The United Reformed Church (URC) has become the first Christian denomination in Britain to formally express sympathy with five Christians about to go on trial in London for protesting against an arms fair.
A statement from the URC criticised the UK government's role in the arms trade and called for greater public debate on the issue.
The denomination's General Secretary, the Rev Roberta Rominger, said, “We concur with the defendants' claim that there is an honourable tradition in the Christian church, going back to Jesus himself, of nonviolent direct action against practices that promote death and injustice.”
However, she stopped short of explicitly condoning the actions of the protesters, who blocked an entrance to the London arms fair in September.
Rominger suggested that “If more were known about the kind of weaponry currently being traded, many UK citizens would feel ashamed that their country takes pride in hosting one of the world’s largest arms fairs.”
The five defendants, who include a trainee minister in the Methodist Church, will go on trial in Stratford Magistrates' Court in east London on Monday 3rd February. They were arrested in September while kneeling in prayer in one of the entrances to the London arms fair, known more formally as Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEi).
On the same day, two companies – MagForce and Tian Jin – were asked to leave the fair for selling illegal torture equipment, although no-one from the companies is thought to have been arrested or charged.
Rominger endorsed the comments of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who said the trial should provoke public debate about the UK's role in arms trading.
She added, “We also call on politicians of all parties, and the media, to initiate a wider debate about the manufacture and trade of weapons of death.”
The five defendants – Daniel Woodhouse, Chris Wood, Chloe Skinner, Symon Hill and James Clayton – are the first group of many to be tried for peaceful protests at last year's DSEi. Many others, of varied religions and none, will go on trial later in February.
The United Reformed Church is one of Britain's largest denominations. It was formed by the merger of the Presbyterian Church of England with the Congregational Union of England and Wales and several smaller groups. It traces its roots back to the sixteenth-century reformation.
The URC's statement emphasised that the denomination's members, along with other faith groups and civil society, had “campaigned vigorously for greater control of the arms trade”. It added that the URC was one of several churches to give its backing to the Arms Trade Treaty recently approved by the United Nations.
Critics of the treaty, including the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), say that the treaty's regulations will do little to affect the arms exports of the world's richest countries. The UK government, in backing the Arms Trade Treaty, promised British arms companies that the treaty would make no difference to their exports. CAAT argues that the situation will change only when arms companies are exerting less influence within government.
The defendants have expressed their gratitude for the many supportive messages received. Supporters plan to gather outside the court for a peaceful vigil from 9.00am.
They have also been backed by the comedian Mark Thomas and by Members of Parliament including Plaid Cymru's defence spokesperson Elfin Llwyd, the Green Party's Caroline Lucas and Labour's Linda Riordan.
* More from Ekklesia on protests against the London Arms Fair: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/8731