What do you mean by love? Christians facing deportation

The following article was published by Barnabas Fund on its website. It merits wider circulation. Admittedly publishing it here doesn’t help much, but feel free to share it.

 

Sweden is about to deport back to Iran a well-known Iranian actress who has left Islam to become a Christian, despite the fact that the deportation  would violate the UN Refugee Convention. Aideen Strandsson came to faith in Christ after watching a video in Iran of a woman being stoned to death.

She explained how, shortly after this, “I had a dream about Jesus. He was sitting near me and he took my hand.”

She kept her faith a secret, but when she came to Sweden on a work visa in 2014 she asked for a public baptism, saying, “I want to have a baptism in public because I want to say I am not afraid any more. I am free, I am Christian, I want everyone to know about that.”

However, Swedish officials have told Aideen that becoming a Christian was “her decision”, and now it’s “her problem” and not theirs. At her asylum hearing, a Swedish migration official even told her it would not be as bad for her in Iran as she is expecting because it would only be six months in prison.

In fact, Iranian prisons are a particularly dangerous environment for any woman. Rape has been widely used against female prisoners since the 1979 Islamic revolution on the pretext that women offenders must not be allowed to remain virgins, as this could result in them being admitted to paradise. Added to this, as both an apostate from Islam and a nationally known actress who has appeared in films and on TV, Miss Strandsson is likely to be viewed as a significant embarrassment to the Iranian government. As such, her life will be in serious danger. As Barnabas Fund recently reported, there is increasing evidence that Iranian agents are active, even in the West, in monitoring Iranian Christians and Aideen has already received threats on social media.

The Swedish government’s actions are a clear violation of the UN Refugee Convention, which states that its “core principle”, which has the status of International law, is, “a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.”

Sweden has recently let in large numbers of migrants from Muslim-majority nations. However, a public backlash has led the government to crackdown on asylum-seekers and now Christians such as Aideen may be deported back to countries where they face prison, abuse and even death. In a worrying new trend, which may affect Christians in other European countries which have recently allowed in large numbers of migrants, decisions on asylum appear to be influenced not just by human rights but also by government targets, with little or no recognition of the specific persecution faced by Christian minorities in countries such as Iran.

We have seen this problem in the selection of refugees for resettlement in the West from countries such as Syria. Despite the USA and other countries saying that they accept that Christians and other religious minorities such as Yazidis have faced genocide there, the UN High Commission for Refugees still does not include this in their “vulnerability criteria” and Western governments perversely claim they cannot do so because they “must treat members of all religions equally.” This attitude that refuses to recognise the specific persecution faced by non-Muslims is costing Christian lives. Tragically, it now appears to have spread to European countries such as Sweden.

Miss Strandsson’s attorney, Gabriel Donner, who has assisted around a thousand Christian asylum seekers, was asked if the Swedish authorities thought she was lying or simply do not care. He replied, “Primarily they don’t care – it’s numbers. They have promised the public in Sweden that they will deport more people than before and so they have to fill the quota.”

He also says that part of the problem is that Sweden is now so irreligious that officials have no understanding of religious conversion and simply assume it is a lifestyle choice, rather than an experience of who God is that affects their eternal destiny.

“A convert says, ‘I converted because of the love I received from Jesus Christ,’ and they almost mockingly ask the convert, ‘What do you mean by love?’ They don’t understand the message in the Bible. It’s just completely alien to them.”

Mr Donner estimated that approximately 8,000 Christian asylum-seekers are now hiding in Sweden to avoid deportation.

One of the places I could call home

If home is where the heart is, there are a number of places on this transitory sphere that I could call home.

Several of them are in Scotland, and one of them is a fairly remote spot near Braemar called the Linn of Quoich.

It is approached down a single-track road which passes first over the better known Linn of Dee, where the mighty river crashes through from the wilderness that is the Cairngorm mountains into the still high valley that brings it eventually – without ever calming down – to Balmoral, Royal Deeside, Ballater, Aberdeen and the sea.

At the end of the road there used to be a bridge and a small parking area. The bridge was swept away as the Waters of Quoich changed course during a storm less than two years ago, and now there is no easy way up the far bank of the river. There is a steepish path up the near side, and it soon reaches the Linn (a steep ravine) and the Punchbowl, and the old cottage that has been little more than walls and a roof for as long as I can remember.

This is a dramatic and beautiful spot, with Beinn a Bhurd a very long walk in the distance. Ten years ago I visited the Linn with a friend. It was a warm day, and he lay down on a rock beside the river, which was relatively low at the time, and went to sleep. I wasn’t feeling too well. As usual no-one was about – until a woman appeared further down and walked past us, up into the hills.

The poem below was written as a result of this small moment in time.

Won’t get fooled again – or will we?

I was walking through our local park the other day – I say park, but it’s basically a roughish piece of grass surrounded by nameless plants and bushes that are kept under control by the Old Library Park Collective.

You may be wondering what a Park Collective is. It’s a loose group of individuals who are trying to keep the park free of drugs and prostitutes. Oh, and litter. I am very much in favour of them. The council should do it, but they’re far too busy.

Anyway, I was walking in the litter-free park, and there were a couple canoodling on the grass. They looked at me, and I could see their minds working. “Look at that old guy,” they were thinking. “I bet he’s disapproving of us canoodling on the grass. He’ll never have done anything like this. He thinks we should be working.”

Actually, I was thinking it was rather nice to see a couple canoodling on the grass, because there was a time when I did that a lot, and I seem to remember that it’s very pleasant. I would do it now, but people would laugh, and I might not be able to get up.

On the whole, I like young people, not least because I used to be one. There seem to be an increasing number of young people, however, who think I never was young – who regard people of my age as a completely different species because we use words like “canoodling”.

In fact the main difference between young people and older people is that older people have been around longer. We have seen more mistakes made; we have seen where certain paths always lead. That’s why the surge in more younger people voting is not necessarily reassuring.

I have a lot of friends who despise Mrs Thatcher. They were not around (or not old enough) in the 1970s, and so do not know why Mrs Thatcher was voted into power, and why many of us were relieved when she was (though not necessarily delighted that she stayed in power so long). I have a lot of friends who hated Cameron and Osborne, but then suddenly decided Cameron and Osborne were right about the EU. Odd, to say the least.

It’s hard to read people’s minds, and as a result, many of us are wrong quite a lot of the time. Especially politicians. The trick is to make sure that those who could do the most damage never get into power. Unfortunately that trick is well-nigh impossible to pull off, because it’s hard to tell exactly who they are. Especially if you’ve never seen anyone like them before.

Where Christianity is not tolerated

Politically, I share by no means all the views of Tim Farron, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats. I do however deplore the way he was hounded out of that position by the “illiberal elite” who find Christianity hard to stomach and easy to condemn.

I am therefore quoting in full an article published on the website of Christian Concern, an organisation which – among other things – exposes unjust treatment of Christians whose views just don’t fit with the “spirit of the age”. While I may not share all such views, I think it’s important to listen to them.

 

Tim Farron’s resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats “demonstrates that Christians are simply not tolerated by the illiberal elite”, says Andrea Williams.

In his resignation statement, Farron said that to be leader of the Liberal Democrats and “to live as a committed Christian…felt impossible” to him. He added “we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant society”.

Andrea Williams, CEO of Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre, which represents hundreds of Christians mistreated for living out their faith in Great Britain, commented:

“At the Christian Legal Centre we have seen first hand the pressure Christians have been under to conform to the new morality of sexual liberation and radical secularism. From street preachers arrested for quoting the Bible to students thrown off their courses for holding to a Christian view of sexuality, there can be no doubt that the supposedly tolerant society of 21st century Britain is deeply intolerant of Jesus Christ and his teaching.

“Tim Farron’s story demonstrates that even those who accept the liberal political agenda wholeheartedly become targets who are unfairly hounded and bullied. He was forced to answer questions on the morality of ‘gay sex’ and abortion. During the election campaign he had to choose whether to surrender his conscience and forfeit his soul to the intolerant, marauding elite.

“Even though he capitulated, this did not stop the hunt. Today he felt he could no longer lead, and had no option but to resign.

“Tim Farron’s treatment demonstrates that Christians are simply not tolerated by the illiberal elite in positions of influence. This, alongside the widespread reaction to the DUP’s views on abortion and same-sex unions, is further evidence of this anti-Christian morality.

“The vilification of the DUP for its opposition to abortion and same-sex unions and castigation of Tim Farron is shocking and upsetting. If we continue in this crusade of ‘totalitolerance’, we will enter a harsh and conformist world where Christianity will be ‘no platformed’ and eventually squeezed out of every sphere of public life. The elite determines what are toxic unacceptable views. Unless you approve of their ‘new morality’ you are punished. At first comes the loss of privilege, a political position, a place at university, then the detriment: the refusal of a grant and ultimately criminal sanction.

“The history of our nation proves that when Christianity was firmly at the heart of public life there was freedom, prosperity and beauty. The hard atheism that currently dominates our political discourse is cruel and doesn’t tolerate dissent. Tim Farron is another in a long line of casualties. It is time to fight back before it is too late.”

 

Warm feelings in the stomach at poetry festival

The other day I popped into Suffolk Poetry Festival for a couple of hours. It was held at the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket, and we got there by train. We left Norwich in blazing sunshine, and by Diss the sky was dark grey and it was pouring with rain. Fortunately, by the time we reached Stowmarket it was sunny again. Poetry is like that.

I read a couple of poems (one of them is printed below) and some tanka authored partly by my friend Joy McCall, who is described in her latest book, Fieldgates (published in America), as “the quintessentially English tanka poet”.

Tanka are Japanese in origin, of course, but Joy is pretty English, and certainly expert in the field of tanka – which in case you were wondering, are five-lined verses with a fixed number of syllables per line. In my case this is 4-6-4-7-6.  Joy’s versions are a little more flexible, which is why she is quintessential, and I’m not.

Actually, she is not only quintessential; she is incredible. Confined to a wheelchair by a road accident some years ago, she is in more or less constant pain and has repeated operations to stave off various kinds of collapse. But she is a prolific poet with enviable spiritual insight. The calm in the midst of the storm, you might say.

At the festival, I read my own tanka, and my wife read Joy’s responses. Joy not only finds travel difficult (though not impossible); she is also too shy to read for an audience; so this was a rare public performance of a tiny part of her work.

Funny things, poetry festivals. As well as readings of poetry and associated lectures and workshops, there was also at least one funny literary sketch, a lovely folk song and assorted monologues, one or two of them inspired. There was also a café run by the Green Party and an anti-Brexit rant in poetic form.

Not that this was a political or exclusive gathering. In fact poetry groups, and by extension festivals, are remarkably uncritical and welcoming – at least in Suffolk. There are no auditions, nor any obvious quality control. This is sometimes irritating but more often gives you a nice warm feeling in the stomach. Or maybe that was the coffee cake from the Green Café.

Unexpected consequences of wrong food

I may be wrong, but I suspect that if I was walking in the city somewhere, minding my own business, and a building fell on me, my wife would attribute the resulting fatality to my not eating the right food.

I know I am not eating the right food, because she tells me so quite often. She herself is eating the right food, which is why she looks about 20 years younger than me and is beautifully formed. No building would dare fall on her. If it tried to, it would undoubtedly miss.

It so happens, sadly, that I like food that is not right. In fact, the way you can tell which food is not right for me is that I like it.

I am not beautifully formed and would like to weigh rather less – an inviting target for a psychopathic building. But I have this strange feeling that if I go over to the bright side and stick to food that is good for me, I will not like it, get bored quickly and probably die (possibly of starvation) way before the building starts to look unsteady.

I am not a particularly fussy eater, but I once had lemon curd tart at school. I didn’t know what it was, went home and told my mother we’d had Vaseline tart, which I think was fairly accurate, taste-wise. I still don’t know what they do to lemons, which I love as a fruit (in small bursts), to make them taste so off-putting when they appear with meringues or drizzle cake. Or tarts.

As for couscous, hummus and tofu, I have doubts as to whether they are really meant to be edible. I could say the same for beetroot, and what is the point of vinegar, except to ruin perfectly good fish and chips?

While I am on the subject (or adjacent to it), pasta, rice and vegetables are not meals: they are things to have with meals, preferably in smallish quantities. This is not as widely known as it ought to be.

I would not like to give the impression that my wife is single-minded. She is funny, clever and laughs a lot, often at herself. So I don’t really mind what she says about my food.

Anyway, there is a slight chance that she would put the building death scenario down to my not getting enough exercise. This would obviously be harder to believe, because if I had been getting less exercise at that precise time I would not have been walking in the vicinity of the fatal building.

Still, I would not dismiss the possibility entirely.

Easter Sky

Is this a crucifixion or a resurrection sky?
Is it the sky he was pinned to like a butterfly
skin running with blood
clouds stained sunset-red?
Or is it the ash-black, volcano-scarred sky
that lets no life through?
Darkness at noon, blank
as a worn-down tombstone,
words weathered away?
Is it the lightning-bright sky
torn apart by splinters of broken law,
channels for tingling spirit?
Or is it the arching white glory of an aching Easter dawn,
transfiguring, clean sheet, reborn?

And if a man walks down the valley and asks
the way to heaven,
does he look up?
Does he stumble as stones roll away?
Is there a lamb in the garden,
or someone praying beneath a tree?
A woman may meet an angel
out of the blue:
bread and wine may be set on rock,
waiting for fire.
Almost anything could happen.

But keep watching the sky.
Soon the stars will sing together
and you may catch a glimpse of the shining, shekinah walls
of the city of God, though not
as you imagined them.
The sky always surprises you.

 

Not so much an article, more a poem. And as it’s Easter, here’s another one…

Houseago exposes new newt atrocity

Henry (Fred) “Shrimp” Houseago, 87, the legendary activist and newt-chaser, has emerged from hiding to attack plans to cripple and exploit motorists in Norwich and elsewhere.

Mr Houseago was once voted the person with the most influence on Norfolk life, narrowly beating Richard “Volcano” Meek, the admired explorer, into sixth place. With the assistance of his former fiancée, Dorothea Goodchild, he conducted a long and genial campaign against the influence of newts on town and country planning, accusing them of conducting a “divisive and deceptive propaganda-driven attack” on the Norfolk way of life.

He is now concerned that one consortium of great-crested newts is making a comeback, sometimes using the name Transport for Norwich, and sometimes the name of a former Leeds midfielder who prefers to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

He says the newts want all of Norwich, even those roads that are closed – which is most of them – to have a maximum speed limit of 20mph. This is because 20 rhymes with “plenty”, which Mr Houseago describes as “the most unfortunate linguistic coincidence this century”.

He adds: “It will soon escalate, or possibly decelerate. You mark my words, we’ll soon be regaled with ‘Ten is Zen’, and some other so-called genius will be made an MBE.”

Comet-chaser and whole food chef Len “Kissme” Hardy, an old opponent of Mr Houseago, denied that the 20mph project was pointless and a vanity project. He also claimed that public consultation was carried out in order to find out what people wanted, but this suggestion was discounted as “far-fetched” and in some cases “ludicrous”.

Mr Houseago, in a burst of research-led thinking, pointed out that Manchester City Council had abandoned a plan for a city-wide roll-out of 20mph limits because it wasn’t having the anticipated benefits. But Mr Hardy retorted that Leicestershire County Council, which was nearer and therefore more likely to be right, wanted more average speed cameras, regardless of whether they were needed or not. Unfortunately the DfT did not think this was a good idea.

Mr Houseago said it just went to show that even the DfT could be right occasionally.

Meanwhile a newt representing Twenty’s Plenty said there should be no need to ask people whether they wanted things, because newts already knew what was best, and it was a waste of time. “That’s typical,” said Ms Goodchild from her almost inaccessible home in the centre of Norwich.

Are Christians weird, or is Britain getting absurd?

Comedian Tracey Ullman has produced a couple of sketches recently that poke fun at the an attitude to Christianity which seems to be becoming increasingly prevalent in our green and pleasant land.

The first portrayed an applicant for a job who was received enthusiastically until she mentioned she was a Christian, when the interviewers stepped back, thinking she must be weird. The second portrayed a baptism which was going well until the godmother mentioned that she was glad to do it because she was a Christian, when the parents recoiled. Then the vicar revealed that he too was a Christian…

If part of the job of a comedian is to laugh at the absurdities in society, this was spot on. I am aware that not everyone in the UK is a Christian or even believes in God. But it is a country founded on Christian principles, and part of the reason so many people want to live here is that we have a rule of law founded on those Christian principles. The Christian ideas of love, freedom and justice still mean something.

But there are disturbing signs that all this is at risk. This week a Christian MP was questioned by the BBC and by a colleague because she came straight to a parliamentary committee from an Ash Wednesday service, where traditionally a small ash cross is marked on the forehead.

The Spectator reported: “To her credit, she kept her ashes intact, explaining: ‘I think they just thought I didn’t want to be embarrassed – but I was not going to rub it off. Many religions have visible symbols and Christians should not feel any embarrassment in either practising their religion or in the public display of religious symbols.’”

A small thing, perhaps, but the so-called BBC blew it up into a big issue on its website and Facebook site. Why? Would they have questioned the actions of people of other faiths in the same way? I suspect not. It’s more what The Spectator goes on to call the Secular Inquisition, which everyone expects.

More seriously, because it involves the justice system, it is now under question whether preaching Christianity outside of church is permitted – despite the fact that our history shows that the evangelism of people like the Wesleys probably saved the country from violence and divisions in the past.

Two street preachers in Bristol were convicted of a public order offence after the prosecutor claimed that publicly quoting parts of the King James Bible in modern Britain “should be considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter”.

He told the court that “although the words preached are included in a version of the Bible in 1611, this does not mean that they are incapable of amounting to a public order offence in 2016”.

He also claimed: “To say to someone that Jesus is the only God is not a matter of truth. To the extent that they are saying that the only way to God is through Jesus, that cannot be a truth.”

It may not be a truth to everyone, but it is a serious claim not confined to 1611, and one that under any realistic  view of religious freedom must be capable of being expressed to others. If it is expressed in an abusive way, that is another matter, and totally out of tune with the actions of Jesus himself. But in this case it was the listeners who became abusive. Were they prosecuted? Of course not.

Do we want to remain a Christian country? I suggest it is essential for the sake of our sanity and security. In the past few weeks a Hindu mob invaded a Christian peace festival in India, beat up the pastor and attacked other Christians; in Egypt some 200 Christian families have had to flee the northern Sinai town of Al Arish, where six Christians were recently murdered and Islamist threaten to ethnically cleanse the area. There are many similar examples from other countries.

Could it happen here? We may scoff at the possibility. But if we go along with the idea that Christians are weird or habitually abusive in their beliefs, we are sliding, and it may be that in the words of Leonard Cohen, “things are going to slide in all directions”.

Some Christians certainly are weird – some people say I am myself – but my beliefs are not, and I do not want to be afraid to express them. At the moment the ignorance of prosecutors and magistrates may simply be mildly alarming – even absurd. But is it just the thin end of a quickly widening wedge?

Man in a room

Once upon a time, a man (though he could have been a woman) lived in an enclosed room. He had everything he needed. It was a large and exciting room, and there was plenty to keep him occupied.

Being an intelligent kind of guy, he investigated every part of his environment and became an expert on it. He developed ways of working out what it was made of, and even where it might have come from – assuming that nothing had changed in the way things worked since the beginning.

He decided that it was very, very old and had come into existence by chance. He invented a theory to explain how this might have happened, although it was not entirely convincing. However, as he pointed out, there was no other theory.

It was suggested to him that perhaps there was something outside the room, but he found this was an unsatisfactory idea, because it could not be tested. In fact, he felt that people who thought such a thing possible were in some way mentally deficient.

He examined the room in great depth and worked out what would happen to it eventually.

He knew that after he was gone some people would find out more about the room, and that was fine. Eventually everything there was to know about the room would be known.

Some people said there were things in the room that he could not detect – perhaps things that could go in and out without his seeing them. He thought this was stupid, because if he had no experience of them, they could not be there.

He wrote many books about the room, and they explained many things about it. But none of them explained why it was there, or why he was there. Or who he really was.

He did not think these were good questions.

One day his room exploded. Nothing survived.