Newsline – 8th April 2011

Newsline is the weekly newsletter from the National Secular Society.  Every week we collate the stories and issues or most importance to our members and offer reportage and insight.  Our audio edition takes the main stories and offers them in an easy-to-listen podcast, available online and via iTunes subscription (for free).

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In this week’s Newsline

  • Catholic Church hopes The Big Society will increase its influence
  • Bishops’ bench will survive in reformed House of Lords
  • Ending religious schools’ transport privilege “breaches human rights”, says churchman
  • Exploitative church rakes in millions from taxpayer – Charity Commission unconcerned
  • French secularism in trouble as it becomes a political football
  • Hand over the money, Irish government tells religious orders
  • Catholic Church Losing Influence in Latin America

Catholic Church hopes The Big Society will increase its influence

A conference this week showed just how the Catholic Church is preparing itself for increased social and political influence which it hopes to attain by exploiting the Government’s “Big Society” idea.

One of the speakers at the Catholic-organised London conference entitled “Building a new culture of social responsibility” was Baroness Warsi, co-chair of the Conservative Party. She said the Catholic Church “has the power, creativity and ability to change communities through its social action, now that the old system of top-down government has failed Britain and its deeply divided society”. She urged Catholics to continue their work that would help society move away “from a big, bossy state”.

The conference was attended by around 200 Catholic bishops, charity directors, politicians, Lords, academics and thinkers who are examining the methods by which they will be able to bring as much social provision under Catholic control as possible.

Baroness Warsi went on to say that the State had “sapped” responsibility from individuals and that the “top-down, big Government approach” had “failed Britain. She added: “This Government recognises and respects the role that religion and “people of faith” play in our society.”

The Conference was well aware that the Government was not going to provide the money for their big expansion plans, but as the Catholic propagandist Austen Ivereigh wrote in America magazine:

Church charities are more protected than others: nine out of ten of them receive less than 40 per cent of their support from the state. That means that in five years time Catholic and other faith charities are likely to play a relatively larger role; they’ll still be standing while other NGOs created by state funding have gone to the wall. This should lead to a bigger political influence.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said:

“This gives us a glimpse into the future where religious organisations see themselves playing a very large and dominating role in many people’s lives. We have seen from the experience of the United States how ruthless and relentless the Catholic Church can be in pushing their teachings as the cost of accessing their social provisions. There is no reason to think it will be any different here once they have the reins of power.”

Bishops’ bench will survive in reformed House of Lords

It was revealed this week that the bench of bishops will be retained as part of proposed reforms to the House of Lords, although their numbers will be reduced. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on Tuesday that the Government will be publishing a draft bill in May.

Mr Clegg has had to concede that his preference for a fully-elected second chamber would be unlikely to pass and about 60 peers will still be appointed, including a number of Church of England bishops.

At present 26 bishops sit as of right in the House of Lords and this number is likely to be reduced, probably to 16.

The Press Association reported the president of the National Secular Society, Terry Sanderson, saying:

“The coalition has lost its nerve and as a result the House of Lords will remain a place of privilege and cronyism – as well as many ridiculous anachronisms, not least of which is the presence of the bishops. The abolition of the bench of bishops, in its entirety, is long overdue.

“How can a modern democracy function properly when it retains elements of theocracy? The UK is the only Western nation to invite clerics into its parliament, just like Iran.

“Instead, we now have a proposal to significantly reduce the number of bishops. But we fear that this will now result in even more representatives from other religions being introduced into Parliament.

“The Government should realise that it can’t win with this approach – where do you stop, given that there are hundreds of different religions represented in Britain. How do you avoid resentment from those who don’t get a place? The coalition should have the courage to secularise the new upper House and rid themselves once and for all of the unnecessary complication of religious representation.”

Ending religious schools’ transport privilege “breaches human rights”, says churchman

Plans by Durham County Council to cut subsidised transport to religious schools have been condemned by a Catholic leader as being a threat to the “human rights” of parents.

Joseph Hughes, director of the Roman Catholic diocese of Hexham and Newcastle’s education service who oversees much of the region’s Catholic education, said Durham County Council’s proposals undermined a 60-year-old legal principle that there should be financial help available for faith school travel costs and threatened a parent’s right to freedom of choice.

He said:

“We are strongly opposed to these proposals. I can’t make it any clearer than that.”

But Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said:

“I don’t know what legal principle Mr Hughes is talking about, it’s not one that I know of. The provision of these financial privileges solely to people who claim to be religious is discriminatory, unjust and probably illegal.”

Catholic priests in the area are urging parents to complain to the Council, which is carrying out a consultation on the issue which closes on Tuesday.

Exploitative church rakes in millions from taxpayer – Charity Commission unconcerned

According to The Times, the Charity Commission is refusing to investigate the activities of a controversial Pentecostal church, The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), which the paper says is exploiting its congregations and amassing a fortune on the backs of some of the poorest people in London. The Times says UCKG has encouraged its members to get themselves into debt and ignore bills in order to donate more money to the church.

The Times investigation showed that since 2003 the UCKG (the Church) had also benefited from almost £8 million in taxpayer subsidies through the Gift Aid scheme. Gift Aid is a government scheme that allows registered charities, including churches, to claim back the income tax paid by supporters on donations, including their collections. (Changes to the Gift Aid rules announced in the Budget last week are likely to make it even easier for all churches to claim a public subsidy despite the serious concerns raised about its conduct.)

The paper reports:

The Church’s accounts also reveal that the UCKG owns a large portfolio of freehold and leasehold property. In 2009–10, the church reported that it had £33.7 million in fixed assets, despite having operated in the UK for only 16 years. Last year it spent three quarters of total donations on the purchase of more than £7 million of fixed assets. A spokesman for the church says: “We acquire properties because, unlike other churches, we have not had the chance to build a portfolio over a thousand years. We currently own 11 freehold properties, which were purchased over a 16-year period from 1995. We also work from a further 14 leasehold properties. All 25 properties operate as ‘Help Centres’.”

The Church’s accounts also state that services collectively brought in £9,683,234 of donations, equivalent to £248,288 per congregation — more than ten times the amount raised by the Church of England per congregation.

Times Money‘s initial investigation in November found that the Church was encouraging worshippers to sell all their possessions and even default on bills to make large donations. Pastors taught that gifts to the church, which they represented as gifts to God, were necessary to secure the Lord’s intervention and bring about earthly prosperity and salvation.

The Church even used sessions supposedly designed to help worshippers with financial troubles to elicit more cash. At one such session, witnessed by Times Money, the pastor encouraged his congregation to give money in exchange for strips of his tie, which he said were invested with God’s power to make financial miracles. Our investigation also uncovered that the Church was using demonstrably false testimonies by worshippers to encourage donations from others. At the time of Times Money‘s initial investigation, the Church said that it asked people at financial help sessions to donate money because it gave them “a sense of self-worth and communal involvement”. However, the Church now denies encouraging worshippers into debt.

Despite The Times‘ findings, the Charity Commission said last month that it would not investigate the UCKG, saying the investigation did not demonstrate either “a serious risk of harm to beneficiaries” or “pressure on vulnerable beneficiaries”, the grounds on which it might have intervened.

French secularism in trouble as it becomes a political football
Editorial by Terry Sanderson

On Monday, France will implement a new law against face-coverings in public places. Women who wear face-covering Muslim veils, including the hijab and burka, in “the street and areas open to the public, as well as cinemas, restaurants, stations, public transport or schools” will be fined £125 or ordered to follow citizenship classes, or both. Veils must also be removed while driving, while crossing borders or taking part in official ceremonies to acquire French nationality.

Husbands and fathers who force such veils on women and girls risk a year of prison and a £25,000 fine, with both penalties doubled if the victim is a minor.

But the authorities in France know in their hearts that this is a law that cannot work. The Interior Minister, Claude Guéant, has issued a nine-page document telling the police to move carefully and with great diplomacy when trying to enforce the law. He says that women wearing the full veil cannot be forcibly obliged to remove it in public.

Officers who stop a woman wearing the garment must instead “invite the person to show their face in order to check their identity and establish a fine.” If the woman persists, officers are instructed to take her to the nearest police station “as a last resort,” but not to either place her in custody or keep her waiting for more than four hours. If she still refuses to comply, the rules state that police should contact the public prosecutor.

Rather than force, police are invited to employ “persuasion” and, where possible, involve a female officer.

The guidelines emphasise that the full veil ban does not apply in the home or to car passengers. Nor is the ban to be enforced in or around mosques, so as not to be “interpreted as an indirect restriction of religious freedom.” Police are also told not to go on “veil hunts” or to seek confrontation over the veil.

The law to “forbid concealing one’s face in public” was voted through last October after a year of heated national debate over the issue. Nine out of ten French people back it, a recent poll suggested.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has already described the burka as a “sign of debasement”, and women’s rights campaigners denounced it as “a walking coffin”. Michele Alliot-Marie, the former interior minister, said it “cuts [women] off from society and rejects the very spirit of the French republic, founded on a desire to live together.” Around 2,000 women, out of France’s 5 million Muslims, are estimated to wear the face-covering garments, according to interior ministry figures.

France banned wearing conspicuous religious symbols such as veils, Jewish skullcaps and crucifixes in schools in 2004.

The guidelines came as France’s ruling UMP party initiated a highly controversial debate on Islam and secularism on Tuesday. Organisers say it was to address changes in French society such as a growing demand for building mosques in a country where a 1905 law formally separates the Church and state.

It is quite clear that the issue of Islam is being used by established parties on the right to appeal to those French people who would otherwise be attracted to the ultra-rightwing National Front.

Secularism is being seen as a tool and an excuse by these right-wingers to punish and isolate Muslims. And this is probably something that has the Islamic extremists rubbing their hands with glee.

There is nothing they would like better than a Muslim population that feels aggrieved, discriminated against and even persecuted. It will drive more and more of them into the arms of radicalism. It will also enrage the liberals and leftists who feel it is their duty to protect Muslims from the bullying right.

At the same time, there is little doubt that Islamists have engineered many of the challenges that are being made to the secular ideal of France, and which enrage republicans.

French people who are deeply attached to the idea of separation of religion from the state are enraged by demands for only halal meat to be served in school canteens, for separate hours for Muslim women only in swimming pools, for state subsidies for the building of mosques, for special treatment in hospitals.

It is also clear that the new law will create confrontations over the burka with women refusing to remove it, refusing to pay fines and eventually being threatened with prison. It is a nightmare in the making.

The main casualty in all this will be laïcité — the French form of secularism — which will now be portrayed as discriminatory and Islamophobic. Many religious leaders boycotted the debate this week, saying it was an attempt to further push religion from public discourse. The Catholic Church, again using its age-old tactic of playing the victim, see how this wicked secularism creates disadvantage for Catholics as well as Muslims, they say.

During the debate it was said that France’s law of 1905, which separates church from state, needs to be updated to take into account the changes in French life. There were few Muslims in the country when it was implemented, but now there are between five and ten million and many new challenges to the concept of laïcité.

It was suggested that 26 changes would be made that would strengthen secularism in the light of the rise of Islam in the country.

But debating anything to do with Islam is fraught with danger. Even the title of the debate had to be changed from “Secularism and Islam” to the more anodyne “Secularism: Living better together”. Now the interior minister Claude Guéant has been threatened with prosecution by The Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Among Peoples for supposedly “Islamophobic remarks” after he said: “This growth in the number of (Muslims) and a certain number of behaviours cause problems. There is no reason why the nation should accord to one particular religion more rights than religions that were formerly anchored in our country.”

So debate is rendered next to impossible by hair-trigger sensibilities that detect “Islamophobia” in anyone who tries to move the debate on.

It is this kind of chaos that the Islamists thrive upon. And it poses a severe threat to France’s secular tradition.

Hand over the money, Irish government tells religious orders

The Irish government is to ask religious orders to hand over title to property worth up to €200 million, the Department of Education has confirmed.

The €200 million is the shortfall the State considers it is owed by the 18 religious orders which agreed to share the cost of the €1.36 billion bill for survivors of institutional abuse.

Last year the 18 congregations named in the Ryan report on clerical sexual abuse agreed to pay €476 million towards the cost of compensation. As this is €200 million short of an even split of the bill with the State, proposals for the remaining payment are being sought.

It is understood the religious orders paid €128 million in 2002. Some €110 million was promised in cash and €235 million was promised in property. Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has pointed out this amount leaves the €200 million shortfall, and he is now seeking the transfer to the State of the legal ownership of religious-owned schools to meet this deficit.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education last night confirmed Mr Quinn was seeking transfer of ownership of the some of the schools to the State, but even these are likely to become multi-denominational rather than secular schools.

Mr Quinn has indicated he did not want to bankrupt the religious orders and was not intending to change the structure by which the religious orders were able to continue to be in charge of the schools. The Church is still talking of a ‘minimum non-negotiable requirement’ with any schools transferred, insisting on no change on confessional religious instruction.

The Minister’s concern is said to be in relation to the amount of the total compensation bill which will have to be paid by the taxpayer, as well he might, given his Government’s parlous financial position. The current overwhelming dominance in the publicly funded sector of Catholic schools insisting on confessional religious instruction as part of the school day is believed by the Irish Human Rights Commission to breach the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The Executive Director of the National Secular Society, Keith Porteous Wood, observed: “The Irish state is in unprecedented need of hard cash and the promised transfer of assets by the Church to the State achieves virtually nothing unless those assets are ones that can be realised, which cannot be true of the schools. The citizens of Ireland are in danger of being duped and abused yet again by their church and their Government.”

Catholic Church losing influence in Latin America

A leading expert on religion in Mexico has said that “Catholicism is destined to be abandoned” in the country and across Latin America. He bases his prediction on an analysis of census returns that show about 1,300 Mexicans leaving the church every day.

Roberto Blancarte said that this added up to some 4 million Mexicans defecting from the Church between 2000 and 2010. He said the decline had continued uninterrupted for 60 years and was escalating.

Blancarte — from the Colegio de Mexico and the National Autonomous University of Mexico — said that one of the main conclusions to be drawn from the 2010 census is that Mexico is no longer a predominantly Catholic country and has become a nation of religious pluralism. One of the fastest growing demographic groups is those who profess to have no religion: 5.2 million.

In 1950, 98.21 percent of Mexicans said they were Catholic; the latest figure shows that this has dropped to 83.9 percent.

Blancarte said that this change is not exclusive to Mexico but extends across the region. In Brazil, for example, surveys have found that Catholics make up less than 70 percent of the population.



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