Trial by Tribunal. An apostasy story

Monthly piece by Chair East London Humanists for publication by The Newham Recorder March 2017.

Last November I trekked to the far reaches of the Piccadilly Line. My mission, to give evidence to the Immigration Appeal Tribunal at Hatton Cross on behalf of an admirable member of the community living here in Newham. He is an asylum seeker and a member of our group. In a scene worthy of Franz Kafka, the master of absurd theatre, I tried to persuade the Judge that the appellant is a true non-believer. Not that the potential outcome is anything to laugh about. Due to his atheism his life is at grave risk if he is returned to his country of origin.

It is extraordinary that in the 21st Century apostasy, that is leaving a religion, still carries the death penalty in several countries. They include British allies such as Saudi Arabia. There are many others where it is a criminal offence. Even if the state doesn’t act, there is no shortage of religious zealots prepared to take the law into their own hands.

Apostasy was the topic of our group’s meeting in February. The speaker, Lola Tinubu, was a co-founder of the London Black Atheists group. Born in the deeply conservative Christian culture of Nigeria, she described the difficulties she experienced leaving her religion. Atheists are regarded as worse than the devil and face ostracism even from their own family. Lola had questioned her religion from an early age. However, it was only in the relative freedom that she enjoyed on coming to the UK that she found the strength and space to ‘come out.’ Being able to connect with like-minded people and find an alternative community also played an important part.

We hear much about the scourge of religious persecution. Christians are under attack in Pakistan and the Middle East. Anti-Semitism is on the rise everywhere. And Islamophobia is rife, not least in the US where Trump’s policies target the rights of Muslims. But it is well to remember that the right to freedom of religion and belief extends to the freedom to change one’s religion or to leave religion altogether.

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