Church buildings and humanist ceremonies

Recently, St. Andrew’s Church of Scotland in Golspie made headlines for deciding not to allow the use of its Fountain Road Hall for a humanist funeral. For the last two weeks, the matter has been covered in the Northern Times, and it is clear that some people are unhappy with the church’s decision.

Appropriate uses for church buildings

What is an appropriate use for a church building? To answer this question, the church needs to turn to the Bible. And here, we immediately run into the problem that the Bible does not say anything about church buildings as such. In New Testament times, churches met in people’s homes. This situation is neither commended nor regretted in the New Testament; it’s just the way it was.

The Old Testament, of course, tells us about the Temple in Jerusalem (and its predecessor, the Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting), which could, I suppose, be described as the ultimate church building. But it was one of a kind – God gave special and detailed instructions for every aspect of its construction, which do not apply to other church buildings – and so what the Bible says about what it was used for does really apply to the buildings used by Christian congregations.

So how should congregations think about their buildings? And the answer is that congregations tend to own a variety of buildings – they own church buildings, they own church halls, they own houses for their ministers / pastors to live in – and indeed sometimes they own buildings which don’t come into any of those categories. And since churches in New Testament times didn’t own any buildings, none of these categories is recognized in the Bible. In short, these buildings are merely property that churches own.

So how does a congregation decide what is an appropriate use for a church building? The same way any Christian decides what is an appropriate use of possessions: ask the question “What would glorify and honour God?” Broadly speaking, that means that the building will not be used for anything that would be displeasing to God.  

Furthermore, it seems to me, that there is no Biblical reason for saying that there may be some things that would be appropriate in a church hall, but not appropriate in a church building. So, for example in the case in Golspie, if something would not be an appropriate use of the St. Andrew’s Church Building, it would not be an appropriate use of the Fountain Road Hall.


So – is it appropriate for church buildings (including church halls) to be used for humanist ceremonies – e.g. humanist funerals, weddings, and naming ceremonies? At this point we need to ask the question “What is humanism?”

According to Wikipedia, the term ‘humanism’ was coined in 1808 by a Lutheran theologian Friedrich Niethammer, who “wished to introduce into German education the humane values of ancient Greece and Rome.” Many early humanists were Christians, However (Wikipedia goes on to say)

“Since the twentieth century, however, Anglophone humanist movements have usually been aligned with secularism, and today humanism typically refers to a non-theistic life stance centred on human agency and looking to science rather than revelation from a supernatural source to understand the world.”

In other words, when people in Britain today describe themselves as humanists, they generally mean that they don’t believe in God, or they think that if God exists, he has not communicated with us to tell us anything about the meaning of life. Or to put it another way, they believe that Christianity is simply wrong.

And if you look at the websites of British Humanist Association, and the Humanist Society Scotland it is pretty clear that this is where they stand. They proclaim clearly that they believe that this life is the only life we have, and that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side. And notice that these are not minor parts of what humanists believe; they are their core beliefs. You will find them in the very first paragraph of the British Humanist Association website’s description of what humanism is

The rejection of Christianity (and other theistic religions) is what they are all about.   While they never actually use the words “Jesus was completely wrong”, they make it clear that they think he was.

Is it appropriate for Christian churches to allow their buildings to be used by such groups? Does it honour and glorify God to allow the church’s buildings to be used by them? It seems to me that there is a good case for saying that the answer to these questions is “no”.

Perhaps someone will say “But surely Christian churches should allow anyone at all to use their buildings, because that is the generous thing to do?” And the answer to that is “Anyone? Should churches really allow anyone at all to use church buildings, and use them to say anything they want? Are there not some things that people might say that would be so wrong, so offensive, so wicked – that it would be inappropriate for them to be said in a church building? Are there not some organisations whose aims are so obnoxious that it would not be appropriate for them to allowed to use a church building? And I doubt that many people would disagree with that. The only question is “Where does one draw the line?”

So – what about humanists? Many people in modern Scotland may think that there is nothing particularly unacceptable about saying “Jesus was completely wrong”. However, if you are a Christian, then you must regard such a view as dangerously mistaken – and you will regard any organisation whose main purpose is the rejection of faith in God as an enemy of light and truth, and as an agent of darkness and ignorance. And it seems to me that you will draw the line at anything that would give the impression that you regard this group and its message as something acceptable.

Yes, I believe that they the Humanist Society should be free to proclaim their beliefs and argue their cause. But in no way would I want to be seen as suggesting that its message was something that offered anything positive to the world.

The matter of public funding

There was one other matter that was raised in the Northern Times. Some people have pointed out that the church received grant funding for the refurbishment of Fountain Road hall, and suggested that the congregation might be in breach of the terms of the funding. Graham Phillips, a member of Highland Council, is quoted as saying

“I am writing to the board to ask if their decision is compatible with the criteria of funding bodies – such as the Big Lottery – who stipulate that there should be no religious discrimination attached to the projects they support. . . . The funding case was that it was a community facility and would not be restricted to religious use.”

In fact, according to the Northern Times, the Big Lottery was not one of the funders of the project. However, even if it was one of the funders, it seems to me that there would not be a problem. According to the Big Lottery Fund’s quick guide for faith-based organisations, they “regularly fund minor refurbishment and upgrades for the likes of church halls”, adding

“we recognise that these are important assets in many communities, and host a wide range of other groups and activities. However, we would not typically fund a building that is used primarily as either a place of worship or for other religious activities. . . . The main thing faith-based groups need to be aware of is that we cannot fund the practice of religion, or any activities that actively promote religion or particular belief systems (or indeed the lack of belief). This is because these activities could exclude people from accessing a project on religious grounds.”

While I have not read the detailed terms and conditions, I cannot see that any of that in any way conflicts with what St. Andrew’s Church in Golspie have done.

But there is a more basic issue here. What happened was that the congregation decided not to permit a funeral to take place in Fountain Road hall because the funeral was going to be conducted under the auspices of the Humanist Society. They were, in effect saying that they believed that this was something inappropriate – because of what the Humanist Society is and does.

Any hall that is available to the public is going to receive requests from a variety of people who want to hire it, and for a variety of purposes. A lot of these purposes and people are completely uncontroversial. But some of are not. What if a hall was approached about hosting a performance by a comedian who was notorious for jokes in extremely questionable taste? What if a hall was approached about hosting a performance by a stripper? What about if a hall was approached about hosting a public meeting for a political party that was seen as racist or extremist? No funding organisation, be it the Big Lottery Fund or anyone else, is going to say to a hall that applies for grant funding “You have to accept every group that wants to use your hall.” Because most people respect the right of other people to say “no” to certain things.

I think the unhappiness at what happened in Golspie basically arose for two reasons. The first is that many people thought that the church was saying “no” to the family. That is not the case. The church had no problems with the family, or with the gentleman who had passed away, or with their religious beliefs. The church’s problem is with the Humanist Society.

The second problem is that most people don’t think that there is anything particularly controversial about Humanist Society funerals. But would they react differently if the church declined a request for a Satanist funeral or a Nazi funeral? I think a lot of people would. Most people believe that one has to draw the line somewhere – that some element of ‘discrimination’ is acceptable – they just believe that St. Andrew’s Church in Golspie drew it in the wrong place.

 But surely in an open and tolerant society, it is necessary for people to accept that other people that will draw the line in a different place, and respect their decision. 

St Andrew’s Church Golspie has effectively said to the watching world

We believe in life after death, and that God made the heavens and the earth, and that through Jesus Christ (and only through him) we can have everlasting life. We believe these things are important. 

In fact we believe that these things are so important, that we will take a stand on them and say (not just by our words, but also by our actions) that those who deny these truths are pointing people to a way that leads to death, instead of pointing them to the path that leads to life.”

And for that, they are to be commended.


Barnabas, Amnesty, and the Media

One of the things that concerns me most about the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East is the matter of how it has been reported.

A friend of mine recently attended a public meeting organised by the Barnabas Fund to publicise the suffering of Christians in different parts of the world. I wasn’t at it, so emailed my friend to ask what had been said at the meeting. I was told

“The baptist pastor from Aleppo was very negative about our secular media’s reporting of the situation in Syria. He spoke very highly of their president, Assad. He highlighted on one slide that Syria was a very stable country throughout the 90s and In 2003 they accepted many Iraqi refugees (which it did without a single ‘refugee camp tent’) until 2011 at which point the war in Syria began. . . . loud and clear was a disgust at secular Western media and their portrayal of the war. “

The Barnabas website

Not surprisingly, the Barnabas Fund’s website also had a lot to say about the western media – particularly about events in Syria.

To give some examples:

After a month of relative quiet, the Christian quarter in government-held Aleppo has again been hit, with Islamist rebels firing rockets and mortars indiscriminately. As Western media focuses on the renewed Russian air assault on the rebel-held eastern enclave, Christians continue to face the threat of sudden bombardment by the rebels.”

Fighting resumed in rebel-held east Aleppo on Saturday (22 October) following the end of a unilateral three-day ceasefire announced by Russia. Western media outlets, with their focus on the rebel-held areas, continue to present a largely one-sided picture of events, so the suffering in the streets of the government-held areas tends to be overlooked..”

The relative silence of the Western media over the situation in the government-held areas of Aleppo extends to the government’s provision of humanitarian aid to the rebel-held eastern region, where tons of milk, vegetables, canned food, wheat and bread have been distributed in the last few days.

. . . “Unfortunately – your media is totally silent and nothing mentioning of this,” commented the Aleppo church leader.

Immense suffering has been caused in the rebel-held region where, according to UN estimates, over 250,000 people currently live. It is right that attention is drawn to this. But there is a tendency for the Western media to tell only part of the story, implying that the government-held region, which houses at least 1.2 million people, is largely unaffected when this is simply not the case.

Several expert commentators are calling into question the narrative being spread by Western media about the nature of the unrest in Syria. Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Aid, said “The Christian community in Syria is already suffering as a result of the unrest there and this will surely only intensify in the event of Western-backed military intervention. Christians in the West should not stand by and allow their governments to destroy Syria – and the Syrian Church – in pursuit of their own political interests in the region. I urge Christians not to accept blindly all the mainstream media reports about this conflict but to read for themselves the carefully considered arguments of dissenting voices.

And it is not just the Western Media’s coverage of Syria that the Barnabas Fund is concerned about. Regarding the case of Aasia Bibi, in Pakistan, they write:

However, what is equally disturbing is the reporting of this case in much of the Western press. In some countries, major national newspapers and TV simply did not cover the story at all. In those which did, rather than explaining why Aasia Bibi and hundreds of other Christians have suffered under the “blasphemy laws”, some Western media twisted themselves in contortions to avoid making any link between Islam and Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which specifies a death penalty for defiling the name of Muhammad.


And it is not just the Barnabas Fund that is concerned. There’s Amnesty International.

According to the  Parliamentary report on Britain’s military involvement in Libya in 2011, and in particular, the part that reads

“An Amnesty International investigation in June 2011 could not corroborate allegations of mass human rights violations by Gaddafi regime troops. However, it uncovered evidence that rebels in Benghazi made false claims and manufactured evidence. The investigation concluded that: “much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge.”

And journalists are also concerned. Patrick Cockburn, an award-winning journalist recently described as “the best western journalist at work in Iraq today”, last month wrote: “The extreme bias shown in foreign media coverage of similar events in Iraq and Syria will be a rewarding subject for PhDs students looking at the uses and abuses of propaganda down the ages.

Government and the media

One thing particularly concerns me. I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it.

“It is worth noticing that Western media were biased in exactly the same direction as their governments. That raises an interesting question: “Were Western governments unduly influenced by the biased media, or was the media coverage biased because the media did not want to be out of step with the politically powerful, or was there a general bias in Western countries which affected both media and governments?”

Gareth Porter, a veteran reporter and historian, seems to simply assume that most of the mass media in America is closely aligned with the political establishment.  Hence, in one recent article on Syria he says

“In fact, most of the news media, think tank specialists on the Middle East, and the Democratic Party political elite aligned with Hillary Clinton, now lean toward treating al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate as a strategic asset rather than a security threat.”

In another, he writes

“Could senior Obama administration officials have been unaware that a war to overthrow Assad would inevitably become an enormous sectarian bloodbath? By August 2012 a US Defense Intelligence Agency report intelligence warned that “events are taking a clear sectarian direction,” and that the “the “Salafist[s], Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq]” were “the major forces driving the insurgency”. Furthermore, the Obama administration already knew by then that the external Sunni sponsors of the war against Assad were channeling their money and arms to the most sectarian groups in the field. But the administration did nothing to pressure its allies to stop it. In fact, it actually wove its own Syria policy around the externally fuelled war by overwhelmingly sectarian forces. And no one in the US political-media elite raised the issue.”

When Porter talks about the “political-media elite”, he is saying that the political elite and the media elite are so close to each other that they are basically one.  And he knows what he is talking about. He has been reporting and writing about current events for over 40 years.

Another startling insight comes from veteran journalist Michael Cieply, who left The New York Times this year after 12 years as a reporter and editor there. What he says about the New York Times is very interesting.

For starters, it’s important to accept that the New York Times has always — or at least for many decades — been a far more editor-driven, and self-conscious, publication than many of those with which it competes. Historically, the Los Angeles Times, where I worked twice, for instance, was a reporter-driven, bottom-up newspaper. Most editors wanted to know, every day, before the first morning meeting: “What are you hearing? What have you got?”

It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.” We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line.

Reality usually had a way of intervening. But I knew one senior reporter who would play solitaire on his computer in the mornings, waiting for his editors to come through with marching orders. Once, in the Los Angeles bureau, I listened to a visiting National staff reporter tell a contact, more or less: “My editor needs someone to say such-and-such, could you say that?

The bigger shock came on being told, at least twice, by Times editors who were describing the paper’s daily Page One meeting: “We set the agenda for the country in that room.”

Another veteran journalist, Eric Margolis, is even blunter.

The great Mark Twain wrote early in the 20th century: ‘if you don’t read newspapers you are uninformed. But if you do read them, you are misinformed.’ Amen. As with the 2003 war against Iraq, the US media totally dropped its mask of phony impartiality and became a cheerleader for the Clintons and their financial backers. Media was clearly revealed as a propaganda organ for the ruling elite. No wonder its disgusted clients are decamping to online sources or just ignoring the biased media.

It is not just the Barnabas Fund and Amnesty International. Experienced journalists are openly sceptical about and critical of the western media.

The bigger issue

And Eric Margolis, in quoting Mark Twain’s comment that “if you read the newspapers, you are misinformed”, raises an important issue. Today, if you live in the west (or, indeed, almost anywhere in the world), there is a very good chance that you either read a daily newspaper or watch the news on TV or listen to it on radio. For many people, this is a daily ritual – and is, indeed, seen as a duty.  And this ritual has a big effect on the way that those who practice it see the world – which means that it has a big effect on the way they think about everything.

That marks a major change that has taken place over the last 200 years. For most of history, this didn’t happen. The fact that it happens today means that the mass media has huge influence. And Cieply’s comments about the New York Times having a “narrative” and seeking to run stories that fit a “pre-designated line” and “setting the agenda for the country” are particularly interesting.

Now, one might say “Well, that’s just the New York Times – there are a lot of newspapers, TV channels and radio stations. I can choose the Guardian or Telegraph, the BBC or ITV.”

But look again at what the Barnabas Fund, and Amnesty International, and Patrick Cockburn and Gareth Porter and Eric Margolis said. They spoke about “the media” as if it was one entity. And the problem is that on many matters, the western mass media does speak with one voice. And that one voice is often seriously misleading. Yes, you can find the truth if you look around – there are journalists who are telling it – and they are sometimes published in mainstream publications – but you have to look hard. And sadly, the mainstream media is often seriously misleading on some of the biggest and most important issues of the day.  And if the mainstream media does have a big effect on how we see the world and how we think about things, then that is a BIG problem.

And that is one of the reasons that I blog.

I blog to warn people about the dangers of trusting the mass media. I blog to try to get the truth out there. I blog to try to get stories out there that people are not hearing.

Am I biased? Perhaps. But I try to be as balanced as I can and to give both sides of the story. In the darkness, I try to shine a light.

And there is some good news. “There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” (Luke 8:17) One day, the truth will come out. All of it.

But in the meantime, I intend to try to do what I can to make at least some of it known.

Trump, Brexit and Babel

History seems to be repeating itself. When I got up on the morning of the 24th of June, I fully expected that the main news headline was going to be that the UK had voted to remain in the EU. To my surprise, I discovered that it had voted to leave.

When I got up on the 9th of November, I fully expected that the main news headline would be that Hillary Clinton had been elected President of the USA. To my surprise, I discovered that, while the counting of votes was still going on, it looked like Donald Trump would be elected – and shortly afterwards, it was confirmed that he was.


My expectations had been based on opinion polls and the forecasts of experts. In both cases, they turned out to be wrong. But the similarity between the two votes does not end there. Not only were both results unexpected – but both results got similar reactions. In both cases, there was fear and horror – and not just in America. Throughout Europe, there has been widespread apprehension, even among children.

And the similarities go on. Donald Trump supported Brexit; Nigel Farage of UKIP supported Trump. Just as ethnic minorities were much less likely than whites to support Brexit, they were also much less likely to support Trump. Just as rural voters were much more likely to support Brexit than urban voters, they were also much more likely to support Trump. Similarly, support for both Brexit and Trump came disproportionately from older voters, and from voters with less formal education.  And one could continue (see, for example Glenn Greenwald’s recent article).

And for that reason, the people who were fearful about Brexit tend to be almost exactly the same people that are fearful about Trump.

The difference

There is, however, an important difference between Britain’s decision to leave the EU, and America’s election of Donald Trump as President.

Suppose that Donald Trump had been elected, not as President of the USA, but as president of Senegal, or Sri Lanka, or Suriname. Or, since Trump is not a citizen of those countries, suppose that someone from one of those countries who was exactly like Trump was elected president. My guess is that the reaction in America and Europe would be pretty muted. Indeed, it probably would not be reported widely in the media, and few people would have been aware of it. But even if it did receive media coverage, and people knew about it, I suspect that few people would be worried. And the reason for that is that Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Suriname are small countries whose rulers have little impact beyond their borders.

The reason that people are apprehensive, or even terrified, by the prospect of a Trump presidency, is that, by virtue of being president of America, Trump will be the world’s most powerful man. The decisions of American presidents have enormous impact outside America – for good or ill.

And that is the case for two reasons.

First, America is an enormously powerful nation. A quick google indicates that while American has less than 5% of the world’s population, its military spending accounts for 34% of the world’s total. America currently has troops on active duty stationed in 150 countries around the world. And under the presidency of Barack Obama, America bombed seven different countries.   As president, Trump will have a lot of firepower under his control.

meme presidential power.jpg

The second reason that Trump, as president of America, will be enormously powerful, is simply that America gives a large amount of power to its president. In 1973, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote a book entitled The Imperial Presidency out of his concerns that a) the US presidency was uncontrollable and b) it had exceeded the constitutional limits.

Is Schlesinger right?  Not everyone thinks so.  The American political system has checks and balances built into it.  However, there is no doubt that the American president does, personally, wield considerable power – and the fact that a lot of knowledgeable and intelligent people are very concerned about Trump’s election, suggests that perhaps there are not enough checks and balances in the system, and that the president does have too much power.

The obvious solution is for America to amend its laws so that less power is vested in the hands of the president. Clip Trump’s wings, and there is much less to be scared of.

Make America great again???

But there is another answer to the problem. A much more radical answer. It is about the fact that America is an enormously powerful nation. This is something that most Americans think is a good thing. The fact that America is the most powerful nation on the face of the earth is a source of much pride to many Americans – and also gives them a sense of security. But whether it should be a source of pride to them, and whether it gives them real security is extremely questionable.

And this brings us back to Brexit. In May, concerning Britain’s referendum on leaving the EU, I wrote:

I think that a lot of people are attracted to the idea of being part of a large union because it feels ‘safer’ – remaining outside feels risky. This way of thinking believes that big is good – or at least that it is good to be part of something big – that a united Europe would be secure and strong in the big wide world out there.

I have to confess that I am uneasy with that view. In my opinion, the worst possible political arrangement for the world is a world with one central government exercising political control of the entire planet. It simply concentrates far too much power in one place. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And it seems to me that the second worst option is a world divided into a small handful of powerful blocks. Again, far too much power would be concentrated in only a handful of places. What I would prefer to see is a large number of independent countries – the more the merrier. That would share power out, and provide diversity instead of uniformity.

And that is basically why I would like to see Britain leaving the EU.


And I referred to the Biblical account of the building of the Tower of Babel, and in particular to words of the builders of the tower:

Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth. ”

God clearly did not believe that this unity project was a good idea:

The LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.”

The words “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” suggest that God did not think this huge amount of (political) power concentrated in one place was a good thing. And so he scattered them over the face of all the earth – in other words, into many smaller political units.

America, Trump, and Brexit

Which brings us back to America, and to Donald Trump.

If the country that Donald Trump was about to become president of was Senegal, Sri Lanka or Suriname, I think most of us would be a bit more comfortable. Part of the problem is that too much of the world’s power is concentrated in one country.

I supported Brexit because I believe that the EU is concentrating too much political power in one place. If that is true of the EU, it is even more true of the USA. It seems to me that America, to put it bluntly, is too powerful for its own good, and the good of the world.

The reason that I am concerned at seeing Donald Trump becoming President of the United States of America is precisely the reason that I supported Britain leaving the European Union.

Syria 3: Motes, Beams, and Russians

In my first two articles on Syria, I looked at the civil war in Syria, and in particular, the role played by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and America.

In this article, I want to look at the role played by Russia in the Aleppo area in recent weeks, and at the West’s response to it.

The battle for Aleppo began on 19 July 2012. Aleppo had, until that point, been largely unaffected by the war – but from that point on, the battle there has raged fairly continuously, broken only by sporadic ceasefires.

Russia had been a long-standing ally of the Syrian government, but was not militarily involved in the war until September, 2015, when it launched air strikes against ISIS and other rebel forces. It soon became involved in the battle for Aleppo, but it was not until September this year that its actions there started raising serious concerns – with western governments (notably those of America, Britain and France) criticising its actions, and suggesting that Russia may be guilty of war crimes. The US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said “What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism. It is barbarism. History will not look kindly on security council members who stay silent in the face of this carnage.” And that narrative has been well publicised by the Western media.

And it seems that Russian actions in Aleppo (and Syria in general), are, indeed, pretty bad. According to Chris Woods, the director of Monitoring group Airwars, “everything we understand about the way Russia is behaving shows they are deliberately targeting civilians, civilian infrastructure.”

The big question

The big question is “What about the Western powers that are criticising Russia?”

A recent Guardian article begins: “A Labour party spokesman has suggested there is too much focus on Russian atrocities in Syria, which “sometimes diverts attention from other atrocities that are taking place”, and highlighted killings by the US-led coalition. The remarks implied the casualties were comparable, and that coalition attacks had been ignored by politicians, rights groups and the media in the west, ” and asks “What are the facts?”

It tells us that

Airwars has recorded 3,600 civilian deaths caused by Russian bombing raids since they joined the Syrian conflict just over a year ago, a number Woods described as an “absolute minimum”. In contrast, the coalition has caused nearly 900 civilian deaths over 26 months of bombing, 19 acknowledged by the coalition itself and another 858 recorded by monitoring groups.

It also tells us that

The Violations Documentation Centre said just more than 147,000 civilians had been killed between the start of the war in 2011 and 11 October. It only attributes deaths with clear evidence so not all are accounted for, but its records hold the Syrian government and affiliated militia responsible for 92,000 civilian deaths, Russian forces for 3,412, Syrian opposition fighters, excluding Isis, for 2,470, and Isis for 3,078. It attributes 768 to the international coalition.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights had a higher toll than the VDC, but similar ratios. It said that by the end of December 2015, government forces had killed more than 187,000 civilians, armed opposition groups nearly 3,500, Russian forces 2,585, Isis 2,503 and coalition airstrikes 627. “

In short, the Guardian tells us that the vast majority of civilian deaths have been caused by Syrian government forces, and that Russia has killed far more civilians in Syria than the American-led coalition.  It thereby implicitly concludes that attention is not being diverted away from other atrocities, that there is not too much focus on Russian atrocities in Syria, and that coalition attacks were not being ignored by politicians, rights groups and the media in the west.

However . . .

However, there are some things that need to be remembered.

1) If this is about civilian deaths and civilian suffering, then these statistics show that it is a matter of degree, not kind. The fact that the Russians are guilty of killing some three thousand civilians in Syria is a serious matter, because killing civilians in war is a serious matter. But the fact that the American-led coalition has killed several hundred is also serious. If the Russians are to be condemned because of the suffering they have caused in Syria, so is the coalition.

2) If you include the whole Middle East over the past 15 years, the US government (with its western partners) has caused far more civilian deaths – & civilian suffering – than the Russian government. Iraq Body Count estimates that the American-led coalition has directly killed over 16,000 civilians in Iraq since the beginning of 2003.

But it also has to be said that since the Iraq war began with an unprovoked invasion by an American-led coalition, there is a sense in which the invading forces are responsible for all civilian deaths in Iraq – and that is at least 167,000 people, according to Iraq Body Count. And if you add over 20,000 civilians killed in the civil war in Afghanistan that was sparked off by the 2001 invasion, then Putin’s total in Syria looks tiny.

And then there is the matter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – not to mention Dresden. We don’t know the exact number of civilians killed in these bombings, but it could total a quarter of a million people. If the Russian government is guilty of war crimes because it has killed 3000 civilians in Aleppo, what does that say about the Allied governments in 1945?

3) The criticism of Russian action in Aleppo is not, however, just about the total number of civilian casualties It is also about whether civilian targets are being deliberately attacked. This is always difficult to prove. What, for example, does one make of the 17th September 2016 Deir ez-Zor air raid, in which the American-led coalition bombed Syrian government forces who were in a battle with ISIS, thus enabling ISIS to over-run government-held positions?

The coalition stated that the attacks were a mistake, but the Russian and Syrian governments have been sceptical. president Putin, nearly a month after the attack, said in an interview with French television:

Our American colleagues told us that this airstrike was made in error. This error cost the lives of 80 people and, also just coincidence, perhaps, ISIS took the offensive immediately afterwards. At the same time, lower down the ranks, at the operations level, one of the American military service personnel said quite frankly that they spent several days preparing this strike. How could they make an error if they were several days in preparation?

If the American-led coalition could make such a basic error in fairly straight-forward terrain in a sparsely populated area, how does one know that the Russians were deliberately hitting civilian targets in the much more messy situation of Eastern Aleppo?

4) Why are the US & UK governments talking about war crimes in Aleppo, but have been completely silent on Saudi bombing of civilian targets in Yemen (see my article). In fact, they have not just been completely silent on the subject; they have been assisting the Saudi Air Force in its bombing, and trying to ensure that the Saudi bombing doesn’t get too much scrutiny.

5) Who got Aleppo into this mess in the first place? While the blame does not lie with just one party, we need to remember (see my previous article) that the American government, by actively seeking to destabilise the Syrian government before the civil war began, was partly responsible for the outbreak of the war.

We also need to remember that from the early days of the war (2011), before the fighting reached Aleppo, the American government and its allies (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey) were involved in supporting and supplying rebel militias. The Russian government did not intervene militarily until 2015. It looks pretty strange that America and its allies stirred up conflict in Syria, helped to get a war started, supported (directly or indirectly) Islamist militias seeking to overthrow the government, and are now complaining about what Russia is doing.


In short, it seems to me that the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1-5) are appropriate here:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a beam in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

That, it seems to me, describes the behaviour of the British and American governments. Indeed, it seems to me that they have more Middle Eastern blood on their hands than the Russian government. And it also seems to me that such is the affect of the beam in their own eyes that they are utterly incapable of seeing their hypocrisy.  (Of course, that’s just human nature, and our politicians are only human, but one should hope for better.)

And I am not the only one who thinks so. Gareth Porter, a prize-winning veteran investigative journalist, comes to exactly the same conclusion. He looks at the whole mess in a recent devastating article and ends by saying: “Heavy bombing in a city is inherently fraught with moral risk, and attacks on genuine civilian targets can never be excused. But such practices have been carried out and legitimised in the past by the very government that is now claiming the role of moral and legal arbiter. That hypocrisy needs to be recognised and curbed as well.”

And the media?

So let’s come back to the Guardian article. As I say, it implicitly concludes

a) that attention is not being diverted away from other atrocities,

b) that there is not too much focus on Russian atrocities in Syria, and

c) that coalition attacks were not being ignored by politicians, rights groups and the media in the west.

I am not so sure.

I think it is right to turn the spotlight on Russian actions in Syria. Is there too much focus on them? In one sense, no – there is probably not enough focus on them – if you are comparing them with some of the complete trivia that fills news broadcasts and newspapers. But if you are comparing them with the virtual silence about what Saudi Arabia has been doing in Yemen, and the way that America has been supporting Islamist militants in Syria, the attention given to Russian actions in Syria seems strange.

And hence it can be said that attention has been diverted away from other atrocities, and coalition actions are being ignored by most politicians, most of the media, and many human rights groups.

And there is an obvious bit of evidence for this.  While I do hear people talking about Russia’s bombing in Aleppo (which only started less than two months ago) I have never heard anyone mentioning Saudi bombing of Yemen, which has been going on for a year and a half.  Not once.  And that is because of the Western media.

And Gareth Porter also highlights this failure of the media – albeit fairly gently: “The Russian-Syrian bombing campaign in eastern Aleppo, which has ended at least for the time being, has been described in press reports and op-eds as though it were unique in modern military history in its indiscriminateness.”   And of course, that is something that is obviously just not true.  It is far from unique.  In Porter’s words, “such practices have been carried out and legitimised in the past by the very government that is now claiming the role of moral and legal arbiter.

In other words, the problem is not just with Western governments. It is also with the Western media.  And in some ways, that is the really scary thing.