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Merton College to host “homophobic” RZIM conference for third time

Merton College will once again host the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries’ Summer School this year, it has been announced.

The conference is hosted by the Zacharias Trust, an Evangelical Christrian group which has caused controversy for views which have been branded “homophobic, misogynistic, and Islamophobic” by the Oxford Student Union.

The summer school was also held at Merton College in 2019 and 2018. Last week, a motion passed by the college’s JCR voted to condemn the group’s “exclusionary remarks that deny other people’s identities,” and encouraged the college not to hold this programme again.

The motion passed by a sizeable margin of 24 to 11 in a secret ballot, following an extensive debate, during which the proponent of the motion argued that “there is a concern here that religious members of the LGBTQ community may take the inference from these statements that you cannot be both.”

Merton’s JCR president told Cherwell: “the Merton JCR, together with the college, stands for inclusion, acceptance, and mutual respect of all students, regardless of their views, sexual orientation, and beliefs.”

The motion tabled at Merton’s JCR meeting noted in particular the participation of David Bennett at the conference for his remark that “the opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality, it is holiness.”

Mr Bennett has now been confirmed as a speaker at the 2020 conference where he will host a seminar titled “Why is God so antigay?” The conference will also host talks on abortion by an Ethicist and Philosopher at Oxford University.

A spokesperson for Merton College told Cherwell: “Merton College hosts a variety of different organisations during its summer conference programme, the details of which are protected by commercial agreement. Separately, Merton maintains a close working relationship with its student community and through various forums, matters of concern can be raised and are openly discussed.”

As well as Merton College, the Queen’s College hosted the Trust’s summer camp in 2015. Wycliffe Hall were also criticised in 2015 for their close alignment with Ravi Zacharias and Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM).

In 2006, the permanent private hall launched the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA) in collaboration with RZIM. The launch was immediately highlighted as a “cause for concern” by Oxford University after Wycliffe Hall did not clearly differentiate admissions to the OCCA from admissions to the University.

Ravi Zacharias has mentioned in interviews that the Centre was “accredited with degree programs at Oxford University.”

An emergency motion tabled at Oxford Student Union Council Meeting in Trinity 2015 urged Wycliffe Hall to distance itself publicly from the positions taken by Ravi Zacharias. The motion expressed that “such an association of esteem is problematic for, and could even be seen to contradict, the University’s commitment to equality and to diversity.”

St Aldate’s Church will continue its participation as a host of the Summer School this year. They did not reply to a request for comment.

Wycliffe Hall cut their ties with the OCCA in 2019, although there are a number of lingering attachments between the two institutions. Business students at the OCCA are still offered accommodation at Wycliffe Hall, and a philosophy professor at the PPH also serves as a tutor at the OCCA.

A spokesperson for the Zacharias Trust said: “Zacharias Trust believes in the sanctity and value of all human life regardless of ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender. As we have previously stated, the women we employ occupy some of the highest positions of leadership within our organization, and we also employ individuals with same-sex attractions.

“As a Christian organisation, some people will naturally disagree with our viewpoint. When disagreements in faith or philosophy arise, no matter the audience, we urge civil dialogue. Any claim otherwise is false and unsubstantiated.

“Lastly, we are grateful for our relationships with colleges and universities, which are designed to be a neutral public forum—a space welcoming of dissenting and divergent viewpoints, where students can explore conflicting ideas and engage with a variety of perspectives in a marketplace of ideas.

“We strive to communicate ideas in a sensitive manner and we have never had any issues using university facilities, as academic freedom is something that is protected and esteemed at the highest levels of the university.”

The Zacharias Trust are the European operational group of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. RZIM were founded by Ravi Zacharius in 1984 as an apologist Evangelical Christian Trust with the stated aim of “equipping Christians to share their faith with confidence and in an intelligent and articulate way.”

The Trust deliver training internationally through their website and YouTube videos, and through a number of conferences and training programmes which they operate. Their European offices are headquartered on Banbury Road in North Oxford.

Mr Zacharias has been personally criticised for repeatedly referring to himself as “Dr Zacharias”, despite only having been granted honorary doctoral degrees. In 2018 he clarified: “I have never earned a doctoral degree and was never enrolled at the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge. And while I have lectured at Wycliffe Hall, I am not and have never been a professor at the University of Oxford.

“I recognize that academic terms and designations are important, and I apologize for any occasion on which I have wrongly titled my association with either of these institutions.”

Merton will be providing accommodation for guests of the conference, as well as seminar rooms for afternoon sessions. Guests will be expected to pay almost £2,000 for a ticket to the six-day event.

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