Religion news 12 February 2024

Rabbi Zechariah and Nava Deutsch with Robert Halfon MP. Image credit University Jewish Chaplaincy @JewishChaplain

Leeds University Jewish chaplain forced into hiding after death threats

Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch, a chaplain at Leeds University, has been forced into hiding after receiving death threats over his time serving as a reservist in the Israel Defence Force. He resumed his chaplaincy duties last month, but was subjected to a hate campaign with hundreds of malicious calls, including threats to kill him, to rape and kill his wife and to murder their two young children. The Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis issued a statement saying the antisemitic abuse and violent threats were “motivated by a hatred which might appear to be targeted at Jews, but which are ultimately a threat to all of our society. I call on the University of Leeds to be unequivocal in the face of such brazen intimidation and hateful extremism”. The minister for higher education, Robert Halfon, held a meeting with the Rabbi , his wife and the University Jewish Chaplaincy, offering his support and saying the government was doing everything it could to combat antsemitism on campus. In a separate incident in Leeds, a Jewish student centre was sprayed with graffiti “Free Palestine” in protest at a planned appearance at the university of an Israeli rapper.  The university said it is working with West Yorkshire Police investigating the incident.

Diocese of Durham rejects “conveyor belt” asylum story

The Diocese  of Durham has “robustly rejected” accusations made by the former vicar of St Cuthbert’s Darlington, that there was a “a conveyor belt, a veritable industry of asylum baptisms”. The Rev Matthew Firth, now a clergyman with the Free Church of England, told The Telegraph that groups of men from the Middle East attended church services and were baptised and then asked him to give evidence to lawyers validating their asylum claims. But the Diocese of Durham debunked the story as nonsense: “Since 2014, our records show that at St Cuthbert’s 13 adults and 2 infants who may have been asylum seekers were baptised, 7 of whom by Mr Firth himself. As priest in charge, it was his responsibility to check the authenticity of candidates. If there was any sign of anything amiss, Mr Firth should have reported this and he did not”.

Weymouth Baptist Church statement on Christians aboard the Bibby Stockholm

Weymouth Baptist Church has issued a statement after an elder revealed that there are 40 asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm, who are Christians. It came to light in a national debate on fake asylum claims following the case of Abdul Ezedi who was granted asylum after converting. In the statement, the church says the asylum seekers attend services in various churches, with an average of 25 to 30 attending the Baptist church. It says: “nearly all the men with whom we have contact became Christians in their native countries”, some have been baptised in the UK because it would be too dangerous to do so in their country, and seven have been baptised in Weymouth since they arrived in October. Decisions about baptisms are made by a number of people in the church which “minimises the risk of a disingenuous person being baptised”.

“The imminent and avoidable closure of the Inter Faith Network”

Madeleine Pennington, head of research at the think tank Theos, has written an article on its website, saying that the government’s intention to defund the Inter Faith Network just as it is needed most, is the wrong decision. The Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has said he is minded to withdraw funding because one of the IFN trustees is a member of the Muslim Council of Britain. The charity has issued redundancy notices to its staff and says it will move towards closure, which will be confirmed on 22 February unless funding comes through. Madeleine Pennington says the Inter Faith Network is “a shining example of the imaginative and generous spirit that is the best of Britain’s interfaith movement”, bringing together communities and coordinating the annual Inter Faith Week.

Cathedral congregations rise 60 per cent in a year

Attendance at the Church of England’s 42 cathedrals rose 60 per cent between 2021 and 2022. The latest figures produced in Cathedral Statistics 2022 show 28,200 people including children attended services every week, 584,000 people attended specially arranged services and the total reported attendance at Christmas services stood at 104,000. However, the figures had not yet reached pre pandemic levels of attendance.

Archbishop visits rehab centre for Ukraine soldiers, developed by a chaplain

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has visited a rehab centre for Ukrainian soldiers returning from the front, which was developed by the Rev Ruslan Busko, the founder of the Battalion of Military Chaplains. A report in the Church Times by Francis Martin, who accompanied the Archbishop, explains the centre provides spiritual, psychological, and physical rehabilitation. Ukrainian army chaplains have received training from their counterparts in the UK, and as the war drags on, they have dealt with the mental as well as physical impact. One chaplain is quoted saying: “When the war ends, military chaplains will have more work than ever.”

First female saint from Argentina canonised in Rome

María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, a Catholic laywoman who lived in 18th-century Santiago del Estero, a province north of Buenos Aires, has become the first female saint from Argentina in a ceremony at the Vatican. Commonly known as “Mama Antula”, she was born in 1730 into a wealthy family and joined the Jesuits at 15, saying she did not want to marry or be a nun. She went on to establish the Daughters of the Divine Saviour, worked with parents in the education of children, and helped the sick and those in poverty. She refused to acquiesce when Jesuits were expelled from the country, and restored the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, holding popular retreats.  She was not widely recognised until Pope Francis, also from Argentina, took on his office. Her path to sainthood followed two miracles, the healing of a nun in a religious house and a Jesuit seminarian in intensive care, who improved after a picture of Mama Antula was stuck onto his vital signs monitor. Associated Press story here.

President of Argentina to hold talks with Pope Francis

The newly elected president of Argentina, Javier Milei, who once described Pope Francis as a “filthy leftist” and an “imbecile”, attended the canonisation of Mama Antula at the Vatican on Sunday. The Pope was wheeled over to meet him and the two men embraced with a hug. Afterwards President Melei wrote on Instagram  “MUCHAS GRACIAS…!!!” He is due to hold talks with the Pope today, followed by a meeting with Italy’s far-right Premier Giorgia Meloni.

Ten commitments to calm down the Church of England

A promise of ten commitments has been proposed by the Church of England, to move forward its divisive debate on same sex relationships. One suggests that stand-alone services for same sex blessings should not be introduced until pastoral guidance and reassurance for conservatives has been finalised. The disagreement is so deep that it has led to the prospect of a split, with those opposed to same sex marriage saying they want an alternative structure of bishops who agree with them, and a separate system of funding. The Bishop of Leicester, Martyn Snow, the lead bishop for the process, told a press conference that he had met people on all sides of the debate and no-one wanted to leave the CofE. He hoped that the General Synod would draw breath and coalesce around a settlement acceptable to as many factions as possible which would bring reconciliation. The document before the synod gives legal advice for all options going forward because it is hoped that transparency will build trust. Church Times report here
Synod’s agenda includes biodiversity, safeguarding, racial justice and rebellious church councils

The five-day February meeting of the Church of England General Synod meets in London over a weekend from 23 – 27 February. The agenda includes:

  • A Private Members’ Motion from the Rev Dr Ian Paul to restore the clergy pension to two thirds of final salary not half, as many retired clergy are in genuine hardship
  • A debate on the Wilkinson review, a report into the termination of the contracts of members of the Independent Safeguarding Board, and discussion on future process
  • A proposal for all dioceses to develop a land action plan, giving  biodiversity equal consideration with net zero especially on the CofE’s 17,500 acres of churchyards
  • Debate on structural and financial injustices that prevent flourishing and sustainable worship in social housing estates and low income communities
  • A motion that would disqualify people from being a churchwarden or member of the PCC / church council if they were found to have bullied a cleric
  • Appeal to ensure church gives more resources to roll out action on racial justice, saying progress has been inconsistent and delayed


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