Daily Telegraph: The Roman Catholic bishop who oversees the armed forces has provoked fury by praising the Iranian leadership for its “forgiveness” and “act of mercy” in freeing the 15 British sailors and marines last week.
The Daily Telegraph
By Jonathan Petre, Religion Correspondent Nicole Martin and Brendan Carlin
The Roman Catholic bishop who oversees the armed forces has provoked fury by praising the Iranian leadership for its “forgiveness” and “act of mercy” in freeing the 15 British sailors and marines last week.
The Bishop of the Forces, the Rt Rev Tom Burns, said that the religious beliefs of the Iranians had played a large part in their decision to release the hostages after holding them for more than two weeks.
His words were echoed by a leading Anglican figure, the Right Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, who said Iran had acted within the “moral and spiritual tradition of their country” and contrasted this with Britain’s “free-floating attitudes”.
Bishop Burns, who ministers to the 40,000 Catholics and their families who are members of the armed forces, said the decision to release the captives had demonstrated “faith in a forgiving God”.
But his comments were angrily denounced yesterday by politicians and soldiers as “naive” and “wishful thinking” for failing to recognise the illegality of Teheran’s actions.
In a statement welcoming the hostages’ release on Thursday, Bishop Burns said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had spoken of forgiveness, and appealed to the religious traditions of Islam. This might seem puzzling, said the bishop. But it had to be seen in the context of the Iranians’ belief that Britain had violated their territorial waters.
“So, if that is the case they are putting forward, then by their own standards, the standards enshrined in their religion, they have then chosen to put their faith into action to resolve the situation,” said the bishop.
“Faith in a forgiving God has been exemplified in action by their good deeds. They are offering to release the sailors and marines, not just as the result of diplomacy, but also as an act of mercy in accordance with their religion.”
Bishop Burns said he had issued an appeal to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, “in the name of his nation and in the name of Islam”, to free the sailors and marines, but he could not be sure whether his appeal had reached the authorities in Iran.
He added that the Iranian’s Islamic faith shared many religious values with Christianity. “Over the past two weeks, there has been a unity of purpose between Britain and Iran, whereby everyone has sought justice and forgiveness where that is appropriate,” he said.
“Repentance has a common root in each religion. We all profess to hold a faith that comes from Abraham – the Father of all Nations.
“All nations form one community: we come from the one God who created us, and we will return to the one God as our common destiny.”
Bishop Nazir-Ali said the Iranians had scored “something of a coup” by appealing to their religious traditions in freeing the hostages. In sharp contrast, Britain had failed to refer to any higher values.
“I saw on the one hand what Iran was doing, and what the president [of Iran”> said had much to do with the moral and spiritual tradition of their country,” he said.
“The president talked about the religious background to the release, with reference to the Prophet’s birthday and the passing over of Christ. What struck me was that if there were any values on the British side they were free-floating and not anchored in a spiritual and moral tradition.”
He added, however, that he believed that both sides were acting from mixed motives, and challenged the Iranians to demonstrate similar tolerance in their treatment of religious minorities.
Bishop Burns came under fierce attack yesterday for his more trusting remarks. Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, called him “naive in the extreme”.
He said it appeared that the bishop had been “taken in by the clever propaganda” of the Iranian regime. “This is a regime that illegally captured our servicemen and held them in quite dreadful conditions for some time. The true moral worth of a leader is in his or her deeds, not words.”
Dr Fox added: “I think that those who talk in religious terms while practising abduction should be judged on what they have done, not what they have said. To do otherwise is naive in the extreme.”
Col Tim Collins, who led the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, said: “It’s a close call as to which organisation is in the deepest moral crisis – the Church or the Ministry of Defence.”
Col Edward Armitstead, a former Coldstream Guards officer who is a member of the Church of England’s General Synod, said: “You have to ask, why did the Iranians capture our people in the first place? The bishop is naive and guilty of wishful thinking.”
Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said: “We will never know whether the Iranian president’s decision to release the hostages was motivated by his religion or, most probably, by a desire to ensure that his best interests were served.
“It would be naive to take what the president said at face value but perhaps we should not dismiss his words entirely.”
Bishop Burns was unavailable for comment yesterday.