By Joseph Willits
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A comparison between Ann Widdecombe and activist Peter Tatchell, may not seem the most obvious. However it appears that these two people, perhaps polar opposites on the political spectrum, are both dogged in their determination to fight for Christian free speech.
This view will be regarded with scepticism by many, associating Tatchell primarily with gay rights activism (often being hugely critical of the Church), most recently lobbying successfully for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Critics of Tatchell's determined lobbying for gay equality, are likely to recall his arrest at Canterbury Cathedral, where he publicly accused Archbishop Carey of endorsing homophobia. In September 2010, during the Pope's visit to the UK, Tatchell also led a protest against the Catholic's church's record of child abuse, gay and womens rights, and the Pope's stance on condoms.
However, despite his atheism, it is fighting for the right for individual Christians and Christian minorities, rather than institutions, where Tatchell has become 'defender of the faith'. Even the protests led against the Pope highlighted the cases of individual Christians let down, and scarred by the Catholic Church as an institution – it wasn't a crusade against faith. Like Ann Widdecombe, who has been vocal in her battle against Christian persecution internationally, accusing the Government of "turning a blind eye", there is a both a tenacity and bravery which even the least expected cannot help but admire. With regard to the plight of Pakistani Christians, Tatchell echoed Widdecombe's frustration at the imbalance in defending a Christian minority:
"While many people are rightly speaking out against anti-Muslim prejudice and victimisation, very few are taking a stand against the equally reprehensible victimisation of Pakistani Christians”.
Tatchell's comments last month, where he upheld the right for Trafford Housing Trust manager Adrian Smith to write Facebook status updates opposing gay marriage in churches, have yet again resurfaced. Allowing gay marriage in a church, Smith said, was an "equality too far". Smith, after writing the Facebook comment was demoted; his salary cut. Despite the trust acting with "good intentions", the move to demote Smith was "excessive and disproportionate" according to Tatchell.
Yesterday, Archbishop Cranmer reported on a letter written by Housing Minister Grant Shapps, responding to Stewart Jackson's question in a Parliamentary debate. Jackson expressed his "admiration" for Tatchell, citing his comments regarding Smith's case. Shapps' letter in reply to Jackson also quoted Tatchell at length, and said: "I agree with Mr Tatchell’s sentiments."
Previously, in a similar case of Christian street preacher Dale McAlpine, arrested for saying homosexuality is a sin, Tatchell offered to testify in his defence. Tatchell said: "Mr Mcalpine’s views were homophobic, but the fact that he was treated as a criminal for expressing them, shocked me … I endorse his right to express them".
In today's Times, Matthew Parris praises Tatchell, not because of a shared belief in gay equality, but because of his "judgment … even when that’s embarrassing to some of his natural supporters". Parris also describes Tatchell as being "uncowed by multicultural angst" on the issue of "Islamic nonsense about homosexuality".
Perhaps the most important comment made by Parris, however, was the issue of "reverse persecution", that in the case of Adrian Smith is an "embarrassment to those of us who want to end persecution". The gay community, as an example (however not exclusively), Parris said, needed to remind itself "that other people have rights too, and that we campaign against bullying, not for it."
Whilst there are many people who defend the rights of others with indisputable determination, it seems ever more poignant when the battle is fought by those outside of the effected community. This could mean Muslims tackling anti-semitism, Jews demanding an end to Islamaphobia, or the example of England rugby player, Ben Cohen and his foundation to fight homophobia and bullying. An article in Ekklesia stated that Tatchell was "showing Christians how to be more like Jesus". For this, Tatchell should be commended.