A £2 million church development providing facilities for a Welsh community is the latest Big Society project to face a smear campaign about the beliefs of the providers.
Opponents of Carmarthen County Council, which is almost unanimously supportive of Project Xcel, are exploiting religious ignorance in the media to score political points with local elections looming on 3 May, it’s claimed.
The political vendetta is adding to the toll on local people seeking to provide a debt advice service, food bank and recycled furniture outlet in the famous old town of Carmarthen.
The project to be housed in a disused and unsightly former cheese factory in the Johnstown area is the initiative of independent Towy Community Church. Plans include a bowling alley and eventually it's hoped, a 600-seater auditorium.
The project has taken two and a half years, and won £800,000 of Big Lottery funding and £550,000 from Carmarthenshire County Council to top up its own local fundraising of £300,000.
But supporters were stunned after Wales on Sunday published a ‘shocking’ piece on 20 November linking them with a non-existent Australian charity, Mercy Ministries, under the lurid headline ‘Church linked to exorcists is given council cash’.
In fact, the church gave just £20 a month to another Yorkshire-based charity of the same name that works with teenagers who self-harm.
The Sunday’s report, despite being untrue, was repeated five months later on the BBC’s Dragon’s Eye on 19 April by both a local councillor and even the Plaid Cyrmu MP Jonathan Edwards, despite immediate rebuttals by the charity involved.
Sian Caiach of People First Wales, said on the show: ‘Because this evangelical church has links to other rather dubious organisations like Mercy Ministries I feel very uncomfortable about the whole thing . . .
‘. . . people who believe in possessions by demons and who treat anorexia through exorcisms . . . It’s not good . . . And I wouldn’t like these people taking over social services for instance with that sort of bizarre belief system.’
Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards also said: ‘This [i.e. Mercy Ministries UK] is a body that believe that you can cure the problems that vulnerable young girls face by exorcism’.
Mercy Ministries UK which was praised by Prime Minister David Cameron at a reception for Christians this Easter in Downing Street, were furious at the allegations.
Executive Director Arianna Walker, who is based at Oxenhope in Yorkshire, complained to the press and the MP about ‘gross distortion’.
In a letter to the MP she wrote: ‘As a Christian organisation, Mercy Ministries UK believes that prayer plays an important role in emotional healing and spiritual growth - a belief held by every Christian church in the UK.
‘Mercy Ministries UK does NOT perform or endorse ‘exorcisms’ as part of its treatment curriculum and never has.’
She added that Mercy Ministries UK was a separate entity from Mercy Ministries Australia, which had closed over allegations against its treatment of teenagers. MMUK had local, legal, governance and cultural differences in both the programme content and marketing.
Walker also rebutted the Wales on Sunday article in a letter to the editor. However, BBC Online on Thursday (19 April), accused the church of being ‘evangelical’, and repeated the same exorcism smear.
The church’s pastor, Mark Bennett, who, along with all the senior local authority officials invited onto the programme refused to appear on Dragon’s Eye, described the attacks as ‘venomous’.
A former Royal Marine, he told Lapido: ‘The media have given completely the wrong impression. We have had almost unanimous support from the community and council right from day one. Only three councillors out of 74 voted against our plans.
‘We are being used as a pawn in an opposition agenda and it just adds to the slog.’
Neither the MP, the offending councillors, nor Unison who repeated the smear in their members magazine, had phoned him to clarify the facts or get a balanced perspective on the project, he added.
He said the lease was about to be signed and he was confident that the project would go ahead.
‘Obviously you’ve got to look into dodgy religious groups, but we’re not one of them and this is just a load of nonsense. We’ve had to meet very stringent guidelines, and have satisfied the management committee of the Council at every step.’
Since the BBC programme aired, he had received emails of support from all over Wales.
A recent report by Christians in Parliament entitled Clearing the Ground highlighted the on-going Towy Community Church case and described the attacks as ‘religious illiteracy’.
The report said: ‘Evidence to the inquiry suggests that, even if a service is provided without discrimination or conditions, the beliefs and other activities of the providing group can be used to imply that it does not treat all people equally.’
The opposite is in fact the case. Evangelical Christians pioneered Europe’s first AIDS-hospice – Mildmay Hospital – where Princess Diana famously shook hands with patients at the height of panic about the illness. In the 1970s, evangelical Christians pioneered outreach to Muslims and those of other faiths in neglected inner-city communities when mass migration began.