By Bob Allen
The Baptist Union of Great Britain joined other faith groups in a letter reclaiming St. George’s Day, celebrated April 23, from right-wing group’s using England’s patron saint to promote Islamophobia and hatred.
“We want to promote a new, relaxed and confident, English national identity,” the statement said. “A place where a hijab is as welcome as bangers and mash, and no one is attacked for their race, religion (or lack thereof) or any other belief. (Bangers and mash is a traditional British dish made of mashed potatoes and sausages.)
“As patron saint for England, St. George is there for everyone living in England,” the faith groups proclaimed. “Too often he has been hijacked and used as a symbol of triumphalism and division by those on the extreme right. St George needs to take his rightful place as a national symbol of inclusivity rather than a symbol of hatred.”
St. George, a Roman soldier put to death for refusing to renounce his Christian faith 300 years after Jesus, has for centuries been venerated as England’s patron saint. His cross forms the English national flag. Images often depict him slaying a dragon, a legend brought back during the Crusades.
While the Crusaders used the Cross of St. George as a symbol, he actually lived before the birth of Islam. He is also revered in places such as Iraq, India, Lebanon, Palestine and Ethiopia. Many Muslims call him Al Khidr, a pre-Islamic prophet compared to Elijah.
While the historical St. George is remembered as a Christian martyr and defender of minority rights, the banner that bears his name came to be used as a symbol of military might against those who did not profess the Christian faith.
Some Muslims view the flag as a reflection of the Crusades and other atrocities, while far-right groups have claimed it as a symbol of a British version of nativism.
The English Defence League, a street protest movement that opposes what it sees as a spread of Islamic extremism and Sharia law and has voiced support for Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, displays the St. George cross prominently. The flag is also waved by the British National Party, an ultraconservative political group that won nearly a million votes and two seats in the 2009 European parliament elections.
The faith leaders said it is time to reclaim St. George as representing all English people and not a single ethnic group.
Their statement called on people of good will to join religious groups in “standing up against the hijacking of a national hero by those who promote Islamophobia, antisemitism and other forms of discrimination” and “opposing the modern ‘dragons’ of hatred and intolerance.”
“As the diverse people of England, we are comfortable with difference, and each other,” the statement said. “St. George’s Day is a time for highlighting harmony and peaceful national pride.”
Other signatories included the City Sikhs Network, Islamic Society of Britain and Faith Matters, a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 that works to reduce interfaith tensions and promote dialogue among Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jewish and Hindu communities across the globe.