Belfast Telegraph

Wave goodbye to this religious pontification

People are well-used to finding church leaders’ comments offensive, writes Liam Clarke. But why should they be judged differently to the rest of us?

Is it right that a visiting head of state should have carte blanche to attack our customs, our laws and the freedoms of our citizens enshrined in law? Should he feel free to use his visit to rally opposition to human rights legislation?

In advance of his UK state visit, the Pope has claimed that planned equality legislation “violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded”, and called upon Catholic Church leaders to oppose it with “missionary zeal”. He wants churches and religious charities, funded by the state through tax exemptions and sometimes grants, to be allowed to discriminate against women, gays and non-believers without any legal or financial consequences.

In other countries, Pope Benedict has opposed the distribution of condoms to combat the spread of Aids, promoted segregated education and opposed the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Even as he has lectured the rest of the world on sexual morality, child sex-abuse scandals have rocked his church, undermining its authority in the eyes of many members. Normally this sort of intervention by a head of state would entail diplomatic consequences, even a withdrawal of the invitation. Of course, the argument runs, the Pope is not just, or even mainly, a head of state. He is the leader of the world’s largest religious organisation, as well as of the largest single denomination in the UK and Ireland. That is undoubtedly the case, but religious leaders are not automatically accorded a state visit.

A religious leader pays his own way when he travels abroad and is not guaranteed honours such as a reception with the head of the state. The head of a foreign government receives these courtesies, but is expected to keep his or her nose out of political affairs and respect local sensitivities.

If it wasn’t the headquarters of the Catholic Church, the Vatican state would hardly merit official recognition. It was set up under the Lateran Treaty, a sweetheart deal with Mussolini’s fascist |dictatorship in 1929. Just over 800 people live in its 110 acres. This tiny fiefdom is not a democracy and is funded largely by the sale of stamps and souvenirs.

As Simon Hughes, a Labour MP and himself a Catholic, points out, the pontiff should ensure existing EU legislation was applied in the Vatican, rather than attacking the UK. Were he not the Pope, the leader of such a regime would not merit much of a hearing on international affairs. The Vatican state is just the starkest example of the special treatment religious bodies claim.

Currently, some Muslim women are claiming the right to wear a burqa in circumstances where any other form of mask would be forbidden. In society, people have to be recognised, that is why you can’t do your business in a bank wearing a balaclava or even a motorcycle helmet. Why should a burqa be different?

Some religious privileges are justified. It is beyond doubt that religiously motivated people contribute vastly to charitable work, motivated by their faith. It is right, and in everyone’s interests, that this work should be encouraged and it is one of Stormont’s better moves to set up a Faith Forum to encourage public service by the religiously motivated.

There is a payoff for the religious groups in that their faith is showcased by their works and may motivate non-believers to join or support them. There is no argument that those who lead an exemplary life will inspire others, and the overall good done as a result is worth a little encouragement from government.

If religious leaders confined themselves to giving an example of charity, compassion and kindness, it would speak for itself in a way that moral lectures don’t.What isn’t right, or justified, is that religious bodies should, in consequence of their beliefs, claim special exemptions from the laws that govern the rest of us and guarantee our rights as citizens.

Here in Northern Ireland, Iris Robinson’s outrageous comments on homosexuality, possibly fuelled by mental instability, were given a special privilege because she mentioned, and sometimes misquoted, the Bible. If the same comments were made on the basis of deeply-held political or philosophical convictions — for instance by a fascist — it is unlikely that they would have been broadcast.

The Bible also prescribes stoning to death for adultery, which is specifically forbidden in the 10 commandments. The Devil, it is said, can quote scripture and anyone can mine a book like the Bible or the Koran for passages to suit their prejudices and needs. That doesn’t mean that a civilised country should give legal effect or protection to religious beliefs.

Yet some of our politicians argue that that should happen. Last October, for instance, Lord Browne of the DUP succeeded in getting the law of blasphemous libel — that is, a libel against God — retained in Northern Ireland, when it was repealed in the rest of the UK. It is a ridiculous provision and there has never been a prosecution. Who can suppose that an almighty being would be |offended by the statements of mortals? Or, if so, would not |be able to mete out punishment unaided?

Even moderate religious leaders, like Lord Eames, the former Church of Ireland Primate, supported its removal, but Browne successfully argued that it should be left to the Northern Ireland Assembly — where the DUP can veto it. Ironically, the most offensive things said about religions are said, not by non-believers, but by followers of rival faiths. Ian Paisley parodied the Mass, called |the Pope the anti-Christ and described Cardinal Daly, an opponent of violence, as the “Black Pope of the IRA”.

The current Pope has an equally sharp tongue when it comes to other faith communities. He has described Buddhism as “spiritually self-indulgent eroticism”, said that Protestant churches are not churches at all and that dialogue with other religions is impossible if it is based on equality. He insulted Muslims when he equated their religion with unreason and quoted a Byzantine emperor, who was at war with Islam, to the effect that Mohammed’s only original contributions were evil and inhuman.

Most people take offensive comments from religious leaders with a pinch of salt — it’s what they do.

But why should they be judged by a more lenient standard than the rest of us?

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