Christians free from the jaws of death
During the past few days, there have been two stories that have concerned me concerning Christians whose very lives were in danger. The first of these was the story of Abdul Rahman who faced death in Afghanistan for the heinous crime of converting from Islam to Christianity. That Mr Rahman has had his life spared is a relief although the reports suggest that he might have been taken to a psychiatric hospital. Excuse me but this leaves me feeling somewhat uncomfortable. You see, I remember how in East Europe, all too often political dissidents ended up in such institutions. Let's be straight on this matter. Mr Rahman came to a conclusion that a religion other than the one he was brought up in, was now what he believed in. That should be the end of the matter. However, some people are so convinced of their rightness that they were prepared to have this man killed. All I can say to such religious fascists is, "Tough on you! Grow up and get over it!" If people have nothing better to do than to demand the death penalty or indeed any other penalty over a matter of conscience, then they should take up knitting or some other trivial pursuit.
Part of my irritation at this case, however, is that the actions of the mob and the craven cowardice of the Afghan Government in not repealing such laws, serves to lesson the possibilities of religious dialogue. For much of its history, Islam has been more tolerant than Christianity. Certainly the Muslims who liberated Jerusalem in 641 CE treated the Jews much better than the Christians who had previously held sway. Melanie Wright from the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations in Cambridge contends in her book, "Understanding Judaism;"
"Yet for much of the medieval period Jews fared better in Muslim lands than in Christian ones"
She is right. Too often in our history, it is Christianity that has shown the face of intolerance. Yet today, I know of no Christian country that has legal sanctions against Christians who convert to Islam. Why should it be otherwise?
I have listened to my Muslim friends with sympathy about events in Chechenya, Iraq and Palestine. Many of their concerns deserve to be taken very seriously. However, stances on human rights cannot just be based according to the self interest of one's own group. Nothing would demonstrate Western Islam coming of age more than for it to take a lead in campaigning against penal measures which are directed against those who change faith anywhere in the world.
I appreciate that there is within Islam a concern regarding apostacy. However,the Quranic concern and that within the early Islamic community, was surely down to the difficulties of a community fighting for its existence, a community who morale could easily be sapped by deserters.
To me the true Quranic message is;
"There is no compulsion in religion"
The other Christians freed in the past few days were the three surviving members of the Christian Peacemaker Team who had been held hostage in Iraq. Whether they were wise in what they did is a matter concerning which a range of opinions might be held. There was to be fair a certain irony in their rescue coming through the military given the pacifism of CPTs. However, I cannot but hold these guys and other members of their teams in other places in high esteem. They challenge my all too easy going Christianity with their brand of heroic courage in following the Biblical injunction to be peacemakers.
In a world that is all too wedded to violence as the means of solving problems, their brand of non violence serves to remind us of another way that I see in its fullness in Christ.
Since returning, Norman Kember has been the subject of some of the most vile abuse that I can recall. A General who should have known better was within hours on television criticising Mr Kember for an alleged lack of gratitude. As pointed out by Jonathan Bartley of Ekklesia, the criticisms failed to take account of the trauma that Mr Kember had been throughor the fact that he had only just learnt of the death of his American friend Tom Fox. Incidentally, I was shocked to read that a clearly devout Christian such as Colonel Mike Dewar could tell the nation through Jeremy Vine's Radio 2 show that weapons are God's "tools" for "use." For what it is worth I find that sort of comment to be blasphemous! That does not mean that the courage of soldiers should be ignored even by those of us who have huge difficulties with the notion of military force.
Anyhow, I am sure that both of these stories will continue to reverberate around the world. They raise issues that are impossible to ignore.