Category archives: Religious Liberty

Why Taiwan Matters

by Arielle Del Turco , Bob Fu

October 19, 2021

The Financial Times reported last week that China tested a new nuclear-capable hypersonic missile, a development that surprised U.S. intelligence agencies. This comes as China also continues to develop its conventional military capabilities.

Nowhere will China’s military buildup be felt more keenly than in Taiwan.

Just days before Taiwan celebrated its 110th National Day at the beginning of October, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent almost 150 warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense zone. This show of force marks the largest threat to Taiwanese airspace since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took control of mainland China 72 years ago.

These events make it clear that Beijing is seriously upping the ante, and it signals that a military invasion may now be more likely than ever before.

Taiwan is an island off the coast of mainland China with which the United States has long-standing commitments that are partially outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. But for its part, the Biden administration met Beijing’s provocations toward Taiwan with lackluster and at times confusing statements urging Beijing to stop pressuring Taiwan.

So, why does the future of Taiwan matter to Americans, and specifically to American Christians?

Tensions between China and Taiwan point to a larger global struggle between authoritarianism and freedom. And for the 23 million people who currently live in Taiwan, the prospect of the CCP taking over would mean an abrupt end to many of the human rights they currently enjoy, including freedom of speech, political participation, and religious freedom.

Chinese President Xi views Taiwan as a breakaway province, but the reality is that the CCP has never ruled Taiwan. In a speech delivered on China’s national day, following days of military drills close to Taiwan, Xi struck a nationalist tone, declaring, “The historic mission of achieving the complete unification of our country must be realized, and can be realized.” While this narrative plays well for Xi on the mainland, most Taiwanese citizens would reject “unification” with China even if ideal conditions were guaranteed.

The day after Xi’s speech, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen responded in a speech of her own, saying, “[W]e will continue to bolster our national defense and demonstrate our determination to defend ourselves in order to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us… as it offers neither a free and democratic way of life for Taiwan, nor sovereignty for our 23 million people.”

And this is exactly what President Tsai says is at the heart of the issue—not only a dispute about territory or sovereignty but also a debate over which vision of government is better.

Do free countries want to see Taiwan succumb to the oppressive authoritarian leadership of the CCP as seen in mainland China? Or see it remain a democratic society, which while flawed, protects the most basic human rights for its people and gives its citizens a voice in the government?

For Christians, the answer is obvious. The concept of Imago Dei, found in Genesis 1:27, teaches that every human person is created in the image of God. Because of the worth and value that all people inherently possess, they have God-given rights that the American Founders called “unalienable rights” and international law identifies as “human rights.” These include core rights such as the right to life, freedom of expression, religious freedom, and others outlined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. We can treat people with human dignity by working to protect people against authoritarian regimes like China’s.

We want to see more people living under governments that respect human dignity, not the other way around. The world has already seen the consequences when China takes over a freedom-loving population. Over the past couple of years, President Xi’s government effectively eliminated political rights and freedom of expression in Hong Kong. We don’t want to see this happen to Taiwan, too.

President Tsai met China’s bullying with a principled reminder to the free world. In a recent op-ed in Foreign Affairs, she wrote, “[I]f Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system. It would signal that in today’s global contest of values, authoritarianism has the upper hand over democracy.”

The values that Taiwan shares with America should be the backbone of our friendship. Now more than ever, Taiwan needs and deserves American support.

The United States should offer robust support for Taiwan in practical ways. This includes supporting Taiwan’s defense weaponry system, especially its missile defense and air to surface capacities, in order to deter an invasion. In addition, the United States, along with other allies, should hold military exercises on the Taiwan Strait, demonstrating American support for Taiwan and a presence in the region. 

The Taiwanese people formerly spent four decades under martial law, then demanded—and successfully achieved—democracy. That shift has led to greater prosperity and human flourishing. Today, Taiwan is a shining example for people suffering under authoritarian regimes that change can happen. To stand with Taiwan is to stand for fundamental human rights, including religious freedom. The United States should do so without reservation.   

Bob Fu is Senior Fellow for the International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council. Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council.

Pew Finds High Rate of Global Restrictions on Religion

by Arielle Del Turco , Cristina Cevallos

October 12, 2021

Each year, the Pew Research Center publishes a report assessing the extent to which governments and societies around the world restrict religious beliefs and practices. This year’s report—which examines 198 countries and contains data up through 2019—shows how much more work needs to be done to protect religious freedom globally.

Social Hostility to Religion Declines Slightly

Let’s start with the good news. The report’s Social Hostilities Index measures acts of hostility to religion by private individuals, organizations, or groups in society. Examples of hostility include religion-related terrorism, mob or sectarian violence, harassment, and other forms of intimidation or abuse. In 2018, 53 countries (27 percent) had “high” or “very high” levels of social hostility, but in 2019 this number was reduced to 43 (22 percent), the lowest it has been since 2009.

Religion-related terrorism incidents (such as deaths, physical abuse, displacement, detentions, destruction of property, and fundraising and recruitment by terrorist groups) are also in decline. According to the Global Terrorism Database, 49 countries experienced at least one of these actions. However, 2019 was the fifth consecutive year of declining global terrorism rates. This decline is largely due to ISIS having lost control in many parts of the world, even though it continued to commit attacks such as the one in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday in 2019 that killed more than 250 people and injured approximately 500 others.

Afghanistan is the greatest exception to these statistics. In 2019, the number of terrorist incidents by the Taliban in Afghanistan increased. Now that the terrorist group has taken control of the entire country, this trend will likely continue to worsen.

Notably, Christians are still the group most likely to be on the receiving end of religious harassment. In 2019, countries harassing Christians increased from 145 to 153. 

Government Restrictions Remain High

The report’s Government Restrictions Index measures government laws, policies, and actions that restrict religious beliefs and practices. In 2019, the number of government restrictions reached its highest level since 2007. Most of the countries with “high” or “very high” levels of government restrictions were located either in the Asia-Pacific region or in the Middle East-North Africa region.

Pew’s study reveals that government harassment and interference against religious groups were present in 163 countries (82 percent). All 20 countries in the Middle East-North Africa region and 91 percent of the European nations had this type of occurrence. These include governments prohibiting certain religious practices, withholding access to places of worship, or denying permits for religious activities or buildings.

High-Tech Threats to Religious Freedom

For the first time, Pew’s study measured governments’ use of online restrictions and advanced technologies (such as surveillance cameras, facial recognition technology, and biometric data) to target religious groups. Pew found that 28 countries (14 percent) have some type of online restriction of religious activity, and 10 countries use technology to surveil religious groups. Most of the countries were located in either the Asia-Pacific region or in the Middle East-North Africa region.

For example, in the United Arab Emirates, the government blocked websites with information on Judaism, Christianity, and atheism. Iran launched cyberattacks against religious minorities. China installed surveillance equipment in houses of worship, used facial recognition technology to monitor and collect biometric data on Uyghur Muslims, and installed software on their phones to monitor their calls and messages. 

Government Repression Is Brutally Enforced

Worst of all, Pew found that 48 percent of all nations used force against religious groups in 2019. China, Myanmar, Sudan, and Syria tallied over 10,000 use-of-force incidents each. These incidents include property damage, detention, arrests, ongoing displacement, physical abuse, and killings.

Among the 25 largest nations (which account for 75 percent of the world’s population), Egypt, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Russia recorded the highest overall levels of restrictions and hostilities against religious people.

Conclusion

Pew’s report demonstrates that many governments are attacking religious freedom rather than protecting it as a human right. Although much has changed since 2019, including a global pandemic, government attitudes seem to remain hostile to people of faith. For now, we can rejoice in the moderately good news that social hostility to religion declined slightly even as we take action to combat problematic global trends. Religious freedom for all people everywhere is worth fighting for.

Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. Cristina Cevallos is majoring in law at the University of Piura in Lima, Peru.

What Does the Future Hold for the Pro-life Movement in Mexico?

by Arielle Del Turco , Cristina Cevallos

October 6, 2021

Culturally conservative Mexico made international news last month when its Supreme Court decriminalized abortion. Four Mexican states had already legalized abortion, but the Supreme Court’s decision marks a major shift for a country with one of the largest Catholic populations in the world.

Mexico has a fairly conservative and religious culture. Yet, the Mexican Supreme Court dictated from the top down a decision that likely wouldn’t have passed if put to the Mexican people for a vote. A strong majority (60 percent) of Mexicans oppose abortion.

On September 7, the Mexican Supreme Court unanimously declared some articles of the state of Coahuila’s Penal Code, which penalized those who had or assisted in an abortion, as unconstitutional. Two days later, the same judges invalidated an article of the Sinaloa state constitution, which established: “[t]he State protects the right to life from the moment an individual is conceived.”

But the assault on life in the womb did not stop there. On September 13, the Mexican Supreme Court began to hear arguments concerning a law that seeks to restrict medical professionals’ conscientious objections to participating in abortions. A final ruling has yet to be made. 

This attack on conscience protections is devastating for people of faith, those who believe life begins at conception, and for medical workers whose professional opinions make them reluctant to participate in abortions. In the few Mexican states where abortion is legal, many medical professionals have refused to participate in carrying out abortions. Conscience protections are essential to protecting their freedom to live in accordance with their deeply held beliefs.

The Mexican Supreme Court’s decriminalization ruling implies that there are Mexican women in prison for having abortions. But that’s not the case. According to the National Penitentiary Registry of Mexico, no woman is currently in jail for having an abortion. There are five female abortionists currently serving sentences for carrying out illegal abortions, but even these cases were only prosecuted because they resulted in the death of the mother.

Notably, the chief justice of the Mexican Supreme Court, Arturo Zaldívar, said, “From now on, a new path of freedom, clarity, dignity, and respect for all pregnant persons, but above all for women, begins.” By referring to “pregnant persons” as opposed to pregnant women, Zaldívar is adopting a dangerous gender ideology that denies the scientific reality of the biological distinctions between the sexes.

Pro-abortion activists hope Mexico’s Supreme Court rulings will put pressure on other countries to take steps in the same direction. Mexico’s decriminalization decision comes right after Argentina’s legalization of abortion and Ecuador’s decriminalization of abortion in cases of rape. Pressure from international organizations is also a factor in abortion’s increasing momentum in Latin America. In Mexico alone, the International Planned Parenthood Federation has invested more than $18 million in abortion advocacy between 2008 and 2016.

In a New York Times op-ed, Melissa Ayala wrote about the Mexican Supreme Court’s decriminalization decision, saying, “The justices said what has long been intuitive to feminist activists: that someone who is not yet born does not have the same protection as someone who already is alive.” This is a disturbing and revealing sentence—one that gets at the heart of the pro-abortion argument. It’s the dangerous assumption that a child in the womb is not already alive and that a woman’s comfort and convenience is worth more than the unborn child’s fundamental right to life.

Sadly, the Mexican legal system is moving towards embracing a culture of death. Yet, there is still reason for hope for the pro-life movement in Mexico. On October 3, thousands of women rallied across Mexico to protest the Supreme Court decision. The pro-life majority should not let radical Supreme Court justices decide the fate of the unborn. Now is the time for pro-lifers in Mexico and across Latin America to make their voices heard.

Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. Cristina Cevallos is majoring in law at the University of Piura in Lima, Peru.

China Must Stop Sending North Korean Defectors Back into Grave Danger

by Arielle Del Turco , Tyler Watt

September 29, 2021

North Korea is infamous for having one of the worst human rights records on earth. In recognition of this fact, some human rights advocates dubbed September 24, 2021, as “Save North Korean Refugees Day.”

Crossing the border into China is the only option for most North Koreans trying to escape from North Korea. Yet, when they arrive in China, they face a whole new set of dangers. Most North Korean defectors are women, and most are sold into human trafficking once they arrive in China, often as brides for Chinese men.

Defectors who are caught by Chinese authorities and sent back to North Korea face an even worse fate, as the North Korean regime brutally punishes repatriated defectors. North Korean Freedom Coalition Chair Suzanne Scholte says that “certain torture, imprisonment and potential death” await the defectors upon their forced return to North Korea.

One Christian North Korean defector, Ji Hyeona, has shared her harrowing story of enduring a forced abortion in a North Korean labor camp after she was repatriated (the regime does not recognize half-Chinese children). She said:

Every night, I heard the screams of women going through forced abortions in the prison camp.

I, too, could not avoid this fate, as I was three months pregnant with a half-Chinese, half-Korean baby in my womb.

Where they placed me was not a hospital bed, but it was a desk. And a fearful-looking doctor forcibly pried open my legs and inserted forceps and started killing my baby in my womb by cutting up and shredding my baby.

This is the level of cruelty experienced by repatriated defectors.

The threat posed to religious freedom by these brutal repatriations should not be ignored. Upon their return to North Korea, one of the first questions defectors are asked by authorities is if they met any Christian missionaries. Responding in the affirmative would guarantee time in a labor camp or even a death sentence.

Many North Korean defectors encounter Christianity for the first time while in China, either by South Korean missionaries ministering to them or by seeking help from Chinese churches. For newly converted Christians, returning to North Korea is all the more dangerous. The North Korean regime views religion of any sort as a threat to the Kim regime’s stranglehold on the minds of its citizens—a threat they will brutally suppress.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea has become even more isolated and repressive. The U.S. State Department recently issued a statement condemning the North Korean regime for the “increasingly draconian measures [it] has taken, including shoot-to-kill orders at the North Korea-China border, to tighten control of its people under the guise of fighting COVID-19.” With devastating conditions such as these, it is all the more important that China stop repatriating North Korean defectors.

North Korea’s human rights violations, especially those against repatriated defectors, are well-documented. China is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which states that refugees should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. With North Korea’s long history of human rights violations, it is wrong for China to repatriate defectors back to North Korea. Instead, Beijing should cooperate with the South Korean government to help bring defectors to South Korea, a safe country that is ready and willing to take them.

Letters sent to President Xi Jinping and Chinese ambassadors have called upon the Chinese government to uphold the human rights of the defectors and pursue a plan to resettle to willing countries, especially South Korea which offers defectors automatic citizenship. Activists are delivering appeals for a change in policy at more than a dozen Chinese embassies located around the world.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic caused a brief pause in China’s repatriation of defectors, they have since resumed, placing thousands of North Korean defectors currently in China at risk. Now more than ever, the Chinese government should be held accountable for sending defectors back to certain punishment in North Korea.

How Should Christians Use Religious Exemptions for Vaccine Mandates?

by David Closson

September 27, 2021

After months of promising that his administration would not mandate COVID-19 vaccines, President Joe Biden has changed course. Earlier this month, the president issued an executive order requiring millions of federal employees to either get the vaccine, get tested weekly, or face dismissal from their job. Shortly after the executive order, the president handed down another mandate, requiring all employers with more than 100 employees to mandate their workers be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. Businesses that do not comply with the rule can be fined up to $14,000 per violation. The new regulation is supposed to be drafted and implemented by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Understandably, many Americans are frustrated by the president’s about-face on mandating vaccines. Vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans alike are concerned about what kind of precedent such a sweeping executive order could set. Those who do not want a COVID-19 vaccine are concerned about how the mandate will personally affect them. As I explained in a previous article, there are serious legal, constitutional, moral, and conscience concerns related to the president’s vaccine mandate. Thus, it is no surprise that many people are asking about exemptions.

Ever since the president’s announcement, the question of religious exemptions has been the subject of a lot of discussion, especially within churches and the Christian community. If there are no clear biblical admonitions against receiving a vaccine, are there any grounds for a religious exemption?

On the legality of such requests, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an influential Christian legal non-profit that defends religious freedom in the courts, provides the following advice

You must first determine if your objection is based on a sincerely held religious belief against taking any of the available vaccines (since they are different), or whether your objections are based on other medical, health, cultural, or political, but not religious, concerns. Many people have medical or other concerns which do not rise to the level of an actual religious belief. A belief that taking a vaccine is unwise or could be harmful will normally be considered a medical or health objection, not a religious objection.

As ADF points out, many objections to vaccines are not religious in nature. Many Christians objecting to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine are doing so based on medical, personal, or political concerns. But there is another category of objections—“conscience objections”—which are related to religious objections. Like religious beliefs, conscience claims are deeply personal and connected to the core of a person. Christians believe our conscience is a God-given internal faculty that guides moral decision-making. One of the roles of our conscience is to convict us when we do something wrong. Our sense of guilt or shame following a wrong action comes from our conscience.

Christians believe that willfully acting against one’s conscience is sinful. Romans 14:23 teaches that “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” This admonition seems relevant when the action involves something as personal as injecting a vaccine into one’s body which, according to Scripture, is a “temple of the Lord” (1 Cor. 6:19). Believers are called to be stewards of their bodies, and this stewardship should be exercised in line with one’s conscience.

These reflections are important when considering the propriety of requesting a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate. Nothing in the Bible forbids Christians from getting vaccinated. Yet others in the Christian community will object to getting vaccinated—whether on conscience, religious, or other grounds. Because Christians believe it is sinful to do anything that goes against one’s conscience and it is wrong to force anyone to do what they think is morally wrong, it is appropriate to respect and accommodate those who have legitimate, morally informed reasons for requesting an exemption.

Finally, those seeking an exemption would do well to examine their hearts and motivations for seeking an exemption. As Christians, our actions should be carried out in faith and with a clear conscience. Additionally, pastors should consider only submitting vaccine exemption requests on behalf of members of their congregation. This provides a level of accountability to the process and keeps insincere appeals and possible abuse in check.

Keeping these principles in mind, what follows is an example letter that can be submitted by one’s pastor as part of a request for an exemption to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Those consulting this model letter should feel free to modify it to ensure it accurately reflects the sincerely-held beliefs of the individual requesting the exemption. Please also be aware that such a letter from one’s pastor is not legally required to initiate a request for a religious exemption but can nevertheless be submitted by those who wish to do so.

Example Letter:

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing on behalf of [Church Member] as [he/she] is requesting to be exempt from the COVID-19 vaccine mandated by [his/her] employer. After this mandate was announced, [Church Member] requested to meet with me and discuss how [he/she] should respond as a committed Christian and member of [Name of Church].

It is true that, thus far, Christians have come to varying conclusions regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, with many deciding to take it while others have not. Although Christians haven’t all come to the same conclusion about the vaccine, what they all share is a biblically informed belief that every single person is made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). Part of being created in God’s image is to be endowed with a conscience, a God-given internal faculty that guides moral decision-making. A role of our conscience is to convict us when we do something wrong. Our conscience inflicts distress, in the form of remorse, whenever we violate what we believe is a morally appropriate course of action.

Significantly, Christians believe that to willfully act against one’s conscience is sinful. Romans 14:23 teaches that “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” This admonition seems especially pertinent when the action involves something as personal as injecting something into one’s body which, according to Scripture, is a “temple of the Lord” (1 Cor. 6:19). In other words, Christians believe it is sinful to do something that goes against their conscience and therefore morally wrong to force anyone to do something against their conscience. Christians believe sincere conscience objections should be respected and that no one should be forced to do something they believe is morally impermissible.

[Church Member’s] request for a religious conscience exemption to the COVD-19 vaccine is influenced by the church’s historic teaching on abortion (i.e., the intentional killing of unborn children in the womb). Fetal cell lines were used in the development and production of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, and fetal cell lines were used in the testing of the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines. Passages from the Bible—including Exodus 21:22-25, Psalm 51:5-6; 139:13-16, Jeremiah 1:4-5, and Luke 1:39-45—affirm the personhood of the unborn. [Church Member] believes in the sanctity of the unborn and that receiving the COVID-19 vaccine would be a violation of [his/her] conscience, which prohibits [him/her] from even a remote complicity with the sin of abortion.

I can affirm that [Church Member] is acting in accordance with [his/her] sincerely-held religious beliefs in requesting a religious exemption. As [Church Member’s] pastor, I affirm that I have spoken with and prayed with [Church Member] about [his/her] request for an exemption. I can affirm that [he/she] is simply trying to follow [his/her] conscience. Therefore, during these difficult times, I prayerfully request that [Church Member’s] employer honors and respects [his/her] request for a religious exemption, just as I hope it would honor the beliefs of its other employees of faith who conscientiously object to receiving the vaccine.

Sincerely,

[Pastor’s Name]

[Church Name]

For further information on exemption requests and information on legal assistance, visit PrayVoteStand.org/vaccine.

How Should Christians Think About Biden’s Vaccine Mandate?

by David Closson

September 20, 2021

On September 9, President Joe Biden announced new executive action concerning COVID-19 vaccines. According to the president’s plan, all employers with more than 100 employees must require their workers to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. Businesses that do not comply with the rule can be fined up to $14,000 per violation. The new mandate follows a recent mandate that all federal employees receive the vaccine, get tested weekly, or face dismissal from their job. The new regulation is supposed to be drafted and implemented by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the U.S. Department of Labor (although some think this is without legal authority). Currently, it is unclear what type of medical, religious, or conscience exemptions will be granted concerning the vaccine mandate.

How should Christians respond to President Biden’s sweeping vaccine mandate? Specifically, how should Christians think about religious exemptions and accommodations? Admittedly, these are complex questions on which many biblically grounded Christians differ. But given the scope and far-reaching consequences for civil liberties, conscience rights, religious freedom, and the ability of families to make health decisions, these questions deserve careful consideration and reflection.

Legal Concerns

First, there are serious concerns that President Biden’s vaccine mandate is illegal and unconstitutional. No federal statute or constitutional provision expressly gives the president the authority to impose a sweeping vaccine mandate on private businesses and their employees in this manner, and the Biden administration has an extremely questionable reading of the statute they claim gives him this authority. Some states have already threatened to sue.

At the very least, Christians should be aware of the legal and constitutional concerns related to the president’s order. Once the new rule goes into effect, the mandate might not withstand the likely barrage of lawsuits challenging its legality.

Role of Government

Second, questions about the legality and constitutionality of President Biden’s vaccine mandate should prompt Christians to think about the proper role of government. The Bible teaches that government has been ordained by God. According to Paul, “Whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom. 13:2, ESV). In the United States, the primary governing authority is the U.S. Constitution. This means that when a president or any government official pursues a policy that oversteps their prescribed realm of authority, they are acting unlawfully. Of course, when our elected officials issue directives within their rightful scope of authority, Christians are bound to comply, so long as obeying does not require us to sin against God, a Christian’s highest authority (Acts 5:29).  

But do we have an obligation to automatically and always obey the government? Similarly, how should Christians respond if a mandate or law is not illegal, but they personally don’t like the law or find it inconvenient? For example, what’s the proper Christian response if the government were to mandate a weekly exercise routine or require its citizens to wear pink hats on Thursday?  On these questions, Christians should be humble and willing to learn from one another. We should also endeavor to think biblically about the role and purpose of government. 

One helpful way to think biblically about the role of government is through the concept of sphere sovereignty, a philosophy of society developed by Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). According to Kuyper, life is divided into distinct, autonomous jurisdictions such as the state, family, church, and the individual. Although these spheres interact and may even overlap at points, there are clear lines of demarcation related to sovereignty that should not be crossed. For Kuyper, the state is empowered with limited oversight responsibility over the other spheres. However, the state’s authority is derivative, and dependent on God. Thus, the state must never attempt to monopolize power. Moreover, the state should respect the sovereignty of the individual. The state may intervene when a dispute arises between individuals and other spheres, but the state must never assume an outsized role and take over the tasks of society.

In short, sphere sovereignty is a model of diffused power that Kuyper believed was rooted in the structure of nature. Because authority is distributed across society’s vast array of institutions, no single entity or sphere accumulates ultimate sovereignty. Consequently, God’s position as supreme sovereign is preserved. Kuyper’s reflections are helpful when applied to the role of government. In fact, Kuyper’s thought follows the logic of Romans 13 which teaches that the state exists to punish evildoers and exact God’s wrath on those who do wrong (v. 4). Romans 13 does not teach that Christians should uncritically comply with the state no matter what is being demanded. As theologian Thomas Schreiner explains, “[Romans 13] is a general exhortation that delineates what is usually the case: people should normally obey the governing authorities.” In other words, the God-delegated purpose of the governing authorities is to punish evildoers and reward those who do good.

An implication of these principles is that when the government goes beyond its prescribed limits, it is acting unjustly and loses legitimacy. Applying the logic of sphere sovereignty to the vaccine mandate, the government does not have the authority to force us to inject a substance into our bodies that we do not consent to. This is outside the government’s jurisdiction, so it is appropriate for individuals to be wary about forced vaccination. The issue of bodily integrity is important, and Christians should be very concerned when the government oversteps its jurisdiction into the realm of the family and individual.

Of course, it is important to note that this appeal to bodily integrity is different than the popular but logically flawed pro-abortion slogan “my body, my choice.” For one, abortion deals with two bodies: the mothers’ and her child’s. The mother and child are two separate people; they are genetically distinct. Abortion violently destroys the body of the unborn child and interrupts the natural process of pregnancy, permanently severing the relationship between mother and child.

Political Concerns

Third, there are relevant political considerations related to the president’s mandate. In short, if Joe Biden can enact a mandate as broad and sweeping as this one, is there a mandate that this president or a future president can’t hand down in the name of public health? What’s the limit to what the president can compel American families and private companies to do? As it stands, the president’s mandate would affect about 100 million people. This fact alone necessitates careful consideration of the scope of presidential authority and power.

It is worth noting that the president’s directive is far more extreme than the orders handed down by Democrat governors and mayors. Throughout the pandemic, Democrat leaders have embraced measures such as mask mandates, lockdowns, and school closures. But the president’s mandate goes even further. In fact, Biden’s heavy-handed action threatens to increase vaccine hesitancy rather than persuade the unvaccinated to comply with the order.

Conscience Concerns

Fourth, questions about religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate have prompted debate in the wider society, including among Christians. Notably, there is nothing in the Bible that forbids Christians from getting vaccinated. Many Christians, citing verses like Philippians 2:4 (“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”), have cheerfully received COVID-19 vaccines out of a desire to protect not only their own health but also the health of their loved ones and neighbors. Meanwhile, other believers have reservations or sincerely held conscience objections to receiving the vaccine, believing it is morally impermissible or not right for them.

If there are no clear biblical admonitions against receiving a vaccine, are there any grounds for a religious exemption? On this question, Alliance Defending Freedom, an influential Christian legal group, provides the following advice:

You must first determine if your objection is based on a sincerely held religious belief against taking any of the available vaccines (since they are different), or whether your objections are based on other medical, health, cultural, or political, but not religious, concerns. Many people have medical or other concerns which do not rise to the level of an actual religious belief. A belief that taking a vaccine is unwise or could be harmful will normally be considered a medical or health objection, not a religious objection.

While the objections of some Christians to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine are rooted in medical, personal, and political concerns, the concerns of others qualify for what might be called “conscience objections.” Like religious beliefs, conscience claims are deeply personal and connected to the core of a person. Now, when talking about conscience, as with anything, it is important to define our terms. In short, Christians believe conscience is a God-given internal faculty that guides moral decision-making. Our conscience convicts us when we do something wrong. A rightly functioning conscience inflicts distress, in the form of guilt, shame, or remorse, whenever we violate what we believe is a morally appropriate course of action.

Significantly, Christians believe that to willfully act against one’s conscience is sinful. Romans 14:23 teaches that “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” This admonition seems especially pertinent when the action involves something as personal as injecting something into one’s body which, according to Scripture, is a “temple of the Lord” (1 Cor. 6:19). In other words, Christians believe it is sinful to do something that goes against their conscience; therefore, it is morally wrong to force anyone to do something that violates their conscience. In the context of the vaccine mandate, it seems appropriate to honor and respect those who have legitimate, morally informed reasons for receiving or not receiving a vaccine.

Abortion Concerns

Fifth, when it comes to religious freedom concerns and the vaccine, concern about complicity with abortion has been raised. On this front, it is worth noting that for 2,000 years, Christians have been clear on their convictions about abortion (i.e., the intentional killing of unborn children in the womb). According to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, fetal cell lines were used in the development and production of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, and fetal cell lines were used in the testing of the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines (but not in the vaccines themselves). Passages from the Bible—including Exodus 21:22-25; Psalm 51:5-6, 139:13-16; Jeremiah 1:4-5; and Luke 1:39-45—affirm the personhood of the unborn. Many who believe in the sanctity of life sincerely believe it is inappropriate to have even the slightest connection with abortion, even if that connection is remote. For that reason, some have chosen to forego a vaccine while many other pro-life Americans have chosen to get the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine and avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to the latter’s use of fetal cell lines in its development and production.

Finally, as a general note, when abortion-derived cell lines are used in the development, production, or testing of vaccines, the Christian community—including those who chose to get vaccines—should express disapproval about the continued use of these cell lines and request that laboratories and pharmaceutical companies not use these cell lines in the future.

Final Reflections

In short, President Biden’s vaccine mandate has proven to be divisive and frustrating to millions of Americans. After months of promising that his administration would not mandate vaccines, Biden has done an about-face. (As recently as July, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about vaccine mandates and responded, “Can we mandate vaccines across the country? No. That’s not a role that the federal government, I think, even has the power to make.”) Many Americans are understandably outraged. As those called to take every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5), Christians cannot respond to the vaccine mandate simply out of emotion but must think carefully and biblically about the announcement. Legal challenges will determine whether the order is constitutional and therefore enforceable.

But beyond the specifics of the mandate, Christians should think biblically about the role and authority of government as well as the propriety and wisdom of appealing to religious freedom exemptions. Religious freedom is a precious right afforded to those who live in this country and should never be abused. Although some Christians think it is unwise to appeal to religious freedom exemptions when the Bible does not prohibit vaccines, it is nonetheless the case that millions of Christians believe taking a COVID-19 vaccine is not the right decision for their health or have sincere conscience objections to being forced to do something they deem even remotely connected to an immoral practice such as abortion. Therefore, rather than bully, cajole, or coerce our fellow Americans, it seems prudent to respect each other’s religious beliefs, consciences, and moral convictions concerning vaccines.

Biden Wants Us to Forget about Afghanistan. We Must Not.

by Arielle Del Turco

September 15, 2021

Even as the front pages of newspapers have noticeably shifted away from focusing on Afghanistan, reports trickling in from that country are increasingly troubling.

Recent reports tell us: Taliban fighters have hunted down and killed four elite Afghan counterterrorism agents from American and British-trained units. The Taliban’s new acting government is comprised of many of the same characters the United States and our allies kicked out of power in 2001. The United Nations has warned that one million Afghan children face possible starvation in a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions.

The effects of President Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan are still unfolding. Biden would no doubt love for his role in the Afghanistan debacle to fade quietly into history. We cannot let that happen.

Afghan women are perhaps the largest group of people to endure immense suffering in the fallout of the clumsy withdrawal and the subsequent Taliban takeover.

Countless women and girls in Afghanistan are facing an impossible future, with reports surfacing that women must be segregated in universities, women may no longer work alongside men, and women may be prevented from playing sports. These are disastrous steps backward for women’s rights in a country that made a lot of progress in the past 20 years. And it’s happening under Biden’s watch.

The Left has long styled themselves as the champions of women’s rights. So, what does the Biden administration have to say about the rights of Afghan women?

When asked about the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan during a Senate hearing this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that ever since the Taliban takeover, the U.S. government has “worked to rally the international community to set very clear expectations going forward to include the expectation that it will uphold the rights of women and girls as well as minorities.”

It’s unlikely that these lackluster diplomatic efforts will comfort the millions of women in Afghanistan who have just been sent back to the dark ages.

Presumably, the “minorities” Blinken referred to include religious minorities, such as Christians, Hazara Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. Those who have not managed to flee are in great danger.

Eric Patterson wrote in Providence that “Christians and other religious minorities are fearful of venturing out in public, despite their needs for groceries, medical assistance, and other basic necessities.” Patterson also heard reports that Taliban spies collected the names of possible Christians by infiltrating crowds of people outside the Kabul airport hoping to escape.

Instead of working to help vulnerable Christians, the Biden administration made it more difficult for believers to flee. Private charities are still trying to help rescue vulnerable religious minorities and other at-risk Afghans with their own flights out of Afghanistan. Those involved in private rescue efforts say that the State Department has hindered efforts to rescue vulnerable Afghans.

It’s a life-and-death situation for those on the ground; what justification could there possibly be for blocking private flights not even headed to the United States?

In addition, the State Department also neglected to make religious minorities eligible for the Priority 2 (P-2) designation granting them access to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Conversion from Islam is a crime punishable by death under the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia law, and Christian converts face almost certain death for their religious views. Even though there were only a small number of Afghan Christians to begin with (several thousand), they were not prioritized by the Biden administration.

Biden’s disastrous withdrawal will also forever affect the families of the 13 U.S. military members who died in a suicide attack from ISIS-K at the Kabul airport in the chaotic last days of the evacuation. The grief of their families will not soon subside. Although they volunteered to serve our country knowing the risks, poor strategic decisions unnecessarily put them in harm’s way.

Some commentators have noticed that the newsiness of the Afghanistan withdrawal is “over.” But not so for those whose lives have been forever changed. In his public comments, Biden seems to coldly evade that fact.

Biden’s disaster in Afghanistan is not over by a long shot. The suffering of millions of people will far outlast the news cycle. And so should our collective memory.

IRF 101: Perils for Christians in India

by Arielle Del Turco , Tyler Watt

September 7, 2021

This blog is part of an International Religious Freedom 101 series providing an overview of religious freedom challenges in countries around the world. Read our previous installments on TurkeyPakistanSri LankaVietnamUzbekistan, and Nigeria. 

In May 2021, a mob of radical Hindus attacked Pastor Ramesh Bumbariya’s family after they refused to renounce their Christian faith. One of the armed assailants shot Bhima Bumbariya, the father of Pastor Bumbariya, killing him. Pastor Bumbariya and two other members of his family were hospitalized.

Even in the face of his father’s death, Pastor Bumbariya thanked God for His faithfulness. He was comforted by his conviction that God had a plan for his life to continue ministering to his community.

As Hindu nationalism continues to surge in India, the violence committed against this Christian family is just one example among hundreds. The violence stems from social hostility to religious minorities and state policies that reinforce such sentiments—making it more difficult for religious minorities to thrive in the Hindu-dominated state.

Mob Violence against Christians and Others

Christians in India number in the tens of millions but still only comprise just over two percent of the country’s population. Many Indian Christians come from historically lower castes in society, which can make them even more vulnerable to discrimination or social pressure. As the Evangelical Fellowship of India reported, the first half of 2021 saw at least 145 acts of violence perpetrated against Christians. These included several religiously motivated murders. These acts are all part of a larger effort to “purify” India of non-Hindu influences.

Some members of the Hindu majority feel threatened by the presence of Christians, especially when Hindus convert to Christianity. Some Hindus have led social movements to “reconvert” Indians back to Hinduism, even if the potential reconverts or their families were never adherents to Hinduism in the first place. These ceremonies are oftentimes forced or coerced.

Christians are not the only minority facing discrimination and threats because of their religion. More than 30 Muslims were killed in mob violence in New Delhi in 2020, following the passage of a law that created easier pathways to citizenship for specifically non-Muslim immigrants. The police were later found to be complicit in allowing these acts of violence to take place.

Several states in India have passed the “Freedom of Religion Act,” an ironically titled piece of legislation that makes it difficult or illegal for individuals to convert to their spouse’s faith at the time of marriage. Although proponents of the ban assert that a ban on this form of conversion protects women entering arranged or coerced unions, the result of the ban seems to disproportionately affect religious minorities. 

Anti-Conversion Laws Used to Control Faith

As previously documented by FRC, several Indian states have legislation restricting religious conversion. Odisha (formerly Orissa), Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand prohibit religious conversion by use of “force,” “allurement,” or “fraudulent means” and “require district authorities be informed of any intended conversion one month in advance.” Punishment varies by state, but the maximum is imprisonment for a term of three years and/or a fine of 50,000 rupees ($700). Some states require “individuals wishing to convert to another religion and clergy intending to officiate in a conversion ceremony to submit formal notification to the government.”

Such anti-conversion laws prohibit people from converting to another religion, and governments utilize them to maintain a majority of the population within their preferred religion. They are often framed as if they are protecting people from being tricked or “induced” into changing their faith. Yet, they often discourage people from sharing their faith at all.

Activities that seek to convert people in these states must be reported to local authorities weeks in advance. As advocacy organizations like International Christian Concern have reported, the anti-conversion laws in place throughout India are one-sided, targeting religious minorities while leaving members of the Hindu majority unaffected.

Social Hostility and the Dangers of Hindu Nationalism

A growing political agenda pushed by Hindu nationalist political parties, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), sometimes inspires violence against Christians and Muslims. For example, this summer, members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) rallied in Chitrakoot (a town held as a holy site in Hinduism) and developed a new party slogan: “Chadar aur Father Mukt Bharat,” which translates to: “An India Liberated of Muslims and Christians.”

Whether the violence is directed toward Muslims, Christians, or any other religious minority, the outcome is the same: the social position of the targeted group is weakened. Religious minorities feel less comfortable meeting to worship, setting up new social services like schools and clinics, and even walking in the streets of their home cities and villages. An apathetic government allows persecution to continue, especially in far-flung rural areas far from the areas that experience greater influence from Western values of tolerance and religious pluralism. 

India’s status as a democracy and a strategic ally of the United States should not prevent us from speaking out in defense of vulnerable Indian believers experiencing persecution. Exposing the truth and praying for the protection of all downtrodden people are the first steps toward fostering a better future for believers in India.

Taliban Takeover Brings New Hardships for Afghan Women

by Arielle Del Turco

August 26, 2021

The Taliban is trying to convince the rest of the world that they will respect human rights, including women’s. But the women of Afghanistan aren’t buying this for a second, and neither should the rest of the world.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid recently warned women to stay inside their homes, saying, “We are worried our forces who are new and have not been yet trained very well may mistreat women.” Some Afghan women fear that the supposedly temporary measure of keeping women indoors will remain in place.

This comes after Mujahid promised last week that women “will be given all their rights within Sharia “the Islamic laws.” However, it’s wrong to put qualifiers on human rights. If Afghan women’s equality is based on the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia law, then they are not truly equal at all. The women who remember life under the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan from 1996-2001 know this better than anyone.

Previously under Taliban rule, women could not work outside the home in most instances, leave the house without a male guardian, or receive a proper education. This is a reality that Afghan women don’t want to revert to.

After the Taliban was defeated in 2001, Afghan women began a long struggle for basic freedoms and opportunities. Trailblazing women entered and succeeded in many sectors of Afghan society. They went to college, started businesses, and thrived when given the opportunity.

But the effects of Taliban rule were long-lasting, and the journey for women’s rights in Afghanistan over the past 20 years was difficult and still a work in progress in the male-dominated culture. Now, women fear a return to the way they were forced to live in the 1990s.

Many young women, especially those living in urban areas and who were too young to remember the previous Taliban rule, grew up with the expectation of receiving an education and having the opportunity for a career. When Afghanistan quickly fell to the Taliban, these women’s dreams were crushed.

Some who used to work outside the home now fear they will be punished for it. Author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon reported that a young woman who visited a makeshift camp in Kabul filled with families who fled Taliban fighters in northern Afghanistan stated that, “Girls who had duty out of house [are] in greater risk, because [the Taliban] recognized them and then they punish, they ask you are Muslim why are you working out of you[r] home.”

Niloofar Rahmani, the first female Afghan air force pilot, worries that the Taliban might harm women who served in the Afghan Air Force as retribution. She has been a Taliban target herself. “They wanted to kill me just for what I have done, so I know what [Afghan women] are going through.”

Afghan women might lose the opportunity to have a career and even have a basic education.

Clarissa Ward, CNN’s chief international correspondent, spoke with a room full of Afghan women on August 10, 2021. She said, “The Taliban talks about how it’s changed now and girls can go to school, but I asked if any of these girls will be going to school, and I was told ‘Absolutely not. Girls don’t go to school.’” When pressed about why they would not be going to school, the women replied that the “Taliban says it’s bad.”

Worst of all, some Afghans who fled into Kabul from Taliban-held areas prior to the group’s takeover of the city claimed that Taliban fighters were demanding that communities surrender their unmarried women to become wives for fighters, essentially treating these women as sex slaves. This is a terrifying possibility for any family.

It remains to be seen what life will look like exactly for Afghan women and girls under the Taliban in the coming months. Yet, many are scared and facing an unimaginable future. Careers will be destroyed, young women’s safety is at risk, and hope for young girls’ futures is diminishing. 

U.S. leaders and intelligence officials knew how bad the Taliban would be, especially for women. When President Biden withdrew from Afghanistan, knowing what the consequences would be, was he also giving up on women’s rights in Afghanistan? Afghan women have just been sent back in time 20 years, and they have a long road ahead of them to reclaim their basic freedoms once again.

Every single woman in Afghanistan is created in the image of God, possesses inherent human dignity, and deserves to be treated with respect and honor. Pray that they will be.

Explainer: What the Taliban Takeover Means for Afghan Believers

by Arielle Del Turco , Tyler Watt

August 19, 2021

Open Doors, a ministry that supports persecuted Christians around the world, considers Afghanistan to be only slightly less hostile to Christianity than North Korea. Now, following the Taliban takeover, the Christian community in Afghanistan (estimated to be comprised of a few thousand believers) is under heightened pressure. The last few priests remaining in the country are hoping to flee, and underground Christians are fearing their own deaths.

Even before the Taliban consolidated control over the country, religious freedom was basically non-existent in Afghanistan. As the world’s attention has turned to Afghanistan, we must remember the plight of some of the most vulnerable in Afghan society. 

What Is the Recent History of Christianity in Afghanistan?

Christianity has always been a minority religion in Afghanistan, tolerated to varying degrees throughout the country’s history. Following the Taliban’s consolidation of power in 1996, most religious minorities fled the country. Today, hardly any religious minorities remain—the population is 99.7 Muslim. 

Under the Taliban’s brutal rule from 1996-2001, a strict form of Sharia law was imposed, and brutally so. Anyone caught violating the law would be publicly beaten, stoned to death, or executed. 

The Taliban infamously carried out public executions of men and women in Kabul’s soccer stadium, Ghazi Stadium. The events that took place there traumatized a generation, with some thinking that the souls of innocent victims roam the area at night.

Even after the Taliban was ousted in 2001 and a coalition-backed government was instituted, the government was known to deal swiftly with Afghans who converted from Islam to Christianity. These new believers would be asked to recant. If they refused, they would be expelled from the country, often to India. In 2006, Abdul Rahman was tried in court for converting to Christianity 16 years prior, facing the death penalty. 

The only legal church in the country is a Roman Catholic mission located within the Italian Embassy. Yet, even this church was intended to serve only Catholic foreigners temporarily staying in Afghanistan rather than to serve an Afghan Catholic community.

What Is Happening to Christians in Afghanistan Today? 

Today, almost all Christians in Afghanistan come from a Muslim background. A mostly young community that worships in underground house churches, they are forced to hide their faith. For many, even their own families do not know they are Christian. Leaving the Islamic faith is thought to be shameful, and being known to be a Christian can be a very dangerous thing. 

Christians now fear that the Taliban will hunt them down and ultimately kill them. Unfortunately, there are already reports that these fears are valid. One Christian leader told International Christian Concern, “Some known Christians are already receiving threatening phone calls… In these phone calls, unknown people say, ‘We are coming for you.’” 

American Christians are hearing reports from contacts in Afghanistan that many believers feel hopeless. One said, “most expect to meet Jesus face to face in the next two weeks.” 

Christians aren’t the only religious minority fearing for their future—very small communities of Sikhs, Hindus, and Shia Muslims are endangered by the Taliban’s takeover as well. Notably, only one sole Jew remains in Afghanistan—even though the Taliban calls him an “infidel,” he’s choosing to stay to look after the country’s only synagogue. 

What’s Next?

The Taliban has tried to calm international outrage by promising a blanket amnesty. But is today’s Taliban really all that different? They have the same oppressive ideological beliefs, and new images of wounded women and bloodied children outside of the Kabul airport demonstrates that the Taliban of the present is just as bad as it always was.

One desperate Catholic family in Afghanistan is pleading to the pope for help. The family said “the Taliban are going door to door” asking if any Christians live there or if any Christians are known to be in the community.

New technology that wasn’t available under the Taliban’s previous rule also poses new risks to Afghans. According to one report by a Christian media group that broadcasts into the Middle East, Taliban fighters are demanding to see people’s phones, looking for Bible apps.

It won’t be worse in the level of persecution, but I think it will be worse in terms of the numbers because there are more Christians in Afghanistan than there were 20 years ago,” said Todd Nettleton from Voice of the Martyrs. “We know there are followers of Jesus Christ in every single province of Afghanistan.”

Barnabite Fr. Giovanni Scalese, who served at the country’s lone Catholic mission, pleaded in an interview with Vatican Radio earlier this month, “Pray… pray, pray, pray, for Afghanistan!” May we all answer this call.

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