Tuesday, 24 January 2006

Knights of Saint Edmund: religious hatred and terrorism

Reconstituted, the Knights of Saint Edmund are engaged in a quest to "defend" Bury St. Edmund's "from the most sinister threat to the town for almost a thousand years". With Bury St. Edmund's and Portsmouth councils and within the Miller Group, Centros Miller are subjecting Bury Cattle Market to "retail developments". They're "redeveloping" the cattle-market as a shopping centre built around a Debenhams super store.

A friend informed me of these knights who say "no". The Knights of St. Edmund declare that, among other things, they aim "to protect and promote St Edmund's rights and liberties including those of his Borough, Abbey church and Shrine", "to safeguard the rights and privileges of all of St Edmund's freemen and other persons within the Borough and Liberty of St Edmund" and "to preserve the ancient and sacred town of Bury St Edmund and the Liberty of St Edmund".

I share their concerns, particularly, the concern "to protect and promote the natural, cultural, religious, historical and archaeological treasures" (though I have an instinctive dislike of the term "treasures", because of its associations with pots of gold).

The curse has been invoked against the Miller Group because, "in the face of overwhelming local opposition", their shopping development will "fundamentally alter the character and lay-out of the town".

Around 869 C.E., Edmund became a martyr when people identified as Vikings executed him for being an unyielding Christian; by the end of the Ninth Century C.E., his burial site a place of pilgrimage and his miraculous powers felt by those pilgrims, Edmund had achieved sainthood.

The Knights of Saint Edmund have vowed that "his intercontinental strike-capacity for divine revenge... will be unleashed" by them, "against those who would despoil his town and rob his people", unless they "unconditionally withdraw all their plans for redeveloping the cattle-market site" and promise "never [to] set foot in Bury St Edmunds again". They finish with the chilling prayer, "may the Lord God have mercy upon their souls".

Worryingly, the Knights of St. Edmund could be liable to prosecution under the UK's Terrorism Act 2000 or (hypothetically under) the UK Government's Terrorism Bill 2005, as their vow (their "use or threat of action"), as required by the 2000 act,
  • "is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public" and
  • "is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause", and
their action (the curse) could be one that
  • "involves serious violence against a person",
  • "involves serious damage to property",
  • "endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action",
  • "creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public"
  • "is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system".
So, they could, too, be (hypothetically) liable to prosecution under the 2005 bill, because when a Knight "publishes a statement or causes another to publish a statement on his behalf", "he (sic) knows or believes" or "he (sic) has reasonable grounds for believing" that Centros Miller may be "likely to understand it as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism or Convention offences" (though I'm not quite sure what the legal status of a saint is).

Under the UK Government's Race and Religious Hatred Bill 2005, however, where "religious hatred" means "hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief", Knights could be deemed to have committed "offences involving stirring up hatred against persons on religious grounds", when they stated that,
  • "in an attempt to prevent the desecration of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, one of England's most historic towns, the Knights of St Edmund have decided to unleash a 1,000 year old curse against Centros Miller Ltd., Miller group and Debenhams"; and that
  • "on St Edmund's day, the 20th November 2005, a formal and public cursing ceremony [took place] at Bury St Edmunds to once again summon the avenging saint and dread King to punish his 21st century enemies".
This is particularly true given they warn that St. Edmund's "top ten hits" include:
  • victims who were "sent mad" or "driven mad";
  • a victim who was "killed"
  • a victim whose "house was burnt down";
  • a victim who was "struck blind until he repented";
  • a victim who "ended up with paralysis in the hand for his lack of faith";
  • a victim who was "struck with madness until he repented and [sought] healing at the shrine";
  • a victim who "died a terrible death eaten up inside by worms and begging forgiveness at Cambridge castle";
  • victims who were "destroyed by the Knight's of St Edmund for attacking the saint's property" (Johnston 1981: 172 n100); and
  • a victim who "die[d] c.1547 raving mad and eaten away by syphilis".
Nevertheless, the Knights argue that they are the victims, as they have been "subjected to virulent sectarian bigotry and targeted in an onslaught of unprecedented anti-Christian hatred by St Edmundsbury Borough Council, its councillors, officials and contractors".

On the evidence that I've seen, I believe that I support the Race and Religious Hatred Bill, despite Paul Kingsnorth's arguments for freedom of expression (where he renders the bill one to criminalise those who "publicly express distate of stupid beliefs"), as I'm not convinced that the abuses of the law would succeed or outweigh its just application (all law, after all, may be subjected to abuse).

The UK's Public Order Act 1986, upon which it was built, focuses upon "unlawful violence"; it does criminalise "threatening, abusive or insulting" language, but even then only when it is deployed "with intent to cause that person to believe that immediate unlawful violence will be used against him or another by any person, or to provoke the immediate use of unlawful violence by that person or another, or whereby that person is likely to believe that such violence will be used or it is likely that such violence will be provoked".

P.S. I'd like to apologise to whomsoever of the Knights or their followers came after the Technorati link; when, long ago, I started to toy around with this post, I once hit "publish post", rather than "save as draft" and the link has been waiting for (re)publication ever since.
P.P.S. There's only one Swarb and it's not the solicitor!

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