Misplaced sympathy

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Sunday Times – Leading Article: Today’s Easter Sunday pulpits will resound to predictable themes. Relief that the 15 British sailors and marines were returned home safely after their 13-day incarceration in Iran. Sorrow and prayers for the four British soldiers, including two women, killed by a roadside bomb in Basra on the day the sailors and marines were flying home. Hope for a better and more peaceful future.
The Sunday Times

Leading Article

Today’s Easter Sunday pulpits will resound to predictable themes. Relief that the 15 British sailors and marines were returned home safely after their 13-day incarceration in Iran. Sorrow and prayers for the four British soldiers, including two women, killed by a roadside bomb in Basra on the day the sailors and marines were flying home. Hope for a better and more peaceful future.

However, if the sentiments of Michael Nazir-Ali are anything to go by, there will be another tone to today’s sermons. The Bishop of Rochester admired the fact that in releasing his prisoners, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, made reference to the religious context, including the prophet’s birthday and the “passing over” of Christ. This showed, according to the bishop, that the Iranians were operating in a “spiritual and moral tradition”, which is lacking in Britain.

He is not alone. Tom Burns, the Roman Catholic bishop to Britain’s armed forces, praises the Iranians for their “act of mercy in accordance with their religion”. David Stancliffe, Bishop of Salisbury, will say in his sermon today that the reason Britain failed to persuade the United Nations to adopt more forthright language over Iran was because of the country’s diminished moral authority over Iraq. “I still regret this country’s action and watch with dismay the way it has left us floundering around in other important areas like the Sudan,” he will say.

To a certain extent the bishops are only giving voice to what many in their flocks believe. The Iraq war is unpopular and, as Andrew Sullivan argues, Britain’s so-called “guilt by association” with Abu Ghraib makes it harder to protest when the Geneva conventions are not observed.

However, can anybody seriously believe that the Iranian president, having milked the illegal seizure of British forces for all it was worth, has a higher moral authority because he makes a couple of religious references? The four British soldiers blown up in Iraq, whose youthful faces peering out of our newspapers make their deaths almost too hard to bear, were killed with roadside bombs supplied by Iran. Mr Ahmadinejad presides over a country where women are killed for adultery, men are hanged on cranes and religious minorities are viciously persecuted.

What do the bishops want? Were they happy that Saddam Hussein, one of the bloodiest dictators of the postwar era, continued unchallenged in power? Should Britain have walked on by, rather than getting involved in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, for fear of denting our moral authority? Do they lament our high moral heyday when we stood back and watched the rape of Bosnia?

Iraq, as we have pointed out many times, has suffered from inept postinvasion planning. That does not mean it was wrong to rid the world of Saddam. Zimbabwe and Darfur are negatives on any broader western foreign policy audit but Tony Blair, for all his faults, deserves better than hindsight condemnation from the pulpit. He has tried to be a good Samaritan, even if he has not always succeeded.

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