‘why is that man wearing a skirt?’

“She couldn’t explain because she did not know what Scotland was or anything about our national dress.

“It was not part of how they were educated.”

He remembers a Russian officer hinting to him that things were about to change in Germany.

“There was a British military train that connected Berlin to West Germany and travelled through the iron corridor and my job as train officer was to present passports for inspection,” he said.

“I was chatting with the inspecting Russian officer and asked him if he thought we would be doing this in 20 years’ time and he said ‘I think there are about to be big changes’ and a couple of months later the Wall came down.”

Just a few months before the Wall was pulled down, Rev Sutton was reposted to South Armagh in Northern Ireland.

He recalls watching the dramatic events unfold in an army patrol base there, and finding it to be a “great moment of celebration” but also “quite poignant”.

“We sat there and thought, if they can tear down barriers in Europe, what on earth is going on in Northern Ireland where communities are divided and we are surrounded by huge breeze block walls and in constant danger?” he said.

Rev Sutton is now 54 and the minister of St Cuthbert’s Parish Church in Edinburgh.

He continued: “For me, the fall of the Berlin Wall symbolised triumph and hope over potential disaster, a bit like that piece of beautiful music, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

“Watching it come down was a joyful moment and historically, if you were to follow the pattern of the Cold War it should have ended in mutually assured destruction.”

The father of five thinks there are lessons that can be learned from history for Brexit Britain today.

“People realised that was not the way to go and it was much better to tear down barriers and make it open and possible for people to engage and travel amongst each other,” he said.

“But here we are on the cusp of leaving the European Union and I think barriers are being built again which is very sad, particularly in the case of Northern Ireland which has paid a heavy price for peace and reconciliation.

“For today’s political class, which on the whole never really got involved in the Cold War or the Troubles in Northern Ireland, to put that in jeopardy for their own ends is incredibly disingenuous and disrespectful.”

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The best gift this Christmas can be a simple visit

Louise Morse, of the Pilgrims’ Friend Society, on the powerful impact a simple visit can have on people living with dementia.

Christmas is a time for getting together. Families and relatives will be coming from near and far and churches will be visiting older people in care homes. Yet people often shy away from visiting people with dementia because the normal ground rules don’t apply, and they don’t know how to communicate effectively. But although they don’t know it, they bring with them an invisible gift that can be life-changing.

‘What’s the point in visiting her, now she doesn’t remember who I am?’ a daughter was asked by her mother’s friend. Heather says one of the most hurtful things about caring for her mother with dementia was seeing how her friends dropped away, one by one. ‘They didn’t see how much their visits meant to her,’ Heather recalled sadly.

They may not have realised it, but when they visited they were helping her mother retain her sense of identity, even though she’d forgotten theirs.

The most important aspect of dementia care is helping to hold the person’s identity together, said Professor Tom Kitwood of Bradford University, and ‘Identity remains when others help to hold it in place.’ (Dementia Reconsidered, OUP 2010, p 81).

Author Christine Bryden, after being diagnosed with Young Onset Dementia at the age of 46, realised the importance of personal connections and visiting. In a talk at an international conference she appealed:

‘‘If I enjoy your visit, why must I remember it? Why must I remember who you are? Is this just to satisfy your OWN need for identity?

So please allow Christ to work through you. Let me live in the present. If I forget a pleasant memory, it does not mean that it was not important for me.”

Tips for visiting and communicating well are given in a new little book, ‘Visiting the Person with Dementia’, with contributions from Dr Jennifer Bute, FRCGP, psychogeriatric nurse Janet Jacob, and author and cognitive behavioural therapist Louise morse.

Advice ranges from the practical to the spiritual. For example, you should always greet people living with dementia from the front, smiling widely as though seeing them has made your day. Never tap a person with dementia on the shoulder from the back which could startle them and cause a violent reaction. Always sit so you are at eye level, and slightly to one side so you aren’t overpowering.

Know as much as you can about the person before you visit so you can choose topics to talk about that are relevant to them. Be prepared to sit quietly, but also be comfortable gently ‘burbling’ about different things until the person responds to something that catches their attention.

One of our volunteer’s most effective visits was simply supporting a resident’s hand as she quoted familiar scripture verses to her, smiling and keeping eye contact. Vera had lost the ability to speak but her face was aglow as the Holy Spirit ministered to her. Spiritual support is key for Christians with dementia, and it’s good to know that ‘deep calls to deep’ (psalm 42:7). God knows each person intimately (psalm 139) and the Holy Spirit will minister this truth.

[Visiting a Person with Dementia is available from Pilgrims’ Friend Society. See for more information]

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Most Brits don’t believe the Bible is relevant to their own lives

A new study by the Bible Society has found that only a minority of Brits see the Bible as relevant to their own lives.

In the survey of nearly 20,000 adults, only 18% said that the Bible was “relevant to them personally”.

This was despite 40% of those surveyed saying that they were Christian.

Over half (52%) of the respondents agreed that it was important to know the Bible because it has shaped British culture, and a majority (61%) said that it was good for children to know Bible stories.

The survey underscored Britain’s increasing secularisation, with just under half (49%) saying that they were not religious, and the same proportion saying that there was “definitely, or probably, not a God or gods”.

By comparison, only 38% said that there “definitely or probably is” a God or gods.

The survey was carried out by YouGov on behalf of Bible Society to coincide with the launch of the charity’s new online resource, Lumino, aimed at helping church leaders map the spiritual ground in their own communities.

Users can utilise video resources, as well as enter their location to access valuable data about their constituency, including churchgoing frequency, religious affiliations and interest in the Bible.

Bible Society Chief Executive Paul Williams said: “The idea that people are closed to the idea of faith is simply incorrect. Our research shows there’s a wide variation in how people think of Christianity and the Bible, and many are far more open to a conversation about them than is sometimes assumed.

“Lumino grew out of a large-scale deep listening exercise. It’s aimed at giving church leaders and Bible communicators the tools to understand the spiritual make-up of their communities so they can be confident in presenting the message of the Bible to them.

“Our research is also an important reminder that headline figures about falling church attendance don’t do justice to the richness and complexity of the religious landscape of England and Wales. A nuanced understanding of what people really think about faith is essential if we’re to build a civil society that respects and values all its members.”

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