Are UK Christians the most persecuted in Europe? Obviously not

A religious friend, knowing my interest in international religious freedom issues including the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in authoritarian regimes, recently sent me a copy of Under pressure: Human rights of Christians in Europe – Top 5 report 2019-2020 from the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe (OIDAC). Not much information is available about the group online. Searches largely return uncritical coverages from generally religious news sources, often heavily invested in the same culture war anti-secular narratives.

Make no mistake, that is what this report is about. It is a US Christian Nationalist style attempt to weaponize and redefine ‘religious freedom’ into a ‘right’ for Christianity to be imposed on others without limit or consequences. It is a dishonest attempt to demonise secularism, human rights and equality. No Christian of good conscience should wish to be associated with this.

The report is so full of nonsense, that I’m going to restrict my comments to its definitions of “secular intolerance” and the detailed breakdown of the UK. The report argues that the UK, along with France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, are where “Christians face the most difficulties”. A genuine look at religious freedom issues in Europe would likely examine issues across the authoritarian belt, where right wing populists and Christian Nationalists sympathetic to this report’s agenda are seriously undermining such freedoms.

Secular intolerance

OIDAC claims that their aims are: “To contribute to a Europe where Christians may fully exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of religion, conscience, expression, and association, without fear of reprisals, censorship, threats, or violence.”

I’m certainly open to discussing intolerance or religious illiteracy within the AHS+ community, and the balancing of rights including freedom of belief is always open to debate. But not a single atheist, humanist or secularist group opposes those rights. What they do oppose is religion – Christian or otherwise – being imposed on or used to harm the rights of others.

OIDAC defines secularism as “political ideology that aims at a total separation of state and religion” which is true enough, until they add: “by relegating religion to the private sphere, banishing its influence from all other spheres of life”. What they mean by this is religion not being privileged in or dominating public life. Their strawman version of secularism is “anti-Christian” and “neo-Marxist”.

If you filter their case archive by “Anti-Religion or humanism groups“ you will find “incidents“ of such secular intolerance including groups suggesting Bishops shouldn’t have automatic seats in Parliament.

OIDAC is very concerned about online abuse or even simple disagreement and harsh rhetoric directed towards people on their side because of their (usually pretty abhorrent) views. Not only do they conflate any opposition to their views with abuse, but they are unconcerned with the balance of abuse or really any going the other way.

The United Kingdom cases study

The chapter begins by acknowledging the institutional religious privilege in the UK, including the head of state being the supreme governor of the state church, and unelected bishops in the legislature. It credits this state Christianity with the “more inclusive” liberal tradition of British secularism. I’d disagree, but that’s not a ludicrous argument and certainly a more nuanced conversation.

OIDAC frames the nation’s decreasing religiosity as inherently a negative, and seems to place the non-religious and Muslims as being similar sized groups. That may just be clunky language, but is interesting in that they don’t acknowledge the non-religious as a majority more than ten times the Muslim population. But they want to present the non-religious and Islam as equal ‘threats’ to Christianity.

OIDAC asserts that “equality” and “hate speech” laws (their scare quotes) are undermining Christians’ rights. Though the hollowness of this narrative is exposed once we get into details.

OIDAC acknowledges that negative “attitudes between Britons and Islam, as well as those toward religion in general” have been shaped by Islamist terrorist attacks. Given that they are framing Islam as an instigator in their Christian persecution narrative, they should be credited for at least acknowledging this impact of anti-Muslim prejudice. The extent to which Islamist terror influences anti-religious attitudes is an interesting discussion. It is also interesting that OIDAC acknowledges how a negative manifestation of Islam may affect anti-religious attitudes, but not how negative manifestations of Christianity, such as the institutional discrimination they support, could do the same. The rest of the intro just repeats the claims that the UK’s declining interest in religion is a sign of intolerance or ignorance. Mainstream and reasonable interfaith groups should be wary of how the moral panic over ‘religious literacy’ which they help spread is used to support such narratives.

They bring up the amorphous problem of self-censorship at universities – part of a decades long moral panic driven by the religious and reactionary right. Unfortunately if you’re looking for a nuanced, balanced conversation about genuine issues of discourse on campus, look elsewhere. In what quickly becomes a pattern for OIDAC, their source for the claim (a lot of the hyperlinks have typos I’ve done my best to correct, or appear to be to dead pages) is a Christian nationalist US, anti-LGBT hate group, spending millions of dollars outside of the US in a campaign to redefine religious freedom into a right for Christians to impose, and discriminate based on, their faith, while hypocritically seeking to ‘cancel’ and ‘no-platform’ groups they disagree with.

Freedom of expression

OIDAC puts forward a bunch of cases they say are examples of Christians being silenced and persecuted. Maya Forstater, a transphobic tax consultant who has had extremely limited success in an employment tribunal case and is constantly given huge platforms to promote her views. Kristie Higgs, who a court found was fired as a school worker because of the perception that her social media posts attacking the school’s LGBTQ inclusive sex education lessons were homophobic, and not because she was a Christian. David Mackereth, a transphobic doctor fired from the Department for Work and Pensions for deliberately misgendering patients. Maureen Griffith, a school governor suspended for allegedly making homophobic comments about her school’s LGBTQ inclusive sex education policies. Keith Waters, a school care taker who resigned because people were mean to him about his homophobic tweet.

Turning to politicians, they raise two cases of prospective MPs deselected by their parties for their political views. Political parties have every right to select candidates to support their policies. Robert Flello was deselected by the Liberal Democrats because he opposed the party’s policy on marriage equality. Roger Godsiff was deselected by Labour because he opposed their policy on LGBTQ inclusive education. In a rare genuine example of a free speech issue Lisa Cameron received death threats after voting against protections for reproductive health clinics. Unfortunately MPs from all parties particularly women regularly receive unacceptable abuse and threats. It’s nothing to do with her being Christian.

They cite a report by the free market Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) calling for a massive expansion in the right of employers and healthcare professionals to use “conscientious objection” to block others’ access to healthcare and to opt out of parts of their job tangentially related to healthcare they disagree with, no matter the impact on other staff or patient care. The IEA are so committed to freedom of expression that they lost a two year legal action against a journalist for calling them a politically motivated lobbying organisation funded by “dark money”.

They cite various university professors ‘persecuted’ by being accused of transphobia. One, Selina Todd, still appears to be a professor at the same university she was criticised by, and her social media timeline appears dominated by promoting transphobic groups. OIDAC also reports an event discussing LGBTQ inclusive education being cancelled because of protests against the transphobic views of some panellists.

They claim that “pro-life” medical students and professionals are facing censorship. They quote the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Children – a virulent anti-abortion, and also anti-LGBTQ group. But if your views are incompatible with your job, or prevent or hinder you doing your job, that’s not censorship.

Their final examples of ‘censorship’ are all related to ‘buffer zones’ around reproductive health centres that provide abortions. There is legitimate debate around how broad Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) should be, how they might be abused, and how the interests they represent need to be balanced against free speech. But PSPO buffer zones are necessary to prevent horrific abuse, harassment and intimidation of women and other pregnant people accessing health services, and health workers.

Education and parental rights

OIDAC’s biggest concern in this section is LGBTQ inclusive relationships and sex education (RSE) in schools, where parental opt-outs are limited. Of course they present this as persecution and a threat to children. They cite the work of Kate Godfrey Fausset, an anti LGBTQ, anti-RSE campaigner who advocates conversion therapy. They also support campaigns by reactionary religious groups to block inclusive comprehensive RSE in schools. This campaign of fearmongering, misinformation and intimidation by religious groups is so wide ranging that it deserves its own blog.

OIDAC claims that “Christian schools have been pressured to provide ‘atheist content’ for children who do not attend Christian ceremonies for religious reason.” Their misrepresentation of this story is interesting in a number of ways. It undermines their narrative of Christian persecution to draw attention to the fact that we have thousands of state funded Christian faith schools. But the particular school in question here wasn’t even a faith school, it was a community school controlled by a Christian academy trust (Christians are so persecuted they even get to control non-faith schools). It also draws attention to the law mandating Christian worship in schools, and how rare it is for a school to provide an inclusive alternative. And of course they record efforts to remove the imposition of Christian worship in their database of intolerance “incidents”.

Another case of Christian persecution cited is a school supporting a trans boy and allowing him to use the correct bathroom he’s legally entitled to. Even if you don’t believe a trans child’s gender, misgendering him eight times in four sentences requires a deliberate effort of arseholery.

The end of the section seems to be misplaced as they return to the theme of universities ‘censoring’ ‘pro-life’ groups. Again you can honestly debate and disagree with universities and student union actions, but they have a legitimate interest in preventing the harassment of pupils by such anti-abortion – usually also anti-LGBTQ – groups. You can disagree with university codes of conduct without crying persecution when they are equally applied to you.

The representation of Christians in the media

Given the sheer load of bullshit in just ten pages, I’m going to skip lightly over some of the less important sections. This one is basically just moaning that the media is insufficiently deferential to religion. Again some of the mainstream interfaith groups who promote this moral panic about supposed media hostility to religion might want to reflect on how groups like OIDAC use them for their own narrative. Also in this section OIDAC complains that a BBC documentary on conversion therapy didn’t show any of the positive sides of this abusive practice. Remember that each of these complaints counts as an “incident” in their database and contributes to their statistics on Christian persecution.

Businesses and Christian organisations

OIDAC provides three examples of Christian businesses being persecuted. Chick fil-A, an American fast food brand, tried expanding in to the UK with a six month lease on one store in Reading. According to OIDAC, “local activist groups protested over its donations to Christian groups such as the Salvation Army”. The restaurant chain has a long history of funding anti-LGBTQ hate groups, including supporting the so called “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda. OIDAC objects to protesters using their free expression to criticise this, but don’t present any evidence that it was protestors, rather than a business decision, that led to the lease not being renewed.

Core Issues Trust and the International Federation for Therapeutic and Counselling Choice had their banking services withdrawn by Barclays because they support anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy. Protestors used their free expression to draw attention to this and a bank made a business decision not to be associated with such groups and abhorrent practices. By the way, Core Issues Trust is still a registered charity, so while it may need to look elsewhere to bank any donations it can still claim Gift Aid from the government to top them up.

OIDAC claims: “Christian adoption agencies are suppressed for providing their services according to their Christian values.” To support this they link to a Christian Institute article concerning Cornerstone Fostering and Adoption. Ofsted downgraded the adoption agency from “good” to “requires improvement” in 2019 because the charity requires carers “to refrain from homosexual conduct”, which decision Cornerstone appealed against. OIDAC doesn’t point out that Cornerstone lost their case, or that they are apparently still able to discriminate against non-Christian carers. The Christian Institute headline misrepresents Ofsted’s position as “saying Christian groups should keep out of the public square”, when they actually said that their discrimination did not belong in the “professional sphere”. OIDAC also cite the (also failed) legal case of Eunice and Owen Johns who were not accepted as foster parents because they wouldn’t be accepting of LGBTQ children who might be placed with them.

Religious freedom and Covid-19

This section is just moaning that religious services were shut down during the pandemic, and the special treatment they received wasn’t quite special enough. OIDAC is upset that “churches were not treated as essential services, while other shops were allowed to open”. All of which they spin as Christian persecution. I’m acquainted with lots of atheist humanist and secularist groups, none of whom sought special exemptions from Covid measures, or ever claimed persecution for being asked to help keep people safe. But that’s conservative Christian entitlement for you.

For a detailed – albeit US centric – discussion of how religious privilege and exemptions from Covid regulations have played a significant role in the spread of the disease and huge numbers of additional deaths, I recommend Outbreak: A Crisis of Faith: How Religion Ruined Our Global Pandemic.

The situation of Christian converts and Violence in prisons

This situation seems to make some ok points – assuming you take all the cases they cite at face value, or just can’t be bothered to fact check them given how occupied you are unravelling the other nonsense and misrepresentations in the other sections. Many fleeing religious persecution in minority Christian countries faced barriers in an unsympathetic asylum system – though this is also true of non-religious asylum seekers, without such well-funded pressure groups seeking to co-opt their cases to feed a Christian persecution narrative. Also there are religiously affiliated gangs in our terribly managed prison system… persecution?

Hotspots of Islamic oppression

This is a bit of a weird section with no obvious supporting evidence. There may be reactionary Muslim groups who use societal pressure to push their religious ideas and morality, but the threat of this and the idea of ‘no go areas’ is hyped up by anti-Muslim groups. Some Islamic bookshops sell problematic extremist literature, but is hard to spin as Christians being persecuted. If someone were to object to extremist literature in a Christian bookshop, you can bet OIDAC would spin the complaint as the  persecution “incident”, not the literature.

They claim “Christians are being forced to take part in non-Christian religious ceremonies, activities, events, customs and they have to be cautious about how they dress.” These could all be concerning, if there was any evidence. If they are referring to societal pressure, then it’s notable that they don’t care about societal pressure for Christian conformity. Given their sources, I believe that “forced to take part in non-Christian religious ceremonies” may refer to Oldham Council having Islamic Prayers as part of its meetings. If so OIDAC’s hypocrisy is on full display as in 2011 they recorded the National Secular Society’s legal case against councils making Christian prayer part of their official agenda as an incident of intolerance. Once again, they are happy for Christianity to be imposed, as it regularly is across local government in particular.

Anti-Christian hate crimes

Hate crimes are a serious business and, despite what OIDAC’s allies say elsewhere, well-functioning hate crime laws can be an effective tool in countering them. But OIDAC is more interested spinning their narrative of Christian persecution.

OIDAC starts with a misrepresented statistic, stripped of context. They claim that “most hate crimes in Scotland (42%) are perpetrated against Catholics”. Firstly, the statistic is actually that Catholics are the victims of 42% of religiously motivated hate crimes in Scotland. This is important because, by focusing only on one (relatively small and less diverse) constituent of the UK, and by excluding the far more common racial and anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, they are able to inflate the statistics. If they weren’t prioritising their false narrative of Christian persecution, OIDAC may be better able to draw attention to these terrible crimes.

Secondly, the use of the term “most” to refer to a plurality of 42% is interesting and reveals why the statistic doesn’t serve their narrative. If they add up the 42% of Catholic and 10% of Protestant victims, they do get to a majority (of one subset of hate crimes). But that would draw attention to the fact that the vast majority of hate crimes against Christians in Scotland are sectarian crimes by other Christian denominations.

The rest of the section conflates a few (though still terrible) genuine cases of hate crimes with the large number of crimes involving churches. For example, they claim that the Countryside Alliance found “20,000 crimes committed against Churches between 2017 and 2019”. The report actually found “20,000 crimes had been committed on or at churches and religious buildings”. Some of these are hate crimes, but the vast majority are petty thefts, and vandalism. People breaking into empty churches to steal collection boxes or bored teenagers smoking weed and spray painting in a graveyard may be problems, but they aren’t hate crimes.

Conclusion

I strongly agree with OIDAC that “The UK is clearly undergoing a cultural process, in which Christian values are being replaced by secular values in society as well as in the legal landscape.” It’s what’s known as moral progress.

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