Sectarianism in modern Britain

This is an article I’ve pasted onto my blog highlighting the apostasy situation in the UK, written by journalist Iram Ramzan

From Iranian dissidents fearing deportation after seeking asylum from theocracy, to ex-Muslims driven from their homes in Bradford, Iram Ramzan looks at some worrying examples of sectarianism threatening Britain’s reputation for tolerance.

Peyman (not his real name) is to all appearances like any other foreign student in Manchester. He’s 30 years-old, learning English and was drawn to Britain because of its reputation for religious and political pluralism, a sort of default secularism protected by the rule of law. Peyman hopes to become a counsellor after his studies.

But his smiling face hides his desperate situation. In 2010 Peyman fled the Islam Republic of Iran to seek asylum. Unfortunately for him, the authorities did not believe he arrived when he said he did and he had his application rejected. His political and religious views (Peyman is an ex-Muslim and a critic of the theocratic regime) placed him and his family in grave danger. However like many ex-Muslims applying for asylum on the grounds of religious persecution Peyman found this difficult to prove and is still appealing his case.

“[In Iran] they had proof I was an atheist, that I was against Islam and against the Ayatollah. But here I don’t have proof to get refugee status.”

Peyman fears being made homeless again if he loses his right to accommodation and the potentially deadly possibility of being deported to Iran. Under the theocratic regime political and religious dissent is often conflated, mirroring the fusion of state and religious power, and blasphemy/apostasy are common charges against dissidents.

Peyman’s Kurdish-Iranian family have more experience of this than many. After the revolution in 1979, the regime would round up any dissidents. His older brother was imprisoned and subsequently tortured, as were some of his other relatives for their political activities. Peyman was also beaten at a police station. “Most Iranians hate the government but they can’t say it,” he added.

On August 26 2015, Amnesty International reported that Behrouz Alkhani, a 30-year-old man from Iran’s Kurdish minority, was executed while awaiting the outcome of a Supreme Court appeal. A Revolutionary Court had charged him with “effective collaboration with PJAK” (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan) and “enmity against God” for his alleged role in the assassination of the Prosecutor of Khoy, West Azerbaijan province.

Iranians were among the top five nationalities applying for asylum in Britain in the year ending June 2015. However, it is difficult to determine how many asylum applications to the UK are based on fear of persecution on the grounds of religion or belief. Some Christian groups have done important work highlighting the cases of Christians (including ex-Muslim Christian converts) facing persecution in the Middle East and/or seeking asylum. But groups supporting atheists and other religious minorities are often less resourced or politically connected.

Iranian-born Maryam Namazie helped found the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain in 2007 to break the taboo that comes with renouncing Islam. Eight years on, it seems that little has changed. Today, apostasy is a crime in 23 out 49 Muslim-majority countries. In Saudi Arabia and Iran it is punishable by death. In some countries, like Pakistan, people are accused of “blasphemy” by their fellow citizens.

Maryam said: “Those accused can be religious, including Muslims, or atheists. They may not have even done anything ‘wrong’; it’s an accusation that can be used by states and others in order to silence, threaten and even murder those deemed ‘undesirable’.”

But persecution of minorities and the enforcement of ‘apostasy’ taboos is also an issue in the UK. Many of those who leave the Islamic faith in this country can often be ostracised from their communities and families. Nissar Hussain (49), a married father-of-six found this out when he admitted he had converted to Christianity following the death of his older brother. His family promptly disowned him, refusing to inform him when his father had died. Even his 45-year-old wife Qubra was horrified at first, but after spending time with his Christian friends from church she also decided to convert to Christianity.

When word of Nissar’s conversion got out “like wildfire”, what initially started out as name calling quickly escalated into acts of vandalism.

After an arson attack on the empty house next door, Nissar decided enough was enough and moved the family to the other side of Bradford, in Manningham. All was fine until he appeared in Channel 4’s Dispatchesprogramme on Christian converts. His Muslim neighbours took offence and he recently had to quit his job as a nurse after he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after 16 years of constant harassment.

“We’re in the frontline, in the trenches,” he said. “The fact that it’s from my own fellow Pakistanis is traumatic. The Pakistani, Muslim community needs to exercise tolerance and goodwill towards converts such as ourselves.

“They took offence, in general, to converts. We’re an offence here. This is a form of terrorism. It’s so very personal. It’s vindictive.”

Nissar worries for the fate of his children, including his Daughter Anniesa – a 21-year-old international relations student at the University of Nottingham, who has blogged about her experiences. Anniesa recalled painful memories of being rushed upstairs after dinner, in anticipation of the next brick through the window. Although the children were not brought up religiously, she says the experience has made her Christian; only her faith, she said, keeps her “sane”.

“We would get called Jew dogs, at school we were told: you’re a kaafir; my mum said I can’t sit next to you,” Anniesa said. “I realised we were different. Mum got asked in the playground, why are you wearing salwar kameez, why aren’t you wearing a mini skirt now you’re not a Muslim? Christianity is equated to whiteness. She said my colour is still the same, I’m still a Pakistani woman.

“I’ve bottled it up. Being the eldest sister you can’t let it show. I see the UK as having become radicalised. Political correctness has allowed this to ferment.”

When Naz Shah MP (Bradford West) was elected it was widely viewed a rejection of sectarian politics and Nissar wrote to his new MP to ask for help. Ms Shah’s office confirmed that they had received the requests for support from Nissar and a multi-agency meeting was held, with ongoing matters being dealt with by the police, though Nissar does not believe enough is being done.

Whether it is young men like Peyman or the Hussain family in Bradford, it is clear religious persecution and sectarianism are issues Britain must grapple with at home and abroad. Our politicians often speak about our tolerant nation and condemn those countries that persecute their minorities. The Government must then uphold the criteria – which includes persecution – for those seeking refugee status. Protecting them is our moral responsibility.

Here in the UK, there are growing numbers of ex-Muslims who can now be helped by various organisations (CEMB and Faith to Faithless to name a few). Such organisations should be given more platforms to talk about the vital work they do to assist not just asylum seekers but British citizens who need their help. Otherwise this sectarianism will threaten Britain’s long-held reputation for tolerance.

Iram Ramzan is a reporter and freelance journalist who writes on politics, foreign affairs, secularism and human rights. You can follow her on Twitter @Iram_Ramzan. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

Iran’s Saeed Abedini: A Crime of Christianity

With the exception of the United States, most countries have remained silent while Pastor Saeed Abedini continues to languish in a prison cell, as has been his circumstance since the summer of 2012. I stumbled across his plight a few months ago when scrolling through articles on the CBN webpage. As I scoured through numerous articles detailing his suffering I couldn’t help but feel enraged and betrayed, at how such treatment of a man – whose only crime is his Christianity – could go largely unreported and unpublicised. His story is yet another example of not only political failure, but also a failure of Christendom. Yet again, global leaders have not significantly come together to draw attention to the anti-Christian actions of the Iranian regime, nor to pressurise Iran to abide by its own constitution which recognises Christianity as minority religion.
Global leaders, particularly those who claim to be Christian should not be afraid, nor gingerly approach the sheer discrimination and disregard non-Muslims in Islamic nations are facing, particularly as such leaders afford their Muslim populations ultimate freedom in order to practise their beliefs. Western leaders should be apt to state that if Iranians are awarded the right to practise their Muslim faith in non-Muslim territory, why can’t the same be said for Iran’s non-Muslims in Shia-dom?
Instead, Saeed Abedini’s situation has demonstrated once again that tepidness, that reluctance, that political correctness/weakness. That lack of courage and boldness of our David Camerons, our Barack Obamas, these so-called men of ‘faith’ to publicly express solidarity with the persecuted Saeed Abedinis of the world. To commit themselves to the freedom of these imprisoned minorities in order to deter Islamic regimes from repetitive discrimination, as opposed to rendering such oppressed people helpless; a tacit approval to intolerant authorities who are at liberty to beat, torture and maim those under their charge, who refuse to recant their faith in order to guarantee their survival .
Saeed is a former Muslim who converted to Christianity in 2000. While the minority faith is in theory recognised in the Iranian constitution, in reality Muslim converts suffer discrimination by Iran’s authorities. Converts are disallowed from worshipping or gathering together in fellowship in established churches, forcing many of them to instead opt for ‘house’ or ‘underground’ churches in order to practise their faith more freely. Abedini married his Iranian-American wife Naghmeh in 2002 and subsequently became prominent in the house-church movement in Iran, credited with establishing around 100 house churches in 30 cities. However, in the aftermath of Ahmed Ahmedinejad’s elective victory in 2005, a severe and repression crackdown of such a movement began which led to the Abedini couple returning to the US.
Saeed returned to Iran to visit his family and was apprehended by government authorities who threatened to kill him during an interrogation concerning his conversion, but was released upon him signing a pledge to cease all house-church activity throughout Iran. However, the present turmoil of the Abedini family was to begin in the summer of 2012, when Saeed returned to Iran yet again to visit family and resume his work in building an orphanage in the city of Rasht. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps confiscated and placed him under house arrest until he was later transferred to Evin Prison. In January 2013 it was reported that Abedini would be trialled and could potentially face the death penalty. His charges consisted of comprising national security and attempting to sway the Iranian youth from Islam, though of course specific detail were never publicised, due to the fact that the sole and crucial reason Abedini was detained in the first place was on account of his Christianity. Saeed was transferred from Tehran to the Rajani Shahr Prison in November 2013, in addition to being completely cut off from any contact with his wife and two young children in the United States.
Rajani Shahr is a notorious prison within Iran, where inmate violence, executions and beatings are commonplace and therefore to remain in denial of the persecution and intolerance of non-Muslims throughout the Islamic world is unequivocally unacceptable. The fact that a Christian has been transferred to a prison entailing serious offenders, with harsh, penal and life-threatening conditions speaks for itself. Saeed’s immediate family in Tehran have spoken of his deteriorating health, of the denial of vital medical treatment for the infections brought about by severe beatings – all of which has mostly fallen upon deaf ears and international ignorance and inaction.
Abedini was refused treatment in Evin Prison due to being regarded as an ‘unclean infidel’. In early 2013, Saeed’s internal injuries became too much of a concern with doctors stressing they warranted immediate attention at a non-prison hospital. The Iranian regime ignored such warnings for almost a year, whilst his health continued to rapidly disintegrate. In March 2014, Abedini was granted treatment at a private hospital but was returned to prison without the surgery deemed necessary by expert opinion.
Pastor Saeed Abedini continues to experience physical and psychological trauma, shacked up in a penal prison, enduring systemic beatings and a witness to inmate executions. A man imprisoned for his faith and ignored by the international community at large. However, the crucial underlying fact remains: while the story of the Abedini family deeply moves and troubles me – a fellow Christian who has come to know her own version of persecution – Abedini’s story echoes every jailed Christian within the Muslim world. Christians in the Islamic world struggle for their survival while world leaders go about their daily lives, prioritising oil deals and signing policies concerning arms and weapons to the very nations that brutally repress the very citizens that share the same faith some of these leaders apparently follow.
I cannot imagine the misery and pain of his children, the uncertainty and dashes of hope his wife and family have been plunged in since 2012. The resilience, courage and faith displayed by his beautiful wife Naghmeh is truly remarkable and is a personal testament to true Christian faith and those persecuted believers around her. At this time where nothing is guaranteed, I will continue to uplift Abedini families in prayer and thought; realising the only crime such a people ever commit is the conscious decision to become a disciple of Christ.