Religious Freedom Under Siege?

By Michael Kirke


Am I paranoid or is there really a serious and concerted attack on freedom of religion going on around us? There is no question but that on the other side of the Irish Sea there has been more than a trickle of headlines which seem to suggest that things are becoming increasingly difficult for practising Christians. “‘Thousands are at risk’ in NHS after nurse in prayer row is suspended” read a Daily Telegraph headline last month. Caroline Petrie, a community nurse, asked an elderly lady she was visiting if she would like her to say a prayer for her. Another nurse picked this up and reported Mrs. Petrie to the health authority. She was suspended without pay pending an investigation. Mrs Petrie is a Baptist.

A few weeks later a school receptionist found herself being investigated for professional misconduct because she expressed misgivings to friends because her 5 year-old child was reprimanded at school for talking about Jesus to one of her classmates. Jennie Cain had committed the unforgivable offence of sending an e-mail to 10 close friends with whom she attended Church asking them to pray for her, her daughter, her school and the Church. The next thing she knew was that she was in the headmaster’s office being asked to explain her “misconduct”.

Then we have also had the foster mother who was struck off the carer panel in her local authority area because a 16-year-old Muslim girl in her care decided to become a Christian – of her own free will.

In Ireland the approach to intimidation is done a little differently. As yet we haven’t noticed any “official” intimidation – I think – of Christian practice. But am I the only person who was left scratching his or her head earlier this year when The Irish Times carried a “story” on its front page about Kathy Sinnot. It was one of the strangest pieces of news I ever read. The headline read: “Sinnot forwarded e-mail urging anti-abortion novena”. Shock, horror! The report then went of as a piece of investigative journalism, telling us that Kathy actually “acknowledged” – shorthand for “admitted under questioning” – that she had forwarded a chain letter which called for fasting and nine days of prayer as “part of moves to oppose US legislation liberalising access to abortion”.

Now you could read all this as a big joke – in other words as a mockery of religion and religious practice, or you could take it at face value as a report damming people by innuendo for their religious convictions and their unwarranted mixing of religious convictions with political affairs. Either way it amounts to more of the same which Christians across the water are experiencing. Mrs. Sinnot was clearly challenged by the reporter and asked to explain why she had done this heinous deed. She explained, reasonably, that she had forwarded the letter to constituents who had asked to be informed on anti-abortion issues. She was clearly asked to affirm that this was not “any call to action”. God forbid. Then there was further investigation to establish what the origins of this outrageous e-mail were. It turned out be from that arch-pro-life activist, Lord David Alton. We were then told – in the manner of the crime reporter’s shorthand, “he was known to police” – that “Attempts to contact Lord Alton yesterday were not successful”. That, I think, is shorthand for “he was not courageous enough to come forward to talk to us about his part in this shameful affair”.  At least Mrs. Sinnot has not been suspended from the European Parliament for this offence – not yet anyway.


Meanwhile back in the culture wars marriage continues to be a battlefront. While the final outcome is assured – for if there is no family there will be no society at all – it can be assured with greater or lesser pain. Spain is probably the country in the world – at least in the catholic world – where the State has taken the most aggressive anti-family position of all. But Catholics are fighting back. The Archbishop of Madrid, Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela, in launching a pastoral plan for his diocese some time ago, pointed out that “the crisis affecting marriage and family is an extremely serious one. When someone does not want to hear the most fundamental truth about marriage, that it is a union between a man and a woman, when the ideas are not clear, where have we come? When one believes that he can invent other life formulas for his own interests, we are at the root of the crisis, the crisis of faith.” He pointed out the importance of being aware of what is happening in the world concerning the family, of “understanding how the family is the most important human path and that it is indispensable for knowing Christ and his Law in the world…and is the source of life and hope for humanity.” The work that has to be done, he said, calls for “dedication and extraordinary commitment.”


“Out of the mouths of babes (well, not quite babes) …”  was the phrase  which came to mind recently when reading about a survey carried out in Britain at the end of last year. And perhaps out of those mouths came hope for the future of both faith and family. The survey was carried out among 1500 children under the age of ten and it reveals a lot more sense that you get among many surveys carried out among their elders. While God was not in first place among the things they really want he was in the top ten. Predictably being a ‘Celebrity’ with good looks tops the list with wealth in third position and health at number four. God however is the most famous person in the entire world, beating George Bush into second place. Also on the ‘Top Ten’ list of famous people were Jesus and Father Christmas. What, not Richard Dawkins?


Killing and wars top the list of the very worst things in the world, but divorce is up there as well and it is the thing which most of them would ban if they had the power.

Just over three quarters of the children questioned thought they would probably marry when they grow up although 21% gave a definite ‘No’. Most of them want to have children, with the majority opting for one or two.


And speaking of Richard Dawkins, this little letter caught my eye some time ago:

“Sir, I have always taken Professor Dawkins for an ingenious invention of The Daily Telegraph to amuse us in difficult times. Now I am assured by acquaintances that he truly exists. I am sorry: I really cannot bring myself to believe in him.”


Finally, something to put family in its true and positive perspective in the words of a twentieth century heroine. Audrey Roche, the only woman decorated for wartime bravery at sea, died recently. Her obituary in The Daily Telegraph on February 6 recounts her heroics after her ship was torpedoed by the Germans in the Mediterranean and she saved the life of an injured seaman by giving her lifebelt to him. It also details her eventful life in India and Kenya after the war.  On being asked in 2003 if her time in the Royal Navy was the most important part of her life, she replied: “Good heavens, no. My family is the best time of my life.” She is survived by her five children. Hopefully, we shall see her like again.

Michael Kirke, formerly of The Irish Press, is now a freelance writer. His views can be responded to at  Other writing can be found at

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