A highly-respected Christian volunteer chaplain at HMP Brixton has been removed from chaplaincy work, and an internationally-respected Christian course banned by a Muslim senior chaplain, in an attempt to wipe out "Christian domination" at Brixton prison.
Pastor Paul Song moved to the U.K. from South Korea in 1992 and began working as a full-time minister at London Shepherd Church in 1996. In 1998, he started using his one day off each week to volunteer alongside 15 other Christians at HMP Brixton, and he was taken on as a chaplain at the prison on March 1, 1998.
Paul and others started running the internationally-respected Alpha course at HMP Brixton in 1998, and have been doing so for nearly 20 years. In recent times they also ran the "Just10" course created by Canon J. John—all with the blessing of the former senior chaplain, Reverend Phillip Chadder. The demand for the courses was considerable, with around 70 prisoners signing up for each course, and waiting lists having to be created.
Over the 19 years, the volunteer chaplain developed strong relationships with the prisoners, the senior chaplain and other staff, and many prisoners became Christians and had their lives transformed. Paul had full security clearance for all his activities in HMP Brixton, and had even been given keys to the prison as a sign of the high esteem in which he was held.
Imam Mohamed Yusef Ahmed took over as senior chaplain in 2015, and with the imam's arrival, things changed drastically. Paul Song said: "Imam Mohamed's discriminatory agenda was clear from the outset. He began scrutinizing the material for each of our courses, commenting that the material was 'too radical', and that the Christian views expressed were 'extreme'. He paid scant regard to the fact that the courses are mainstream Christian courses, used by churches throughout the world. He also said he wanted to 'change the Christian domination within HMP Brixton'."
Imam Mohamed asked Paul to stop running the courses, which he reluctantly agreed to, though Paul carried on going into the prison to meet with prisoners. At no point were complaints made by prisoners either about the content of the courses or Paul's attitude towards any of the prisoners.
Pastor Song excluded
In August 2017, Paul received an email from Imam Mohamed saying: "You do not have permission to enter the wings and nor do you have the permission to speak to any prisoners here at HMP Brixton. If you do turn up to here without my prior permission from me, your keys will be confiscated, and you will be walked to the gate." Pastor Song was not informed of any substantive grounds which may justify his removal.
Bemused by the email, and having no awareness that anything was wrong, Paul met with the imam, during which he was again told that he was no longer welcome at the prison and he had 'no right to appeal against' the decision. Again, no reasons were given.
Paul received a letter from Graham Horlock (Head of Reducing Re-Offending at HMP Brixton) on Sept. 4, 2017, informing him for the first time that an accusation had been made that Paul called a prisoner a "terrorist", and stating that the decision to remove him from his role applied "permanently with immediate effect". This was the first occasion on which Paul heard about the allegation—which Paul denies. Paul was initially promised that the Equalities Department would investigate the accusations, though the decision to exclude him was made without the Equalities Department first delivering their findings.
Since the decision, the prison has ignored requests to provide information on the name of the alleged complainant and a copy of his statement. Paul has submitted written representations to HMP Brixton, and after being kept waiting for five months without explanation, he received an email from the Prison Group Director at the London and Thames Valley Prisoners on 11th January noting that "the exclusion [from HMP Brixton] is permanent".
'I worked alongside the prisoners in harmony'
Commenting on the outcome, Paul said: "When speaking with prisoners, staff members or anyone else, I would never make offensive comments. The Bible exhorts believers to 'love thy neighbor as thyself', and to 'let thy light shine before men'; and so being intentionally offensive would violate these commandments."
He continued: "The whole reason I served at the prison was because of my desire to bring the good news of the gospel to people, regardless of their religion or background. I believe that it has the power to transform the lives of all who believe, and so I would never do anything which may cause an individual to not want to hear the Christian message."
"The prisoners who attended the Christian courses were of different religions, sexual orientations and ethnic backgrounds. Some of them were violent and held views which strongly opposed mine, yet I never made any judgmental or stereotypical comments to any of them. For 19 years, I served with an exemplary record. I worked alongside the prisoners and other staff members in harmony, recognizing our differences and praying that they would come to faith, but equally respecting their decisions and background. I would have had plenty of opportunities to make offensive comments should I have wanted to, and yet during this time, no complaints were ever made about me."
"Christian ministry is essential for rehabilitation and transformation"
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Center, said: "To call this Christian who has served without a blemish for almost 20 years an extremist defies belief.
"Pastor Song's work with prisoners has been shut down for no good reason, denying prisoners of life-giving ministry.
"We are considering legal action against Brixton Prison which has acted unlawfully by removing Christian services from prisoners without fair process. We are seeking justice not just for Pastor Song but for the prisoners who want to see him.
"Christian ministry in prisons has a long history, and its presence is essential for the rehabilitation and transformation of lives. Paul's work has led to many prisoners in Brixton turning their lives around, and so it is shocking that prisoners who are desperate for a new way of life should now be prevented from seeing Paul."
"I would have had nowhere to turn"
Commenting on Paul's work in the prison, former prisoner Jeremy Conlon said: "Prison is a tough place to be, though Paul was a light in the darkness for me and many others. Paul's humility, wisdom and gentleness amazed all the prisoners, and he gave us a much-needed opportunity to receive prayer, to discuss issues we were struggling with and to ask questions. I cannot speak highly enough of him, and am deeply saddened by the way in which he has been treated".
Another former prisoner at Brixton, Peter Levy, said: "Paul's continued support for me and other prisoners, even after the course had finished, brought us all hope of a new way of life. He even met me at the prison gates on the date of my release and took me for food, and helped me work through the family and work issues I was having at the time. Without him, I would have had nowhere to turn, and to think he was doing all this voluntarily is amazing".
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