Oh Merciful Religion?
On 6 January 2009, a woman accused of witchcraft and of passing on AIDS to several men with whom she had extramarital affairs was stripped naked, blindfolded, gagged, tied to a pole and burned alive on a pyre built of petrol-soaked truck tyres.
A man and his son were burned alive after neighbours accused the father of casting spells on a local leader to bring about his death.
Wilson Okore, 29, was sentenced to 50 years imprisonment after hacking to death a forest warden whom he accused of casting spells a give a woman headaches.
Shocking, isn’t it, the insanity which fundamentalist religion can create? And no doubt the reader will automatically think that these atrocities were committed by radical Islamists. Except they were not. The people who carried out the above murders were all deeply devout Christians in Papua New Guinea, itself a Christian country which does little to nothing to deter such acts.
Admittedly, Papua New Guinea suffers from a strange mixture of (predominantly Roman Catholic) Christianity, Animism and ancient tribal beliefs (similar to that which gave rise to Voodoo in Haiti) and Christian missionaries have been known at time to step in and try to rescue those accused of witchcraft. However the country’s Witchcraft Act of 1971, which makes the practice of “Black Witchcraft” illegal, along with superstitious fears from a largely ignorant populace make such atrocities all too common. It is not helped either by the said people actually being indoctrinated by a faith which tells them “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Genesis 22:18, KJV)
One does not doubt for one moment the dangers of fundamentalist Islam and the radicalisation it all too often produces. But even today, in 2013, Christianity has its own catalogue of horrendous acts, sometimes in countries which either sanctions these acts, or otherwise cannot or will not prevent them, and which are all too often played down by the mainstream media.
Gambia is a predominantly Muslim country which however has a sizeable and very vocal Christian minority. The president of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, who seized power in a coup in 1994 is Islamic but always quick to curry favour with the Christians in the form of gifts to their communities. Like Papua New Guinea, Gambia has an obsession with witchcraft which is shared by both the Muslim and Christian communities. Christian sects in Gambia produce fantastical tracts in comic strip form with bizarre stories of what happens to witches. One of these, the “true life story” of Alhaji Diiejo, a cocoa famer, depicts him praying to a “magic god”, cimbing into a pot and turning into a snake with a human head, by which means he poisoned the crops of neighbouring farmers. A hunter however steals his pot, making it impossible for him to turn back into a man, and he is forced to confess all his sins before being driven off to a secret location by his son.
This is only one of many such tracts printed and distributed in Gambia, which even Jack Chick may scoff at, telling outright and utterly fantastical nonsense as “true”. It is not the first time I have encountered Christians who are all too willing to blaspheme their own faith by openly lying. It would seem that the belief is that the ends justify the means. And readers may baulk at such fantastical nonsense. However the Christian natives of Gambia are all too willing to believe them. It is hardly surprising then that when one of President Jammeh’s aunts died suddenly in 2009 and he blamed it upon witchcraft, that in scenes with disturbing echoes of the Salem, all too many were ready to co-operate with the paramilitary police in a witch hunt which became so serious that hundreds of Gambians fled across the border into Senegal.
Witchcraft apart, President Jammeh also has a strong religious aversion to homosexuality, which is equally supported by Gambia’s Christians. Homosexuality is illegal in Gambia and can bring a jail sentence of up to seven years. Jammeh has often threatened to legislate beheading for gays and has ordered military chiefs to root out and dismiss gay service personnel. Were this persecution not bad enough for Gambians, it has even stretched to visitors from other countries who have been prosecuted. Of the many cases perhaps the worst example is that of Frank Boers, a 79-year-old man from the Netherlands, who was arrested at Banjul’s international airport after photographs of him naked with two Gambian men were found on his person. Mr Boers was fined 100,000 Gambian Dalasis (GB £1,800 / US $2,777), which he could not pay and was imprisoned for two years. At no time did anyone from Gambian’s Christian communities speak out, just as they do not speak out against the random beatings of people suspected of homosexual activity, in a country which has no LGBT organisations. In fact, if anything Gambian Christians are all too ready to support – and take part in – these atrocities.
If Gambia is bad enough, Uganda is a completely different kettle of fish. And there is no excuse of it being a Muslim country. Uganda is 85% Christian, under the leadership of Yoweri Museveni, himself a deeply devout Christian. Freedom of religion is the official line in Uganda. However, all religions have to register with the state and some minority beliefs, condemned as sects, are strictly proscribed.
The treatment of the LGBT community in Uganda is not only shameful, it is frightening. Gays and lesbians are routinely rounded up, dragged out of their homes and meeting places by police, savagely beaten, murdered and “disappeared” by the authorities. The only difference between this treatment and the atrocities in the dark days of Idi Amin’s dictatorship is that when it comes to gays, the vast majority of the Ugandan public support this state terrorism. Moreover, Ugandans at times attack gays with savage beatings and burn down their houses, which the authorities not only do nothing to deter but are wholly in support of.
Homosexuality in Uganda is a crime, currently punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment. In 2009 however, Ugandan Member of Parliament David Bahati tabled the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which calls for the death penalty for same-sex acts and relationships. Bahati based his Bill upon his deeply-held Christian beliefs, claiming “we do not hate homosexuals but the sin that it is in them.” Despite these words, Bahati’s supporters make their feelings about homosexuality (primarily among gay men) more than clear. One of these, Pastor Moses Solomon Male (the irony is not lost on me either) tours the country on his mission, Understanding the Challenges of Homosexuality (Sodomy), in which he tells young children among others “Those homosexuals … They call it anal sex. It ruins the anus. And they say they enjoy it,”. He even goes as far as to claim that gay men groom children for sex, openly accusing them of being child abusers. It is only my opinion but it seems to me that if anyone is abusing kids, it is someone giving Sunday School youngsters graphic descriptions of anal intercourse. Although it has since been vehemently denied, there have been claims linking the American evangelist preacher Scott Lively to support for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. On 12 December 2012 Pope Benedict XVI received Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, who also supports the Bill, and bestowed his blessing upon her.
The Bill has been struggling through the Ugandan parliament since it’s introduction in 2009, with many revisions being written into it, due in no small effort to international pressure being put upon Uganda, not least from other countries within the British Commonwealth. It has the support of both the parliament and the people however and may yet become law. Even if it does not, the treatment of the LGBT community in Uganda, largely caused by fundamentalist Christian belief, remains shameful.
In 2012 there was a failed attempt to highlight the atrocities of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Liberation Army. Kony has been indicted several times on war crimes and crimes against humanity, not least for abducting over 600,000 children to turn into child soldiers, great many of whom had to kill their own parents. It is not known just how many deaths Joseph Kony and the LRA are responsible for but it may well be in excess of 1 million. Kony is a self-proclaimed “spokesman for God” who has operated in several countries including Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Congo, but at one time sought to turn Uganda into a Christian theocracy. Uganda has had a truce with the LRA since 2008 but as far as the treatment of the LGBT community goes, their aims remain the same. The plan in 2012 was to turn Joseph Kony into a “celebrity”; to plaster his name and image around the world in an effort to make the world aware of him and the crimes of him and the LRA. It failed completely to gain momentum. One can only help but wonder if the same would have happened had Kony and his murderous band of terrorists been Muslim? The western media certainly bears a responsiblity for continually posting sensationalist (and at times false) stories about Muslims when they should have been highlighting the LRA.
Anyone reading this will have noticed that so far I have concentrated upon Papua New Guinea and countries in Africa and may be forgiven for thinking that the atrocities mentioned happen due to religious propaganda feeding the fears of ill-educated people in developing countries. The same however cannot be said for modern, industrialised, developed countries, and one in particular; the Republic of Ireland.
Roman Catholicism has had a firm grip upon Ireland for hundreds of years. Even centuries of British rule did nothing to lessen the power of the Church of Rome upon the Irish people. Thankfully, things do appear to be changing. However there are places where it still remains extremely strong, not least in the matter of abortion. Abortion is completely illegal in Eire and attempting to procure an abortion can carry a sentence of life imprisonment. Even if the woman is pregnant from the result of rape, including incestuous rape, procurement of an abortion would still be deemed illegal within the laws of the Irish republic.
The official line of the law in Eire is that abortion is is illegal unless it occurs as the result of a medical intervention performed to save the life of the mother. Where actual cases may stand de jure (in law) however can often be very different to the de facto (in reality) circumstances. A landmark case occurred in 1992 in which a 14 year old girl, known only as “X” was pregnant following rape and became suicidal. The girl’s family planned to travel to England for her to have an abortion but before leaving her mother asked the Garda (the Irish police) if DNA evidence would be admissible as the rapist was denying responsibility. The Attorney General, Harry Wheelan, when informed sought an injunction to prevent her travelling. During the case of Attorney General vs X however, this was overturned and it was established that a risk to the mother’s life did indeed include if she were suicidal. In the event X miscarried before the procedure could be carried out. The law was still however that women in Ireland may travel to procure an abortion, even if suicidal. A great many women do indeed travel, mostly to England. None attempt to cross the border into Northern Ireland for the simple matter that the ruling Protestants in British NI are as equally anti-abortion as their Roman Catholic neighbours in the Irish Republic.
It is not always clear either what constitutes putting the woman’s rights at risks and balancing those against the rights of the unborn child. Matters concerning this came to a head in October 2012 with the death of Savita Halappanavar. A 31 year old Hindu woman from India, Savita was 17 weeks pregnant when she began to miscarry. She was taken to University Hospital, Galway, where she begged for an abortion as she feared for her life. This however was refused as the heart of the foetus was found to still be beating, even though it was non-viable as a child. Her husband has since claimed that when Savita asked for an abortion, she was continually and arrogantly told “This is a Catholic country.” If true, the bigoted and dare I say racist connotations of that are clear for all to see. Three days after admission, with no heartbeat present, the foetal remains were removed. The damage however was already done. Savita suffered septicemia and organ failure, from which she died four days later. The case of Savita Halapannavar is still being investigated as I write this. It has however created outrage not only in Ireland but on a worldwide scale and have increased calls for Irish women to have greater right to abortion.
Cases of child abuse by clergy are of course by no means limited to Ireland but due to the Roman Catholicism being all but the state religion there, it has had more than it’s fair share of scandals, for which the Irish parliament, the Dail, never seems to be done apologising for. Why they do so is beyond me. It is not they who should be apologising for these acts but rather the Roman Catholic Church who should be doing so. Not only is the Vatican unwilling to do so however, in many such cases they have been known to protect the offender and often very reluctant to part with compensation to victims. In 1994 serial child abuser Father Brendan Smyth, was protected so much while on the run in Ireland that his case ultimately led to the collapse of the government.
The church in Ireland ran a great many institutions, schools, homes and the infamous “Magdalene Laundries” which, under the guise of being charitable institutions, destroyed the lives of thousands who were physically, sexually and psychologically abused, sometimes a mixture of all three. There are people suffering to this day due to the abuse they received in these institutions, abuse which the Roman Catholic church in Ireland, and right to the heart of Rome, all too often are in denial about, are covering up, or worst of all, blame the victims for. Sadder still is the reaction from some of the populace who would like it all to just disappear. It must be hard for them; nobody likes to think that something that has been an integral part of their life from birth is rotten to the very core. During one case brought against the church in Ireland I was so saddened to hear one man in Dublin tell TV cameras “They should let it drop. It was thirty years ago.”
The cases of child abuse by Roman Catholic clergy are of course way too numerous to list in this article. I will say however that it is a problem which seems to be endemic within the church and which they do little to nothing to redress. Perhaps the most astounding statement came on 10 June 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI, in a speech concerning the “Year of the Priest”, stated, “We too insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again.” Did you notice that? “and from the persons involved”. Far from recompensing people for abuse by clergy, the Pope was actually asking victims to forgive their abusers. As for ensuring that abuse would never happen again, it continues unabated, often by clergy who try to claim their victims “enjoyed” their abuse or were “asking for it”, or anything else but admit that they or the Roman Catholic Church could ever be at fault. In 2002, Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney claimed that “abortion is worse than priest abuse… …because abortion always destroys a human life.” A little advice to Cardinal Pell; a good life includes quality of life, and through stealing that quality from victims, the number of lives which abusive clergy have destroyed is countless, but it must run into millions.
And I would stress here that while the Roman Catholic Church is the largest perpetrator of these crimes, they are not the only ones. I doubt that there is any Christian denomination, anywhere in the world, which has not had an abusive member of clergy. Certainly in my home country, there have been a number of abuse cases come to light in former Church of Scotland homes, and I have read of quite a sizeable amount of such cases in Protestant churches in the USA and elsewhere.
Another problem with Christianity, as with any religion, is the mania it can and does create, sometimes with terrible consequences, including death. When one reads of people being killed in a stampede to get “special anointing oil”, you may think it happened in Islamabad, or perhaps Amritsar? Except that is exactly what happened on 5 May 2013 at the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Ghana when the said oil was being handed out by the controversial Prophet TB Joshua. And again, we need not look to Africa for such fanaticism. Let us not forget that Jim Jones and his followers at Jonestown, who all committed suicide, as well as the Branch Davidians in Waco, were mostly American or British. Even without looking too far in history, in 2011 American Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping predicted that the “rapture”, when God’s “elect” would be called up to Heaven would take place on 21 May that year. He gathered a great many believers, some of whom gave up their jobs and/or sold their homes and gave the money raised to Camping’s Family Radio channel. When the date came, there was at least one serious incident when one mother attempted to slit the throats of her two children. Thankfully both survived.
Leaving aside obvious cases of psychosis where offenders have claimed “God told me to do it / the Devil made me do it”, Christianity can end in serious consequences. In one case in London a few years ago a woman and her partner hacked her younger brother to death believing him to be “possessed by demons”. Several such cases have also occurred all around the world. Christianity can even raise the ugly head of religious bigotry, where others are killed purely for not being Christians. Whilst most of those involved in religious strife in both Northern Ireland and to a lesser extent Scotland could not seriously be described as Christians (many don’t see the inside of a church from the day they are wed until the day they are buried), some indeed do and believe that they are “killing for Christ”. Likewise we have the odious matter of a tiny minority, and I emphasise that it is a minority, of US military personnel who honestly believe that they are on a modern day crusade against Islam. Should anyone doubt this, I can assure them that I have indeed encountered one such individual who maintains that Muslims have been killing for over 1000 years and that “there has to be a reckoning”.
And let us not forget attacks upon abortion clinics, abuse hurled at women attending them – without knowing the facts – and attacks, and/or enticing violent attacks upon the LGBT community, all because it is “Biblical”. And I’m not talking in Uganda either. Such attacks happen in the UK and the USA on a daily basis. I have even recently heard one TV evangelist preach to fathers to “punch the gay out” of their sons.
I would be the last to deny anyone their faith. I recognise that the Christian church, whatever my views of it may be, is and remains an important part of life for millions of people. I equally recognise that Christianity can indeed be an enormous force for good in the world, whether speaking out collectively against all sorts of wrongs or individually as good members of clergy who are ever there to support those in some of their darkest hours. But if anyone claims that Christians can do no wrong, I would suggest that they take in the above, which is but the tip of the iceberg of abuses and atrocities carried out by Christians in the modern age, and think long and hard upon them.
And should there be any who would play the “no true Scotsman” fallacy of claiming “These aren’t true Christians as a Christian would not do that.” then you must admit equally that whenever any Muslim carries out an atrocity not supported by the Qur’an, they must, by equal measure not be a “true” Muslim. You cannot have it both ways.