By Patrick Sawer
It was intended, she says, as a simple but heartfelt gesture of comfort and support for a troubled colleague.
Victoria Wasteney put her hand on her friend’s knee and, asking if she could pray for her, said simply: “God, I trust You will bring peace and You will bring healing.”
So when Miss Wasteney was later suspended by the NHS from her position as a senior occupational health therapist for having prayed with her colleague, she was left distraught and angry.
The problem appeared to be that Miss Wasteney is a Christian and her colleague was Muslim. And her employer – a health authority in one of Britain’s most ethnically mixed areas – deemed her behaviour to be a case of harassment and bullying.
Miss Wasteney, 37, from Buckhurst Hill, Essex, had earlier lent the colleague – who was going through health problems and personal issues at home – a book about a Muslim woman who converts to Christianity, and also invited her to a number of events organised by her church, including a community sports day and an anti-human trafficking meeting.
East London NHS Foundation Trust suspended her for nine months on full pay. Following an internal disciplinary hearing and subsequent appeal Miss Wasteney accepted a written warning, to remain on her employment record for 12 months, as well as a range of conditions designed to prevent her discussing her faith and beliefs with colleagues.
But on Tuesday Miss Wasteney, who describes openly herself as a ‘born-again Christian’, begins a legal challenge against the trust, claiming it discriminated against her on grounds of religion and that it infringed her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.
She says she also wants to challenge what she regards as the stifling of ordinary conversations about faith in the workplace.
“Its ridiculous that people now feel they cannot openly discuss religion or their own spirituality,” she said. “Do we want to reach the point where people are scared to invite colleagues and work friends to events like their children’s Christening or a wedding for fear of offending?”
The case could not come at a more sensitive time.
The attack by three Islamist extremists on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and a Jewish supermarket, in Paris, which left 17 innocent people dead earlier this month, has led not only to renewed fears across Europe over jihadi violence, but also to soul searching over relations between Muslims, Christians and Jews and the sometimes competing issues of free speech and respect for other religions.
Miss Wasteney said: “I’m not a hard-line evangelical. I’m not anti-Muslim. I believe in freedom of speech, but I’ve always believed we should be sensitive to one another’s beliefs and feelings.”
Indeed, as part of her job at the John Howard Centre, a secure mental hospital in Homerton, east London, Miss Wasteney was concerned with patients’ spiritual well being and helped organise a number of faith activities, including Eid, Diwali and Christmas, as well as ethnic minority events such as Black History Month. There were also regular Friday prayers organised for Muslim patients and staff.
“It’s an important part of the therapeutical process that people discuss and explore their feelings and beliefs,” she said.
The John Howard centre in Homerton
However Miss Wasteney, a member of the Christian Revival Church, which holds services at the 02 Dome, said there was little provision or support for their Christian counterparts and she believes there was an element of “anti-Christian prejudice” within the organisation – something she says is now a reflection of wider British society.
The events that led to the tribunal began shortly after Enya Nawaz, a young Muslim woman from Birmingham, was appointed in July 2012 as a newly qualified occupational therapist in the team of 30 supervised by Miss Wasteney.
The pair had met on previous occasions and soon struck up what Miss Wasteney regarded as a friendship. She says they would often talk about their respective religions and the common ground between Islam and Christianity.
“Jesus is a central figure in both religions and we discussed this and other aspects quite openly and comfortably,” she said. “It wasn’t a case of me trying to convert her, let alone force Christianity on her. How could you?”
Miss Wasteney says that on one occasion Miss Nawaz, 25, said she was interested in the problem of human trafficking, and Miss Wasteney said her church was involved in campaigning against the practice. The pair exchanged online information and Miss Wasteney said Miss Nawaz expressed an interest in attending her church to find out more about its work on modern slavery. Miss Wasteney also gave her a DVD copy of a film on the subject.
In response to one invitation to attend a church youth event, Miss Nawaz emailed Miss Wasteney saying: “I’m going home on Friday but hoping to be back for this.”
When Miss Nawaz was due to go into hospital for treatment Miss Wasteney gave her a book to read called I Dared to Call Him Father, about the spiritual journey of a Muslim woman who eventually converts to Christianity. This had recently been recommended to her by a friend of Muslim origin and she thought Miss Nawaz might find it interesting.
Matters came to a head some months later, after Miss Nawaz came into Miss Wasteney’s office in tears, upset about her ongoing health problems and personal issues at home.
Miss Wasteney said: “She was very emotional and tearful and was talking to me about her fear of dying. I put my hand on her knew to comfort her – asking her if that was all right – and prayed with her, asking God to heal her.
“It was a natural and open thing for me to do and she didn’t object in anyway.”
But Miss Wasteney claims that over the following weeks Miss Nawaz came under pressure from others in the organisation to make a complaint against her on religious grounds. It also appears some in her community objected to her talking freely about religious issues to a Christian woman.
In June 2013 Miss Wasteney was told Miss Nawaz had submitted an eight-page complaint against her involving accusations of gross misconduct, accusing Miss Wasteney of trying to convert her to Christianity, asking her to pray, ‘laying hands’ on her, telling her she would not recover from illness unless she converted, and giving her a book and DVD on conversion.
Miss Nawaz made the complaint after resigning from the trust, saying she was unhappy with the job – even though Miss Wasteney had previously encouraged her to stay.
Miss Wasteney, by now clearly upset with the turn of events, was suspended with immediate effect and asked to leave the building.
She denied the allegations and now claims they were merely an excuse for the Trust to mount a wider case against her for ‘abusing her professional position’ by undertaking a campaign of Christian proselytism – something she also rejects.
She insists that throughout the time they worked together Miss Nawaz “appreciated me showing an interest in her and inviting her to the Christian events”.
In February last year an internal disciplinary hearing found Miss Wasteney guilty of three charges of misconduct – praying with the colleague, giving her the book and inviting her to church events. The DVD was deemed irrelevant as it was ‘political’ rather than ‘religious’. Five other charges, including the laying on of hands, were found to be unsubstantiated.
Miss Wasteney, originally from Sheffield, returned to work in March last year but found it difficult to resume her previous duties and claims staff had in her absence been encouraged to regard her as a “religious nutcase”. Unable to carry on she left the John Howard Centre and moved to another role at the trust’s head offices.
In documents submitted to the East London Employment Tribunal in advance of her case she says: “My professional career has been jeopardised, my reputation damaged, relations with colleagues ruined and I was subjected to an ordeal of persecution dressed as ‘disciplinary action’ for an extraordinarily long time. I was discriminated against because of my faith.”
She told The Telegraph: “It’s a dangerous society where diversity isn’t embraced and we can’t talk about both each other’s differences and our similarities. That is how things like homophobia develop. We have to respect each other, but it’s not healthy to have subjects that are a no-go area.”
Miss Wasteney’s case is being supported by the Christian Legal Centre, which has instructed Paul Diamond, a leading human rights barrister. Andrea Williams, the centre’s chief executive, said: “ The way in which Victoria was treated highlights the extraordinary anxiety we now feel over causing any offence to Muslims. This creates a climate of fear and intimidation that keeps people from speaking about what they believe.”
She added: “There is a huge and increasing pressure on Christians to hide their identity and not make their views known for fear of being punished or losing their jobs.”
The East London NHS Foundation Trust said it would not be appropriate to comment in advance of the tribunal hearing.
Original Post: The Telegraph