Tag Archives: Roman Catholic Church

Did Guru Nanak travel to Rome and meet a pope?

Although lots of people are trying without success to make sense of the latest Islamic State truck bomb to claim many innocent lives (on 24th November 2016, at least eighty Iranian and Iraqi Shia Muslims were murdered in Shomali in Iraq when returning from the Arbaeen ceremony in Kerbala), it is right to turn our attention from such Sunni-sourced prejudice and blood-lust, for now at least.

The post that follows is purely for light relief. For about three years, a growing number of Sikhs have got excited because evidence is said to exist to prove that Guru Nanak travelled all the way to Rome where he had a fruitful encounter with a pope. Below is the text of an email I sent to a good Sikh friend whose wishful thinking may be getting the better of him.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

All this speculation about whether Guru Nanak visited Rome and had an encounter with one of the popes is very interesting, but I am not sure how seriously we should take it. Also, based on Sikh sites devoted to the matter, I am getting confused: is it being suggested Guru Nanak actually met with Pope Paul III? Most Sikh sites/articles devoted to the matter suggest the visit to Rome took place in 1520 (or 1518).

Paul III was on the papal throne from 1534 to 1549. Guru Nanak died in 1539. This means that overlap in their lives when Paul III occupied the highest office in the Roman Catholic (RC) Church was only 5 years’ maximum. It is possible they met, but not probable. I say this partly because of Guru Nanak’s age at the time when the meeting could have taken place (1534 to 1539). He would have been very old and, even if unusually fit and healthy for someone of such advanced age in the early 16th century, unlikely to undertake long, dangerous and expensive journeys far from home. 

Although some Sikhs suggest Guru Nanak may have travelled as far as Italy, is this really likely? If he undertook such a journey, where is the evidence for the visit in Sikh/Indian records? It is unlikely he got even as far as Istanbul/Constantinople (another place some Sikhs believe he may have visited) in Ottoman Turkey (where in all likelihood he would have encountered an extremely hostile reaction. In fact, his religious message would have been thought so bizarre that, if not murdered for his beliefs, he would probably have been imprisoned), but to have travelled so much further to Italy/Rome seems inconceivable. Surely, if travelling so far, Sikh/Indian records will indicate a time when he was absent from Punjabi/Indian soil for a great length of time. Two to three years? Five years? Perhaps even longer? Moreover, in all probability the same records will confirm, or at least speculate about, where he went.

Even if Guru Nanak had travelled to Italy, what common language would he and members of the papacy have shared/spoken so that he could express his thoughts?

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Stories about Nanak’s highly improbable visit to Italy have engaged a growing number of Sikhs since 2013 or 2014, when text in an old book was unearthed purporting to confirm Nanak had visited Rome (and other towns in Italy?), but, in most descriptions of the text, this is said to have happened in 1520 (or 1518). On the internet I find no confirmation of the visit from RC sources, whether in 1520 or any other year, which surprises me. If Guru Nanak is described in positive terms by one/more popes, why is there no evidence for this in papal records? The RC Church has in recent years tried to confirm its commitment to interfaith dialogue; a visit to Rome by Guru Nanak would be something to shout about/celebrate.

Note that Paul III was one of the popes whose condemnation of heresy was unequivocal. He set up bodies to suppress people who subscribed to beliefs which did not conform with RC orthodoxy. Would such a person (or any earlier pope, for that matter) have celebrated Guru Nanak in the way being suggested? In all probability he would have regarded Guru Nanak with much the same distrust that Guru Nanak might have encountered in Ottoman Turkey. Pope Paul III established the Inquisition in Italy, imposed censorship, commissioned the infamous Index of forbidden books and approved the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), all of which were designed to suppress heresy, so it is very unlikely he would have looked kindly on Guru Nanak, someone the Church would probably have dismissed as a pagan. Earlier popes would have had very similar attitudes toward manifestations of faith diverging from RC orthodoxy. At the time, the Church was vehemently opposed to Protestants (who emerged on the scene from 1517), Jews and Muslims, all of whom were Abrahamic in common with the RC Church, so why suddenly be so accommodating about/sympathetic toward a strange person from a distant land subscribing to a religion so alien to Roman Catholicism in its beliefs and practices because of its Indian origins? 

I tracked down an interesting document released by the Vatican to celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak in November 2014, but totally absent from the text is any suggestion that Guru Nanak visited/may have visited Rome in 1520 or any other year. This would have been the ideal opportunity for the Vatican to offer confirmation about the story, but it fails to do so. 

We must not forget that the founders of a number of religions are said to have engaged in long journeys from home to suggest, among other things, that a particular expression of faith might have universal applications/relevance (note the Buddha, for example). My guess is that many of these stories about long distance travel are fabrications/wishful thinking dating from long after the founder’s death. That Guru Nanak might have got even as far as Ottoman Turkey (and survived) is in itself incredible, but to have got so much further to Rome (whether by sea or overland) almost impossible to envisage. Travel in the early 16th century was slow and very dangerous, especially for those far from home without knowledge of the local language and originating from a land about which people in the West knew very little (such people from distant and largely unknown lands were often regarded as threats by the people said to be their hosts). Also, how would Guru Nanak have funded such an expedition? The cost would have been prohibitively high.

Anyway: one Sikh source about the matter cannot agree whether it is 1520 or 1518 when Guru Nanak visited Rome. And when I typed “The Vatican confirms that Guru Nanak visited Rome” into my search engine, not one RC source came up (as indicated above). All the links listed were to Sikh sources. I also typed the name of the archbishop (Dom José Ronaldo Rebeiro) said in some Sikh sources to have confirmed the visit, but, again, nothing of substance came up relating to the story.

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

An early inspiration for the story derives from an article dated 23.11.13 in the “Jakarta Times” in Indonesia (of all places). At least the article is written with clarity, but no reference is made to a text or document to support the story (although the name Dom José Ronaldo Rebeiro crops up again).

The fact that the actual words of the archbishop said to confirm the visit appear in NONE of the many Sikh, etc. sources for the story, and the fact that such evidence cannot be gleaned on the internet, worries me immensely. But even more worrying is the apparent silence from the Vatican itself. Surely at least one person associated with the Vatican must have spoken about this to confirm that the text/story has some substance.

In the text meant to confirm the visit, Nanac’s (as the name is spelled) religion is not identified. Thus, he is described as neither a Hindu nor a Sikh. Nor is he called a guru. There appears to be no indication of the land from which he came, but surely this, at least, would have been recorded, no doubt to considerable wonder. In other words, there is simply nothing in the text to suggest Nanac is Guru Nanak! There is not even the suggestion that he wore a turban or had a long beard, things which one might expect to be mentioned because both would have been deemed oddities in Rome in the early 16th century.

A general point. While claims are made for the Buddha, Muhammad and Guru Nanak (and, to some extent, Abraham and Moses) undertaking journeys of epic proportions (note Muhammad and his “miraculous night journey” to heaven/paradise), it is interesting that, as a general rule at least, no such claims are made on behalf of Jesus (whose wanderings were confined more or less to modern-day Israel, a very small nation state. Yes, I know all about the claims made on his behalf about visits to Glastonbury, but let’s get real, shall we?). But which founder today has the most followers globally? Yes, Jesus. And Hinduism, a religion devoid of a known founder (no doubt because the religion is so old and has evolved/changed so much over time), has the third largest number of followers globally. Founders travelling vast distances do not guarantee a religion’s numerical popularity. Or, to put this another way, does it matter whether a founder has travelled far from home or not?

Another point. The text accompanying the photos in the last email you sent me say Nanac “had more human qualities than any Christian can think of”. This does not necessarily mean Nanac is not a Christian (and it definitely does NOT confirm that Nanac was either a Hindu or a Sikh); it could mean he is a Christian manifesting more human qualities than Christians can identify. And what exactly is the “part of Sikh doctrine” said to be painted on the dome of St. Peter’s? If it is known about/so easy to see, why are we not told what it is? I cannot find evidence for it in any Sikh, etc. source.

Oh yes: as far as I can see, only one Sikh source identifies some documents said to “prove” the story: shabad.co.uk In one such document, reference is made to “Sanctus Nanacus Di Indi”, which, far from being a reference to Guru Nanak, may refer to a highly respected Christian of Indian origin (perhaps even to a Christian saint of Indian origin). Could Sanctus Nanacus be a member of one of the ancient Christian churches in India considering affiliation/unity with the RC Church, perhaps because the ancient Indian church feels vulnerable in an overwhelmingly non-Christian environment? Such a situation would justify/explain a visit to Rome so Sanctus Nanacus could discuss the matter with the head of the RC Church.

Anyway, this is all interesting stuff! My conclusion? Possible, but not probable. And the evidence for the visit is so far extremely weak.

St. Mary's RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

St. Mary’s RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

P.S. One somewhat confused and confusing Sikh source about the story implies that Guru Nanak told a pope that no person has the right to enslave another person, and that this rather unexceptional bit of advice (even by the standards of the early 16th century when slavery was a common practice in most parts of the globe) was in some way enlightening for the pope who heard it. This got me thinking about all the time Guru Nanak spent, or might have spent, on his travels to distant lands (some Sikhs now make a case for him travelling as far as West Africa). If he had spent extra time in the Punjab/India, perhaps he could have done more to rid his homeland of slavery. I do not know how many slaves existed in what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh when Guru Nanak was alive (the number of enslaved people will no doubt have been very large), but today in India alone there are 18 million slaves. Needless to say, no other nation state has such a large population of slaves.

How depressing that India, a nation state with one of the highest levels of commitment to religious faith, is also the nation state with the most people living in slavery. Is this further evidence that religion is often a barrier to people securing the basic human rights that everyone ought to enjoy (please examine the previous post for more information about how the basic human right to express your religion and belief is denied to countless millions of people)?       


“Religious Freedom in the World” by Aid to the Church in Need, a Roman Catholic organisation.

What follows is a companion piece to the preceding post in that it provides yet more evidence that very large numbers of Muslims, most of whom are Sunni, are doing immense harm around the globe. In the process, such Muslims are denying to millions of people the basic human right to express their religion or belief in ways that no people of sound mind could object to. Of course, if Muslims were the victims of the discrimination and persecution they impose on others, they would be the first to say that their human rights were being infringed, and rightly so.

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

This “Religious Freedom in the World” report finds that, within the period under review (June 2014 to June 2016), religious liberty has declined in 11 – nearly half – of the 23 worst-offending countries. In seven other countries in this category, the problems were already so bad they could hardly get any worse. Our analysis also shows that, of the 38 countries with significant religious freedom violations, 55% remained stable regarding religious freedom and in only 8% – namely Bhutan, Egypt and Qatar – the situation improved.

The report confounds the popular view that governments are mostly to blame for persecution. Non-state actors (that is, fundamentalist or militant organisations) are responsible for persecution in 12 of the 23 worst-offending countries.

The period under review has seen the emergence of a new phenomenon of religiously motivated violence which can be described as Islamist hyper-extremism, a process of heightened radicalization, unprecedented in its violent expression. Its characteristics are:

a) an extremist creed and a radical system of law and government;

b) systematic attempts to annihilate or drive out all groups who do not conform to its outlook, including co-religionists, moderates and those of different traditions;

c) cruel treatment of victims;

d) use of the latest social media, notably to recruit followers and to intimidate opponents by parading extreme violence;

e) a global impact – enabled by affiliate extremist groups and well-resourced support networks.

This new phenomenon has had a toxic impact on religious liberty around the world:

a) since mid-2014, violent Islamist attacks have taken place in one in five countries around the world – from Sweden to Australia and including 17 African nations;

b) in parts of the Middle East, including Syria and Iraq, Islamist hyper-extremism is eliminating all forms of religious diversity and is threatening to do so in parts of Africa and the Asian sub-continent. The intention is to replace pluralism with a religious monoculture;

c) Islamist extremism and hyper-extremism, observed in countries including Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria, have been a key driver in the sudden explosion of refugees which, according to United Nations figures for the year 2015, went up by 5.8 million to a new high of 65.3 million;

d) in Central Asia, hyper-extremist violence is being used by authoritarian regimes as a pretext for a disproportionate crackdown on religious minorities, curtailing civil liberties of all kinds, including religious freedom;

e) in the West, hyper-extremism is at risk of destabilizing the socio-religious fabric, with countries sporadically targeted by fanatics and under pressure to receive unprecedented numbers of refugees mostly of a different faith to the indigenous communities. Manifest ripple effects include the rise of right-wing and populist groups; restrictions on free movement; discrimination and violence against minority faiths; and a decline of social cohesion, including in state schools.

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

There has been an upsurge of anti-Semitic attacks, notably in parts of Europe.

Mainstream Islamic groups are now beginning to counter the hyper-extremist phenomenon through public pronouncements and other initiatives through which they condemn the violence and those behind it.

In countries such as India, Pakistan and Myanmar, where one particular religion is identified with the nation state, steps have been to taken to defend the rights of that faith as opposed to the rights of individual believers of all backgrounds. This has resulted in more stringent religious freedom restrictions on minority faith groups, increasing obstacles for conversion and the imposition of greater sanctions for blasphemy.

In the worst-offending countries, including North Korea and Eritrea, the ongoing penalty for religious expression is the complete denial of rights and liberties – such as long-term incarceration without fair trial, rape and murder.

There has been a renewed crackdown on religious groups that refuse to follow the party line under authoritarian regimes such as those in China and Turkmenistan. For example, in China more than 2,000 churches have had their crosses demolished in Zheijang and nearby provinces.

By defining a new phenomenon of Islamist hyper-extremism, the report supports widespread claims that, in targeting Christians, Yazidis, Mandeans and other minorities, Daesh (ISIS) and other fundamentalist groups are in breach of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Anglican Church, North Yorkshire

Anglican Church, North Yorkshire

They showed us videos of beheadings, killings and ISIS battles. [My instructor] said, “You have to kill kuffars [unbelievers] even if they are your fathers and brothers, because they belong to the wrong religion and they don’t worship God.”

The above is an excerpt from a Yazidi boy’s account of what happened to him when he was captured by Daesh (ISIS) aged 12 and trained for jihad in Syria. It is one of 45 interviews with survivors, religious leaders, journalists and others describing atrocities committed by Daesh which form the basis of a landmark report issued in June 2016 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Citing evidence to show that an ongoing genocide has been taking place against Yazidis, the 40-page report makes clear that Daesh has sought to “destroy” Yazidis since 2014 and that religious hatred was a core motivation. This point is underlined in a case study which tells the story of teenage Yazidi girl Ekhlas, who describes how the militants killed her father and brother for their faith. She herself watched helplessly as Yazidi women were repeatedly raped, including a girl of nine who was so badly sexually abused that she died.

Ekhlas’s experience, and that of so many others like her, demonstrates the importance of religious freedom as a core human right. Increasing media coverage of violence perpetrated in the name of religion – be it by Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in Kenya or the Taliban in Afghanistan – reflects a growing recognition about how for too long religious liberty has been “an orphaned right”. Aided by the work of political activists and NGOs, a tipping point has been reached concerning public awareness about religiously motivated crimes and oppression, prompting a fresh debate about the place of religion in society. The frequency and intensity of atrocities against Yazidis, Christians, Bahais, Jews and Ahmaddiyya Muslims is on the rise, and is reflected in the volume of reporting on extremist violence against religious minorities.

In the face of such crimes, it is arguably more important than ever to arrive at a clear and workable definition of religious freedom and its ramifications for government and the judiciary. This report acknowledges the core tenets of religious liberty as contained in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief; and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship or observance.

The focus of this report is concerned with state and non-state actors (militant or fundamentalist organisations) who restrict and deny religious expression, be it in public or in private, and who do so without due respect for others or for the rule of law.

Outside the old Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Outside the old Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Examining the two-year period up to June 2016, this report assesses the religious situation of every country in the world. In total, 196 nations were examined with a special focus in each case on the place of religious freedom in constitutional and other statutory documents, incidents of note and finally a projection of likely trends. Consideration was given to recognized religious groups regardless of their numerical size or perceived influence in any given country. Each report was then evaluated, with a view to creating a table of countries where there are significant violations of religious freedom. In contrast to the 2014 “Religious Freedom in the World” report which categorized every country in the world, the table on pages 32-35 and the corresponding map on pages 30- 31 focus on 38 countries where violations against religious freedom go beyond comparatively mild forms of intolerance to represent a fundamental breach of human rights.

The countries where these grave violations occur have been placed into two categories – “Discrimination” and “Persecution”. (For a full definition of both categories, visit http://www.religion-freedom-report.org). In these cases of discrimination and persecution, the victims typically have little or no recourse to law.

In essence, “discrimination” ordinarily involves an institutionalization of intolerance, normally carried out by the state or its representatives at different levels, with legal and other regulations entrenching mistreatment of individual groups, including faith-based communities. Examples would include no access to – or severe restrictions regarding – jobs, elected office, funding, the media, education or religious instruction, prohibition of worship outside churches, mosques, etc, and restrictions on missionary endeavour including anti-conversion legislation.

Whereas the “discrimination” category usually identifies the state as the oppressor, the “persecution” alternative also includes terrorist groups and non-state actors, as the focus here is on active campaigns of violence and subjugation, including murder, false detention and forced exile, as well as damage to and expropriation of property. Indeed, the state itself can often be a victim, as seen for example in Nigeria. From this definition, it is clear that “persecution” is a worse-offending category, as the religious freedom violations in question are more serious, and by their nature also tend to include forms of discrimination as a by-product. Of course, many, if not most, of the countries not categorized as falling under “persecution” or “discrimination” are subject to forms of religious freedom violations. Indeed, many of them can be described as countries in which one or more religious groups experience intolerance. However, based on the evidence provided in the country reports reviewed, nearly all of these violations were still illegal according to the authorities, with the victim having recourse to law. None of these violations – many of them by definition low level – was considered serious enough to warrant description as significant or extreme, the two watchwords in our system of categorization. On this basis, for the purposes of this report they are listed as “unclassified”.

Of the 196 countries reported on, 38 showed unmistakable evidence of significant religious freedom violations. Within this group, 23 were placed in the top level “persecution” category, and the remaining 15 in the “discrimination” category. Since the last report was released two years ago, the situation regarding religious freedom had clearly worsened in the case of 14 countries (37%), with 21 (55%) showing no signs of obvious change. Only in three countries (8%) had the situation clearly improved – Bhutan, Egypt and Qatar. Of the “persecution” countries, 11 – just under half – were assessed as places where access to religious freedom was in marked decline. Among the “persecution” countries showing no discernible signs of improvement, seven were characterized by extreme scenarios (Afghanistan, Iraq, [northern] Nigeria, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Syria) where the situation was already so bad it could scarcely get any worse. This means there is a growing gulf between an expanding group of countries with extreme levels of religious freedom abuse and those where the problems are less flagrant, for example Algeria, Azerbaijan and Vietnam.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

A virulent and extremist form of Islam emerged as the number one threat to religious freedom and was revealed as the primary cause of “persecution” in many of the worst cases. Of the 11 countries shown to have worsening persecution, 9 were under extreme pressure from Islamist violence (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya, Libya, Niger, Pakistan, Sudan, Tanzania and Yemen). Of the 11 countries with consistent levels of persecution, 7 faced huge problems relating to Islamism – both non-state actor aggression and state-sponsored oppression (Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Syria).

Assessing underlying themes relating to this, it emerged that a massive upsurge in violence and instability linked to Islamism had played a significant role in creating an explosion in the number of refugees. A core finding of the report is the global threat posed by religious hyper-extremism, which to Western eyes appears to be a death cult with a genocidal intent. This new phenomenon of hyper-extremism is characterized by the radical methods by which it seeks its objectives, which go beyond suicide bomb attacks – namely mass killing including horrific forms of execution, rape, extreme torture such as burning people alive, crucifixions and throwing people off tall buildings. One hallmark of hyper-extremism is the evident glorying in the brutality inflicted on its victims, which is paraded on social media.

As witnessed by the evidence of Yazidis reported above, the violence perpetrated by militant groups such as Daesh was indicative of a complete denial of religious freedom. The atrocities committed by these aggressive Islamist groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and by their affiliates elsewhere, have arguably been one of the greatest setbacks for religious freedom since the second world war. What has properly been described as genocide, according to a UN convention which uses the term, is a phenomenon of religious extremism almost beyond compare. The aggressive acts in question include widespread killings, mental and physical torture, detention, enslavement and in some extreme cases “the imposition of measures to prevent children from being born”. In addition, there has been land grabbing, destruction of religious buildings and all traces of religious and cultural heritage, and the subjection of people under a system which insults almost every tenet of human rights.

A core finding of the report, the threat of militant Islam, could be felt in a significant proportion of the 196 countries reviewed: a little over 20% of countries – at least 1 in 5 – experienced one or more incidents of violent activity, inspired by extremist Islamic ideology, including at least 5 countries in Western Europe and 17 African nations.

One key objective of Islamist hyper-extremism is to trigger the complete elimination of religious communities from their ancient homelands, a process of induced mass exodus. As a result of the migration, this phenomenon of hyper-extremism has been a main driver in the fundamental de-stabilization of the socio-religious fabric of entire continents, absorbing – or under pressure to absorb – millions of people.

According to UN figures, there were an estimated 65.3 million refugees by the end of 2015 – which is the highest figure on record, and a rise of more than 9% compared to the previous year. At the time of writing, the most recent figures equate to, on average, 24 people being displaced from their homes every minute of every day during 2015. Although economic factors played a major part, the countries which largely accounted for the increase in refugees were centres of religious extremism – Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. There were many people who were fleeing specifically because of religious persecution, but for the most part people fled because of the violence, breakdown of government and acute poverty of which religious extremism has been cause, symptom or consequence or all three simultaneously. To this extent, extremism has been a key factor in the migrant explosion. Religious extremism has played a dominant role in the creation of terror states which are being emptied of people.

Evidence reveals that in the Middle East and parts of Africa and the Asian sub-continent, people of all faiths were leaving, but disproportionate levels of migration among Christians, Yazidis and other minority groups were raising the possibility – or even probability – of their extinction from within a region.

Ruined Armenian monastery near Mus, eastern Turkey

Ruined Armenian monastery near Mus, eastern Turkey

Few, if any, religious groups were neither victims nor perpetrators of persecution. This report found that among Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu communities, a growing threat came from non-mainstream but vocal groups, many of them linking faith with patriotism to create a form of religious nationalism that looks on minorities as outcasts. In Myanmar, reports emerged that on 1st July 2014, 40 Buddhist monks and 450 lay people massed on the streets in Chan Aye Thar brandishing knives and sticks and laid siege to a Muslim tea shop. In Israel, at a time of numerous religiously motivated attacks, the state’s Roman Catholic bishops made a formal complaint in December 2015 about Rabbi Benzi Gopstein. Gopstein made a statement on an ultra-Orthodox website stating, “Christmas has no place in the Holy Land” and calling for the destruction of all churches in Israel. He added, “Let us remove the vampires before they once again drink our blood.” In India, “the world’s largest democracy”, respect for minority rights has come under increasing threat from extremist Hindu groups. “Pro-Hinduisation” organisations are a source of major concern because they create a climate which leads Hindu extremists to physically attack religious minorities with relative impunity. Such a threat was demonstrated in September 2015 when Hindu extremists were reported to have brutally murdered Akhlaq Ahmed, a Muslim man who was accused of marking Eid by killing a cow and eating beef.

As can be seen, tumultuous world events during the period under review have had a deep and far-reaching impact regarding religious freedom in many countries around the world. Forces of change were dominated by the rise of Islamist hyper-extremism which has destroyed religious freedom in parts of the Middle East and is threatening to do the same in other parts of the world. Increased awareness about the threat to religious minorities has been reflected in the actions of politicians, parties and even some parliaments who are doing more than ever before to speak up and act on behalf of persecuted individuals and communities. One ray of hope is the willingness of some Islamic leaders to mount a coordinated response to this toxic creed. Activities of the security services will never be able to challenge the ideology behind this threat. Only religious leaders themselves can take on that challenge. One over-riding conclusion is the need to find new and coordinated ways so that religious plurality can return to those parts of the world where minority groups are being “threatened in their very existence”.

The list of “persecution” states:

Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Eritrea, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Myanmar, Niger, Nigeria, North Korea, Palestinian Territories, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Yemen.

The list of “discrimination” states:

Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Brunei, Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan, Laos, Maldives, Mauritania, Qatar, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine, Vietnam.

Where religious freedom has worsened over the last two years:

Bangladesh, Brunei, China, Eritrea, Indonesia, Kenya, Libya, Mauritania, Niger, Pakistan, Sudan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Yemen.

Temple, Salt lake City, Utah

Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah

I agree with a lot of the conclusions contained in the sections of the report quoted above, including the conclusion that Muslims in many parts of the world aspire to create monocultural environments in which followers of non-Muslim expressions of religion and belief no longer exist (for many Sunni Muslims, they additionally aspire to create environments in which only the Sunni manifestation of Islam exists. In other words, Shia, Sufi, Alevi and Ahmadiyya Muslims are as unwelcome as people subscribing to religions such as Christianity, Judaism or Yazidism). I also find quite helpful the concept of hyper-extremism as a way of identifying manifestations of religious extremism that lead to the active persecution of groups identified as the despised other.

What we can say with confidence is that, today, extremism manifests itself in almost every expression of religion, mainstream or otherwise, but, thankfully, not all religious extremists engage in the sort of persecution alluded to in the report, persecution that includes the destruction of homes and religious buildings, torture, rape, expulsion, massacre and/or genocide. Most religious extremists confine their hatred to rhetoric alone. Such hatred is, of course, bad enough, but it is when such hatred morphs into action that we need to worry the most.

It is right that most attention is given in the report to the dire consequences of what it calls Islamist hyper-extremism, but if I had just one concern about the report’s content it would be that it largely overlooks that hyper-extremism exists in other expressions of religion, albeit involving far fewer people and thus having far more restricted detrimental consequences. I would argue, for example, that some Buddhists in Myanmar, some Christians in the United States, some Hindus in India, some Jews in Israel and some Sikhs in the Punjab manifest hyper-extremism which sometimes leads to persecution against the despised other comparable to that which derives from Muslim hyper-extremists. Don’t misunderstand me, however. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Sikh hyper-extremists do not pose anything like the same threat that Muslim hyper-extremists pose, and I very much doubt that they ever will. But exist they do and the report could have done more to expose what I regard as a worrying trend in all the world’s major expressions of religious belief.

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Of course, the other thing the report might have discussed productively is what sustains such extremism. It has long been my contention that religious extremism is above all predicated on one or more of the following: literal understandings of scripture long past its best-by date; misleading knowledge of the lives and teachings of authority figures within each faith, especially authority figures so long dead that very little can be said about them with any degree of certainty; and the self-evidently daft idea that any religion might be the only source of truth, wisdom, knowledge and/or understanding. As we know, all religions are human inventions and most religions discourage critical analysis and informed debate based on hard evidence, and it is because of these realities that most expressions of religion find themselves susceptible to manipulation by extremists. Thus, how refreshing it would have been had the report admitted that extremism exists in the Roman Catholic Church itself and that, as a consequence, the Church must reform itself to make it less likely for extremism in any shape or form to prosper.

These points apart, the report has much to commend it, which is why I quote so extensively from it.

“Amoris Laetitia”, Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation.

Pope Francis recently published the papal document, “Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love)”, which, although a marked shift in tone from that prevalent until very recently, makes no substantial difference in terms of fundamental Church teaching. Here is how “The Guardian” newspaper assessed the document:

Pope Francis has called for the Catholic Church to revamp its response to modern family life, urging greater acceptance for divorced people and those in same-sex relationships while adhering to traditional Church teachings.

The landmark papal document, entitled “Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love)”, was hailed as a “paradigm shift” by Francis’s biographer Austen Ivereigh, who said it had the “potential to shape the Church’s response to the family for generations to come”.

Over more than 250 pages, Francis outlines a more compassionate vision for the Church on family issues, urging priests to respond to their communities without rigidly enforcing Church rules. “Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs,” he wrote.

The apostolic exhortation concludes a two-year consultation that saw bishops twice gather in Rome to debate issues affecting the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Ivereigh said the document was “a remarkable step forward for the Church”. It was “epic in scale, bold in ambition, and beautifully direct and tender, the fruit of decades of a holy man listening carefully to the truth of people’s lives”. He added: “It’s a fantastic piece of work.”

Alicante, Spain

Alicante, Spain

Much of the document is devoted to a detailed exposition of how a lifelong partnership between two people has the potential to bring joy, comfort and companionship. Francis offers practical advice for overcoming marital and family problems and issues, including bringing up children, conjugal sex and ageing.

In comments welcomed by some LGBT organisations, Francis urged the Church to “reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration”, while “every sign of unjust discrimination” is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression or violence.

But the pope stopped short of pushing for a change in Church doctrine. “De facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage,” he said.

The Church’s traditional definition of same-sex relationships as “intrinsically disordered” is notably absent from the exhortation, however.

Martin Pendergast, a Catholic LGBT activist in London, said the tone marked a new approach. The pope “clearly recognises the existence and experience of people in same-sex unions, although the Church is still not willing to equate such unions with marriage. But the door is still open. Conservatives won’t like this document,” he said.

After a lengthy debate about remarried divorcees, who are not allowed to take holy communion, Francis did not call for the rules to be changed but said such parishioners must be made to feel part of the Church.

He signalled his support for a proposal by progressives for “internal forums” in which a priest and a parishioner decide jointly, privately and on a case-by-case basis whether they can receive communion.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, who presented the document in Rome, said he recognised that some Catholics would be disappointed that the pope had not provided a new set of rules to govern the Church’s response on remarried divorcees. But the pope’s response demonstrated progress was being made on Church teachings, said Schönborn, who is viewed as a progressive within the Vatican hierarchy.

In discussing reproduction, the pope voiced the Vatican’s opposition to abortion in all circumstances: “No alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life.” He also rejected fertility treatment, describing creation as something which “must be received as a gift” and suggested infertile couples could adopt.

Francis offered support for women, condemning the “verbal, physical and sexual violence” that many endure in marriages, rejecting “sexual submission” to men and denouncing the “reprehensible” practice of female genital mutilation. He said the belief that feminism was to blame for the crisis in families today was completely invalid.

Alicante, Spain

Alicante, Spain

The pontiff dedicated two pages to “the erotic dimension of love” within marriage, promoting a positive vision of sexuality. “[This] must be seen as a gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses,” he said.

The 79 year-old pontiff explored the way technology affects relationships, such as when people stay on their mobile phones during meal times. He said the fast pace of the online world was affecting people’s approach to relationships. “They believe, along the lines of social networks, that love can be connected or disconnected at the whim of the consumer, and the relationship quickly ‘blocked’.”

The papal document – which also touches upon a number of other issues affecting families, such as abuse, migration and unemployment – reflects the hands-on approach seen throughout Francis’s three-year papacy. The pope emphasised the need for priests to reach out to members of their communities and present the Church as a “field hospital”.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the general secretary of the synod of bishops, who presented the document alongside Schönborn, envisaged a difficult road ahead for priests as they tried to follow the pontiff’s guidance. “We are not used to such a work. Everything was imposed from above and now we have to apply discernment… to each and every situation. So we have to keep the doctrine of faith very clear,” he said.

Peter Doyle, the chair of the bishops’ committee for marriage and family life, said the document was “very exciting, embracing everyone whatever their situation. Some people will be disappointed that it is not full of black and white solutions, but, as Pope Francis says, every situation is different and needs to be approached with love, mercy and openness of heart.”

Matthew McCusker, of the conservative organisation Voice of the Family, said there were “grave problems” with the document, which failed “to give a clear and faithful exposition of Catholic doctrine”. He said: “The Church has always taught that when a Catholic does something that is gravely wrong they must seek reconciliation with God and the Church through confession prior to receiving holy communion. If a person chooses to remain in a union that contradicts the moral law, they cannot be admitted to holy communion.”

Valencia, Spian

Valencia, Spain

 One problem with the document is that it does not have the authority of an encyclical. It is what is known as a post-synodal apostolic exhortation. An apostolic exhortation is a pastoral document in which the pope exhorts the Church. Although it contains doctrine, its primary focus is on pastoral care. Apostolic exhortations are different to encyclicals, which do focus primarily on doctrine. When a pope issues an apostolic exhortation in response to a meeting of the synod of bishops (a gathering of bishops from around the world), it is called a post-synodal (after the synod) apostolic exhortation.

The “National Catholic Register”, published in the United States, notes with obvious regret that very little is said about homosexuality:

Same-sex unions “may not simply be equated with marriage”.  “Amoris Laetitia” also says: “During the Synod, we discussed the situation of families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children… We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while every sign of unjust discrimination is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence… Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.”

In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”.

Additionally, it is unacceptable “that local churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex”.

And that’s it. Contrary to the hopes of some, the document did not attempt to reframe the Church’s teaching on same-sex activity or same-sex unions.

Montilla, Spain

Montilla, Spain

Conclusion? The pope has done a little too much for the conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church but far too little for the liberals, but, given the overwhelmingly conservative character of the most senior figures in the Church, he probably did as much to shift Catholic thinking as is currently possible. I genuinely believe the pope is keen to reform many aspects of Roman Catholicism’s more ludicrous teachings, but he has so few reformist allies among the Church’s most senior figures that his room for manoeuvre is very limited. Then again, I could be misjudging the man. Perhaps he is just very good at appearing liberal in inclination when in reality he is almost as conservative as the popes who immediately preceded him. Perhaps we will be in a better position to judge him in two or three years’ time.  

Religious people still behaving badly (and far, far worse), four.


A halal abattoir at the centre of horrific animal cruelty allegations has gone into administration, six months after covert footage of practices in the slaughterhouse were revealed. The move came as the UK’s Food Standards Agency announced it was close to concluding an enquiry into how animals were treated, an enquiry which will be handed to the Crown Prosecution Service to consider launching criminal charges.

An international furore erupted and protests were held outside the abattoir in Thirsk after film obtained by Animal Aid was released showing a worker hacking and sawing at animals’ throats, in direct contravention of Islamic practice. It took workers up to five attempts to sever blood vessels. Other film included sheep being kicked in the face; lifted by their ears, fleeces or legs; thrown into solid structures; and a worker standing on the neck of a conscious sheep and jumping up and down. Also, staff are shown laughing while a sheep was bleeding to death with green spectacles painted around its eyes.

The film drew widespread condemnation because the law requires abattoirs to stun animals before slaughter to prevent unnecessary suffering, although there are exemptions for meat producers supplying the Jewish and the Muslim markets. Under the halal code of practice, animals are supposed to be killed quickly with a single sweep of a surgically sharp knife.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy


The Sikh Federation UK, said by some to be the leading Sikh lobbying organisation in Britain, has so far failed to condemn the actions of a group of Sikhs who disrupted a wedding between a Sikh and a non-Sikh in a gurdwara in Southall, west London.

A group of about twenty Sikhs arrived at the gurdwara on Friday 9th August while final preparations were taking place for the wedding of a Sikh woman and a white, non-Sikh man. The couple were forced to cancel their wedding after the gang stormed into the gurdwara.

Sohan Singh Sumra, vice-president of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, told a leading UK newspaper that the men “were all thugs” who objected to the ceremony simply because it was a “mixed marriage”. Mr. Sumra said the group wanted to “intimidate” the bride and groom and that the police had to be called.

The journalist Sunny Hundal later confronted the Sikh Federation UK on Twitter about the incident and asked it to condemn the actions of the gang, but representatives of the federation refused, stating only that what happened at the gurdwara “should be avoided”. A representative of the federation said that those who “understand” and “respect” the Anand Karaj (the Sikh marriage ceremony) will “realise it is more important” than the couples’ “‘big day'”.

Mr. Hundal warned that “gang-mentality puritanism” would lead to a “Sikh version of the Taliban”. He also posted comments made against him by “fundamentalist Sikhs” who objected to his criticism of the Sikh Federation UK. He went on to allege that instances of “hypocritical and fanatical thugs” arriving to disrupt “interfaith weddings” are becoming more common.

When asked by Sunny Hundal if they “support or condemn these thugs going around disrupting interfaith marriages at Gurdwaras?”, a representative of the Sikh Federation UK replied obliquely that they “stand by and defend” the tenets of the “Sikh faith”.

A letter published in “The Times” newspaper on 21 July warned of a “recently placed” ban on gurdwaras “solemnising marriages between Sikh and non-Sikh”. Moreover, advice from 2007 stipulates that the Anand Karaj should only be between two Sikhs.

Guidelines published by the Sikh Council UK in October 2014 state that “Any person wishing to exercise the choice to marry in a Gurdwara Sahib through the Anand Karaj ceremony must sign a declaration” that “he or she is a Sikh, believes in the tenets of the Sikh faith and owes no allegiance to another faith”. Such people must also pledge to “endeavour to bring up any children from his or her marriage as Sikhs”.

National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson said, “This kind of fundamentalism is very dangerous. It may amount only to bullying at the moment, but as fanaticism increases it can escalate to frightening levels of violence. The government should stamp down on this now before it gets out of control. They must learn from the experience with Islamism that ignoring the problem on grounds of political correctness will only allow it to fester and get worse.”

P.S. This is not a new problem. The BBC website has an article dated 11th March 2013 about the disruption of “interfaith” marriages at gurdwaras. The article concludes by mentioning that a documentary called “The Sikh Wedding Crashers” could be heard on the BBC Asian Network on Monday 11th March 2013 at 5.00pm, or listened to thereafter on BBC iPlayer.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne


Despite the growing popularity of secularism and Protestantism in recent decades, the Roman Catholic Church is still a major social influence in Latin America, so much so that the Vatican’s hostility to abortion is enshrined in the legislation of most Latin American nation states. Chile is said to have the legislation that is most hostile to abortion in that it is presently illegal without exception. The Chilean abortion law is therefore considered one of the most restrictive in the world.

However, this dire situation for women may at last be about to change, and it may be about to change because of what follows, a case of sexual abuse that came to light in 2013:

The case of a pregnant girl aged eleven who was raped in Chile by her mother’s partner set off a national debate about abortion in one of the most socially conservative countries in Latin America. Chileans were outraged after state TV reported that the child is fourteen  weeks pregnant and was raped repeatedly over two years. Police in the remote southern city of Puerto Montt arrested her mother’s partner, who reportedly confessed to abusing the girl. The case was brought to their attention by the pregnant child’s maternal grandmother.

Doctors say the girl’s life and that of the foetus are at high risk. But in Chile ending the pregnancy is not an option.

Chile allowed abortions for medical reasons until they were outlawed in 1973 by General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The current government of conservative President Sebastian Pinera has opposed any loosening of the prohibition.

Many Chileans vented their outrage on social media. Some started an online campaign to demand legalisation of abortion in cases of rape or health risks for the mother. “When I heard about this little girl my first reaction was to support abortion because I think it’s the best option in this case,” said Eduardo Hernandez, a web designer aged thirty. “It’s the first online petition I’ve signed in my life, but I think this case really deserves it,” Mr. Hernandez said. “We should have a change of law. I hope this case serves as a precedent to have a serious discussion about abortion.” The Chilean Senate rejected three bills in 2012 that would have eased the absolute ban on abortions.

“Chile is a country that has modernised when it comes to its economy, but when it comes to its social and political culture, it has become stagnant and this is seen with the abortion issue,” said Marta Lagos, head of the Santiago-based pollster Mori. “It’s a country that is opposed to change, that panics with any change, which is seen as a threat,” Lagos said. “The weight of Catholicism is still a major issue and we also have an indigenous culture that always lived alienated from the rest of world.”

The Roman Catholic Church retains a strong influence over society, although it has lost credibility since 2010 when four men alleged that they were abused by one of Chile’s most revered priests when they were between fourteen and seventeen years-old.

Former president Michelle Bachelet, the frontrunner in the November 2013 presidential election, favours legalising abortion in cases of rape or risks to the health of the mother or the child. She has spent the past two years heading the UN agency for women.

Her opponent, former Economy Minister Pablo Longueira, was close to Pinochet. He opposes the legalisation of abortion and the morning-after pill.

The following is part of a recent article in “The Guardian” newspaper:

The debate about abortion comes as Chile, one of Latin America’s most socially conservative countries, grapples with shifting views on once-taboo issues. The mostly Roman Catholic country began to allow divorce in 2004. This year, Congress recognised civil unions for gay couples and, recently, a pilot programme in Santiago harvested the country’s first legal medical marijuana.

The changing attitudes mark a generational shift as young people born after the 1973-1990 military dictatorship come of age. The trend has accelerated since a wave of student protests demanding educational reform began in 2011 in the wake of Catholic priest sex abuse scandals that have provoked questioning of Church doctrine.

A recent discussion on abortion at Santiago’s Diego Portales University drew a packed audience with many students forced to sit on the floor.

“As a country we are behind,” said Fernanda Saavedra, a student who attended. “We need to evolve and think more about women.”

Chile legalised abortion for medical reasons in 1931, eighteen years before it allowed women to vote. But during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, abortion was banned under all circumstances. Today, women found guilty of having abortions face prison terms of up to five years.

Still, an estimated 120,000 illegal abortions are performed every year, according to the Miles Group. Most women use the drug misoprostol, buying it on the black market, to end first-trimester pregnancies. Others undergo conventional abortions in secret. Those who can afford to travel seek abortions in neighbouring Argentina or beyond.

And this suggests that change for the better is not far off:

Chileans online are engaging in heated debate over abortion, twenty-six years after the procedure was completely banned in the country. In August 2015, the Chamber of Deputies’ health commission is set to vote on a new bill that will decriminalise abortion under three circumstances: in a case of rape, when a mother’s life is at risk, or when a foetus will not survive the pregnancy. The proposed law is backed by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

Montilla, Spain

Montilla, Spain


Evidence grows suggesting that the Islamic State has used chemical weapons (mustard gas, in all likelihood) against the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Chemical weapons have already been used by the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar Al-Assad that clings to power in parts of Syria. Inevitably, the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds reminds those of us with long memories about how Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime used such weapons against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988 killing about 5,000 men, women and children.

Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

A Kurdish family, Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey


In August 2015, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Scotland, Philip Tartaglia, said to the victims of historic child sexual abuse, “The bishops of Scotland are shamed and pained for what you have suffered. We say sorry. We ask for forgiveness. We apologise to those who have found Church reaction slow, unsympathetic or uncaring and we reach out to them as we take up the recommendations of the McLellan Commission.”

Published in August 2015, the report by the McLellan Commission makes for harrowing reading, this despite the fact that It is merely the latest such report to confirm how widespread child sexual abuse has been within the Roman Catholic Church and how inadequate the response of the Church has been when such abuse is confirmed.

Dr. Andrew McLellan was commissioned in November 2013 to undertake a review of all aspects of safeguarding policy, procedures and practice within the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland. 2013 had been a difficult year for Scottish Roman Catholics. Early in 2013, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, had sent shock waves through Scottish congregations when he resigned following inappropriate sexual conduct toward his own priests. A few months later, allegations of historic child sexual abuse were made involving Fort Augustus Abbey School, an exclusive Roman Catholic boarding school in the Scottish Highlands.

Catherine Deveney is one of the many people who provided evidence to the McLellan Commission. In late August 2015 she wrote in the following manner in a national UK newspaper:

What did I tell McLellan? As much as possible, while protecting my sources. The decades of abuse; of cover-up; of moral and financial corruption. The enormous gulf between what the Church said publicly and what it did privately. Its ruthless dismissal of victims and of criticism. The fact that it failed to have coherent, consistent policies because each bishop was deemed autonomous in his own diocese. McLellan had produced reports on the Scottish prison service in the past and was neither delicate nor faint-hearted. “I am shocked,” he told me. “And I am not easily shocked.”

 In the same article Deveney refers to:

Father Patrick Lawson, an Ayrshire priest who had been speaking out against abuse for almost twenty years after exposing a fellow priest, Father Paul Moore, for sexually assaulting him and abusing two altar boys. Father Lawson, who was forcibly removed from his parish and is now involved in an industrial tribunal against the Church, also appeared before the commission and the final report recommends a policy protecting whistleblowers.

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland


Palmyra in Syria is one of the Middle East’s most remarkable ruined ancient cities, partly for the magnificent ruins that survive, and partly for the magnificent artefacts kept in the nearby museum. However, the Islamic State now (mid-2015) controls the region around Palmyra. In August 2015, Islamic State militants beheaded a renowned antiquities scholar and hung his mutilated body on a column in one of Palmyra’s main squares because the scholar refused to reveal where valuable artefacts had been moved for safekeeping.

The brutal murder of Khaled Al-Asaad – he was aged eighty-two – is the latest atrocity perpetrated by the Islamic State, which has captured a third of Syria and neighbouring Iraq and declared a caliphate on the territory it controls. The atrocity has also highlighted the Islamic State’s habit of looting and selling antiquities to fund its activities or destroying them.

Al-Asaad, who had worked at Palmyra for fifty years, had been held for more than a month before being murdered. Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said he had learned from a Syrian source that the archaeologist had been interrogated by Islamic State militants about the location of treasures from Palmyra and had been executed when he refused to cooperate.

The Islamic State captured Palmyra from government forces in May, but is not known to have damaged its monumental Roman-era ruins despite a reputation for destroying artefacts it views as idolatrous. This said, it is very likely that damage will now be done to the ruins.

Palmyra is one of Syria’s six UNESCO world heritage sites, but five of them have been severely damaged by the war because of airstrikes, mortar attacks and extensive looting. The old city of Aleppo (once, along with the old city in Cairo, the most beautiful and intriguing old city anywhere in the Middle East) is largely in ruins. Only the old city of Damascus has been spared, but fierce fighting rages not far beyond its walls and mortar shells occasionally fall within them. Government airstrikes have turned many of Damascus’s suburbs, once a short minibus ride from the old city’s Roman-era eastern gate, into rubble.

P.S. Just prior to publishing this post, news broke that Islamic State militants have destroyed part or all of the magnificent Baal Shamin Temple at Palmyra, which dates from 17 CE. The reason for destroying the temple? One or more of the following would seem to provide an explanation. Baal Shamin Temple is pre- or non-Islamic. It is a product of Pagan piety. It is where people once engaged in practices that mainstream Muslims define as idolatrous. It provides humankind with a view of the divine that conflicts with the view of the divine thought by mainstream Muslims to be true. Its destruction enrages public opinion globally. But if any or all of these are reasons for the temple’s destruction they are pathetic and contemptible reasons. Recent events at Palmyra confirm that the Islamic State must be resisted wherever it seeks to gain a foothold.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)


Ayoub El-Khazzani, a Moroccan national, had his August 2015 plan to murder passengers on an Amsterdam to Paris high speed train thwarted by the intervention of two American servicemen, their American civilian friend and a UK businessman. El-Khazzani, known to the authorities for links with jihadi groups, is believed to have travelled through Europe to Turkey between May and July 2015, from where he may have crossed the border to spend time with Islamic State militants. He may also have links with Sid Ahmed Ghlam, an Algerian student who was arrested in April 2015. Sid Ahmed Ghlam is charged with planning to attack churches and other targets in Paris.


The nuclear deal framework with Iran dating from April 2015 has resulted in the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations between the Islamic Republic on the one hand and nation states such as the US and the UK on the other. Jaw-jaw is always preferable to war-war. How sad, therefore, that those who are most vocal in their opposition to the deal are Israel, Saudi Arabia and a majority of Republicans in the US. As unholy alliances go, the one that (sort of) exists between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US Republicans takes some beating. I wonder to what degree religion has influenced Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US Republicans to oppose and/or regret the deal with Iran?

Part of the Republican heartland, Texas, the USA

Part of the Republican heartland, Texas, the USA

Is religion a force for good in the world?

On 26th November 2010, Christopher Hitchens, the well-known atheist, and Tony Blair, the one-time British prime minister and Roman Catholic, took part in the Munk Debate addressing the question, “Is religion a force for good in the world?” The debate resulted in a Black Swan book entitled “Hitchens vs. Blair” published in 2011.

Sadly, Tony Blair’s contribution to the debate amounted to little more a lot of hot air and wishful thinking, so much so that, below, I do not quote from his contributions (those of you keen to find out what he said will have to access the Black Swan book itself). Instead, I quote from Hitchens who had far more compelling things to share with the audience.

What is twisted and immoral in the faith mentality… is… its consideration of the human being as raw material and its fantasy of purity. Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes humans objects in a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well. I’ll repeat that: created sick and then ordered to be well. And a celestial dictatorship is installed over us to supervise this, a kind of divine North Korea. Greedy and exigent. Greedy for uncritical praise from dawn to dusk and swift to punish the original sins with which it so tenderly gifted us in the very first place. However, let no one say there is no cure. Salvation is offered. Redemption, indeed, is offered at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties…

Religion… makes extraordinary claims. Though I would maintain that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, rather daringly religion provides not even ordinary evidence for its extraordinary supernatural claims. Therefore we might begin by asking… is it good for the world to appeal to our credulity and not to our skepticism? Is it good for the world to worship a deity that takes sides in wars and human affairs, and to appeal to our terror of death? To preach guilt and shame about the sexual act and the sexual relationship – is it good for the world?… (Should religion) terrify children with the image of hell and eternal punishment, not just for themselves, but for their parents and those they love? Perhaps worst of all, to consider women an inferior creation – is that good for the world?…

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Religion forces nice people to do unkind things and also makes intelligent people say stupid things. Handed a small baby for the first time, is it your first reaction to think, “Beautiful, almost perfect. Now please hand me the sharp stone for its genitalia that I may do the work of the Lord.” As the great American physicist Steven Weinberg has very aptly put it, in the ordinary moral universe the good will do the best they can, the worst will do the worst they can, but if you want to make good people do wicked things, you’ll need religion… 

The Middle East is the birthplace of monotheism, so you might think it was filled with refulgence and love and peace. Everyone is roughly agreed… that there should be enough room for two states (Israel and Palestine), for two people (Jews and Arabs) in the same land… Why can’t we get it? We can’t get it because the parties of God have a veto on it and everybody knows that this is true. Because of the divine promises made about this territory there will never be peace, there will never be compromise. There will instead be misery, shame and tyranny, and people will kill each other’s children for ancient books and caves and relics, and who is going to say that this is good for the world?… 

No one was arguing that religion should or will die out of the world. All I’m arguing is that it would be better of there was a great deal more by the way of an outbreak of secularism… 

Name me one religion that stands for the empowerment of women or ever has. Wherever you look in the world and you try to remove the shackles of ignorance and disease and stupidity for women, it is invariably the clerisy that stands in the way…

I would hope (Roman) Catholic charities are doing a lot of work in Africa. If I was a member of a church that had preached that AIDS was not as bad as condoms, I’d be putting some conscience money into Africa… 

The injunction not to do to another what would be repulsive if done to yourself (an injunction so often thought to lie at the heart of the monotheistic religions of the Middle East) is found in the analects of Confucius… But that truth is found in the heart of every person in this room. Everybody knows that much. We don’t require divine permission to know right from wrong…

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

Could religion sometimes be a good thing after all?… What would religion have to do to get that far?… It would have to give up all supernatural claims… the threat of the reward of heaven or the terror of punishment in hell… miracles… the idea of an eternal, unalterable authority figure who was judge, jury and executioner, against whom there could be no appeal and who wasn’t finished with you even when you died. 

There’s something about religion that is, very often in its original monotheistic, Judaistic form, actually an expression of exclusivism. “This is our God. This is a God who has made a covenant with our tribe.” You’ll find it all over the place… It’s always struck me as slightly absurd for there to be a special church for the English people. It strikes me as positively sinister that Pope Benedict should want to restore the (Roman) Catholic Church to the claim it used to make, which is that it is the one true church and that all other forms of Christianity are, as he still puts it, defective and inadequate. How this idea helps to build your future world of co-operation and understanding is not known to me.

Religion… is a surrender of reason in favour of faith. It’s a fantastic force multiplier, a tremendous intensifier of all things that are in fact divisive rather than inclusive, and that’s why its history is so stained with blood – and not just with crimes against humanity, but with crimes against womanhood, crimes against reason and science, or attacks upon medicine and enlightenment.

Four hundred years and more people (in Northern Ireland)… have been killing each other’s children based on what kind of Christian they were and sending each other’s children, in rhetoric, to hell… Northern Ireland… the most remarkable place in Northern Europe for unemployment, for ignorance, for poverty and for, I would say, stupidity too…

Rwanda is the most Christian country in Africa… Genocide was actually preached from the pulpits of the (Roman) Catholic Church. Many of the people we are still looking for, who were involved in that genocide, are hiding in the Vatican along with a number of other people who should be given up to international justice right away.

The United States has a unique constitution that forbids the government to take sides in any religious matter or to sponsor the church or adopt any form of faith itself… Thomas Jefferson wrote… “Rest assured that there will ever be a wall of separation between the church and the state in this country.” The maintenance of that wall, which people like me have to defend every day against those who want garbage taught in schools and pseudo-science in the name of Christ… is the guarantee of democracy…

Christus statue, North Visitor Centre, Salt Lake City, Utah

Christus statue, North Visitor Centre, Salt Lake City, Utah

 (We can all get along fine) as long as you don’t want your religion taught to my children in school, given a government subsidy or imposed on me by violence… They say it (religion) is the way to happiness. Why doesn’t it make the religious happy?… Because they won’t be happy until you believe it (their religion) too. And why is that? Because that’s what their holy books tell them… Do these texts say that until every knee bows in the name of Jesus there will be no happiness? Of course it’s what these texts say. It isn’t only a private belief.  It is, and always has been, a threat to the idea of a peaceful community and very often, as now, a palpable one…  

The Methodist Church of the United States adamantly opposed the liberation of Iraq, and the Vatican adamantly opposed the liberation of Iraq, as it had the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. It wasn’t the first time that a sort of sickly Christian passivity has been preached in the face of fascist dictatorship… Given the number of Muslims put to the sword by Saddam Hussein’s regime, it’s quite extraordinary to see the extent to which Muslim fundamentalists flocked to his defence… It’s those who would have kept a cannibal and a Caligula and a professional sadist in power who have the explaining to do (about the second Iraq war)…

(The Israeli and Palestinian problem is so complicated because of) the idea that God intervenes in real estate and territorial disputes… This is what I mean when I say that religion is a real danger to the survival of civilisation, and that it makes this banal regional and national dispute, which, if reduced to its proportions, is a nothingness. (Religion) makes that (problem) not just lethally insoluble, but is drawing in other contending parties who openly wish for an apocalyptic conclusion to it, as also bodied forth in the same scriptural texts – in other words, that it will be the death of us all, the end of humanity, the end of the whole suffering veil of tears, which is what they secretly want. This is a failure of the parties of God, and it’s not something that happens because people misinterpret the texts. It happens because they believe them, that’s the problem…

If we give up religion we discover what we know already, whether we are religious or not, which is that we are somewhat imperfectly evolved primates on a very small planet in a very unimportant suburb of the solar system that is itself a negligible part of a very rapidly expanding and blowing apart cosmic phenomenon. These conclusions… are a great deal more awe-inspiring than what’s contained in any burning bush or horse that flies overnight to Jerusalem or any of that. It’s a great deal more awe-inspiring, as is any look through the Hubble telescope…

Awe and wonder do not depend on superstition or the supernatural

Awe and wonder do not depend on superstition or the supernatural

The question is how to keep the numinous, the transcendent, I’ll go so far as the ecstatic, in art and in our own emotions and in our finer feelings, and to distinguish it precisely from superstition and the supernatural, which are designed to make us fearful and afraid and servile, and which sometimes succeed only to well… 

(Why is it that many renowned people embraced and then rejected communism – André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, etc. – despite its admirable aspirations?) Because it’s not worth the sacrifice of freedom that it implies. It implies that great things can only be done if you’ll place yourself under an infallible leadership, and once a decision has been made you are bound by it. You might conceivably notice where I’m going here… It (communism, and the same can be said about religion) wasn’t worth the sacrifice of mental, intellectual and moral freedom…

I don’t think someone is religious unless they have faith in what St. Paul calls the evidence of things not seen – in other words, the supernatural  or supervising deity, presence, force, who requires and expects certain kinds of propitiation.

A religious person… (has) special permission… to talk nonsense.

Mother Teresa… her teachings and entire lifetime of work were exerted to make sure that women could not get hold of the means of family planning, so that the effect she had on prolonging and entrenching and deepening poverty and disease hugely outweighed any good she might have done if she’d spent the money she raised on charity – which, as it turns out, she did not do anyway… And then you simply have to ask anyone if they know of a religion – and not just a monotheistic one – that does not, according to the texts, consider women to be an inferior creation.

What one has to avoid is certainty. The Socratic principle is that you’re only educated to the extent that you understand how little you know.

What I think would be nice is if people realised, for example, that a lot of devotional music is written by non-believers. I suppose Verdi is the best example.

There’s no doubt that Judaism is much nearer to being philosophy than religion, or rather much nearer to that claim than Christianity or Islam are, and that it is attractive for that reason.

I think part of having being a marxist meant I could not help noticing how many thinkers and writers of the left were Jews. And I also used to find any hint of anti-Semitism absolutely repulsive… My attitude toward Zionism had always been… that I very much doubt it to be the liberation of the Jewish people.

Auschwitz, Poland

Auschwitz, Poland

The reason for (anti-Semitism’s) virulence is religious… If the events (leading up to Jesus’ execution) as described took place at all – and I think that something like that did, that some charismatic rabbi was executed for blasphemy – then the Romans did it, but it was the Jews who thought, “Here’s another false claimant (to being the messiah).” They were the only ones who knew him, really, and they spat on him and turned away and for that they’re not going to be forgiven. That’s why it took the (Roman Catholic) Church until 1964 to stop saying that all Jews were personally responsible (for his execution)… It’s the same with the Muslims. The first people who meet Muhammad are the Jews, and at first some of them are excited, thinking maybe this is the messiah. But he is not, they decide. Private time with the prophet is something that every Muslim in the world would give their all for… and this privilege was granted to a group who turned their backs.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

2,700 people listened to the debate. The pre-debate vote was 25% in favour of the resolution and 55% against, with 20% undecided. The final vote was 32% in favour of the resolution and 68% against, with no one undecided.

Sadly, Christopher Hitchens is now dead. His memory and work live on in many books and countless articles. Perhaps his most accessible (and controversial and entertaining) work is “God is not Great”, which dates from 2007.

I do not agree with everything Hitchens says in “Hitchens vs. Blair” – if he were alive today and knew I agreed with everything he said, Hitchens would have nothing but contempt for me – but most of what he says “is right on the money”, as our friends across the pond would say.     

After this, no more Sex and Christianity. You can have too much of a good thing!

The third and final part of Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s TV series about attitudes toward sex in Christianity was so good that I cannot resist providing a summary of what he said. If, by summarising, I misrepresent what was originally said, the fault is all mine. Blame me and not the professor.

People began a fundamental questioning of the churches three centuries ago when the Enlightenment began. The Enlightenment began the process by which sex changed from being a sin tolerated only in marriage to being a recreational pleasure and lifestyle choice. Over time, gay people were transformed from being sinners to accepted members of society. Women, once dismissed by the churches as morally weak, sexually predatory and unfit for leadership, gradually found themselves accepted as ordained priests and other religious leadership figures. But for most of the last three hundred years, the churches fought against these radical changes.

The churches began to lose control of sex in the West in the 18th century as the rational power of science and learning challenged superstition, mindless obedience and religious teaching on many different matters, not least sex. But already by the year 1700, London, in common with many other large cities, was awash with prostitutes, brothels and meeting places for heterosexual and gay sex. There were drag queens and a Baptist minister who officiated at same-sex marriages, although no one but he recognised such marriages as legal at the time. The permissive times appear to have dated from at least the 1690s.

The Church of England sought to hold back what it saw as a tide of debauchery but it could do very little, not least because Christianity in England and most other European countries no longer had one voice. Dissenting Protestants existed in England and elsewhere, thereby compromising the power and authority of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. The result? Churches could no longer monopolise power over people’s minds. People suddenly had new freedoms about who to be and how to live.

Kansas City, Missouri, USA

Kansas City, Missouri, USA

A new manifestation of Christianity at the time was the Evangelical Revival, which soon morphed into Methodism. The Evangelical Revival broke with Christian tradition when it empowered women to assume leadership roles. Methodism in particular was inspired by a desire to promote social justice, and it was not long before Sarah Crosby benefitted from such justice by becoming the denomination’s first female preacher. She was most active as a preacher during the 1760s and 1770s. Other women followed Crosby into the role of preacher and also opened schools and spread the Christian message. Women were suddenly seen to have high moral seriousness, which was in marked contrast with how they were seen not long after the foundation of Christianity until the 18th century. Methodist women even engaged in missionary activities in North America and the British colonies. But after Wesley died, Methodists began to react against the idea of women assuming leadership roles. In fact, the same thing happened in other Protestant churches. Just as early Christianity had done, the new manifestations of the faith first granted real power to women before denying them it, alleging that they were inadequate to the role. As ever within the faith, men reasserted their primacy and power.

The French Revolution was the next substantive knock to religious authority in so far as it dented the power of the Roman Catholic Church, primarily in France but, long-term, elsewhere. The revolution stripped the Roman Catholic Church of much of its wealth and power in France, where it was thought to be steeped in superstition and corruption and to have many priests with an unhealthy appetite for sexual abandon. France became the world’s first secular state, but at great human and material cost. Marriage became a purely civil contract, divorce was possible by mutual consent and homosexuality was decriminalised, all of which were direct attacks on Church teaching on sex. The reforms had a long-term impact in other European empires and nation states, but, when Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France, he signed an agreement with the Vatican which gave the Roman Catholic Church the chance to temporarily revive its fortunes. Ironically, however, the revival of the Roman Catholic Church was largely conducted by women.

By the early 19th century, and for the first time ever, nuns outnumbered monks and priests in the Roman Catholic Church. Nuns engaged in teaching, the provision of healthcare and meeting the needs of the poorest in society. A sort of Roman Catholic feminism emerged, and the main inspiration behind such feminism was the example of Mary, the mother of Jesus himself. But, in time, admiration for Mary led to reinforcement of the idea that her conception had been immaculate (free from the sin of sexual encounter), thereby making her unique among all human beings. The idea of the immaculate conception had been around since the second century, but now the idea caught on as never before. Mary was the uniquely sinless woman and women were therefore confronted with an ideal of womanhood they never live up to, even if they never engaged in sexual activity of any kind. In 1854 the immaculate conception became an article of faith revealed by God and this heralded a new attack on sex because everyone but Mary was tainted by the sexual act itself.

During the 19th century some Victorians divided sexual acts into two categories, normal and perverse, and others experimented with photography, which soon led to a rapid increase in the availability of pornography. Prostitution remained common, not least in the United Kingdom, where Josephine Butler, an evangelical Christian married to an Anglican clergyman, championed the cause of women caught up in the sex industry. Josephine Butler complained that women who engaged in prostitution were criminalised, but men who exploited women to satisfy their sexual appetites were allowed to go free. She was eventually successful in repealing the Contagious Diseases acts both in Britain and elsewhere from 1869 to 1886 because such legislation harmed and unfairly imprisoned young women who were suspected of being prostitutes. But Butler did this without the support of the Church of England.

From the 16th to the 19th century all marriages but those among Jews and Quakers were legal/valid only if the ceremony had been conducted by an Anglican priest. But in the early 19th century all the churches other than the Church of England clamoured for the Anglican monopoly to be broken. The monopoly did eventually end, but legislation also required that all marriages were subject to civil registration. This meant that marriages could now take place in local registry offices. This was the beginning of civil marriage as we know it today, the separation of marriage from religion. Gradually civil marriage was reintroduced throughout Europe, even in predominantly Roman Catholic countries where secular governments used civil marriage as a way to challenge Church power and authority.

The Roman Catholic Church had always maintained an absolute ban on divorce, but, in contrast, Protestant churches had allowed divorce in certain circumstances, except in England. in 1857 the British Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act, an act permitting civil divorce on the grounds of infidelity. Divorce was now beyond the control of the Church of England. The act also allowed for the remarriage of divorcees, which was in direct opposition to Christian teaching at the time. In fact, the Church of England remained officially opposed to divorcees remarrying until 2002.

Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

In the latter half of the 19th century, as European powers established colonies in ever more remote parts of the globe, Christians encountered people whose beliefs about marriage were very different from their own. This was perhaps most apparent in parts of Africa where polygamy was widespread. Even though Abraham, Solomon and many other Old Testament characters are said to have engaged in polygamous relationships, Christians were committed to monogamy as supported by Jesus. To Christians, polygamy was illegal and immoral, despite the many polygamous Old Testament characters not criticised for such relationships. But there had always been Christians on the margins of the faith who had sympathised with polygamy, and the early 19th century saw the emergence in the USA of what came to be known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints whose leaders said that God had solemnly instructed them to adopt polygamy. Even today, 20,000 Mormons are said to be in polygamous marriages in the USA alone. As for Christians who encountered polygamous marriages in the colonies where they worked, at first they tried to impose monogamy, but, where African and other communities resisted practices alien to their heritage, the missionaries gradually came to tolerate polygamy provided conversion to Christianity was assured. To this day among many Christians living in Africa polygamy persists.

By the beginning of the 20th century science had transformed artificial contraception. With condoms and diaphragms more readily available, sexual intercourse could be separated from having children, which brought a more liberal attitude to sex. At the time, however, the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches totally condemned artificial contraception. Attitudes began to change in the 1930s when Anglican bishops came to accept the merits of artificial contraception if, for example, it was necessary to limit family size or a couple were unsuited for parenthood. Anglican bishops finally agreed that people should decide for themselves whether they would use artificial contraception or not. The matter had become one of individual conscience.

From as early as the 2nd century, Christians had limited sex exclusively to having children, but now Anglicans were saying that sex could be indulged in for other reasons, to least pleasure. This was a very important break with the past. But in the 1930s the Roman Catholic Church would not allow Roman Catholics to use any form of artificial birth control.

The idea that sex could be enjoyed for its own sake had as big an impact among homosexuals as it did among heterosexuals, but, following the second world war, homosexual acts remained criminal offences. In 1954 no fewer than 1069 men were imprisoned for homosexual acts. However, as discussion, albeit ill-informed, about homosexuality increased, it became apparent that some well-known members of the establishment were gay. This realisation helped to popularise the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality. Even more remarkably, leading clergy in the Church of England supported the campaign. Most such clergy felt that homosexuality was sinful, but their commitments to compassion and justice led them to argue in favour of decriminalisation. In 1967 homosexuality was decriminalised, by which time a majority of Anglican clergy, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK and a majority of Methodists had expressed sympathy for the change of law.

It was also in 1967 that abortion was legalised in the UK. Although some Protestants came out in favour of legalising abortion, the Roman Catholic Church could not do so, but 1967 confirmed that core Enlightenment values such as freedom, equality and rationality were having an impact in specific Christian environments.

By the late 1960s it appeared to many as if the “permissive society” had taken a firm hold in many parts of the developed world, so much so that growing numbers of children were being born out of wedlock. Such “permissiveness” led to a conservative backlash in many expressions of religious faith, perhaps especially from heterosexual men who saw in the empowerment of women and homosexuals threats to their power, dignity and usefulness. But the tide of change could not be resisted indefinitely and, in 1994, the Church of England ordained its first women priests (the Church now has women bishops). However, reaching an accommodation with homosexuality has proved more of a challenge, so much so that, while the Church of England will ordain openly gay priests, such priests must not engage in sexual acts with other men. Conservatives in all or most churches seem to believe that, if ground is given in relation to homosexuality, all aspects of biblical authority will be brought into question. But research suggests a slim majority of Anglicans now support same-sex marriage and therefore have no problem with openly gay priests engaging in sex with other men. It is merely a matter of time, surely, before the Church leadership reflects the opinion of a majority of those they serve.

Extremadura, Spain

Extremadura, Spain

At least Protestants have been relatively open and honest in their discussions about homosexuality, women and marriage. In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church has denied such discussion to unfold within its ranks and has merely restated traditional Church teaching: no to homosexuality, no to women priests, yes to celibate priests, no to divorce, no to abortion, and no to artificial contraception, the latter even after the problem of HIV/Aids in the 1980s. Such reluctance to engage with the real world in an informed and compassionate way that might enhance the rights and opportunities of millions of people currently denied such rights and opportunities has done a lot to erode the credibility of the Roman Catholic Church, despite Vatican II suggesting that meaningful reform of the Church is possible, but even more damaging to the Church have been the revelations from many nation states around the globe that Roman Catholic priests have engaged in the sexual abuse of hundreds of thousands of children. Other churches have had problems with child sexual abuse, of course, but not on the scale within the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, no other church has sought so systematically to cover up such abuse, protect its priests from criminal prosecution and to save the Church from scandal at the expense of its victims. The status that priests have within the Church because of their sacramental responsibilities and commitment to celibacy encourage in some such priests a belief that they are somehow superior to members of the laity and exempt from the rules of everyday society. They are not superior to members of the laity and no one is above the rules of everyday society. Moreover, priests are meant to serve their congregations, not preside over them.

Every so often Pope Francis says something that encourages one to believe that the Roman Catholic Church might one day embark along the road that some Protestant churches have traveled along, but, tp date, nothing substantive has been done to suggest that attitudes within the Church in relation to a host of matters sexual will shift significantly short- or medium-term. But what can be said with confidence is that the Roman Catholic laity are almost as likely as the laity in many Protestant churches to do what they think is right and proper in relation to sexual matters, even if this means doing things that are at complete odds with Church teaching. The great majority of people in the West have been liberated from what Christianity has required of its followers in relation to sex for almost 2,000 years.

More Sex and Christianity.

The second part of Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s TV series about attitudes toward sex in Christianity was so good that I cannot resist providing a summary of what he said. If, by summarising, I misrepresent what was originally said, the fault is all mine. Blame me and not the professor.

During the first thousand years of Christianity, Christians converted sex from something Jesus hardly ever discussed into a sin. Sex became something shameful and women were described as temptresses driven by uncontrollable sexual desire.

From the 11th to the 16th century there were two “revolutions” in Christian thinking. The first “revolution” saw the churches take control of people’s lives, minds and bodies as never before. The second “revolution” was the Reformation, which resulted in many Christians rejecting papal authority and the Church in the West splitting into two. However, by the end of the 16th century Christianity’s grip on sexual morality was stronger than ever.

Covington, Kentucky, USA

Covington, Kentucky, USA

It was in the 11th century that the Roman Catholic Church sought to micro-manage people’s sex lives, and such micro-management began with the institution of marriage.

For the first thousand years of Christianity people did not go to churches to marry. For all that time marriage was a civil contact between a man and a woman. However, in 1073 a new pope emerged on the scene, Gregory VII, who wanted to take control of the institution of marriage. His desire to control the institution of marriage occurred at precisely the time that wealthy and powerful men wanted to ensure that their wealth and power benefited their heirs; such men wanted to ensure that all their world goods were inherited by their oldest son.

The problem of inheritance was predicated on the fact that wealthy and powerful men had a tendency to produce children with different women and their sons would therefore dispute who was the rightful heir to their father’s possessions. Outcome? The Roman Catholic Church would co-opt the best referee of all, God, to determine who was the rightful heir. The Church would declare marriage valid so that men would know that the legitimacy of their heirs was beyond challenge. In so doing, the dynasty would be safe.

This turned out to be a neat deal sealed by the clergy and the nobility. People now had to be married by a priest. Inevitably, this significantly increased the power, influence and, eventually, wealth of the Church, especially once the Church had drawn up laws saying precisely who people could and could not marry. The Church soon found itself in a position in which it could approve or veto almost every marriage across the West. However, for a hefty fee the pope would grant special dispensations to side-step the laws!

By such means the clergy came to control society more effectively than in the past and, in the process, the Vatican became very rich. The Church now had a legal stranglehold on sexual expression. Moreover, by the end of the 12th century marriage had become a sacrament. Marriage therefore became an unbreakable contract with God in the same way that baptism and communion were already such unbreakable contracts.

But control of the institution of marriage confronted Christians with a dilemma. Since the time of Augustine all sex had been deemed sinful, even within marriage. Tension lay between approval for marriage as a sacrament and marriage tainted by sexual desire. The dilemma meant that, when the clergy first conducted wedding ceremonies, they were held in the porch leading into the church. Marriage would lead inevitably to sex, sex was sinful, and those who would soon commit sin should be excluded from the interior of the church itself.

However, by the end of the Middle Ages most of the wedding service was conducted inside the church in front of the altar. By that time, therefore, the Church had finally adopted marriage with enthusiasm. The central institution of Western society was now unmistakably a Christian sacrament.

Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

Attention soon turned from marriage to the sex life of the clergy. Until the 11th century, a large number of the clergy were happily married and had children. Until then, monks and nuns represented the “benefits” of celibacy; there was no such insistence that the clergy should also be celibate. However, Gregory VII wanted the clergy to renounce sex. He and other leading figures in the Roman Catholic Church thought that married clergy were offensive/an affront to God. But married clergy also posed a threat to the wealth of the Church in so far as their wives and children had to be supported. Church wealth was finding its way to the priests’ off-spring rather than staying in Rome.

In 1139, a council of bishops meeting in Rome declared clerical marriages were universally unlawful and invalid. Clergy had to embrace the “highest Christian ideal” of celibacy. But one unforeseen consequence of this was that the clergy soon began to see themselves as superior to everyone else. They saw themselves as set apart from those who engaged in the sin of sex. The clergy began to look down on the inferior members of the laity, especially women.

It was not long before the misogynistic inclinations within Christianity led to women being defined as threats to the holy places. For example, Durham Cathedral (in what is now the UK) became a Benedictine monastery and women were forbidden to enter the main body of the nave. A ban on women in cathedrals became quite common in many parts of Roman Catholic Europe. The ban operated at a time when women were rarely granted a public voice so their protests/objections could easily be ignored.

The only places where woman were in charge were nunneries/convents. Some nunneries/convents had large libraries and celebrated female scholars. But from the 12th century nuns were increasingly excluded from the world of learning. Why? Because intellectual life began to prosper at its most innovative in universities, but entry to the universities was restricted to males alone. In time, of course, it was in the universities where the clergy, doctors, lawyers and other most important figures in society received their education and training, but all such important figures had to be male.

As a general rule the all-male clergy did not raise objections to the exclusion of women from learning. In response to being denied scholarly opportunity women inclined toward mysticism, which did not require access to books. It was not long before women in nunneries/convents in many parts of Europe began having visions, and some of the visions were of a sexual nature. Some women had erotic visions involving Jesus.

Such sexually charged mysticism was one of the few outlets for women’s voices in the Middle Ages. Women were otherwise kept silent within the walls of the nunnery/convent or by their husbands within marriage.

Kansas City, Missouri, USA

Kansas City, Missouri, USA

By the 13th century the Roman Catholic Church had taken control of marriage, made the clergy celibate and largely silenced women’s voices. It had boosted its power and influence by intruding in people’s private lives to an unprecedented degree. Sexual desire, even for your partner in marriage, was a sin. The Church disapproved of all sex, even sex within marriage.

But many ordinary people ignored a lot of what the Church taught about love and sex. Even during the Middle Ages there was a lot of sex, and not only within marriage. Medieval Christians celebrated adultery, so much so that they turned it into great literature. There was also a lot of same-sex love. The Medieval period was a golden age for gay poetry and monks were among those who wrote such poetry. Moreover, many members of the clergy indulged in the “sin” of homosexuality.

People engaged in so much sexual activity outside marriage that, in an effort to control such “unacceptable” behaviour, the Church began to set up and licence brothels. Where the Church managed such institutions its wealth increased significantly. This became yet another way that the Church tried to control how, when and where people could have sex.

Malaga, Spain

Malaga, Spain

But the Reformation inaugurated a change.

The Reformation was set in motion in 1517 by a celibate Roman Catholic monk called Martin Luther. The Reformation not only led to the emergence of many Protestant churches, but also to changes in attitudes toward sex.

Luther challenged the idea that you can enter Heaven only by accepting the Church’s offers of confession, penance and forgiveness. He came to the conviction that God alone can decide whom to forgive. This meant that all the Church’s ceremonies, confessions and promises that good deeds will get you to Heaven were worthless. They were a sham.

Luther issued a challenge to papal authority when he shared with the public his 95 theses. But he also challenged Church teaching on sex. He thought of sex as a fundamental gift of God and it was there for everyone to benefit from. Sex was not just for the procreation or children; it could also be enjoyed. He also said that marriage had never in fact been a sacrament. It was a civil contract between a man and a woman who loved each other, a contract that could be broken by the husband or the wife. Following Luther’s lead the Protestant churches introduced divorce, which fundamentally altered how Western society viewed marriage.

The Protestant churches also rejected the insistence on clerical celibacy. Luther saw celibate clergy as a potential danger to society, partly because such clergy felt they were superior to those who engaged in sex, and partly because celibate clergy often succumbed to sexual temptation, invariably in ways detrimental to others. Luther said that all clergy should marry to avoid problems of sexual temptation.

It was not long before the clerical family became a model for non-clerical families to emulate in the emerging Protestant communities. The wife of the clergyman became a valued member of Protestant society and, of course, there was no equivalent to her in Roman Catholic Europe.

Inevitably, the Roman Catholic Church condemned the Protestants as dangerously heretical, not least for their “progressive” views about sex. The Protestant view that people should be encouraged to enjoy sex within marriage seemed especially shocking to many Roman Catholics, and their worries about what the Reformation had unleashed seemed confirmed when some Anabaptists, a “radical” group of Protestants, began to indulge in promiscuous sex in Switzerland. Some Anabaptists, noting that many marriages in the Old Testament were polygamous, introduced polygamy.

The Anabaptists also caused the Roman Catholic Church great alarm because they said that only adults who knew what responsibilities and commitments they were assuming should partake in baptism. Of course, this challenged over a thousand years of Christian tradition in which Christians baptised babies at fonts. To deny baptism to babies was to “dynamite” the Christian foundations of Europe (even though Jesus had not been baptised until he was himself an adult).

In time, Roman Catholics and Protestants united to suppress some of the excesses that the Reformation had unleashed. Roman Catholics and most Protestants felt that the “sexual revolution” had got out of hand.


Malaga, Spain

In response to the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church launched a holy war against the Protestant churches. In 1545 it convened the Council of Trent, which began what came to be known as the Counter-Reformation. The Counter-Reformation dealt with some of criticisms levelled against the Roman Catholic Church in Luther’s 95 theses, but it was also an opportunity to impose even more controls on the laity and clergy. The celibate clergy were described as superior to the fallen laity and celibacy was enforced among the clergy as never before.

One beneficial outcome of the Counter-Reformation was that the Roman Catholic Church engaged in social work to assist the poor and supported the opening of many schools. In time, however, the opening of schools had unforeseen and tragic consequences. Why? Because celibate clergy who succumbed to sexual temptation played a key role in educating children and young people and/or running the schools.

Calasanz was one of the first Roman Catholics to open schools for poor children and young people (many such Roman Catholics were known as Piarists) and it was not long before he was in charge of a growing number of such schools. However, it soon became apparent that the headmaster of one of Calasanz’s schools in Naples was sexually abusing the boys for whom he was responsible. The headmaster had influence in the Vatican and, to rid the school of the headmaster’s malign influence, Calasanz had to promote him to another post rather than dismiss him altogether (the headmaster’s new post was one that gave him even more access to children and young people). The scandal was hushed up and all incriminating documents burned.

The pope knew about the sexual abuse of boys in Naples but did nothing. This was an extraordinary failure of power and trust. Amazingly, the problem of the abuse of children and young people in the Roman Catholic Church has persisted into the contemporary era, as has the cover-up of such abuse, the denial that it happened and the excusing of those responsible for it.

While the sexual abuse of children and young people by members of the Roman Catholic clergy could sometimes/often be ignored, adulterers, fornicators and homosexuals among the laity were punished all over Europe as Roman Catholics and Protestants tried to outdo each other as they imposed what they deemed “acceptable” in relation to sex and sexuality.

Extremadura, Spain

Extremadura, Spain

All expressions of the Christian religion in the West viewed witches as agents of sexual disorder and therefore persecuted them. Christians thought they were destroying Satan when they persecuted people said to be witches. Inevitably, the great majority of those accused of being witches were women, and a thousand years of Christian misogyny was given full and violent expression through their persecution. Some 60,000 people are estimated to have been executed as witches in Europe, the great majority of victims being women. Most victims were widows or single women who lacked a husband to protect them. Moreover, most women confessed to being witches only following threats and torture. Their confessions condemned thousands of innocent people to a dreadfully painful death, one often brought about by burning.

Such was Christian Europe’s mania to control sex and sexuality that Roman Catholics and Protestants killed thousands of innocent people. Protestants began by challenging celibacy and freeing marital sex from the taint of sin, but they agreed with Roman Catholics that sexual transgressions such as adultery, fornication and homosexuality threatened the very fabric of Western society.