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Newsline 10 May 2013

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BBC stands by Panorama exposé of Sharia Councils

BBC stands by Panorama exposé of Sharia Councils

News | Wed, 08 May 2013

The BBC has rejected a complaint from the Islamic Sharia Council in Leyton East London after it was featured in the Panorama programme about the treatment of women in sharia arbitration bodies. Panorama had accused the Council of ruling on cases that it had no legal authority over – such as child custody.

A member of staff at the Islamic council was secretly filmed telling a woman complaining of domestic violence to only go to the police as a "last resort".

Marriages conducted under Sharia law are not recognised under UK law and are often obtained by couples in addition to civil marriages.

The Panorama investigation featured evidence from a number of women who claimed to have had great difficulty in securing Sharia divorces from their husbands despite being granted civil divorces.

It was alleged that some women who use Sharia councils are unaware that such bodies have no legal rights to impose conditions on custody.

To investigate the claims, the BBC sent an undercover reporter to the council to ask for advice. The reporter claimed that her husband regularly hit her.

She was encouraged to bring her husband to the Sharia Council for a meeting to discuss their marriage and told she should only go to police as a "last resort".

After the programme was broadcast, a spokesman for Leyton Sharia Council said the secret recording was "underhand" and that conversations had been edited out of context.

He added: "It seems that Panorama had a pre-determined agenda and stereotype of how sharia councils operate, and they ensured that a round peg was forced to fit the square hole of this agenda. The council takes a harsh stance on domestic violence. Women who cite domestic abuse in their applications for divorce are advised strongly to report it to the police."

The council said the woman who took part in the secret filming had only come to the site on the pretext of wanting advice and that she told staff she did "not want to get her husband in trouble".

In response to a complaint from the Leyton Sharia Council, the BBC said it stood by the Panorama exposé of Sharia Councils, including the secret filming.

Nazir Afzal, the CPS chief crown prosecutor for the North West, who specialises in such cases, told the programme: "What I have just witnessed is so dangerous. If there is early intervention we know that people's lives can be saved, they can be spared significant harm".

In a statement to the local Guardian newspaper, a BBC spokesperson said: "Panorama fully stands behind its investigation into the workings of some of Britain's Sharia Councils. The programme was raised in a Westminster debate in Parliament the next day in which a government minister referred to the concerns we had raised. Senior British Muslims such as Baroness Warsi also called some of the councils' secretly recorded comments 'disgraceful'.

"As Nazir Afzal, said in the film: 'Most of them are absolutely fine but there are some …who are putting women at risk."

The CofE tries to spin its bad news. But it’s still bad news.

The CofE tries to spin its bad news. But it’s still bad news.

Opinion | Wed, 08 May 2013

The Church of England was struggling to make the best out of its latest attendance figures (pdf) (for 2011), claiming that they are "stabilising" and provoking the Daily Mail's headline: "Hark! The flock's back: Church attendances up... but it's only at Christmas".

A closer look at the figures, stripped of the spin, confirms the picture of continuing decline. Usual (i.e. not special festivals) Sunday attendance reduced by 1.4%; on the previous year - not much in itself but quite significant as part of a long-term trend. Over the decade to 2011, this has been a drop of 14% and over 25 years by 31%. And this is despite the growing pressure to attend church to help qualify the family for attendance at the local publicly-funded Church school.

Infant baptisms have dropped from 85% of live births in 1900 to a seventh of that in 2011 – just 12%. The usual Sunday attendance figures for 2011 represent just 1.5% of the English population and 1.2% of the under 16s.

Commentators ask how such figures justify a national church, with all its privileges, with 7 out of 8 not being baptised in the Church, and 64 out of 65 not being in church on an average Sunday (84 out of 85 for the under 16s)?

As well as the 26 bishops in the House of Lords, the aspect of the Church's privilege which most impinges on the population is the quarter of publicly funded schools often denied to the local children they were set up to serve. Such figures seem incompatible with parents feeling forced to attend their local church simply to secure admission for their children at the school they are helping pay for through their taxes.

The BBC's "stabilising" comment suggests that the decline has bottomed out, but a closer examination of the figures does not support this. The decline in attendance over the last 10 years and 25 years for those under 16 is 25% and 54% respectively, much greater than for adults: 12% and 24%.

The decline figures for the young are a reliable predictor that the overall decline will continue in the future, and probably at a greater rate as is suggested by the higher rate of decline and the visibly ageing congregations.

Christmas communicants have halved since 1960, but Christmas attendance has not declined as much, however the proportion of Christmas attendees also taking communion at Christmas has dropped in a decade from nearly 50% to nearly 40%.

The number of attendees at Christmas is almost double that at the theologically more significant Easter.

Taken together, these figures suggest a nostalgic desire of cultural Christians for the theatricality of Christmas services as part of a shift towards cultural Christianity.

This drift away from attendance to ever looser affiliation and ultimately away from belief is not confined to the Church of England, and such trends (including ageing congregations) are also eroding the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church and the Methodists.

These larger institutional churches' share of the declining Christian attendance continues to fall at a rate that threatens their continued autonomy at the national level. The remarkably rapid reduction in Christian affiliation or identity is tracked in social attitudes surveys and most recently and dramatically in the census.

Some years ago, Christian Research projected usual Sunday attendance in 2050 by Anglicans and Catholics combined in Britain as falling short of 200,000 (roughly 0.3% of the population). Even if it is double that, these are unsustainable figures for one, far less two, national churches – particularly given the average age of congregants will be very high and they will not be as affluent as they are now.

The first signs of this institutional decline came decades ago with paid parish priests being progressively replaced by ones spread over more and more parishes, supplemented increasingly by non-stipendiary ordinands or laity. As even this has become difficult to sustain, partly because of clergy retirements (in 2005 over 40% of clergy were within ten years of retirement) over 5% of the CofE's parishes are now part of formal Local Ecumenical Partnerships. The Church acknowledges that "in roughly half of [these] there is a congregation and a ministry shared between the Church of England and certain other churches".

Not content with a third of state-sponsored schools pushing his faith, now Dr Welby wants the BBC to do more evangelising

Not content with a third of state-sponsored schools pushing his faith, now Dr Welby wants the BBC to do more evangelising

Opinion | Wed, 08 May 2013

The Church of England takes it for granted that it is the taxpayers' job to fund its evangelising. We contribute hundreds of millions to support "faith schools" which they use to impart their religion to children who are obliged by law to attend. ("School is church" as the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams was wont to say).

Now the new Archbishop of Canterbury joins the orchestrated call for more religion on the BBC. Justin Welby tells readers of the Radio Times (where he is given a full page to make his point – something the magazine would never dream of giving his opponents) that dropping religion from TV schedules would have "dangerous" consequences. He says that abandoning religious programming would "cultivate ignorance".

After taking the opportunity to remind us that Jesus died for all our sins, the archbishop said: "Most people have some kind of religious belief, and certainly some kind of cultural religious inheritance. In a multicultural society like ours, religious literacy is something whose importance only continues to grow."

Plenty to take issue with there, but we'll let that pass as he continues: "For adults over a certain age who received little in the way of religious education at school — especially of an inter-faith variety — religious broadcasting is likely to be their best guide to the different faiths, not just of the people they see on the news but of the people they meet at the school gates, or queue next to at the post office."

He also said that there were some who believe faith and religious life should be kept behind closed doors. "But if broadcasters were also to adopt the view that religion is something separate and private, rather than stitched into our public life, then we could set off down a dangerous road. We would be cultivating ignorance where what we need is insight, and prejudice where we most badly need open minds... Knowing, understanding and celebrating the faiths of our neighbours will help us all to flourish."

But religious education often morphs into religious proselytising (as the increasing presence in our state schools of evangelising groups such as the Gideons illustrates) and that is the antithesis of an "open mind". Evangelisers seek to close minds.

Conversations casually struck up in Post Office queues or at the school gates are unlikely to be about religion. If they are, they are likely to be tense and offer little opportunity to bridge cultural barriers.

The archbishop went on to say that it was "essential that we support broadcasting that teaches us about those around us".

He cites "the marvellous portrait of Manchester's Jewish community in ITV's Strictly Kosher is one example of how the media can help us to see the people around us as they really are."

The picture accompanying the Radio Times article shows an orthodox Jewish man in a state of what appears to be religious ecstasy. Not the sort of person who would want to know anything about your religion, because your religion is not his religion and his religion is the only religion.

"Likewise, Channel 4's Islam: the Untold Story gave viewers an opportunity to appreciate the rich and fascinating history of the Muslim faith," enthused Mr Welby. Ah yes, just the sort of thing you could use to start a conversation with a woman with her face covered who has shut herself off from the world around her and is actively telling us that she does not want to interact with the alien culture she inhabits.

"Telling stories about ourselves and others, in a way that celebrates the full scope of what it means to be human: that for me is what makes a reality show."

Nobody is arguing against finding out more about those around us, but why do "those around us" always have to be defined by their religion? You don't make a cohesive and trusting society by putting religious labels on people and then reinforcing the resultant barriers with TV programmes that encourage us to overlook the individual and see only members of religious groups who all apparently think the same way and are defined entirely by their "faith".

It is a particular arrogance of the Church of England that it thinks the BBC has some kind of duty to promote religion. Not just explore it in an objective way, but to evangelise on its behalf. And so you have Songs of Praise, Thought for the Day, Pause for Thought and endless church services on Radio 3 and Radio 4.

During Christian festivals like Easter the BBC can seem more like a broadcast edition of The Church Times than the national broadcaster to a nation that shows hardly any interest in religion. (Indeed, the audiences for some religious programmes are so small they can't even be measured).

ITV had to accept reality and no longer makes "religious programming". Its commercial considerations force it to acknowledge that there is no audience for religion and therefore no advertising.

The BBC Trust has commissioned a report looking at impartiality in the BBC's presentation of religion. Again, this is likely to be the result of the same concerted effort to give religion a special status on TV because of accusations (from religious interests) that it is not "treated fairly".

The NSS was invited to contribute to this inquiry (pdf) and our response was not, I suspect, quite what the religious interests would have wanted. We don't know how the report will be received or what the outcome of the review will be, but we'll keep you posted.

Fighting back in Strasbourg

Fighting back in Strasbourg

Opinion | Fri, 03 May 2013

Twice recently the generally progressive Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has been ambushed by a minority faction of reactionary religious deputies who have forced through amendments to resolutions completely contrary to their main sense. A resolution on the need to safeguard access to reproductive health services in the face of widespread exercise of conscientious objection was subverted by the insertion of an unqualified right to conscientious objection for everyone and every institution. Later, a resolution about living wills was prefixed by a clause denouncing assisted dying and euthanasia in all circumstances.

PACE met again last week, and anyone reading the reports on Christian websites on Thursday (April 25) could be forgiven for thinking we had suffered another defeat. "Council of Europe tells Member States to respect conscience and accommodate religious beliefs in the public sphere" said one; "Council of Europe Hailed for Religious Freedom Resolution" said another.

But in fact the reactionary religious right had just suffered a serious setback, barely disguised in the more honest reports: it was "an important — although limited — recognition of religious and conscience rights".

The PACE Political Affairs and Democracy Committee had commissioned a report from Luca Volontè, an Italian MP and friend of the Vatican, on violence against Christian communities outside Europe. Volontè, who has happily lost his seat in the Italian parliament, making this his PACE swansong, instead produced a report that focussed much of its attention on Europe and extended 'violence' to include 'psychological violence' so as to bring in all the old myths of persecution of Christians.

With his report came a draft resolution that would have been a major setback if adopted. Cleverly drafted, it endorsed the right to religious freedom, backed conscientious objection in 'morally sensitive matters', underlined the 'liberty of parents' to decide the religious education of their children and so on – matters which taken in isolation were recognisable parts of the general apparatus of human rights. But the resolution entirely ignored the rights of non-religious people and it omitted all the limitations on the manifestation of religion that have always been part of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the ten days before the resolution was debated a small group of representatives of INGOs concerned with the rights of non-religious people (myself for IHEU), women and gays and lesbians worked in close collaboration to draft the necessary amendments. These extended references to 'religious communities' to 'communities and individuals defined by religion or beliefs', added provisos to safeguard the rights of others to be free from discrimination and to guarantee access to lawful services, and added promotion of objective education about non-religious beliefs to education about religion. Elsewhere, a new clause was proposed on the problematic status of women and girls in 'many traditional religious settings' with mention of 'honour killings, bride burning, forced marriages, female genital mutilation'. A key new clause called for respect for religious beliefs and traditions 'while guaranteeing that a due balance is struck with the rights of others'.

Then we lobbied members of PACE to introduce these amendments — the ones extending religion to 'religion or belief' were taken up for us by the UK MP Michael Connarty — and we lobbied the party groups in the Assembly, pointing to the dangers hidden in the resolution as drafted.

The result was that the three centre/left party groups — the Unified European Left, the Socialists and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe — all spoke and voted officially for the amendments. (Reports on religious websites suggested that the attack came from 'Scandinavians', presumably because the group spokesmen happened to come from Sweden and Denmark!) Not only that, but the great majority of the individual deputies from the other groups also supported the amendments.

From the religious right's point of view, the resolution, adopted by a huge majority, was a poor substitute for the coup they had intended. It is not perfect for us either, but it has enabled us to identify some more friends in the Assembly and to give Luca Volontè a fitting send-off.

But Volontè was merely the agent for the reactionary religious organisations that are our real opponents, notably the European Centre for Law and Justice, whose Gregor Puppinck was probably influential in drafting the original report and who has taken the lead in putting out misleading interpretations of what happened in Strasbourg last week. We need to remain vigilant…

David Pollock is Head of Delegation to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg for the International Ethical and Humanist Union (IHEU) – a worldwide group to which the NSS is affiliated.

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