The unlawful arrest of a Christian street preacher in London has drawn attention to the continuing use of hate speech laws to silence Christians in multicultural Britain—even as incendiary speech by Muslim extremists is routinely ignored.
On February 23, Oluwole Ilesanmi, a 64-year-old Nigerian evangelist known as Preacher Olu, was arrested at Southgate Station in North London after complaints that his message about Jesus was “Islamophobic.” A video of the arrest, viewed more than two million times, shows how two police officers ordered the man to stop preaching because “nobody wants to listen to that,” confiscated his Bible and then arrested him for “a breach of peace.”
The video was filmed by Ambrosine Shitrit, co-founder of Eye on Antisemitism, a London-based organization that tracks anti-Semitism on social media. Shortly before Ilesanmi’s arrest, Shitrit had seen him interacting with another man, who turned out to be a Muslim. She thought the Muslim was about to assault Ilesanmi when she went over and started filming with her phone. When the police arrived in response to an emergency call, the Muslim man left the scene.
The video shows Ilesanmi pleading with police, “Don’t take my Bible away. Don’t take my Bible away.” An officer responded: “You should have thought about that before being racist.” A popular blogger known as Archbishop Cranmer tweeted what many people doubtless felt: “Dear @metpoliceuk, Setting aside the appalling ignorance of these two officers, would you handle a copy of the Qur’an like that?”
Ilesanmi said that after he was searched, the police drove him to a remote area before “de-arresting him.” In Britain, “de-arrest” is a legal term which means that no crime has been committed. Since then, London police have changed their story about what transpired; some have accused the police of staging a cover-up.
When journalist Marcus Jones of Premier Christian Radio asked the Met Police whether they agreed that Ilesanmi had been driven away to a remote location, the Met Police expressly denied it. In an email exchange, they said that Ilesanmi was escorted “approximately 200 meters away, de-arrested and shown to a nearby bus stop.”
This, as it turns out, was a lie. The post includes a sickeningly long list of Christian street preachers being placed in chokey on all sorts of specious pretexts. As a Christian myself, I’ll say upfront that I’m not overly enamored of street preachers myself; I was raised in a more modest, quiet denomination (FUMC) that held such public proselytizing to be rude, intrusive, and inappropriate. The theory was that, while not specifically forbidden, for most people it was at best off-putting, which rendered it ultimately ineffectual. Yes, bearing witness and sharing one’s faith is an important part of Christianity. But there is a proper time and place for that sort of thing, which might not be in the middle of a busy city sidewalk, among the jostling, already-harried workaday crowd.
On the other hand, I happened across a street preacher in downtown Charlotte just the other day. He was a disheveled, dirty, homeless-looking guy crumpled on the sidewalk at 4th and Tryon, propped against a big handwritten sign. His marginally-coherent muttering in praise of Jesus, punctuated by the occasional shouted rant, was, umm, somewhat less than compelling, let’s say. Every now and then he would set down his battered Bible to pick up and rattle his beggar’s cup vigorously, soliciting a more temporal, earthly reward for his efforts.
But know what? I didn’t seek to have this unsightly, possibly ersatz Man Of The Cloth tossed into durance vile by the local gendarmerie. Nor was I overly discomfited or alarmed by his ghastly presence. I handled this transgression independently, without complication or undue fuss: I just kept walking on by. Sounds easy enough, right? Unfortunately, the Bobbies seem to feel differently about matters, wielding a much heavier hand in the pursuit of protecting London’s public spaces from encroachment by the abominable affliction of…Christianity.
It’s disgusting, despicable, and not a little alarming. But sadly, tragically even, it’s not shocking.