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.
SOURCE: The Telegraph