Christian groups have reacted in vastly different ways in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks – many offering empathy and support, others warning darkly of an Islamic threat. In part two of our series ‘God in the Time of Terror’, Tony Wall reports on some evangelicals who believe they’re in a spiritual battle.
When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wore a hijab and spoke in Arabic during a Muslim call to prayer in Hagley Park a week after the deadly mosque attacks, the world saw a strong, compassionate leader sending a message of inclusion and tolerance.
Pastor Ross Smith just saw red.
To Smith, a motorbike-riding pentecostal preacher, this was the leader of a western country essentially asking people to “bow down” to Allah and embrace a dangerous ideology.
It might seem paranoid, but Smith and other conservative evangelicals see this as the first step on a road that leads to the “deletion” of the Christian God, the rise of Islamic radicals and eventually the implementation of Sharia law in New Zealand.
“Do we want to go down that track? Because that’s the reality of the hardcore side of that ideology,” says Smith, pastor of Wellington’s Celebration Church.
He says it’s time for Christians to get political.
“I think it’s a wake-up call. The church has been quiet for too long.”
After the mosque attacks, churches of various denominations around the country made symbolic gestures of support, invited Muslims to pray with them and gave money.
Examples included Mormons inviting imams to speak at conferences; the All Souls Church in Merivale, Christchurch, laying out 50 pairs of painted white shoes to represent each victim of the massacres; the Tauranga Central Baptist Church including an Arabic greeting on its billboard and the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Ponsonby, Auckland inviting Muslims from the mosque across the road to pray with them.
But some of the more fundamentalist branches of Christianity reacted angrily to all this outpouring of support for Islam.
Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki tweeted his objection to the national broadcast of the call to prayer, saying “this is offensive to all true Christians … our national identity is at stake”.
Destiny’s senior Christchurch pastor, Derek Tait, was photographed comforting a Muslim man at the peace vigil in Hagley Park on March 22 – a month later he led a crowd of people who gathered opposite the Al Noor Masjid, scene of the deadliest massacre, and loudly proclaimed Christchurch a Christian city.
Tait told Stuff at the time the gathering was not inappropriate, “because in that very same place the decree was put out by our Prime Minister and the Muslim community to declare that Allah is the one true God, which I emphatically disagree with”.
The idea that Ardern was somehow declaring New Zealand an Islamic nation by having the call to prayer broadcast on state TV and radio was shared widely in conservative Christian circles. It seems to be based on the words of the call itself.
The call, or adhan, recites that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger, one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
Ardern’s office says all decisions she made in the aftermath of March 15 “were in the intention to show respect for the Muslim community during a time of grief”.
That’s not good enough for the conspiracy theorists.
In the days and weeks after the massacres, Carl Bromley, a pro-Trump, pro-gun pastor with the Life Connection Baptist Fellowship in Christchurch, was busy on social media.
His Facebook page filled with posts about attacks on Christians by Muslims in Nigeria (which he claims went ignored by the media), criticism of moves to tighten gun control, outrage at calls to drop the name of the Crusaders rugby team and numerous links to articles on an anti-Muslim conspiracy blog.
“Those who drive Christianity out of society are paving the way for Islam,” he wrote.
Bromley declined an in-person interview but says by email there is a “huge discrepancy” between the concern expressed over the Christchurch attacks, which were “heinous and evil”, and attacks on Christians overseas.
He says he read the gunman’s manifesto before it was banned and believes his motives have been misrepresented.
“If it wasn’t for our neo-socialist government banning the … manifesto, any thinking person could have read that the issue was about immigration and not Muslims.
“With access to facts being suppressed the powers that be are free to make the incident [about] ‘Muslims’ and ‘Islam’ rather than ‘immigration in general’.”
In fact, the alleged gunman’s manifesto, officially classified as objectionable by the Chief Censor, is full of diatribes against Islam and states that creating an atmosphere of fear among Muslims is one of his aims.
In addition, as he drove to the first mosque the alleged gunman played a song idolising Radovan Karadžić, who was jailed for genocide against Bosnian Muslims. Inscriptions on his rifles referenced Charles Martel, who is hailed by white supremacists for defeating an invading Muslim force in 732.
Every one of the gunman’s 51 victims was Muslim, killed at places of worship on their most important day of prayer, jumah.
But in Bromley’s conspiracy world view, the Government is using the actions of a “psychopath” to promote and advance Islam.
It’s a theme pastor Peter Mitchell of Radikal Kingdom Ministries International in Queensland echoes.
In a widely shared Facebook post, Mitchell called on Ardern to stand down for “forcing … by strong suggestion” New Zealanders to “submit” to the Islamic call to prayer.
“I am getting a little sick of you as the PM and the media using Islam as a race card,” he wrote.
It’s not just fringe preachers who allege hypocrisy in the reaction to March 15 – broadcaster Leighton Smith wrote a column for the New Zealand Herald titled ‘The War on Christianity’, in which he lamented what he saw as a subdued reaction from world leaders to the Sri Lanka church bombings compared to Christchurch.
This is all part of a “rumbling undercurrent of nervousness” – especially within conservative Christian groups – about the way Islam has been portrayed post-March 15, says Professor Peter Lineham, an expert in religious history.
“There seemed to be a fear around that Muslims were taking advantage of the sympathy and were in some way profiting from it and as a result greatly improving their status within New Zealand.”
Because these conservatives have felt that everything they say gets criticised, Lineham says, they haven’t taken kindly to Muslims being in public favour.
“They have felt at the edge of quite a degree of public hostility, especially as a result of LGBT issues and so they’ve felt pushed to the boundary, when a group they regard as a real threat … [has been embraced].”
Dr Geoff Troughton, religious studies director at Victoria University, says this small group of Christians is involved in what they see as a spiritual battle.
“There are some groups who have been very concerned about what they perceive as a public acknowledgement given to Islam – they are concerned that … it’s a rival for hearts and minds.”
The recitation of Koranic verses in Parliament was a big deal to these groups, Troughton says.
An imam was invited to deliver a prayer in Arabic – the first time Parliament had opened to a Muslim prayer – on the Tuesday after the attacks.
As is normal after any major incident in which there is significant loss of life, party leaders gave statements about the Christchurch attacks; Ardern started her speech with “Al salam Alaikum — peace be upon you”.
Troughton says to some Christians, this was not merely symbolic.
“[They believe] it’s spiritually potent actions … that activate spiritual powers that they believe are malign or not working in the nation’s interests.”
Ross Smith was furious about the Muslim prayer in Parliament, particularly given that Jesus’ name was removed from the Parliamentary prayer last year.
He founded the group Jesus for NZ, aimed at having the name restored. He says even some Muslim leaders agree with him on the issue because they see the removal of Christ’s name as diminishing God.
“I don’t hate Muslims, it’s the ideology I don’t like,” Smith says.
He repeatedly quotes Lebanese-American author Brigitte Gabriel, whose anti-Muslim statements are popular with the alt-right in America.
“As she said, the peaceful majority … are irrelevant, because it’s the radicals you have to watch for.
“You come back to the hard core element who will not stop until this nation is declared under the flag of Islam.”
Smith can provide no evidence for this claim; police and intelligence officials have said only a small number of people sympathetic to radical Islam are on their radar.
Gul Zaman, co-president of the Council of Christians and Muslims, says Smith is “in a dream world” if he thinks Muslims want to take over.
“My suggestion to him would be come and have a dialogue with a Muslim, have a conversation, sit down and talk.”
Zaman says Islam is peaceful, but like all religions it has a history of war and political conflict and there are some “nasty characters”.
New Zealand Christians on the whole have been very supportive of Muslims, he says.
“After 9-11, after the London bombings, some people threw stones at our mosques and … the church groups came in support of us immediately.
“After the Christchurch incident, we still have that good, friendly, loving reaction from all the church groups. Everybody opened their hearts.”
The religions can co-exist, Zaman says.
“The root of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is the same – it comes from Abraham.
“There are a lot of similarities in the scriptures. Islam has a whole chapter on Jesus Christ and his mother Mary, we respect them as prophets.”
Smith rejects the suggestion that his claims about an “Islamic threat” constitute hate speech of the very type that motivated the Christchurch gunman.
“I don’t think it’s insensitive to talk about these issues … we’re talking about ideologies.
“We sympathise with the people … we have compassion, that’s a gimme. I think it’s probably the perfect time to talk about it.”
Smith says he would like to read the gunman’s manifesto and objects to it being banned.
People should be able to choose whether to read it, he says.
“Otherwise we have the powers that be telling us about this guy from their own perspective/agenda, which may or may not be the whole truth.”
To Smith, Ardern and other leaders are sending confusing messages.
“She’s already said there was no Christian foundation in this nation, which is rubbish … there she is wearing the [hijab] and expecting everyone to bow to Allah. What are we expected to do?”
Smith notes that many Christians posted the national anthem after March 15.
“It’s very timely – God defend New Zealand. We don’t want more of this stuff.
“We don’t want Muslims hurting people – they’re not doing it in this nation – we don’t want white supremacists doing it either, we don’t want anyone doing it.
“So God defend New Zealand – it was a written as a prayer, I think it’s a fantastic anthem.”
* This story is the second in a four-part series examining the reaction of the Christian community to the terror attack at two Christchurch mosques on March 15. Other stories in the series include reports on: members of the South West Baptist Church in Christchurch, who helped victims of the mosque attacks; an Auckland suburb where the two religions live side by side; a retired minister who has spent much of his life fostering Christian-Muslim relations