Evangelists Threatened with Arrest in Birmingham

From the Telegraph:

A police community support officer ordered two Christian preachers to stop handing out gospel leaflets in a predominantly Muslim area of Birmingham.

The evangelists say they were threatened with arrest for committing a “hate crime” and were told they risked being beaten up if they returned. The incident will fuel fears that “no-go areas” for Christians are emerging in British towns and cities, as the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, claimed in The Sunday Telegraph this year.

Arthur Cunningham, 48, and Joseph Abraham, 65, both full-time evangelical ministers, have launched legal action against West Midlands Police, claiming the officer infringed their right to profess their religion.

Both men are members of Grace Bible Fellowship Church, which declares itself to be “a free fundamental, evangelical, Bible-believing ministry… not ecumenical, Charismatic, Arminians, Calvinists or denominational”. Further:

In this age of wide-spread religious apostasy, compromise, liberalism, false religions, cults & political correctness we stand without apology on the authority of the Bible as the infallible word of God… For further information on how to be saved from eternal damnation click here.

The church is affiliated with the Grace Church of Mentor in Ohio (see here, click on “England”). According to the church’s website, Abraham was raised as a Muslim in Egypt, and was raised to be a “Muslim priest” (sic), but after flirting with atheism he was converted by an unnamed American evangelist:

Dear Muslim friend, remember, you will stand some day before the throne of God, just by yourself. Would you be able to stand God’s judgment?

Christians — those who believe Christ as their Saviour — are no longer under God’s judgment, because God already judged them in the Person of Christ. He died for them. Well, He died for you too.

There are no details about what kind of “gospel leaflets” were being handed out.

Naturally, various websites are following the Telegraph’s lead that the “hate crime” threat is a sign of Muslim “no-go” areas. That’s a rather alarmist take on what happened, although does appear that the officer acted unprofessionally:

The preachers, both ministers in Birmingham, were handing out leaflets on Alum Rock Road in February when they started talking to four Asian youths.

A police community support officer (PCSO) interrupted the conversation and began questioning the ministers about their beliefs.

They said when the officer realised they were American, although both have lived in Britain for many years, he launched a tirade against President Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A “police community support officer” is not the same thing as a full police officer, but in this case they are under the jurisdiction and direction of the West Midlands Police, which has promised to give the officer concerned extra “training”. This is notable as the WMP has recently been obliged to pay out libel damages to the makers of the TV documentary on Islamic fundamentalism after accusing it of “distorting” various inflammatory statements.

However, the case also comes in the wake of police in London incorrectly warning a teenage protestor that signs describing Scientology a cult were illegal. In an age of increased religious sensitivity, it seems that police are taking the view that public disputes over religion ought to be suppressed. Without robust free speech protections such as we see in the USA, this is always going to be the easiest option.

UPDATE: MediaWatchWatch reports that Birmingham police have threatened anti-Scientology protestors with arrest for using “cult” signs, and leafletters have been issued with on-the-spot fines. Strathclyde police have also ordered that placards be taken down.