Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

We know high price to be paid for religious bigotry

War wounds: a Palestinian leans against the damaged wall of a building in Gaza City’s Shijaiyah
War wounds: a Palestinian leans against the damaged wall of a building in Gaza City’s Shijaiyah

Not long ago The Times ran a front-page story with the banner headline 'Wars of Religion'. There was also a picture of a minority sect in Iraq fleeing from militant Islamic fighters who were out to kill them.

The next day the US was drawn again into the conflict when President Obama ordered an air strike against the vicious Isis militants who were closing in on Christian refugees and also on US-owned oilfields in the same area of Northern Iraq.

He had no option but to do so, because the extremely vicious troops of the new Islamic State had been rampaging through large parts of Syria and Iraq. In the process they took thousands of captives, and many of these Christian people were beheaded or crucified because of their religion.

Not for many decades has there been such upheaval in the so-called Wars of Religion.

The very idea of a war about religion, and the resultant attempted genocide of whole groups of Christians, is hard to accept in the secularist mind.

In the West the influence of religion is being threatened by concerted intellectual attacks from secularists like Richard Dawkins, and undermined by the indifference of many people to any form of religious or spiritual belief.

Yet, beyond our shores there is a long and grimly-determined battle for world domination being waged by militant Islamists who are attempting to wipe out Christians in many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Almost daily there are stories of anti-Christian atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and elsewhere, and yet there is relatively little comment about this in the West.

Certainly there is not the same feeling of concerted outrage as we have seen about the Israeli attacks on Gaza. This in a sense is another 'religious' war where one state is fighting for its very survival and in the process using extreme violence against not only military targets but also women and children who are deliberately used as a shield by Hamas.

What have all these battles so far away to do with us? The answer is: "Quite a lot." The world is now a small place and we have seen the excesses of militant Islamism in New York, London and other Western cities.

There is also the danger that many young British Islamists who have been hardened by the war in Syria may return home and possibly pose a threat to the UK itself.

So what can we do about it? In Northern Ireland we know only too well the high price to be paid for racism and religious bigotry, and the current developments in the Middle East illustrate how conflicts fuelled by flawed interpretations of religion can spiral into a major conflagration.

Thankfully we have moved on from the days when we used to burn people for their religious beliefs, but we still have far to go if we want to become a truly multi-racial society.

We must worker harder to respect other people's beliefs, even if we don't agree with them, and we must learn to cherish and give more support to the freedom of all religions, including-dare I say it Christianity.

We must also support those people who are trying to find a settlement in the Middle East and to stop genocide in Iraq. And we also have to deal much better with racism and religious bigotry on our own doorstep.

Thought for the weekend: Allen Sleith, Regent Street Presbyterian Church, Newtownards

I know it's tempting for many of us who enjoy sport to pick up a newspaper and turn to the back pages first.

And, as our Rory has re-established his place at the top of the golfing world, the urge to turn to the sports pages is all the more understandable. But really, when you think about it, that's not where it's really at.

Perhaps we all become weary of what makes the main headlines on the front pages but surely our duty, if our claim to any semblance of humanity is credible, is in finding out what's going on in the 'serious' issues of the day, especially the huge international crises of Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Syria and Southern Sudan, to name a few.

The specifics vary but common to each is the dispute over space and place: what some writers call the "boundary situation".

The theologian, Alan Lewis muses: "A boundary is an invisible line, anonymous and ambiguous, easy to ignore and belonging nowhere.

"Yet it exists to create identity and to assign belonging. The division it marks – visibly with a wall, invisibly with a map line – actually creates entities on either side, by at once separating and relating them.

"Neighbourhoods, counties, states, countries, hemispheres: all these are what they are because of the borders which keep them apart yet simultaneously make them adjacent.

"And just because they are so significant in their insignificance, so visible in their invisibility, so creative in their anonymity, boundary points become places of tension, argument – and insight.

"Though it is at the boundary between them that rivals compete, it is also at their meeting point, and looking both ways, that one can see both sides and secure a bilateral perspective from which to judge between their arguments, and perhaps a balancing point or axis upon which to affirm them both."

In Christian belief, the axis upon which all else revolves, and that decisive event in which even the most seemingly intractable of conflicts is resolved, at least in principle, is the cross of Christ in which God was reconciling the world unto himself (2 Corinthians 5). The church's paradox is to accept that gift even as we work out its details in boundary situations on the ground.

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