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Newsline 21 October 2016

This month we have seen the grotesque spectacle of Louis Smith being hounded for mocking Islamic prayer and causing 'offence', yet all around the Islamic world people face persecution and death for their beliefs, atheism, or apostasy. Only one of these things is truly offensive.

Last week we called the media trial of Louis Smith out for what it is: a de facto blasphemy law, and Charlie Hebdo survivor Zineb El Rhazoui got it exactly right when she said this week that Islamist groups in the West, unable to pass blasphemy laws here (for now), clamp down on dissent with charges of 'Islamophobia'.

We're speaking out for the right to mock, satirise or criticise Islam, or any other idea. That's why we were pleased to see the press regulator IPSO giving a clear ruling that you can express whatever personal view about religion you like. Anti-Muslim bigotry, just like any other form of bigotry, must be called out, but it is vital to draw the fundamental distinction between people and ideas. Ideas should have no special protection and must be open to challenge.

All of these cases show the need for a principled secular voice to articulate a pro-free speech message and advocate for secularist principles. You can help us do this by joining the National Secular Society today.

The new UN Secretary General must not allow religion to override human rights

The new UN Secretary General must not allow religion to override human rights

Opinion | Fri, 21 Oct 2016

UN Secretary General designate needs to ignore Catholic pressure to row back on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights and Gay Rights, writes Keith Porteous Wood.

The former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres has been officially appointed as the next UN secretary-general. I for one wish the Secretary General designate every success in his new role. He has clearly done a magnificent job as the UN's high commissioner for refugees and this as well as his political experience as Prime Minister of Portugal could hardly be better experience for his new job.

In our increasing fractious world, the position of Secretary General of the United Nations becomes ever more important. We need the best person for the job regardless of their religion or belief.

Strikingly, Mr Guterres is described by the normally measured Agence France Press as a "fervent Catholic". It says that while he allowed a referendum in 1996 on liberalization of Portugal's strict anti-abortion laws, his opposition to any change in the law contributed to the referendum's failure.

This decision was overturned by another referendum in 2007.

Abortion will have featured little if at all in Mr Guterres' activities on refugees, but will be important in the culture war raging at the UN alongside issues associated with contraception and homosexuality. These are also areas where conservative Catholic doctrine comes into conflict with individuals' human rights.

Mr Guterres is of course entitled to believe and practise whatever he wishes in his own private life, but he must not impose them in his role as Secretary General.

If, as reported, he campaigned against any change in the swingeing anti-abortion laws in Portugal, he may have crossed the line by imposing Catholic doctrine on others in contravention of their human rights.

At least one extremist Catholic pressure group appears already to be rubbing their hands with glee at his appointment. C-Fam, an NGO that claims the UN "undermine[s] the family" and is opposed to what it describes as "the UN system's promotion of abortion and LGBT rights" has already issued a statement congratulating Mr Guterres (see p. 26).

C-Fam points to Mr Guterres' "pro-life record", hoping "this reflects how he would exercise the important office [with which] he is being entrusted" and encouraging Mr Guterres to "defend the inherent dignity and worth of every human life from conception as well as the place of the family as the natural and fundamental group unit of society".

The Vatican takes the United Nations very seriously and is very powerful there. While the Vatican may be the smallest state in the world it is very active at the UN. At the Human Rights Council, it is the only country I have seen that always has two representatives in the chamber listening to every syllable as though their lives depend on it, handing over the headphones to each other like relay runners do the baton.

The liberal international group, Catholics for Choice (CfC), clearly regrets the Vatican/Holy See's status at the UN, the only religion to have a seat there, pointing out that "the Holy See is able to place items on the provisional agenda of the General Assembly, and it enjoys greater access to the plenary sessions of the UN and its main committees, as well as to the Security Council". And the Vatican can - and does - link up with others such as many Muslim majority nations who have similar conservative social agendas.

CfC points out that official documents from the last 20 years "are replete with objections" of the Holy See to the "majority consensus" in favour of "the expansion and strengthening of Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights" and "Gay Rights". Similarly, the Centre for Reproductive Rights considers the Vatican obstruct[s] women's sexual and reproductive health and rights, and, like CfC, questions the legitimacy of it being able to do so.

The Vatican's opposition to "artificial" contraception - a doctrine supported by very few ordinary Catholics - must lead to greater poverty, not to mention that obstructing the distribution of condoms must contribute to the needless transmission of disease.

As CFC observe: "doctors, nurses, and counsellors at Catholic facilities are often forbidden to distribute condoms as part of HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment programs".

When acting as Secretary General I would urge Guterres to embrace rather than obstruct the expansion and strengthening of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and Gay Rights. The world will be watching and hoping fervently that he will not be unduly influenced by regressive religious forces.

Zineb el Rhazoui, Charlie Hebdo survivor, on why the world needs to ‘destroy Islamic Fascism’

Zineb el Rhazoui, Charlie Hebdo survivor, on why the world needs to ‘destroy Islamic Fascism’

Undeterred by fatwas and death threats, the author Zineb el Rhazoui has released an incendiary and thoughtful new book, bound to provoke debate. Emma-Kate Symons interviews the author for the New York Times.

Withdrawing children from collective worship is no easy answer

Withdrawing children from collective worship is no easy answer

A mother writes about the dilemma she faces over withdrawing her daughter from collective worship: "Knowing our daughter would be utterly mortified to be excluded in such a way, and would see it as a punishment, we opted to let her stay".

NSS Speaks Out

Our campaigns officer Alastair Lichten travelled up to Manchester on Tuesday to take part in a discussion with Radio 5 Live on faith schools. You can hear the discussion here from 2 hours 7 minutes in.

On Sunday we spoke about the ongoing trial-by-media of Louis Smith and defended the right to mock Islam in an interview with BBC Three Counties. You can hear NSS communications officer Benjamin Jones debate this from 1 hour 4 minutes here. The Catholic Herald picked up our views on this as well.

We were also mentioned this week in a Guardian article on Desert Island Discs and a poll that showed most Britons wouldn't want to take a Bible with them to their desert island.

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