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Have the police lost the plot over prayer?

James Mildred

Police officers in high-viz jackets policing a demonstration

One of the many troubling aspects of the current conflict in Israel and Gaza is the impact it’s had on the streets here in Britain. Since the terrorist group Hamas launched its brutal attack on Israel a few weeks ago, we’ve seen Jewish schools closed over safety fears and cases of antisemitism have increased. On social media, there's also been numerous examples of people tearing down posters of missing, Jewish family members and children.

Such a conflict is sadly being fueled by the extremists on both sides, who push for ever more escalation. Meanwhile, a rearguard action is underway in parliament with calls from some politicians for an immediate ceasefire. The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has stuck to the same line he’s used repeatedly: Israel has a right to defend itself and humanitarian aid should be allowed into Gaza. The Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, has largely held to the same line. But he’s under real pressure from some of his MPs, whose constituencies have a large Muslim population, to alter his stance. So far he’s resisting the pressure, but given Labour’s reliance on the Muslim vote, it remains to be seen how long this can hold.

So both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are under pressure. And after recent protests on the streets of London sparked by the conflict, the police are also under real scrutiny and pressure as well.

For each of the last few weekends, we've seen large, pro-Palestinian protests through central London. Under British law, we have a right to protest and to gather in a public place for that purpose. However, the soft touch approach by the Metropolitan Police has been fiercely criticised.

In particular, questions have been raised around why the police have not adopted a tougher approach to those calling for further acts of terrorism and jihad to take place. While some of those rallying no doubt were doing so out of a desire to call for humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza, you also had a rally organised by Muslim cleric Hizb ut-Tahrir called for ‘Muslim armies’ to ‘liberate Palestine’. At other protests in London, there were calls for an Islamic state, for ‘Allah’s curses’ on the ‘infidels’ and ‘the Jews’ and for ‘Jihad’.

Before the most recent weekend protest, the Met Police tweeted that any racism at it would not be tolerated. Any racism, it seems, but blatant antisemitism.

Of course one should recognise that the word ‘jihad’ means different things to different people and this is something the Police pointed out through its official social media feeds. But it’s hard to believe those calling for jihad meant the non-violent kind. For people to be allowed to openly call for acts of violence and terrorism on London’s streets is both alarming and utterly wrong. What’s the point of having a Public Order Act if it’s simply not enforced?

The Police’s conduct is all the more egregious when you contrast how they handled the case of a Christian woman who was silently praying outside an abortion facility ‘buffer zone’ in Birmingham on the 18th of October. Footage obtained by ADF UK showed a police officer questioning Isabelle Vaughan-Spruce.

She claimed she was not present in the buffer zone as an act of protest. There is no prohibition on just being in the zone. But the police officer still asks if she’s silently praying for unborn children and if she’s a member of a pro-life or a pro-choice organisation. This is absolutely chilling. A police officer is interrogating someone about what’s going on in their head and thoughts? Never has the term ‘thought policing’ felt more accurate.

Despite simply standing there praying silently, she was still issued with a fixed penalty notice which was later reduced to a warning. This is the third time the police have tried to police her thoughts. The first time, she was vindicated in court and the second time the investigation was dropped and an apology was issued for her lengthy ordeal.

So, to summarise what we’ve seen happen: if you pray silently near an abortion clinic, you’re issued with a fine, later reduced to a warning. If you call for Jihad on London’s streets, the police do nothing. Is it any wonder that public confidence in policing is so low?

I think the police are evidencing a fundamental misunderstanding of Christianity. It’s a manifestation of religious illiteracy which you sadly see evidenced in other institutions as well. Specifically, they have failed to grasp that Christianity is pro-life, public, political and peaceful.

Firstly, the police have failed to grasp that Christians who love God’s word and follow Jesus will be prolife. How can we not be? How can we not care deeply about the tragic impact our abortion laws have had? If we believe life begins at conception, then we cannot be silent and do nothing as the number of abortions each year increases and increases. And this passion will show itself in actions like praying, silently, outside abortion facilities. What possible harm is this activity doing?

Secondly, by picking on silent prayer, the police are making a oft-repeated mistake in that they treat Christianity as if its just a private religion, which is simply not true. Christianity always has been and always will be a public faith. We see this in Jesus' description that his disciples are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In other words, we are, by virtue of union with Jesus, those who will season the world around us. Being salt means we help preserve what is good and righteous and as the light of the world, we also call out unrighteousness and promote God's better story for society. To do this properly, we need to be engaged and active with society and the public square.

The other great reality about Christianity which we must remember is Christianity is also political. Jesus came and said He was the one, true King. That is a highly political statement. He also began his ministry by announcing that the Kingdom of God had arrived. Again, this is a political statement. But at the heart of this Kingdom is a manifesto (Matt 5:3-11) where the lowly, the humble, the meek, the peace makers are blessed. Those in the Kingdom of God have had their hearts utterly changed and transformed and they love Jesus and seek to show His love and compassion to those around them. As people of this Kingdom, we're also eager to be good citizens, who are obedient to those in authority even when we disagree with them. Romans 13 says we should submit to ruling authorities and in its context, the Apostle Paul meant submitting to Nero who was a cruel and vindicative man. So the police are picking completely the wrong target by issuing Isabelle with yet another warning. It's also worth adding that Christians, as members of God's Kingdom, do not think allegiance to their country is of paramount importance. Instead, our primary loyalty and commitment is to God's Kingdoms. We're pilgrims through this world. Our real citizenship is in heaven.

Finally, Christianity is peaceful. While Jesus says His Kingdom will grow, this is not by force of arms or military might. And this is shown in so many ways. For example, we're commanded to love our enemies, not seek to commit acts of terrorism against them. We're told not to seek vengeance but trust God who gets everything right. We are told the Apostle Paul tried to persuade others, not force them or make them come into God's Kingdom. And let's be honest, silent prayer is a distinctly peaceful activity! And it should not be penalized. Whereas, calling for holy war that involves the eradication of Israel is just obviously completely different.

Whether the situation for Christians gets worse or better, we’re ambassadors for King Jesus with a responsibility to be a faithful witness to Him. So whether the law is on our side or not, we should carry on engaging faithfully in the public square, telling the better story and trusting in God’s power to use us to do immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine.

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