More than 45,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the Home Office protect the rights of street preachers following the wrongful arrest of a Nigerian-born preacher.
Christian Concern, a United Kingdom-based religious organization, delivered over 38,000 signed copies of the petition to the Home Office in London on Tuesday. Since then, the number of signatories has passed the 45,000 mark.
“Christian street preachers should be free to share the Gospel, even where it means challenging the beliefs of others,” read the petition in part.
“The law rightly protects freedom of speech, even if it offends, shocks or disturbs others. But too often, police officers have shown themselves either to be ignorant of this freedom, or unwilling to uphold it. This leads to a chilling effect, where people are increasingly unwilling to say what they believe, for fear of arrest.”
The petition also called on the new Home Secretary Priti Patel to investigate the training for police officers when it comes to street preachers.
The petition came in response to a February incident in which 64-year-old Oluwole Ilesanmi was arrested while preaching in London after someone called the police accusing him of hate speech against Islam, which can be criminally prosecuted in England.
In late July, Ilesanmi was awarded the equivalent of about $3,000 from the Metropolitan Police, as well as an apology, over being wrongfully arrested the harsh treatment he endured.
Andrea Williams of the Christian Legal Centre, which represented Ilesanmi, said in a recent statement that the law should do a better job of respecting the rights of street preachers.
“… despite laws that theoretically support the freedom to preach in public, in practice, police officers are quick to silence preachers at the first suggestion that a member of the public is offended,” Williams said, as reported by Christian Concern.
“Freedom of speech means that each one of us needs to be able to critique all religions and ideas without immediately being labelled and silenced as offensive. Critiquing ideas is often motivated by love for others and not hate. The result of this also chills free speech through self-censorship.”
In recent years, there have been occasional police incidents in the United Kingdom regarding street preachers and accusations of public hate speech.
For example, in March 2018 a Canadian preacher named David Lynn was arrested and held in custody for nearly 24 hours after being accused of advancing homophobia in his street preaching.
"What happened on Tuesday shocked me," Lynn said in a statement at the time, adding that he wants “to bring the life changing message of Jesus Christ's love and forgiveness to the world through evangelism.”
“I am passionate about igniting and uniting the global body of Christ for the evangelistic mandate, and I want to bring the message of salvation to the entire world, keeping the focus on Christ and spreading God's love and forgiveness found in Jesus.”