The Heart of Darkness Is Alive

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As an ancient Christian minority in a mainly Muslim society, Coptic Christians have often been persecuted and marginalized.

Even so, Coptic believer Nadia Eweida was startled at the blatant discrimination she encountered in her job at the national airline. While Muslim women around her freely wore headscarves to fulfill their religious obligation, she was forbidden to wear a cross openly while working. Even Jews and Sikhs received more consideration: the policy was directed solely and explicitly towards Christians. When Nadia complained, political authorities and news media were grossly unsympathetic.

We might wonder why Nadia did not simply give up the unequal struggle, and move to a country like Great Britain, where Christianity is not just tolerated but which actually has an established national church. Why would she continue to tolerate the systematic injustice of an aggressive Islamist regime...

Oh wait, my mistake. Is my face red!

It turns out that although Nadia Eweida really is a Coptic Christian, she was living in England at the time, rather than Egypt, and that her job was with British Airways, at Heathrow. It was her British employers who concluded that public expressions of Christianity were unacceptable, in a land where the Queen is head of state, and the Supreme Governor of the Church by law established. British government lawyers defended that situation before a European court. One suggested that if Christians did not like the situation, they should find other employment. And why so much fuss about the cross, they objected? Wearing it is not an actual requirement of the faith, as opposed to an individual whim, so you can't insist on any right to do so.

British Christians are not persecuted. Around the world, Christians are massacred, tortured, subjected to bogus show trials, starved into submission, and reduced to penury on the grounds of their faith. That's real persecution, and nothing like that happens in the United Kingdom.

But it is legitimate to point out that in contemporary Britain, aggressive secularism on a wide variety of fronts is making life very difficult for conservative or traditional-minded Christians. Notionally, such an anti-religious campaign should be targeting all supernaturally-based faiths equally, but British secularism is accompanied by a multi-cultural principle that acknowledges some religious expressions as legitimate manifestations. Hence the tolerance for Muslim headscarves or Sikh turbans in the workplace.

Unfortunately, that respect does not extend to the beliefs or practices of Christians who often come from other non-European cultures -- to a faithful Coptic Christian like Nadia Eweida, or to African or Afro-Caribbean Pentecostals. Most media coverage of thriving African churches in Britain involves ludicrously exaggerated charges of witch-hunting and even human sacrifice by these supposedly primitive fanatics. It's good to know the old idea of the Heart of Darkness is alive and well in the former imperial metropolis.

Legal cases resulting from religious discrimination have generated vast media attention in Britain. The Eweida affair apart, some other employment conflicts involved nurse Shirley Chaplin, ordered not to wear a cross on her ward duty; or Lillian Ladele, a marriage registrar who refused to conduct same sex civil partnerships. Relationships counselor Gary McFarlane was fired because his religious beliefs prevented him offering sexual therapy to same-sex couples. McFarlane and Ladele, incidentally, are both black.

In the United States at least, a clash between gay rights and the rights of religious believers would normally mean walking a delicate legal tightrope. Not in England, though, where the senior judge Sir John Laws -- the amazingly titled Lord Justice Laws -- proclaimed in the 2010 McFarlane case that in any such clash, religious rights would, and must, always lose out. As he said, "The promulgation of law for the protection of a position held purely on religious irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective. But it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary."

You can actually spend a good while dissecting Laws's prolonged shriek, which also noted that "in the eye of everyone save the believer, religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence." So much for a few thousand years of theology and apologetics -- Christian, Jewish and Islamic.

So much, too, for the British courts, who have moved beyond parody.

The only hope left for the dissident Christians, then, is the European Court of Human Rights, which in recent years has come to occupy a position in European countries parallel to that of the US Supreme Court. And that is where Eweida, McFarlane and the others are now headed. If nothing else, the cases will contribute to shaping the European Court's developing stance on religious rights, a topic that has caused fevered debate over the past decade. The Court is at what Americans might call a John Marshall moment, deciding the proper limits of judicial power over an emerging constitutional system.

Who would have thought that in the 21st century, Europeans would still be grappling with defending the basic rights of religious believers who still, after years of secular drift, make up a sizable majority of the continent's population?

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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