We must protect signs of faith

HORRIFIC reports of an attack on a Catholic professor in Kerala, India, have dramatically underlined the need for religious tolerance.

Assailants cut of the hand and right arm of Professor TJ Joseph following accusations that he had defamed the Prophet Mohammed. He had been on his way back from Church.

However Conservative MP Phillip Hollobone’s recent bid to ban the Muslim veil in Britain raises questions that are uncomfortable to answer. How can we try to ban the burqa and niqab while remaining an effective voice in the struggle taking place to defend Christianity, such as the ongoing attempt to defend the right to display the Crucifix in Europe? Wouldn’t that make us hypocrites?

And before you cry the two are not related, there is no comparison in the dilemmas, it is apples and oranges, answer this: Aren’t both the burqa and the Crucifix public signs of religious heritage?

The bottom line is we must protect our Christian heritage, but we should not attempt to do so by suppressing the religious and cultural freedoms of others. If we do how can we criticise oppressive regimes for the self same behaviour? We must protect our rights and the rights of others.

The issue of displaying the Crucifix in public schools originated in Italy and has gone as far as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Ms Soile Lautsi, a Finnish-born Italian citizen, said that her children’s religious and educational freedom in a school in northern Italy was compromised by the presence of Crucifixes. She sought a favourable ruling in Europe when her attempts to have them removed from the classroom through the Italian judicial system were unsuccessful.

Italy was joined in its appeal last month by 10 of the 47 countries that make up the Council of Europe. While Britain was not one of them, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, our most senior Catholic clergyman, has made his feeling known on the subject.

“As we await the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in regard to the display of religious symbols in state schools we need to remember how sweeping the implications of this decision could be,” he said. “The precious religious heritage of many people and nations across Europe as well as the values of authentic tolerance and freedom of belief that are propounded in democratic societies are under threat.”

He added: “In a society which does not have a proper understanding of Christianity it is our duty as Christians to explain that the Cross symbolises the generosity of God who offers freedom and salvation to all. It is not an imposition of religion but rather an invitation and a sign of Christian solidarity with all peoples.”

The Italian appeal was also was strongly supported by the Vatican which could not join directly in the appeals process because it has only observer status with the Council of Europe.

A decision on the case, expected last month, has been delayed. The appeals body, known as the Grand Chamber, is now expected to rule on the appeal this autumn.

The burning question is how are we to argue and win our case on displaying the Crucifix on the strength of the values of freedom and tolerance, which are integral to our Christian heritage, while in Britain we are considering suppressing the heritage of others? Questions over whether some Muslim women are pressured into wearing face coverings ignore the fact that some actually choose to do so.

Prior to launching his Face Coverings (Regulation) private member’s bill Mr Hollobone spoke in the Commons on the issue.

“In my view and that of my constituents, the niqab and the burqa are oppressive dress codes that are regressive as regards the advancement of women in our society,” he said.

“The phrase that has been given to me time and again is, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ This is Britain; we are not a Muslim country. Covering one’s face in public is strange, and to many people it is intimidating and offensive. I seriously think that a ban on wearing the niqab or the burqa in public should be considered.”

However, as Cardinal O’Brien, said: “Europe is a multicultural and pluralistic continent where Church and State are clearly separated and the rights of believers and non-believers are respected.”

Respecting differences does not mean we are rejecting the Christian tradition of our nation, it means we are not stamping on the cultural and religious traditions of others.

‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.’ [Matthew 7:12]

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One Response to “We must protect signs of faith”

  1. catholicteuchtar Says:

    Good post.

    I was going to say, a reminder that whilst we are under attack, a siege mentality does no favours to anyone least of all a public perception of our faith.

    On the other hand I haven’t seen my friend have his arm cut of. That is a level we are not used to here, in the comfort zones of the west complaining about “burqas”!

    Also, tolerance in the form of silence is not what we are called to either.

    very tricky.

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