Church of England bishops join calls for end to indefinite migrant detention

Home Office minister Brandon Lewis said: ‘The Panorama footage is extremely disturbing and the sort of behavior on display is utterly unacceptable. The dignity and welfare of all those in our care is of the utmost importance and we are taking this very seriously.

Church of England bishops are accusing politicians of ‘dehumanizing’ migrants after an investigation unearthed ‘shocking’ levels of abuse at an immigration detention center.

In a rare move 17 bishops plus other senior officials and different church leaders are coming together urging the government to end indefinite detention in the wake of a BBC Panorama documentary that described Brook House immigration center as ‘a toxic, brutal and failing environment where self-harming is common place’.

In a letter to the Telegraph on Wednesday the bishops say they are ‘deeply concerned’ by the findings and accuse ‘some politicians and sectors of the media’ of dehumanizing immigrants.

‘Yet again it raises questions about our immigration policy and practice in this country,’ they write. ‘We fear that this treatment is symptomatic of a rhetoric fostered by some politicians and sectors of the media that dehumanizes immigrants and paints the public as “victims” of immigration.’

Signed by the Bishop of Durham Paul Butler, the third most senior figure in the CofE, as well as several other senior bishops and the chief inspector of prisons Lord Ramsbotham, the letter adds: ‘As a nation we must demand better than this – both for our own citizens in whose names this takes place, and for all who find themselves in the system.’

t was organised by former G4S manager and now whistle-blower and priest, Nathan Ward. It echoes his call for an absolute cap on 28 days of detention with court approval needed to hold any immigrant for longer than 72 hours.

Ward said: ‘This is not about immigration; it is about ending inhumane practices which are expensive and infective. The UK is a developed nation with high standards – we must demand better than this for our detention centres.’

The criticism aimed at ‘some politicians’ for dehumanising migrants is similar to remarks made by the Archbishop of Canterbury last year where he accused UKIP leader Nigel Farage of racism.

Justin Welby told the home affairs select committee in the build up to the EU referendum Farage was guilty of ‘inexcusable pandering to people’s worries and prejudices, that is giving legitimisation to racism’ and said he was ‘accentuating [people’s] fear for political gain and that is absolutely unacceptable’.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was the first head of the Church of England to give evidence before a House of Commons select committee as he answered questions on migration with the Bishop of DurhamParliament.tv

Home Office minister Brandon Lewis said: ‘The Panorama footage is extremely disturbing and the sort of behavior on display is utterly unacceptable. The dignity and welfare of all those in our care is of the utmost importance and we are taking this very seriously.

‘It is right that G4S took swift action as soon as the allegations were brought to their attention and we will continue to work with them and the police to ensure all necessary action is taken.

‘Detention and removal are essential aspects of effective immigration control and Home Office policy makes clear that detention is only used for the short period necessary. There is a presumption of liberty for all individuals.

‘Home Office policy is clear that detention will only be maintained while there is a reasonable prospect of removal within a reasonable period of time.’

[written by Harry Farley]

Vladimir Putin’s Christianity is a facade, says expelled US missionary

Don and Ruth Ossewaarde. A Baptist preacher, Ossewaarde was fined 40,000 rubles for holding religious services in his home.
Russia is, technically, a secular country – although you wouldn’t know it from the way the Orthodox Church is presented in the Putin-controlled media, says Ossewaarde

It is now well over a year since Vladimir Putin’s Russia passed ‘anti-missionary’ laws and more than 180 cases have since been brought.

Activities ranging from prayer meetings in homes, posting worship times on a religious website and praying in the presence of other citizens have been interpreted as ‘missionary activity’ with Christians making up the vast majority of the law’s victims.

One case is that of Donald Ossewaarde, an American Baptist preacher living in Oryol, who was expelled for hosting a church meeting in his house.

Having lost appeals throughout the Russian judiciary system, Ossewaarde’s case is now with the European Court of Human Rights. Although confident he will win there, Ossewaarde is convinced he will never be allowed back into Russia.  ‘I am quite sure based on precedent they will rule in my favour. But I am not sure it will have a great effect on the situation in Russia,’ he says.

‘Russia has lost many many times in the European Court. Sometimes they pay. Sometimes they ignore its rulings. It doesn’t seem to make a big difference to the way they practise when it rules against them.’

As well as dozens of Christians, the law’s ever broadening reach and interpretation has led to more than 40 Jehovah’s Witness-linked prosecutions as well as four Mormon-related cases, nine Muslims and more than 10 Hindu-linked prosecutions.

But the one religious group not affected by the so-called Yarovaya law is the Russian Orthodox Church.

Speaking to Christian Today at a conference run by ADF International, a legal charity that represents Ossewaarde, he explains his conviction the Church was behind his arrest.

‘I know that they have profited from what has happened to me,’ he says. ‘They are obviously the ones who benefit the most from going after any other form of Christian.’

The Russian Orthodox Church is used ‘as a political’ tool, he says, by Putin whose history raises questions about the sincerity of his faith.

‘With his Communist KGB background I cannot believe he really is a true Christian but he finds it very useful to present himself in that way,’ says Ossewaarde.

‘So he very publicly attends services in the holidays. He and the Patriarch are often photographed together. They are obviously colleagues supporting one another.

‘They [Russian Orthodox leaders] are obviously happy he is president and he [Putin] often speaks of the Orthodox Church as the guarantor of Russian values.’

Don and Ruth Ossewaarde. A Baptist preacher, Ossewaarde was fined 40,000 rubles for holding religious services in his home.

Russia is, technically, a secular country – although you wouldn’t know it from the way the Orthodox Church is presented in the Putin-controlled media, says Ossewaarde.

After it endured systematic persecution under Soviet rule, Putin has made the Russian Orthodox Church emblematic of the socially conservative values his rule promotes.

Around 70 per cent of the population are now members of the ROC and it has grown to be the largest and most powerful of the 14 Orthodox Churches with 144 million members, 368 bishops and about 40,000 priests and deacons.

And with the highest ever numbers of young men entering seminaryto train for the priesthood, the Russian Orthodox Church is set for sharp growth for years to come.

But Ossewaarde is scathing about Putin’s closeness to Patriach Kirill, the Church’s head.

‘It is all a façade,’ he says, bemoaning Putin’s propaganda success in presenting himself at home and internationally as a champion of conservative Christian values by opposing homosexuality and abortion.

‘I think that is all just for show. He portrays himself to the Russian people as a moral leader, a Christian leader. I think that is just a façade he puts on because he knows it sells well.’

Such is the Orthodox Church’s rise since its exile during Communist rule, it is now considered the only patriotic option for Russian citizens. Billboards tell people it is their duty to protect the Orthodox Church and any threat, including from evangelical missionaries like Ossewaarde, is to be resisted.

Although optimistic about the state of his legal case, Ossewaarde is deeply pessimistic about the future of evangelical Christianity in Russia.

If things don’t change this law could be the end of missionary activity there, he says.

‘The way things are right now, Russia seems determined to hold onto this definition of extremism or ‘missionary activity’ as anything that is not Orthodox.’

Evangelicalism, he believes, will be more and more restricted. ‘It’s obviously not welcome. They look at Protestant-evangelical type of groups as being in the same types of category as Jehovah’s Witnesses – some kind of way-out cultish type of faith that they don’t welcome and would rather went away.’

[written by Harry Farley]

How Saudi Arabia’s religion textbooks promote hate against non-Muslims

Saudi Arabia’s school religious studies curriculum contains ‘hateful and incendiary language toward religions’ and labels Jews and Christians ‘unbelievers’ with whom Muslims should not associate..

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) presents US President Donald Trump with the Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud Medal at the Royal Court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Their two countries remain close despite human rights violations in Saudi.Reuters

Saudi Arabia’s school religious studies curriculum contains ‘hateful and incendiary language toward religions’ and labels Jews and Christians ‘unbelievers’ with whom Muslims should not associate, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

A comprehensive review by the charity of religion books produced by the Education Ministry for the 2016-17 school year found that some content that first provoked widespread controversy for violent and intolerant teachings in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, remains today, despite promises by Saudi officials to eliminate the intolerant language.

‘As early as first grade, students in Saudi schools are being taught hatred toward all those perceived to be of a different faith or school of thought,’ said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW. ‘The lessons in hate are reinforced with each following year.’

This research was part of a broader investigation into the use of hate speech and incitement to violence by Saudi officials and religious clerics for a forthcoming HRW report. The curriculum that was reviewed, entitled al-tawhid, or ‘Monotheism,’ consisted of 45 textbooks and student workbooks for the primary, middle, and secondary education levels.

The US Department of State first designated Saudi Arabia a ‘country of particular concern’ under the International Religious Freedom Act for severe violations in 2004, and has continued to do so every year since.

HRW pointed out that while the designation should trigger penalties – including economic sanctions, arms embargoes, and travel and visa restrictions – the US government has had a waiver on penalties in place since 2006, allowing ongoing cooperation between the two countries.

In February 2017, Saudi’s education minister admitted that a ‘broader curriculum overhaul’ was still necessary, but did not offer a timeframe for when this overhaul should be completed.

Saudi Arabia does not allow public worship by adherents of any religion other than Islam, and HRW said: ‘Its public school religious textbooks are but one aspect of an entire system of discrimination that promotes intolerance toward those perceived as “other.”‘

The charity said that the country ‘should address the hostile rhetoric that nonconforming Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and non-Muslim expatriate workers face in Saudi Arabia’.

The curriculum text states that people use shrines as a place to commit acts of illicit innovations or polytheism, including: ‘praying at them, reading at them, sacrificing to them and those [interred] in them, seeking help from them, or making vows by them…’

[written by James Macintyre]

Theologians seek Protestant unity through ‘Reforming Catholic Confession’

More than 500 pastors and theologians have signed a ‘Reforming Catholic Confession’ designed to mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation on October 31, 2017.

Produced by a drafting committee composed almost entirely of US-based scholars, the Confession aims to highlight ‘the Reformers’s original vision for Catholic unity under canonical authority’. It says critics of the Reformation often ‘fixate’ on Protestant divisions. However, it says that ‘despite our genuine differences, there is a significant and substantial doctrinal consensus that unites us as “mere Protestants”.’

Martin Luther in the Circle of Reformers, 1625/1650© Deutsches Historisches Museum

Its sub-heading is: ‘What we, Protestants of diverse churches and theological traditions, say together’.

The Confession includes sections on the Trinity, Scripture, the atoning work of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church and baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

A section entitled ‘explanation’ stresses the Reformers’ original intentions and defends Protestantism from the charge of being inherently divisive. It says: ‘While we regret the divisions that have followed in its wake, we acknowledge the need for the sixteenth-century Reformation, even as we recognize the hopeful possibilities of the present twenty-first century moment.’ The Confession continues: ‘We therefore aim to celebrate the catholic impulse that lies at the heart of the earlier Reformation even as we hope and pray for ever greater displays of our substantial unity in years to come.’

The ‘explanation’ acknowledges Protestant divisions and says the Reformers ‘sometimes succumbed to the ever-present temptations of pride, prejudice, and impatience’. However, it denies divisions were the ‘inevitable consequences’ of the Reformation.

It says that rather than attempting to replace denominational credal formulations, ‘our statement aims at displaying an interdenominational unity in the essentials of the faith and agreement that the Word of God alone has final jurisdiction’. It urges further conversations and dialogue seeking to ‘achieve greater unity’.

Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, who co-chaired the Confession’s steering committee, said that a significant motivating factor of the Confession’s participants is to call the Church to spiritual renewal.

He told the Christian Post: ‘It’s a call for the Church to be the Church in a world that is very much pushing against the things of God in so many different ways, and to believe that God will sustain in the midst of the storms that are all about us.’

George said: ‘I don’t think we can be faithful Christians in the tradition of the Reformation unless we take seriously Jesus’ words and his prayer [in John 17] that his disciples would be one so that the world might believe.’

He said the Confession was ‘a call to recognize that there is a brokenness about us and within us, which we have to pray that God, the Holy Spirit, will heal and mend in our midst. But we don’t think that relaxing into our divisions and accepting the status quo as divinely ordained is the way forward.’

[written by Mark Woods]

Russia’s culture minister warns Orthodox ‘fanatics’ against protesting Tsar film

a-scene-from-uchitels-matildaRussia’s culture minister has made a rare government intervention in the row over Alexei Uchitel’s film Matilda, which tells the story of a romance between Nicholas II, before he became tsar, and a dancer.

Vladimir Medinsky has seen the film and insists there is ‘nothing insulting’ whatsoever to the tsar, regarded as a martyr by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Matilda is set in the 19th century and is slated for release next month.

Its title refers to the half-Polish dancer Matilda Kshesinskaya, who described the relationship in her memoirs.

Russia’s largest operator of movie theaters has already said it will not screen the film amid accusations of ‘blasphemy’ and threats.

Medinsky, Russia’s minister of culture, said the government had tried to refrain from interfering, but his hand has been forced by recent events.

Writing on his Russian ministry website, he says he does not know what has guided those who have started and supported the ‘hubbub’ around the film. ‘Moreover, I am not ready to discern the motivations of the various “activists” who are brazenly calling themselves “Orthodox”. I am often reproached for being too conservative. And as a conservative, I want to say: such self-styled “activists” discredit both the state cultural policy and the Church,’ he writes.

Orthodoxy is about love, not hatred, he states, suggesting that those protesting the film in the name of the Church are no different from ‘fanatics’ of the worst manifestations of other faiths.

‘And now the hysteria has reached unprecedented heat: public threats, the persecution of film authors, arson, the refusal of some movie networks from the rental – just for security reasons.’

Any controversy about the film is now pointless, he says. ‘Personally, I saw the movie. I will not discuss its content – it’s just not right until the audience sees it. But I testify: in it there is nothing insulting either for the memory of Nicholas II, or for the history of the Russian monarchy.’

He said: ‘The Ministry of Culture issues rolling licences to films strictly according to a lawful procedure. The law clearly describes the grounds for refusal. They are not in the case of Matilda. We are guided by the law, and not by private tastes.’

The Russian news site Vedemosti reports that the most vociferous opponent of the film is the State Duma deputy and former Crimean prosecutor Natalya Poklonskaya, who believes that the screening of the film will violate the law, since it offends the feelings of believers.

[written by Ruth Gledhill]

Nigerian pastor to be hanged after setting church members on fire

The case has developed into a large-scale scandal in Nigeria with allegations of sexual abuse made against Ezeuko who made followers call him God or Jesus ‘all the time’.

Chukwuemeka-Ezeugo-rev-Rev.-KingA Nigerian pastor is on death row after dousing several church members in petrol and setting them ablaze.

One congregant died as a result and Emeka Ezeuko, known as Reverend King by his followers, was sentenced on Thursday to death by hanging.

He denied all six charges against him, saying his victims were burnt by an electrical generator exploding, according to local media reports. The case has developed into a large-scale scandal in Nigeria with allegations of sexual abuse made against Ezeuko who made followers call him God or Jesus ‘all the time’.

One witness said he had repeatedly abused her and was made to serve him meals naked. The same victim said she had had four abortions after Ezeuko impregnated her multiple times.

The court in Lagos heard Ezeuko had tortured his followers to force them into confessing to sex outside marriage before setting them alight as a punishment for their sin.

But one witness to the trial said the renegade pastor reacted defiantly to his sentencing.

‘I am not afraid to be hanged. After all Jesus Christ was hanged. That was how Jesus was hanged and the crowd was against him. It is a great honor for me to follow the footpath of the Lord Jesus Christ,’ he shouted to the courtroom.