The alleged crime took place at the corner of Alum Rock and Ellesmere roads in Birmingham, England, where an officer spotted two missionaries distributing “God’s Bridge to Eternal Life” tracts.
The controversial pamphlets contained comments such as, “Throughout history individuals have tried many ways to gain or earn eternal life, but every attempt has been unsuccessful.” There were Bible verses, such as, “Not by works of righteousness, which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us. Titus 3:5a.”
What happened next has reopened a painful debate about so-called “no go zones,” areas that may as well be off limits to British citizens who do not heed Islamic laws.
According to a statement by the Rev. Arthur Cunningham, the “police community support officer” told him “you’re not allowed to preach … here. This is a Muslim area. He said, ‘You know, you guys are committing a hate crime here with what you’re doing. I’m going to have to call you in and take you in.’ Then he took his radio and he said something like, ‘There’s a hate crime in progress here. I need assistance.’ ”
This occurred three months ago, but legal actions by Cunningham and the Rev. Joseph Abraham have created a wave of new coverage. Both men carry American passports, although Abraham was born a Muslim in Egypt and then converted to Christianity.
While declining to discuss details, West Midlands Police officials have released statements saying their investigation found that the officer acted “with the best of intentions” and that “the PCSO has been offered guidance about what constitutes a hate crime and advice on communication style.”
Another statement: “We would like to assure all communities that there are not any ‘no go’ areas in the West Midlands Police area and we will defend the rights of the individual to freedom of expression and religious faiths.”
The “no go zone” debate began in earnest when Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, who was raised in Pakistan in a family with Christian and Muslim roots, expressed fears that England is splintering into segregated communities of citizens living “parallel lives.”
“It is critically important to all that the freedom to discuss freely and perhaps to have our views changed, whether in politics, religion or science, be encouraged and not diminished,” wrote Nazir-Ali, in a newspaper essay that led to death threats against him.
Christianity and Islam are both evangelistic faiths, which creates sparks when their traditional, growing forms collide. However, Christian evangelism is banned in many Muslim lands and some Christian converts have faced death sentences as apostates.
In the Alum Rock case, the missionaries freely admit they were seeking converts. Abraham and Cunningham insist that they were told they would be physically attacked if they dared to return.
“The actions and words used by the officers were intimidating and were calculated to warn and-or frighten our clients and to have the effect of deterring our clients from lawfully expressing their opinions and manifesting their beliefs and to have a chilling effect on the exercise by them of their right to manifest their beliefs,” according to a document prepared for police by activists at the Christian Institute. “Our clients were left with the understanding that they could not express their religious beliefs in Alum Rock Road without committing a hate crime.”
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has reported that the officer involved in this incident is active in the local branch of the National Association of Muslim Police. The West Midlands police force also made recent headlines when it accused a BBC Dispatches program — entitled “Undercover Mosques” — of distorting Muslim statements about terrorism.
All of this has led to heightened tensions about how to balance Muslim concerns with British laws.
“Freedom is not, of course, absolute. It is only possible in the context of the Common Good, where the freedom of each has to be exercised with respect for the freedom of all,” according to a new essay by Nazir-Ali, in Standpoint magazine.
“Freedom of belief, of expression, and the freedom to change one’s belief are, however, vitally important for a free society, and the onus must be on those who wish to restrict these in any way to show why this is necessary. Nor can we say that such freedoms apply in some parts of the country and of the world and not in others.”