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Editor - The Southern Cross -

The report that British officials turned down asylum applications by Christians from Iran by mocking their faith is symptomatic of the increasing lack of respect given to people of faith in secularised countries. -

An asylum request from an Iranian applicant was initially turned down by the British Home Office because Christianity is a “violent” religion. In stating the grounds for rejecting the application, the civil servant referred selectively to random books in the Old and New Testaments — Leviticus, Matthew, Exodus, Revelation — which supposedly show that the faith to which the former Muslim had converted is “not a peaceful” religion.

Another letter of rejection mocks absurdly: “You affirmed in your [application] that Jesus is your saviour, but then claimed that He would not be able to save you from the Iranian regime. It is therefore considered that you have no conviction in your faith and your belief in Jesus is half-hearted.”

The British Home Office has said it will reconsider the former asylum claim; it must be hoped that it will also take action to root out such bigotry against religion among its officials, and institute disciplinary proceedings against the officials involved.

But this bigotry and attendant lack of respect for people’s religious faith does not come from nowhere. When civil servants feel qualified and entitled to ridicule asylum seekers — people who ask for refuge in fear for their lives — for their faith, and to discriminate against them because of it, then this is a symptom of anti-religious bigotry being written into the DNA of that society.

It is a mentality of the arrogance of certainty which afflicts many secularists as badly as many people of religion. Invariably, the more entrenched that mentality becomes in society, the more fundamentalist that society becomes.

Britain’s process of secularisation—underpinned by that dismal mentality of arrogance — is advanced, but other Western and Anglophone countries are catching up. Some sections of South African society, especially in urban centres, are already following in that path.

Even though ours is one of the most religious nations in the world — a recent Pew Institute study found that 68% of South Africans say they attend religious services, mostly Christian, at least once a month — if one were to survey the coverage of religion in the secular media, one might conclude that religion exists only on the fringes of society.

Of course, the reputation of Christianity is not helped by the bizarre activities of self-appointed preachers who engage in grotesque acts of fraud to announce their supposed miracle-working capacities and the exploitative lies peddled by the merchants of the Prosperity Gospel.

Religion is not helped either by the bigotry, hypocrisy and acts of violence perpetrated by some of its adherents — terrorists who pervert the teachings of Islam to justify their evil acts; Christians who render the Jesus of the Gospels unrecognisable in their hate-filled prejudices; Jews who claim God’s will in Israel’s commission of incremental genocide; Hindus who use their faith as a form of nationalism which calls for sectarian attacks on Muslims and Christians, and so on.

But that is not the fault of religion itself. These things are expressions of the human condition — from which atheists are not exempt, even those who consider themselves more enlightened and intellectually superior to the followers of religious faiths.

People of faith and goodwill should, obviously, forthrightly oppose and condemn the bigotries, hypocrisies and acts of violence committed in the name of religion. And they should act in concert in opposing and condemning them.

People of faith should find dialogue among one another, instead of perpetuating prejudices, and they should find points of common cause with atheists who engage with religion respectfully.

Such dialogue should serve to bust myths about religions being inherently violent and prejudiced. It should challenge secularist lies that the expressions of one faith in the public arena are offensive to members of other religions. And it should drive joint action when religions or specific faiths are being persecuted, whether by other religionists or by secularists.

That dialogue and commitment to counter prejudice must be exercised on every level, at the top but also, and especially, at the coalface: in our parishes, in our workplaces, in our homes.