Trouble reading this email? View newsletter online.

Newsline 8 August 2014

Newsline is a weekly round-up of news and opinion from the NSS website. If you're not already a member, becoming one is the most tangible way of supporting our work. Our campaigning is wholly supported by our members, people like you who share our belief that secularism is an essential element in promoting equality between all citizens. Please join today.

Church blocks NHS job offer to clergyman over same-sex marriage

Church blocks NHS job offer to clergyman over same-sex marriage

News | Mon, 04 Aug 2014

The first British clergyman to marry a same-sex partner has had a job offer as an NHS chaplain withdrawn after a Bishop revoked his permission to officiate.

Ministerial role that promotes religion should have gone, not just the Minister

Ministerial role that promotes religion should have gone, not just the Minister

Opinion | Wed, 06 Aug 2014

As Eric Pickles takes over Baroness Warsi's ministerial responsibilities for promoting faith, Stephen Evans argues that the job should have gone, not just the minister.

In one of the more popular moves of her political career to date, Baroness Warsi this week resigned from the Government over its policy on the crisis in Gaza.

In addition to giving up her role as a Foreign & Commonwealth Office minister, Baroness Warsi also stood down from her dual role of Minister for 'Faith and Communities'.

Many secularists may be glad to see the back of Sayeeda Warsi, but regretfully, rather than using this opportunity to abolish her unnecessary and deeply anti-secular ministerial position, David Cameron has shifted the responsibility over to the evangelically Christian Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles.

This role of 'minister for faith' was specifically created for Baroness Warsi. Its remit was to work with 'religious and community leaders' to "promote faith, religious tolerance and stronger communities within the UK".

The promotion of religious tolerance and stronger communities are noble and legitimate aims, but these objectives are fundamentally undermined by the part of the brief that creates a ministerial responsibility to promote religion and "celebrate faith".

But this is clearly a brief that suited Baroness Warsi's, and now Eric Pickles' personal predilections.

Upon her appointment Warsi was quick to declare that faith was "back at the heart of Government".

Baroness Warsi made it her mission to misrepresent secularism and use every opportunity to deride secular principles.

With no apparent sense of irony, she used a sickeningly sycophantic visit to the Vatican, Europe's last remaining theocracy, to equate secularism with totalitarianism. She warned of a "militant secularisation" which "at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant" which was attempting to "remove all trace of religion from culture, history and public discourse".

Her successor, Eric Pickles, is also guilty of wilfully misrepresenting secularism.

In 2012, when the National Secular Society obtained a legal ruling from the High Court that local authorities had no statutory power permitting them to impose prayers on elected councillors, Mr Pickles blustered about the "intolerance of aggressive secularism" vowed to enact legislation to reverse the High Court decision.

All the ruling confirmed was that prayers shouldn't form part of the official business of a council meeting. As one would expect in an open and free society, councillors were still at liberty to partake in optional prayers before the formal start of council meetings, if they so chose.

But Mr Pickles wasn't satisfied and later went on to disingenuously claim that his Localism Act had reversed the High Court decision, which he said represented a "victory for freedom to worship over intolerant secularism".

In April 2013, Mr Pickles also suggested that "militant atheists" should accept that Britain is a Christian country – despite the steadily rising proportion of minority religions in the UK, and the fact that the non-religious now constitute a majority.

One major objective of secularism is to balance everyone's religious rights and freedoms fairly. This naturally includes the rights and freedoms of the non-religious and those of minority religions. Yet Mr Pickles chooses to portray this as secularists trying to "impose" their "politically correct intolerance" on others.

It is this lack of even-handedness that is most troubling about the role of the minister for faith, and those that have been chosen to fill it.

The existence of such a post simply entrenches religious privilege by giving the religious, or perhaps their self-appointed 'faith leaders', undue voice and influence in public policy. Such a post also feeds sectarianism and leaves citizens without a religious faith feeling alienated, less valued, and somewhat disenfranchised.

Instead of prioritising religious identities, Mr Pickles should be trying to bring people from all sections of society together to foster cohesion and create stronger communities. The current obsession with relying on faith communities to help build the 'big society' is both lazy and misguided. The Government would do better to focus their energies on promoting the shared values we have as citizens, rather than playing divisive identity politics.

We do however live in a world where religious freedoms are undermined in a myriad of ways. The threats are not coming from the secularists that Mr Pickles denounces, however, but from those that wish to impose their beliefs on others, an aspect he seems markedly less keen to highlight.

Heiner Bieleveldt, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, told an audience at the LSE in March 2012 that state religions, whatever religion they may be, are a potential threat to the freedom of religion of those who do not belong to the dominant sect.

So rather than a 'minister for faith', perhaps we need a minister for freedom of belief?

The brief for such a post could be to objectively identify and assess threats to religious and belief freedoms at home and overseas, and propose strategies to maximise freedom of religious and other belief, insofar as it does not impinge on the rights and freedoms of others and of course, subject to the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure.

But such an approach wouldn't fit it with Mr Cameron's electorally opportunistic (or so he believes) narrative of 'Christian Britain' where even-handedness makes way for special treatment, and his Ministers are encouraged to peddle their divisive rhetoric, regardless of the negative consequences for our politics and wider society.

What chance do Yazidis have against group too brutal for al Qaeda?

What chance do Yazidis have against group too brutal for al Qaeda?

Opinion | Thu, 07 Aug 2014

Quilliam Co-Founder and Chairman and National Secular Society honorary associate Maajid Nawaz gives his thoughts on the crisis in North-West Iraq.

The terror group ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) which has shortened its name to "Islamic State" or "IS", led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its self-proclaimed caliph, has hit a new low. Having spread across huge swathes of Iraq and Syria, leaving absolute devastation in its wake, its latest offensive has brought it to Sinjar, a city in the north western region of Nineveh in Iraq and home to at least 200,000 of the world's 700,000 members of the Yazidi faith.

ISIS has always worn its love for sectarianism on its sleeve, and its vicious hatred for Yazidis has been no mystery. Repeatedly, disturbing videos have been circulated on social media depicting Yazidis held in tiny cells being cruelly taunted by ISIS prison guards. On top of this, "IS" propagandists have continuously warned of their intention to execute or enslave the adherents of this ancient Zoroastrian-linked religion, whom they view as "devil worshippers" on account of their revering a fallen angel.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that, when it seemed that ISIS were about to sweep into Sinjar last week, thousands upon thousands of Yazidis fled from their homes. Tragically, alongside the local Yazidis that fled were others who had taken refuge in Sinjar the month before, when ISIS captured Tal Afar, a neighboring city.

Everyone's fears proved to be rightly placed, with ISIS fiercely battling and soon routing the Kurdish Peshmerga, leaving them in control of Sinjar and many of its surroundings.

While most fled to refugee camps in semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, some 30,000 families ended up on Mount Sinjar, where they are now stranded, surrounded by jihadists.

They are forced to sleep in caves, faced with temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) and have no food or water, let alone arms to defend themselves with. Initially, they could contact the outside world using mobile phones. Now, though, most of these have run out of battery and there is no telling how critical the situation has become. What is for certain is that their prospects for escape are minimal.

This is yet another instance of the appalling brutality of "IS", a group that has consistently abused the most basic human rights of the people it has forced itself upon. Over the last two months, it has committed countless mass summary executions of Shiite soldiers and tortured and shot hundreds of Sunni tribespeople who resisted its rule before taking to social media to boast about their actions.

Likewise, it recently gave the entire Christian population of Mosul a choice — either they leave their homes and livelihoods, or they pay a tax to IS on the basis of their religion. Those who refused to do either faced death.

The list of human rights offenses goes on. These jihadists are making a mockery of international law. It is becoming increasingly clear that they will not stop committing these criminal acts unless they are forced to stop. Unfortunately, the prospects for this are becoming more remote by the day, as ISIS fighters continue from strength to strength, capturing most of north-west Syria's largest military facilities and repelling all counter attacks by the Iraqi Armed Forces (IAF).

We, the international community, must not turn a blind eye to what's happening in on Mount Sinjar like we did in the wake of the expulsion of Mosuli Christians or the mass executions of Shiite soldiers. What's transpiring now is a new Kosovo, an ethno-religious cleansing on a huge scale. That it is taking place at the hands of a jihadist group too extreme for al Qaeda, a group that has repeatedly shown that it has internationalist ambitions, is all the more worrying. It is ludicrous that no one has acted against it already when it is clear that neither the IAF nor the Peshmerga is capable of shutting it down alone.

ISIS has acted with impunity in the region for far too long. It has been allowed to take control of an area larger than the United Kingdom, commandeer hundreds of thousands of dollars of U.S.-made weaponry and subjugate nearly 6 million people.

The international community needs to step up to this most troubling challenge. It must provide substantial and coordinated humanitarian assistance to all refugees and internally displaced people — of any faith or ethnicity — in the region. Furthermore, diplomatic pressure must be exerted on Turkey, the only military power in the region that stands a chance of crushing this false caliphate. Ankara must be ready to bury its differences with the Kurds and extend all the assistance it can to them on a human rights basis, even if this means military support.

Lastly, it is imperative that states across the world reaffirm their absolute commitment to article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which establishes the right to free thought, conscience and belief. If we do not stand by our principles, who will?

It is not enough to just condemn something with rhetoric; the world must react robustly and directly to these reprehensible developments.

Maajid Nawaz is co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, a think tank formed to combat extremism in society, and the author of "Radical." The views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS. This article was first published on CNN and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.

Australian state bans external religious organisations from running prayer groups in schools

Australian state bans external religious organisations from running prayer groups in schools

News | Thu, 07 Aug 2014

The Education Department of Victoria has issued a directive clarifying rules on the Australian state's requirements on secular education which could limit the activities of outside religious groups.

This email has been sent to you by National Secular Society in accordance with our Privacy Policy.
Address: 25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R 4RL, United Kingdom.
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7404 3126

Please Note: Newsline provides links to external websites for information and in the interests of free exchange. We do not accept any responsibility for the content of those sites, nor does a link indicate approval or imply endorsement of those sites.

Please feel free to use the material in this Newsline with appropriate acknowledgement of source. Neither Newsline nor the NSS is responsible for the content of websites to which it provides links. Nor does the NSS or Newsline necessarily endorse quotes and comments by contributors, they are brought to you in the interests of the free exchange of information and open debate.