A tourist walking in East London along colourful Brick Lane will admire the sight of Jamme Masjid, on the corner with Fournier Street. Before being a mosque, however, the fine rectangular building had been a Jewish synagogue. Before that, it was a church serving a French Christian community called the Huguenots. Both the Jews and the Huguenots had come to Britain centuries ago as exiles to escape intolerance and persecution in continental Europe. The Huguenots had fled France after the massacres perpetrated against them by the Catholics during the notorious Night of St Bartholomew in 1572. The Jews had come to England in large numbers later on after pogroms in Tsarist Russia. Britain boasts a proud tradition of giving asylum to victims of intolerance, but the unfortunate tendency is to ignore this country’s own historical dark side. Roman Catholic monarchs like Queen Mary Tudor did burn plenty of Protestants at the stake in the 16th century, but Protestant rulers like Elizabeth I and James I also imprisoned, tortured and burned Catholics. The English Civil War of 1642-49 saw Protestants, Anglicans and Puritans butchering and oppressing each other. Religious discriminations remained rampant after the 1689 Bill of Rights. Even philosopher John Locke, author of the famous Letter on Toleration, excluded Catholics from full rights. Priests could be arrested at the denunciation of any common informer. Merely running a Catholic school meant life imprisonment. When in 1778 a moderate Catholic Relief Act was passed, massive riots followed. The London mob hated religious toleration. It fell to the great Duke of Wellington, Prime Minister in 1829, to pass an Act of Parliament removing most disabilities from Catholics seeking public office, yet the Universities of 34 Britain boasts a proud tradition of giving asylum to victims of intolerance, but the unfortunate tendency is to ignore this country’s own historical dark side. ‘Hanging Humans’ by Jacques Callot – licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons Oxford and Cambridge still barred Catholic students for many years. Today the monarch, by law, cannot be a Catholic. Of course, to fully understand putative rationales for some religious persecution, the wider context is important. In this country Catholicism was often perceived not simply as a rival faith but as a type of treason. If you were a Catholic, you were under suspicion and thought to be a disloyal, treacherous subject, an agent of foreign powers like Catholic Spain and France and so not to be trusted. Pope St Pius V did not help the condition of English Catholics when in 1570 he excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I.
Britain boasts a proud tradition of giving asylum to victims of intolerance, but the unfortunate tendency is to ignore this country’s own historical dark side
By doing so he terribly aggravated the plight of his flock. Because a Christian is not bound to oath or loyalty to a heretical sovereign, Catholics were regarded as potential traitors, and the punishment for a traitor was only one: death. Even peaceful people like the Quakers later were under a cloud of suspicion because they refused to swear oaths in a court of law. Hurting or oppressing people because of their religious faith is not a matter of the past, alas, a it appears to be mounting worldwide. It is perhaps natural to prioritise persecutions against one’s own coreligionists but fairness requires that the picture should not be onesided. Christians at times claim to be ‘the most persecuted religion in the world’, citing examples in countries like North Korea, China, Sudan and Saudi Arabia but Muslims can also adduce plenty of instances pointing to their own sufferings. Burma, Kosovo, the killings, terrorism or discriminations against Shia minorities in Pakistan, Northern Iraq, Indonesia and Egypt show all too dramatically how Muslims are victims as well. And there are other minorities that lay claims to be targeted by fanatic and intolerant regimes. There is a deeper problem, however. What is to be done when a minority holds religious doctrines and beliefs, which are deeply opposed, even offensive to one’s own deepest convictions? Here a distinction should be drawn between an individual response and a public one, namely that of the state. The dominant Western political paradigm is that religion is a private affair, not a matter for the state to meddle in; providing the upholders of a particular faith are good, law-abiding citizens in all other respects the state does not interfere or repress, yet this position is not without difficulties. Where do you draw the line between a religious belief and practice which can be neatly assigned to the private sphere or the public one? Take the example of polygamy. As a religious belief, does it belong to the private conscience or to the public realm? In the United States, polygamy, or ‘plural marriage’ waswidely practiced until the end of the previous century by the Mormons, a sect emanating from Protestantism. The Federal Government banned polygamy. It ferociously persecuted the Mormons, imposing upon them crippling financial fines and confiscations so that eventually they were forced to give up the practice. It was a religious persecution, if anything ever was. Yet the First Amendment to the American Constitution prohibits making any law impeding the free exercise of religion. It seems that the secular state permits the free expression of religious beliefs and practices only insofar as they are not in opposition to the state’s own dogmas! Not quite a luminous example of religious tolerance. A tricky dilemma arises when a minority of fringe believers like Jehovah’s Witnesses are said to refuse blood transfusions for their sick children: could that be ever justified? Or should the state prevent it? The Jehovah’s Witnesses refer to the Bible, which forbids the eating or ingesting of blood. They therefore consider it as a God-given duty not to accept a blood transfusion. Quite apart from Scriptural exegesis, the question is whether there is a hierarchy of duties. Most religious scholars belonging to a Holy Bookbased tradition regard the duty of saving a human life superior to almost all others. Particularly in the case of children, who cannot speak for themselves, it can be argued that the state has a clear, overriding right to intervene to save those young lives. On the level of the individual person, things stand a bit differently. I may be put out, as a Christian, by the bizarre doctrines of sects like Jehovah’s Witnesses, but I would never wish to outlaw them, or to prevent them from practicing their far-out beliefs if no one is physically harmed or corrupted. Those who insist on demanding repression of harmless minorities like that betray, to my mind, a sense of deep psychological insecurity. Is their God so small that they feel obliged to ban any conception of the Divine that does not agree with their own? If they feel so threatened by alternative religious ideas it shows how they are not all that trusting in their own ideas, perhaps. Religious leaders especially should feel an obligation to preach to their flocks a duty of tolerance and respect of other people’s beliefs, never mind how outlandish. A masterpiece of silent cinema I always remember is director D.W. Griffith’s exceptional megamovie, Intolerance – a blockbuster consisting of four stories, all about persecutions. One is about the destiny of Jesus Christ, rejected and persecuted by his own people. Another shows the misery of workers under the heel of ruthless capitalists. The connecting link between the episodes is the figure of a mother rocking a cradle – a perfect expression of love. A love that eventually outlives and triumphs over hatred, intolerance and oppression. A profound, practical message, I submit. The best answer to persecution is love. True throughout the ages and true more than ever now. Let love triumph over prejudice, fear and murder. Because surely that perfect, saving love ultimately accords with the Will of God..