CW: This article contains homophobic and Islamophobic language, and makes reference to suicide.
Jesus College allowed a controversial evangelical group to host a conference in its facilities, Cherwell can reveal, with a JCR motion accusing the college of “subsequently covering-up” the event.
A college spokesperson declined to apologise for hosting the conference, and denied accusations of an “intentional” cover-up.
Dozens attended the conference hosted by Christian Concern, whose leader Andrea Williams has called for members to “stand up to [the] militant homosexual lobby,” and told Jamaica to “keep gay sex illegal.” Her views have been condemned by an LGBTQ+ Christian group as “exacerbat[ing] suicidal thoughts among LBGT Christians across the world.”
The group’s ‘Islamic Affairs Advisor’ is Sam Solomon, an Islamophobic activist who has spoken alongside far-right activists Geert Wilders and Pamela Geller, and who co-wrote UKIP leader Gerard Batten’s notorious ‘charter of Muslim understanding’.
The existence of the conference was revealed last week after a leak from within the college. Following the leak, JCR President Athishan Vettivetpillai admitted on Facebook that Christian Concern were accidentally allowed to book college facilities to host a conference in the first week of September.
Following advice that cancelling the event would constitute a breach of contract, the College decided to let the event take place but keep it “under wraps,” as Vettivetpillai put it.
According to Vettivetpillai’s posts, the College asked that he keep the existence of the conference a secret. He said that he complied because these were “the very people I must interact with every day so that anything the JCR wants done, gets approved.”
Responding to complaints about what he described as a “hushing-up”, Jesus’s JCR treasurer wrote on Facebook that “it is important… to have constructive relations” with “senior people in College” and denied a JCR member’s claim that “the JCR’s wishes are granted in return only for its silence on contentious issues,” describing this as a “massive misrepresentation.”
The JCR unanimously adopted a resolution later that week which described the conference and subsequent cover-up as causing “immeasurable hurt”, and demanded that the JCR pressure the college to donate all proceeds from the event to the LGBTQ+ charity, Stonewall.
Jesus College denied the existence of an “intentional” cover-up, but refused to clarify whether Vettivetpillai was requested to keep the conference a secret, instead stating that “the Governing Body and appropriate members of College were informed of the event before it took place and of the steps required to maintain the security of the College during the event.”
Jesus is now the third Oxford college to have hosted Christian Concern in recent years, along with Exeter and Trinity. Both Exeter and Trinity have apologised for hosting the group, and paid the proceeds to relevant charities. Lady Margaret Hall is currently considering whether or not to host the group.
One lecture given at the conference by Peter Saunders compared rates of abortion to deaths in World War Two. Saunders is CEO of the Christian Medical Fellowship, a group which urges Christian GPs to evangelise to their patients, including those seeking abortions, and suggests “focus[ing] on depressed patients”. Apparently referring to the American organisation Planned Parenthood, another event attendee wrote on Facebook that “the judgement for all these wicked people who have pleasure in the blood of innocent babies will be great.”
Students criticised the decision of the College to allow the event to go ahead, with concerns raised that the event could make the college unwelcoming for LGBTQ+ and Muslim students. Exeter College was forced to apologise for hosting Christian Concern in 2012 after members of the group harassed a gay student, delivered an Islamophobic speech, and distributed anti-abortion leaflets in communal areas.
One Christian Concern publication argues that same-sex couples should not be allowed to raise children due to their “high levels of promiscuity.” Another warns that “Islamic finance” is a conspiracy to promote the “Islamisation” of Britain and the implementation of Sharia Law.
One attendee, Adrian Clark, described eating at Jesus College on Facebook as “an unexpected and undeserved privilege”. Mr Clark was arrested last year for a religiously aggravated public order offence for a speech he gave in Bristol, which a police officer present interpreted as likely to “result in violence”. Clark reportedly told Muslim and LGBTQ+ people present that they would “burn in hell” and were “disgusting”. The charges were not upheld.
Some students supported the right for Christian Concern to speak, with one commenting that “freedom of speech must always come before the fear of causing ‘offence’.”
After meeting with the JCR committee on Tuesday, college representatives declined to apologise for hosting the conference, instead telling Cherwell that they “will prepare a formal response to the JCR’s and MCR’s concerns” and consider donating money to relevant charities.
A College representative said: “Jesus College has a strong record in protecting the rights and dignity of all its members, and we continue to champion those values. Jesus College is a place where students, staff and visitors can be free from fear and prejudice and we are determined to maintain this.”
A joint JCR-MCR statement said: “The student attendees expressed serious disappointment that the College had not explicitly communicated the situation to the JCR and MCR.
“We understand a full explanation to students and staff at the College is coming, and that this will explain how vetting protocols have been enhanced in light of this situation. Efforts to improve transparency with commercial bookings at the College are also expected. Options to donate the profits from this booking to relevant educational charities are also being evaluated following a JCR motion to do so; however restrictions under Charity Law have to be considered and we have been informed that further legal analyses will be conducted.”
They added: “Although we are disappointed with the situation and the initial College response, we are encouraged by the discussion today and fully expect the College to show this progress through their actions.”