Israel Folau finds few friends and now faces a lifestyle choice of his own Ugo Monye Ugo Monye

It has been a week since Israel Folau’s latest comments on social media saying hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolators”, and I haven’t been surprised at all by the reaction. I’ve struggled really with it all because while I’m definitely not going to defend what he said, my faith has also taken a bit of battering over the past seven days.

Easter weekend is the most important in Christianity so it seems like a good time to try to provide a more level-headed view on this situation. On the one hand, I reject what Folau said – he is condemning people and the faith we have is based on love, respect, acceptance and forgiveness, and certainly not spreading hate. If he is trying to get people to turn to Christianity then he is going about it the wrong way. You cannot scaremonger people into wanting to explore a religion. That is not what it is all about.

Mental health awareness has become such an important issue recently and with him being such a well-known and respected player who is one of the best in the world, he has to understand the position. I would hate to think that there may be a young teenager out there – boy or girl – who may be struggling with their sexuality but also sees Israel Folau as an icon. At a time when suicide rates among young adults are so high, it would be devastating to think hearing a message like that from one of their heroes could provoke someone into causing themselves harm. We know it doesn’t take much if you are in a confused state, not feeling accepted or having been bullied, to trigger that final step. That is where I really struggled with what he said.

At the epicentre of our Christian faith is love, and you have to keep reverting to that. I’ve got friends who are Muslim, Sikh and atheist, gay and bisexual but I am not going to cut myself off from certain people because of their beliefs or sexual orientation. That is such an archaic way of living. We all want to be accepted for different reasons, whatever background or beliefs we have – I’m in a minority in this country and I would hate to be ostracised for my colour. So why would I then treat other people in the same way?

I’m fully aware of what the Bible says and I completely believe in judgment day and heaven and hell. But one thing I don’t believe in is to put myself in a position as God and start judging people by saying they are going to heaven or hell.

In many ways, I am a failed Christian. I completely understand I have many flaws, whether it is through thoughts or actions that I don’t live and breathe the Ten Commandments every day. That’s a battle I have to deal with and struggle with. I’m not talking major things but when I have sworn in front of my daughter and things like that.

But I have also found some of the reaction to what Folau said and Billy Vunipola endorsed really hard because my religion is something that I am so proud of and is very close to my heart. I’ve been reading comments from people online criticising Christianity as a whole but you have to understand there are many denominations who have different interpretations. Although targeted at Folau, some of it has also disrespected millions of people who follow the faith. When you see your religion getting bashed it can be hard to take, even though I understand that some of it has been invited by the original comments.

But you cannot fight hate with hate. The disrespect I have seen towards my faith has been awful – I can’t believe the amount of sanctimonious and self-righteous people who are on social media. There are plenty who are defending the gay community for every right reason, and good on them. But there are also a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon. It’s the “black mirror” society that we seem to be getting deeper into every day – people saying things just to follow the trend and to be more popular than in real life. What about integrity and standing up for the thing you genuinely believe in? I’ve struggled reading the responses of some people, some of whom I consider friends of mine.

I understand why people are upset but what I’m questioning is people’s willingness to get involved in something I know they don’t really care about. I’ve never met so many well-rounded characters as I have on social media who would be able to sort out Brexit or decide who should be playing at No 10 for England at the World Cup.

I’ve got a lot of respect for atheists because it takes more faith to believe in nothing than believe in something. I almost wish I had that strength myself. I think what Vunipola was trying to do was stand by Folau in faith but it has ended up adding more fuel to the fire. He has had to have a look at himself after being given a formal warning but while I don’t for a second condone what was said, that shows the sport is not fully inclusive. You’re allowed an opinion but it has to be within certain rules. It’s necessary to have guidelines for how you should behave but this whole notion that we have a sport for all – I doubt Israel Folau or Vunipola feel like that. For persecuting people, they are actually being persecuted.

There is a very fine line between what is acceptable in terms of inclusivity. And how far do you go?

Rugby Australia’s main sponsor is Qantas, and one of its major partners is Emirates, which is based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Being homosexual there can see you being sent to prison for 10 years, so should Qantas drop Emirates? I understand why the Australian union has decided to punish Folau but how far should this go? The cynic in me would say Qantas definitely would not sack off Emirates as a partner because that is a financial arrangement whereas Folau is just one player and therefore much easier to replace.

Folau has defended himself by saying he was just quoting from the Bible so they may be his views, but they were not his words. Yet, at the same time, you have to be accountable for what you say. I’m not sure where Folau will go with this but if it comes down to choosing between religion and his career I’m sure what he would go for the former. But should a player ever be put in the situation where it is one or the other?