Great Britain

Religious persecution remains a controversial reality in our world today

Religious persecution remains a controversial reality in our world today

Early in the Iraq war, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana took part in a congressional fact-finding trip to meet with U.S. troops.

Some of the lessons he learned during his first trip to that troubled land had more to do with religion than with warfare. While meeting with local officials, for example, Pence watched the local imam rush to embrace a friend -- the Catholic bishop in southern Iraq. A translator said the imam thanked the bishop for staying in touch after the recent death of his mother.

That was enlightening, said Vice President Pence, during the recent "Help the Persecuted" summit in Washington, D.C. But he also learned a crucial fact that day. 

"I turned to the diplomatic aide who was with me," Pence recalled, "and said, 'So there's a Catholic church in al-Basrah?' And he said, 'Yes, yes there is.' And I said, 'How long has there been a Catholic church in al-Basrah?' And he said, 'About 1,500 years.' "

That's a sobering fact, since Iraq's Christian population has fallen 80 percent since that 2004 meeting, said Pence. The Christian population of Syria has fallen 50 percent in the past six years.

"As you all know, no people of faith face greater hostility or hatred than followers of Christ," said the vice president. "In more than 100 nations, spread to every corner of the world … over 245 million Christians confront intimidation, imprisonment, forced conversion, abuse, assault or worse."

Nohere is this onslaught more evident than in the "ancient land where Christianity was born," he added. "In Egypt we see the bombing of churches during Palm Sunday celebrations. In Iraq we see monasteries demolished, priests and monks beheaded and the two-millennia-old Christian tradition in Mosul clinging for survival. In Syria, we see ancient communities burned to the ground and believers tortured for confessing the name of Christ. … Christianity now faces an exodus in the Middle East unrivaled since the days of Moses."

Pence has made similar remarks before, but these statements rarely gain traction outside the world of Christian media. The problem is that the words "religious persecution" -- especially when linked to suffering Christians -- remain controversial among some public officials and journalists.

In Britain, for example, immigration officials ruled against the asylum claim of an Iranian national who had converted to Christianity. Here's what made headlines: The Home Office backed this action with claims that Christianity is not a religion of peace, quoting Leviticus 26:7 ("Ye shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword") and the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:24 ("Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword").

Meanwhile, the Christian Broadcasting Network and other conservative groups have noted, in recent weeks, the deaths of an estimated 120 Christians in central Nigeria.

Concerning those British battles about 'Star Wars' and the Lord's Prayer

Imagine this scene in a London movie theater, moments before the archetypal fanfare signaling the Dec. 18 arrival of the new "Star Wars" epic.

Imagine a beautiful, dignified advertisement appearing onscreen in which Muslims -- workers, refugees, artists and imams -- each recite one of the opening phrases of the Quran.

"In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds. Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek."

How would this be received in modern England, a tense land rocked by decades of debate about multiculturalism and whether it remains "Christian," in any meaningful sense of the word?

That's an intriguing question, after the decision by the dominant managers of British theaters to reject a Church of England advertisement -- targeting throngs at "Star Wars" rites -- in which Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and others recite phrases from The Lord's Prayer. It's important to ponder this comparison, argued theologian Andrew Perriman of London, at a website called "An Evangelical Theology for the Post-Christendom Age."

"Context is everything. It seems to me that the assumption that the Lord's Prayer is culturally and religiously innocuous points to some complacency on the part of the church," wrote Perriman, author of "The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church."

The decision to use this symbolic New Testament prayer in this public-square context, he argued, suggests that, "we have not let go of the Christendom mentality that expects everyone in this country to be, deep-down, innately, whether-they-like-it-or-not Christian."

British rabbi stands to defend America's first freedom

When Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks arrived in America recently representatives of the United States government did not greet him with a demand that Great Britain's former chief rabbi remove his yarmulke while in public. That's a good thing. But there are places -- France leaps to mind -- where this would not be the case. In fact, religious liberty is under siege in many corners of Europe, said Sacks, a member of the House of Lords.

"In Britain we have seen a worker banned from wearing a small crucifix at work," he said, after receiving the Becket Fund's 2014 Canterbury Medal for his work defending religious freedom. "A nurse was censored for offering to utter a prayer on behalf of one of her patients. Catholic adoption agencies were forced to close because they were unwilling to place children for to same-sex parents."

Elsewhere, Denmark has banned "shechitah," the kosher method of slaughtering animals by slitting their throats. A German court has banned infant circumcision. France has banned -- in public places -- Christians from wearing crucifixes, Jews from wearing yarmulkes and Muslim women from wearing hijabs.

"This is, for me, the empirical proof that ... the secular societies of Europe are much less tolerant than the religions that they accuse of intolerance," he said.

Churches of virtual believers, Part I

No Tony Campolo sermon would be complete without his pulpit-shaking gestures of inspiration and exasperation, punctuating litanies of not-so-subtle digs at U.S. foreign policy, Hollywood, Wall Street and the Religious Right.

As he ended one recent oration, the sociologist, urban activist and evangelical gadfly fell to his knees, hands raised to heaven.

"I believe Americans must heed this call and turn away from our wicked ways," said Campolo, who made headlines counseling President Bill Clinton. "We need to turn away from sexual promiscuity, turn away from the consumeristic materialism, turn away from our failure to pay attention to what we have done collectively to poor and weak peoples around the world. ...

"Then, let our prayer be that God will hear from heaven, forgive our sins and heal our land."

Many of the faithful said "amen," lifted their hands or made the sign of the cross.

Then Campolo froze for a moment, as an hourglass icon hovered in the Romanesque arches of the Church of Fools, the world's first 3D, interactive, virtual church.

This kind of thing happens when traffic jams the Internet.

The computer-generated "avatar" looked like Campolo and he was delivering a Campolo sermon entitled "Why Many People in the World Hate America." But Campolo was not controlling his own computer image, since the site's webmasters were not sure he could master the technology needed to preach online -- line by line, gesture by gesture.

Actually, Campolo was at a clergy conference in St. Simons Island, Ga. But he stayed on the telephone with his Philadelphia office staff, which communicated with the Church of Fools in Liverpool, England, through an online instant-messaging program, while one of site's creators controlled the "pixilated preacher." The question-and-answer session was especially tricky.

"I wanted Tony to be animated, because that's the way he is -- live," said Stephen Goddard. "I have known him for years and I know his gestures and style. I was sure I could get our Tony to preach like the real Tony."

The experimental site -- -- opened its doors on May 11, with help from the Methodist Church of Great Britain and others. The pilot project ends this weekend (Aug. 8) and the future is uncertain. Goddard said he is confident they can keep the doors open -- but not as often. The Church of England is also poised to open a digital church of some kind.

So far, volunteers have donated the time and expertise needed to create and run Church of Fools, with most of its $30,000 budget being used to purchase the bandwidth needed for interactive services. Goddard said the goal is to raise $300,000 to cover the next three years and to expand -- hopefully including churches in America, China and elsewhere.

It is hard to picture what happens in a "virtual church" without images on a screen. At any one time, 35 worshippers can sign in and create characters that stand, sit or kneel. They can whisper or talk to nearby worshippers, slip into the church crypt for discussions or linger at icons in prayer. Another 1,500 can take part as silent ghosts. Campolo packed the pews.

Participants sang along as the organ played through their speakers, typing phrases from the hymns that seemed meaningful. During the July 28th service, one warden led the global flock in prayer, giving thanks for computers, satellites, bloggers, online friendships and their virtual church.

"Help us to use our networks to do good things," she said, "to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with you, our God, and to be good neighbors online and off."

One thing visitors cannot do is jump the virtual altar rail. Early on, an avatar called "Satan" stormed the pulpit and cursed the Anglican bishop of London. That wasn't cricket. Wardens now have the power to smite the rowdy.

"It only took a day or two to discover that there are lots of people who could not resist the chance to scream 'wanker!' in a church sanctuary," said Goddard. "Actually, all that cursing was a good sign. It told us that we didn't have the usual holy club in the pews. This wasn't going to be just another safe Christian crowd."

NEXT WEEK: Is an online church a "real" church?