Firebrand rhetoric gives comfort to those who commit hate crimes

We need language which is clear in condemning racism

It is very frightening to lie in your bed at night wondering if someone is going to attack your house. It is equally distressing to wonder if you are going to be attacked as you walk down a busy street in broad daylight. We expect to be safe in our homes, in the centre of our towns and villages. Yet there are many people living in our country who are constantly aware that they could be attacked just because they are different.

There is nothing new in this. Sectarianism led to the fear and reality of attack over the decades here. Lives were ruined or significantly altered by an attack or assault which left life-changing injuries. The only justification for the attack was that the other was ‘other’ not ‘one of ours’.

It is thus across the world.  People suffer because they are perceived as different and in the bigoted, misguided, criminal minds of their attackers they become ‘legitimate targets’, in the language of our ‘Troubles’.

After the Good Friday Agreement, sectarian attacks did not stop, but people of other races and religion moved into Northern Ireland, and they became the focus for attack. People are attacked because they are not ‘one of ours’.

Society usually knows the need to be very clear in its statements and public actions, in prosecuting and condemning such attacks. That is why it was so terrible here in Northern Ireland last week to hear the public statements about Muslims and the Islam by Pastor James McConnell and those who supported him including First Minister Peter Robinson.


Mr McConnell told his congregation that “a new evil had arisen” and “there are cells of Muslims right throughout Britain”. He said that “Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in Hell.”  He said that he did not trust Muslims.

It is reminiscent of the words of Ian Paisley preached in 1963 about the Catholic Church: “She is the seed of the serpent, the offspring of Belial, and the progeny of Hell. Her eye gleams with the serpent’s light. Her clothes reek of the brimstone of the pit. Her words and opinions label her the parrot of Beelzebub. Unhesitatingly I recognise as of her father the Devil, and the works of her father she will do.”

The problem with rhetoric of this kind is that it gives comfort to those who commit hate crimes.

In any society there are necessary limits on freedoms and those in authority have a particular duty to act in the interests of all the people, for the common good.

Northern Ireland has seen 982 reported hate crimes in the past year, an increase of over 30% from the preceding year when 750 hate crimes were reported.  Many other crimes are not reported, often because people think there is no point. Recent statistics show that only 20% of hate crime is solved here. It can be difficult to identify the normally hooded individuals who come in the dark to attack a house or an individual. There is clearly a need as a society for us to work out how to protect and care for all those who live in our midst.


We need language which is absolutely clear in condemning racism and attacks made because of the religion of the victim. We need strong, unambiguous leadership which states that such crime is wrong, and that, as a society we value each and every one of our people, no matter their religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or any other characteristic. We need to demonstrate that we really do care for people.

It can be so very simple. Fr Eddie O’Donnell a parish priest in Belfast made this statement in his church last week: “Responding to the Lord’s words, ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ we seek, as a parish, to be an open and welcoming community. I make this simple suggestion to you, it may perhaps sound naive to some: in our streets, in our shops, in our hospitals, in the school playground, wherever we encounter others, by eye contact, a smile, a word of greeting, and constant courtesy, indicate that we are indeed a welcoming people. Make the golden rule ‘treat others as you would like people to treat you’ an even more deliberate choice.”

The need to unite in asserting the rights of people to belong to the religion of their choice, and to live free from fear of attack and hatred does not mean that we cannot condemn wrongful practices of any culture of religion.

The world has most recently been transfixed by the situation of 27-year- old Dr Meriam Ibrahim Ishag in Sudan, condemned to death because, having been born to a Muslim father but abandoned by him, she was brought up as a Christian and having refused to abandon her Christian faith she has been convicted of apostasy. Her marriage to a Christian has been annulled. She gave birth to her little daughter in chains on the floor of her prison cell and will be allowed to live until the child is weaned, then she is sentenced to be hanged.

Religious rules

This is the rigid operation of one section of sharia law. Not all Muslims support such action. Some scholars do favour the death penalty, but others say the punishment, if any, should be left to God on the day of judgement, quoting the words of the Koran “there shall be no compulsion in religion”.

At various times over the centuries, some Christians, like some Muslims put to death those who were convicted of apostasy. We no longer do this. What we must do as Christians is to challenge wrongful cultural and religious rules within and without our own faith, and to seek through dialogue and example to influence leaders and lawmakers to abandon, for example, the savagery of a law which dictates the execution of any person for being raped (and thus being held to have committed adultery), for apostasy or for so many other crimes across the world. We must challenge absolutely those who use religion as justification for waging war, and for exterminating whole peoples.

In so doing we cannot condemn or insult individuals for the wrongdoing of members of the race or group to which they belong. 

Jesus did not call us to love those who are the same as us, who think like us, who look like us, who act like us. He called us to love one another.