Belfast Telegraph

Peter Lynas: Freedom of speech means I must accept Boojum's right to make a joke at the expense of my beliefs... though it must accept the consequences of mocking world's largest faith

But will the Belfast burrito chain be similarly offensive to Muslims with a cartoon about Muhammad during Ramadan? Peter Lynas thinks not

The boojum advert
The boojum advert
A Sri Lankan woman can't hide her devastation at the funeral of one of the bomb victims

Boojum seems to be following a well-worn path: make a joke about religion and hope for an outcry, leading to free publicity. However, Boojum made two mistakes.

First, jokes are supposed to be funny and Boojum forgot the humour. Second, they mocked Christianity following a weekend during which hundreds of Christians had been killed in Sri Lanka attending Easter Sunday services.

Over 300 have lost their lives in the attacks in Sri Lanka. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility, though Sri Lanka's government has blamed a local Islamist group, National Thowheed Jamath.

The attacks targeted a number of churches and hotels. Western news outlets have focused on the tourists who died, with much less comment on the death of local Christians.

There are almost two million Christians living in Sri Lanka and they make up 9.4% of the population. The country is only ranked 46 on Open Doors' World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution.

Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist nation and so, while Christians from more historical Churches enjoy some freedom in expressing their faith, believers from Buddhist backgrounds are treated as second-class citizens and can face slander and attacks. On this occasion, it appears Islamic terror groups targeted Christians on their most important holy day: Easter Sunday.

Freedom of religion and freedom of speech are vital, perhaps even critical, to democracy. Freedom of religion allows rugby players to articulate their beliefs, bakers not to make certain cakes and people to change their beliefs.

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We at the Evangelical Alliance worked with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission on an animation highlighting the importance of freedom of religion.

It is much wider than freedom to worship, which the government has often sought to narrow this right to.

Faith impacts every area of life. Freedom to worship is important, but freedom of religion is much wider, allowing religion to be practised by everyone, everywhere, every day.

Freedom of speech means I must accept Boojum's right to attempt a joke at the expense of the faith that has shaped my life. But they must also accept the consequences of mocking the world's largest faith.

Many of all faiths - and none - will think they have been insensitive and crass - mocking Christians here while those in Sri Lanka died for their beliefs.

I look forward to their social media feed during Ramadan; will they be similarly offensive to Muslims with a cartoon about Muhammad? I suspect - and hope - not.

To be fair to Boojum, they at least acknowledge the historical fact that Jesus rose from the dead - their cartoon shows him emerging from the tomb. This moment changed the world forever, regardless of whether you believe it or not.

Shops are closed on Easter Sunday because Jesus rose from the dead. Children are off school at Easter because Jesus rose from the dead.

For most, Sunday is a day off, whether you attend church or not, because it is the first day of the week - the day Jesus rose from the dead.

However, when it comes to why Jesus rose from the dead, the theology of Boojum is just a little off; it has nothing to do with burritos. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a game-changer. Though he declared "it is finished" from the cross on Good Friday, it is the resurrection that truly sets Christianity apart from other religions. It is the source of hope for the families of those tragically killed in Sri Lanka.

Death is not the end. Jesus leads the resurrection parade. As the book of Colossians in the Bible reminds us, in Jesus, all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies. All because of Jesus's life, death and resurrection.

Christianity is the largest and the most persecuted religion in the world. It has more than two billion adherents, but Christians are not free to practice their faith in many countries, including North Korea, Eritrea, Sudan and Pakistan.

Many may remember the story of Asa Bibi, who was cleared of blasphemy in Pakistan, but remains under lock and key due to "complications".

And now our Christian brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka are even less safe to practice their faith - killed in the simple act of attending church on Easter Sunday morning.

The UK Government is slowly recognising the problem and has set up a working party to look at religious persecution around the world. But more needs to be done. If people do not have freedom of religion, they are not truly free at all.

There also seems to be a reluctance to speak in clear terms about Christian persecution.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both spoke of the tragedy of "Easter worshippers" being killed in Sri Lanka.

Their statements seem to studiously avoid saying the word "Christian". Why is there a reluctance to talk about Christian persecution?

Let me be clear: Christians in Northern Ireland are not persecuted. Others around the world are and we undermine the very real threat they face when we misuse the word "persecution".

However, freedom of religion is a central democratic value.

It is essential to those of all faiths and none.

We ignore it at our peril.

Free speech allows us to challenge - and, yes, even mock - the beliefs of others. But it is interesting to see how those who criticised Israel Folau seem very quiet when it comes to Christianity being mocked and denigrated.

I support the right to both Israel Folau and Boojum to free speech. I do not think either used the right wisely, but that is ultimately their choice.

So, thank you, Boojum, for your bad joke. You wanted to make this story all about you, but have provoked a wider conversation.

But the point of Easter is not a taco, or a wrap, but the unwrapped grave clothes.

That first Easter, as the women brought their spices, there wasn't the smell of a burrito, or for that matter the stench of a dead body; instead, they found an empty grave and the resurrected Christ.

Suffering and death had been defeated and so we can say to our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka, death is not the end. Christ is risen and so the hope of resurrection is open to us all.

Peter Lynas heads the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland

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