This is NOT the official weblog of Mark Thomas; this is a place to post his articles and news to bring them to a wider audience. This blog is in no way endorsed by the activist/comedian Mark Thomas. Most of the posts appeared on - hopefully they won't object to them being republished here.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Buying a priesthood

Whether I acted out of devilment, curiosity or perversity, I am not entirely sure, but the other day I became a priest. Some websites charge for the privilege of being ordained, but others do it for free. They even provide certificates. I am now legally entitled to minister in the US and can perform funerals, marriages and baptisms, though not, as my certificate points out, circumcision. Which is probably for the best, given my dearth of whittling skills.

Now, before the good, God-fearing readership of the New Statesman decides to get out the ducking stool, let me say that I reckon if Ian Paisley has got the right to put the academic and caring title "Doctor" in front of his name, then I have the right to put "Reverend" before mine.

It was only after becoming a priest that I realised some of the advantages, apart from the more obvious ones, such as getting free jam at fetes and no longer fearing lightning. As a priest, you can apply to have your home registered as a place of worship. Once again, the internet can provide you with all the documentation, for a small fee. Having one's home turned into a place of worship may not suit everyone. But it should be noted that places of worship are exempt from council tax. So the inconvenience of having to hold the odd service is soon outweighed by the savings incurred. Plus, you get to keep the collection.

Becoming a priest might not seem very fashionable, but it can provide opportunities for social change. For example, if lots of gay men were to become priests, they could form their own church and insist that heterosexual ministers have the right to be heterosexual, but must abstain from straight sexual practices. To be fair, though, the Catholic Church has already beaten them to this one.

The very basis of personal religious beliefs has to be that you believe in the one true God and that therefore, by default, everyone who has another god is second-rate heathen scum and will burn in the pits of hell. So if David Blunkett introduces his proposed law to make religious hatred illegal, we should all become priests, imams, rabbis or whatever. We could then be as rude as we liked about everyone's religion safe in the knowledge that we were merely engaging in theological debate. We could even swap religions, choosing the imams' light robes for the summer months, then opting for the warmth of the brazier-loving Zoroastrians as winter draws in.

The proposed law is pure electioneering.

In theory, it offers protection to the Muslim community, which just happens to be pissed off by the invasion of Iraq and the disproportionate use of "anti-terror" stop-and-searches. And on whose vote Labour can no longer count.

However, Blunkett is a rank amateur compared with President Bush. The latter's electioneering and his pandering to the Christian right in the US are in a different league. On his first day in office, Bush reintroduced the "global gag rule". This cuts off US foreign aid to any health clinic that mentions the word "abortion". No, not just clinics that perform abortions, but also those that mention them.

Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose note in their excellent book Bushwhacked that George Dubbya's next move came in July 2001. His task was simple: to find representatives for the US to sit on the World Health Organisation. So who did he pick from America's vast field of academics, diplomats and scientists who are experts on public health issues? Nobody. Bush chose Jeanne Head (previously employed by the anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee), Janice Shaw Crouse (of the conservative and evangelical Concerned Women for America) and John M Klink (a former Vatican negotiator).

In May 2002, at the UN, the US sided with Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Libya in an attempt to ban sex education for adolescents, basically saying that information about contraception and Aids should be given only to heterosexual married couples. The couples also must vow to have sex only for procreation, not to enjoy it, and to sing "Onward, Christian Soldiers" before, during and after the act. OK, that last sentence is untrue. But only just.

The US swiftly followed up by cutting $37m to global population projects - and then stopped its top scientists and academics from attending this month's International Aids Conference in Bangkok, Thailand.

All this is an attempt to buy the electoral support of Christian extremists in the US. For them, sex should occur only in marriage and anyone who veers from that righteous path should suffer the wrath of God. Yet, by constraining family planning clinics, denying information and undermining the message and practice of safe sex in those areas most at risk from the Aids virus, they have increased health risks globally - and ultimately increased the numbers who will die.

There are times when religious hatred should not be illegal, but compulsory.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Colombia's human rights activists

Greetings from Colombia, dear reader. You find me on an international solidarity delegation (called "The Caravan") to this fine and bloody country, blissfully unaware of any news from home. David Blunkett could have been caught cottaging but I neither know nor care at this moment in time.

The only television I have seen is the England results. Consequently, the only Spanish phrases I have learned are "David Beckham es un tronco pirobo" ("David Beckham is a fucking donkey") and "Celebremos que al menos Francia perdio" ("Cheer up, at least the French have lost").

In truth, I did take the precaution of learning one other phrase before I left for Colombia. Because I am travelling with a very large friend, I memorised "Dispara al gordo primero" ("Shoot the fat one first").

My friend Carlos told me a very famous Colombian football story. In Cacarica, near the border with Panama, there was a football match between the Colombian army, under the command of General Rito Alejo del Rio, and the right-wing paramilitaries.

That the paras and the army can play a friendly game of football shows the level of collaboration between the two forces.

All the local inhabitants were forced to watch this sporting fixture, where the head of the community leader, Marino Lopez, was used as the ball, having been removed from his torso by means of a chainsaw.

As if that were not enough, Lopez's family had to join the game and kick their dead father's head around the pitch. The entire community was then displaced and, staying with the sporting theme, forced to live in a basketball stadium for three years, from 1996-99.

According to the US administration of George W Bush, Colombia's human rights record is improving thanks to the country's president, Alvaro Uribe Velez. Surprisingly, many people here do not share that view.

Halfway through this trip, in a telephone interview with RTE in Ireland, a journalist asked me if I had "uncovered any human rights abuse". The question is absurd. It's like asking: "On your trip to Berlin in 1939, did you uncover any Nazis?"

In hot, fan-less trade union halls up and down the country, hundreds of people have queued up to give their testimony to The Caravan, which waits patiently to hear their stories of horror.

Some read dispassionately from prepared texts talking of disappearances and murder. Some hold back tears. Some don't. Some read with a calm fury. The atmosphere is a mixture of desperation and defiance.

Roughly 4,000 trade unionists have been assassinated by Colombia's right-wing paramilitaries since 1987. Now President Uribe points out that the murder rate for this year so far is down on the previous one. As if he has somehow moved the paras from piece rates to a fixed quota system.

In Bucaramanga, north of Bogota, EfraIn Guerrero, a prominent member of the food and drinks workers' union Sinaltrainal and an employee of Coca-Cola (Femsa), has witnessed this "improvement" in human rights at first hand. On 20 April, his sister-in-law and her entire family were shot by the paras as they slept. Their ten-year-old daughter survived by hiding under her bed. Just days before we arrived in Cali, on 22 June, a bodyguard for the metalworkers' union Sintrametal, Hugo Fernando Castillo Sanchez, and his wife, Diana Ximena Zuniga, were murdered in front of their four-year-old son at a fast-food drive-through - again, by paras.

None of these killings of family members, bodyguards and friends appears in the statistics. Neither do the mass arrests of trade unionists, nor the brutal attacks carried out by the police during the current oil workers' strike.

The human rights abuse seems about to increase as Uribe's neoliberal reforms privatise the entire country: neither he nor his forces will brook any dissent to this process.

Civil movements are as much a target as the unions. Student organisers are assassinated. Campaigners for the disappeared are disappeared. Even rappers singing songs of peace get death threats. And the anti-terror law has given the army more official powers than the US marines in Iraq.

The Colombian president's intentions are clearly seen in the amnesty he is offering the paras. On 1 July, he began a dialogue with them, commonly referred to as the "monologue". There are to be no trials for the beheaders, rapists, torturers and murderers. Instead, Uribe will officially forgive and forget. Yet there is no dialogue or forgiveness for the guerrillas (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army).

Heads might not be kicked around in public any more, but Colombia's violence against the poor is at crisis point.