25 February 1998

Rt Rev Tom Butler, Bishop of Leicester


We now know a little more about what might occupy some of the great zones of the Millennium dome. Indeed we’re told that there will even be a Spirit Zone. Whatever is a spirit zone?

I think I encountered one during the visit which David Steel and I paid to Iraq to see the effect of sanctions following the Gulf War. We went under the auspices of the Red Crescent, and we were able to pay some private visits but much of the time we were accompanied by a pretty heavy Iraqi government minder.

We exhausted ourselves physically and emotionally by visiting sick and dying children in hospitals and clinics, but on the morning of the last day I asked if we could visit the central mosque and off we went, complete with minder and police escort. I’d read about the mosque, one of the most sacred sites of the Muslim world, and tried to explain to our minder that as Christians we’d only expect to walk around the outer courtyard. This most unspiritual of men would have none of it. We were official visitors, of course we must go everywhere. The moment our car swept into the precincts to our embarrassment he leapt out and rushed away to make the arrangements. He came back a little later uncharacteristically crestfallen and subdued: That is what a spirit zone looks like. It is a zone where holiness, dedication, personal sacrifice matter."The Imam is being very difficult," he said. "He is saying that it wouldn’t be appropriate for you as non Muslims to visit some of the places in the mosque." "Quite right too," I said quickly. "Iraq must be proud to have a spiritual leader of such integrity." Our minder brightened considerably and we went on with our visit.

I’ll probably never meet that Imam, but it must have taken great courage to resist all the blandishments and threats of our government minder, and in the face of all the pressure from this representative of a dictatorial state, whatever the cost to himself, maintain what he believed to be the proper respect and holiness of the shrine of which he was the guardian. That is what a spirit zone looks like. It is a zone where holiness, dedication, personal sacrifice matter. A zone where the love of the God who transcends all human hopes and fears is focused. A zone which acts as a springboard to people of faith to better serve their world. We usually call such spirit zones churches, mosques, temples. I’m not sure how that kind of spirit zone might be created in the Millennium Dome, but I suppose that this day, Ash Wednesday, is a good time to start thinking about it.

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