Page last updated at 00:30 GMT, Tuesday, 7 April 2009 01:30 UK

Faith Diary: Vote Jesus?

Despite being criticised by mainstream Churches, the BNP has decided to use Jesus in its election campaigning, as the BBC's Religious Affairs correspondent Robert Pigott reports in his latest Faith Diary. Also this week - why some Saudis have begun to stand up to traditionalist Islamic doctrines, and the fate of the churches with no congregations.

HOW WOULD JESUS VOTE?

In the UK most politicians are markedly reluctant to "do God".

But the British National Party has recruited Jesus Himself in its efforts to get an MEP elected to the European Parliament in June.

The BNP has produced an election poster bearing a passage from John's gospel and a traditional image of Jesus.

"What would Jesus do?" it asks, and then supplies the answer - "vote BNP".

The party has recently stepped up its efforts to present itself as a staunch defender of Christianity and recently set up what it called the Christian Council of Britain, under the leadership of the Reverend Robert West, a clergyman with an independent church.

But being the defender of Christianity requires voters to accept that the religion is under attack.

BNP poster
The BNP: praying for victory in June's EU elections

BNP officials speak of the Islamification of Britain, pointing to other European countries such as the Netherlands and France, which they say are rapidly losing their Christian identity.

It's an appeal to people worried by the growth of Islam, and to traditionalist evangelical Christians anxious about the secularism they feel is eroding their values in society.

The party tries to strike a chord with them by claiming that "church leaders actively shun the word of God on issues like sodomy, abortion and social justice".

Christian groups have accused the BNP of using the word "Christian" as a synonym for "white", and "Islamic" to mean "Asian", but it's a claim the party dismisses.

The BNP has also been stung by strongly worded instructions to voters from Church leaders telling them not to vote for the party.

The UK's first black archbishop, John Sentamu, said in 2004 that voting for the BNP was "like spitting in the face of God".

Rosette and Union flag tie both worn by British National Party member
The BNP wants to be seen as a political party with Christian values

At its last meeting, in February, the Church of England's Synod voted overwhelmingly to ban clergy or any staff who speak for the Church from membership of the BNP, partly on the basis of BNP claims to speak for Christians.

The gospel verse on the BNP's election poster quotes Jesus's words: "If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you."

The party has accused the Church of persecuting it, having itself failied to defend Christianity from erosion from Islam and secularism.

The BNP's spokesman Simon Darby said: "It's something that the Church brought on themselves when they decided to interfere in the democratic process. If someone wants to take us on, they can expect the same in return."

SAUDI HARD-LINERS ON BACK FOOT

Saudi Arabia is noted for its traditionalist interpretation of Islam and the determination of its clergy to maintain the strictest standards.

The country is the birthplace of Islam and regards the Koran as its constitution.

Saudis visit the 4th Riyadh International Book Fair in the Saudi capital Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Saudi Religious Police often patrol in public places where men and women might mingle

There are several thousand religious policemen - employed by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice - whose duty is to enforce prayer times, the dress code and the segregation of men and women.

Women have to conform to strict rules about what clothes they wear, are not allowed to drive and need a man's permission to travel.

But there are signs of reform in the kingdom.

The head of the commission was among several hard-line traditionalists who were replaced by King Abdullah in a cabinet reshuffle last month.

The move was seen as part of efforts to speed up reforms which began soon after the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

It seems that Saudi citizens have been emboldened by such measures into more open resistance.

Last month a Saudi man filed a formal complaint against the religious police over his arrest after dropping his wife off at a shopping mall in the capital, Riyadh.

The religious police had accused him of being with a woman who was not his wife.

The man claimed that despite showing them his marriage certificate - which he evidently had with him - he was beaten and taken to the police station before later being released with an apology.

They noted "well-rooted perversity" in the ministry

Another recent case resulted in a 75-year-old Syrian woman being sentenced to 40 lashes and four months in prison for having two men who were not relatives in her house.

Saudi media reported that one of the men, a 24-year-old known in court as Fahd, claimed to have been breast-fed as a baby by the woman, Khamisa Mohammed Sawadi, and that he was therefore a son to her in Islam.

Fahd and his friend - who claimed to be delivering bread - were both sentenced to jail and lashes.

However, Sawadi is not inclined to accept the verdict, and a human rights lawyer promptly announced his intention of filing an appeal.

In other signs of the waning power of traditionalist clergy, music was allowed on the government-run television station, and women journalists were allowed to interview men.

A Saudi man holds up his entrance ticket to see the Saudi comedy film "Manahi" at a theatre in Jeddah
The comedy film "Manahi" was screened in Saudi Arabia - but only for one week

Newspapers publish pictures of Western women, although bare arms and cleavage are obscured.

Such changes have caused alarm among traditionalist clergy.

In a recent statement, 35 clerics called on the new information minister to keep women off television, and photographs of them out of newspapers and magazines.

They noted "well-rooted perversity" in the ministry.

When he visited Saudi Arabia, the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner seemed to highlight a different view of perversity.

He told a news conference that he had sat between a female Saudi surgeon and a female Saudi journalist at lunch. He remarked that although one woman operated on people and the other helped to teach them, neither was allowed to drive a car.

"I find that bizarre" he said.

MODERN USE FOR ANCIENT CHURCHES

Back to the BNP, and another of their preoccupations is the closure of parish churches, especially when they are converted into mosques.

It is a concern shared by several heritage groups, even if for slightly different reasons.

As congregations dwindle, one church group predicted that buildings would become disused - or redundant - at the rate of almost one a week.

The Church of England alone has some 16,000 parish churches and more than three-quarters of them are listed.

Keeping medieval buildings in good repair creates a huge drain on the Church's resources.

Redundant churches - 340 of them - are cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), which celebrated its 40th birthday last week with a "present" from the Church of the latest casualty of empty pew syndrome.

The interior of St Margaret of Antioch in Bedfordshire
There are hundreds of churches facing a decline in congregations

The church of St Margaret of Antioch, in Knotting in Bedfordshire, is, like so many of the CCT's other buildings, full of history.

St Margaret's is thought to be of Saxon origin, and is in a village recorded in the Domesday Book - Knotting was collectively fined two marks in 1176 for trespassing in the King's Forest, which virtually surrounded it.

With only about 100 people left in the village, Knotting no longer supplies a congregation.

The Churches Conservation Trust - in common with other heritage bodies - thinks the government ought to do more to fund the upkeep of historic churches, rather as the French government does.

But other strategies have been mooted, including modernising the way churches are used.

In the Middle Ages the main body of the parish church - the nave - was open for public use, as a market, storeroom or meeting place. Only the area near the altar - the chancel - was reserved for the priest.

One notable campaigner for the preservation of old churches, Sir Roy Strong, says it was the building of village halls that has been killing the parish church.

Shops and post offices are among the planned developments to bring churches closer to the people.

A medieval attitude to common ownership of the church could turn out to suit the modern age.



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