Category archives: Religious Liberty

China Is About to Clamp Down on Hong Kong

by Arielle Del Turco

June 26, 2020

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on June 26 that the U.S. will impose visa restrictions on Chinese officials “responsible for eviscerating Hong Kong’s freedoms.” This is a good step for the people of Hong Kong desperately looking for a lifeline as they watch their freedoms get trampled by the Chinese government.

Last year’s pro-democracy protests, which captured global attention, initially targeted a proposed extradition law that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited to mainland China and subjected to its corrupt judicial system. Yet, this year’s threat to Hong Kong’s freedom is much worse. China’s National People’s Congress is expected to ratify a sweeping new national security law for Hong Kong next week. Newly released details indicate the law will damage many of the freedoms Hong Kongers have long enjoyed, including religious freedom.

According to the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984, Hong Kong is meant to enjoy a high degree of autonomy for 50 years following the city’s return to China in 1997. With the new security law, Hong Kong’s autonomy—and the “one country, two systems” principle that has guided its government—is all but destroyed. The new law will allow Beijing to override Hong Kong law, establish a national security office in Hong Kong to investigate crimes, and enable Beijing to suppress protests or public opposition.

China is one of the world’s worst violators of human rights and religious freedom. So, what does Beijing’s encroachment into the legal system in Hong Kong mean for its religious communities?

Firstly, Christian pastors and clergy members who participated in Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill protests may be punished for their participation. Christians and Christian leaders played a pivotal role in pro-democracy demonstrations last year. The hymn “Hallelujah to the Lord” became an anthem for protestors. Meanwhile, Chinese officials insinuated that demonstrators were terrorists.

No dissent is tolerated in mainland China, and Hong Kong’s religious leaders who are vocal against Beijing may be extradited and tried under the new law. Christian NGOs are now expressing concern for outspoken religious leaders such as Cardinal Joseph Zen and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, who supported the pro-democracy movement.

Secondly, the new law might pave the way for Hong Kong’s Christian leaders to be silenced. According to an outline of the law released by Chinese officials, the national security concerns Beijing claims the right to address include secession, subversion of state power, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces.

China’s broad accusation of “subversion of state power” may sound familiar. At the end of 2019, well-known house church pastor Wang Yi, who led one of China’s largest unregistered churches, was sentenced to nine years in prison for “inciting to subvert state power.” Beijing uses this phrase, among others, as an excuse to lock away anyone who publicly objects to the government’s practices. Should Hong Kong’s pastors expect to be next?

Thirdly, in addition to harming believers in Hong Kong, this new law is likely to have negative effects on faith in mainland China. Christianity is a legally recognized religion. However, Christian churches that register with the Chinese government are pressured to adapt their religious beliefs to Chinese Communist Party values, including socialism. To avoid government interference, many unregistered house churches operate outside of regulation but lack resources and pastoral training as they try to practice authentic Christianity. For a long time, house churches on the Chinese mainland have found support from Hong Kong’s Christians.

Churches and pastors in Hong Kong provide Bibles, training, and financial support to house churches on the mainland. One study from 2014 found that over 60 percent of Hong Kong’s churches “engage in work on the mainland, illicit or otherwise, including preaching and theological training.” If Hong Kong Christians are subjected to the same so-called “national security” laws that put Pastor Wang Yi in prison for subversion of state power, this may cut off the support and resources Hong Kong pastors feel they can safely offer. For the mainland’s increasingly oppressed churches, support from Hong Kong is a lifeline they can’t afford to lose.

On June 25, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution introduced by Senator Josh Hawley which condemned Beijing’s national security law and called on free countries to stand against Beijing’s effort to destroy basic liberties and human rights in Hong Kong. The Senate also passed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act which would impose sanctions on individuals, entities, and banks that aid Beijing’s campaign to control Hong Kong and destroy its autonomy. The U.S. House of Representatives should follow suit and swiftly pass the Hong Kong Autonomy Act and send it to the president’s desk.

When the National People’s Congress announced its proposed national security law, Beijing broke its agreement to allow Hong Kong autonomy. For Hong Kong residents who cherish their political and religious freedom, the effects will be widespread and devastating. As they fear for their future, U.S. officials must do everything within their power to support the people of Hong Kong. This city has long been a beacon of freedom and prosperity in contrast with Chinese authoritarianism. Chinese encroachment into Hong Kong is a tragedy for the free world, and it is one that the United States must not watch unfold silently.

The Threat of Genocide Darkens the Future for Nigeria’s Christians

by Lela Gilbert

June 23, 2020

Today, a dangerous darkness—radical Islamism and its genocidal intentions—is sweeping across the African continent. And it is particularly lethal in Nigeria, Africa’s largest nation.

In short, there is a bloodbath in Nigeria. And those of us who track religious freedom violations and Christian persecution are alarmed, because it seems increasingly clear that another genocide is already taking place. We know what happened in Rwanda. We saw what ISIS did in Iraq. And in recent decades, tens of thousands of Nigerians have been slaughtered. Yet their stories rarely appear in mainstream Western news reports, while virtually nothing is being done to stop the violence.

Two factions of Islamist jihadis are primarily responsible for the carnage.

One is the notorious terrorist group, Boko Haram—one faction of which has now aligned itself with the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Today, Boko Haram continues to hold Leah Sharibu, an enslaved Christian teenager who has refused to deny her faith.

On June 22, The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) denounced recent attacks by the Boko Haram faction ISWAP against innocent civilians in northern Nigeria.

Recent ISWAP attacks on innocent civilians are reprehensible,” said USCIRF Vice Chair Anurima Bhargava. “Hundreds have died in recent weeks as ISWAP continues to inflict terror and target civilians based on their beliefs. We condemn this deplorable violence.”

The report goes on to say, “Earlier this month, suspected ISWAP fighters killed 81 people when they attacked Foduma Kolomaiya village in northeast Nigeria. ISWAP then claimed responsibility for twin attacks that killed 20 soldiers and more than 40 civilians in Borno State on June 13.”

Another brutal Nigerian faction is often identified by the innocent-sounding name, “Fulani Herdsmen.” Initially, their violence was attributed to attempts to confiscate grazing land for their animals. However, because of ever-increasing evidence of carnage, outrageous brutality, and shouts of allah hu akbar, the Fulanis’ jihadi intentions have been clearly exposed.

Earlier this month, a report from Nigeria by the Christian Post was accompanied by a photo of a Nigerian Christian pastor who was gunned down, along with his wife, while working on their farm in the Taraba State of Nigeria. The couple left eight children orphaned, ages 1 to 19.

Just days before, CNN reported, “Uwaila Vera Omozuwa was attacked as she studied in church, according to Nigerian police. The 22-year-old died on May 30, just days after the brutal assault inside the church of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, or RCCG, in Benin city… Omozuwa was a member of the choir who had studied privately at the church since lockdown measures due to the coronavirus pandemic were put in place in Nigeria in March.”

Week after week such stories appear, primarily in Christian publications. Usually the killers are identified but not always. And unfortunately, no one really knows the precise numbers of Nigeria’s victims either, thanks to mass graves, torched villages, chaotic aftermaths, and disappearances. Still, the numbers we’ve seen are horrifying.

To make matters even more disturbing, there is mounting evidence that the present government of Nigeria is somehow complicit in the Islamist groups’ assaults. While tens of thousands of Nigeria’s Christians have been killed in recent decades, countless more have been mercilessly raped, maimed, disfigured, and disabled. And the displaced are innumerable.

In 2018, President Donald Trump raised this issue with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. “We’ve had very serious problems with Christians who have been murdered, killed in Nigeria,” Trump told reporters, with Buhari seated next to him. “We’re going to be… working on that problem very, very hard because we can’t allow that to happen.”

The remark seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

However, religious freedom researchers and activists continue to pursue accurate fact-finding mechanisms, consistent documentation, and an official U.S. envoy to specifically address this travesty. More and more concerned voices—including USCIRF—are demanding accountability from Nigeria’s leadership and are seeking an effective response from the U.S. government.

But meanwhile, as we watch and wait, we also need to fervently pray for spiritual intervention. Because the more time that passes, the deeper the darkness grows, and it threatens to decimate Nigeria’s Christian believers.

It’s Time to Reassess U.S. Policy Toward Turkey and Erdogan’s Islamist Agenda

by Lela Gilbert

June 22, 2020

Turkish aggression has been reported in at least five countries in June 2020. Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made power moves in Israel, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Greece.

And it is well known that whenever Turkey moves in, religious freedom moves out. Only Turkey’s Islamist practices are respected by Erdogan’s henchmen.

Israel: The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) reported in June that “Turkey is working diligently to deepen its involvement and influence on the Temple Mount, in the Old City of Jerusalem, and in east Jerusalem neighborhoods.” In these locations, there is evidence that the activists involved are ideologically linked to the Muslim Brotherhood movement in east Jerusalem.

Israelis know very well what the Muslim Brotherhood and its cohorts think about Jews and Judaism—on the Temple Mount and elsewhere. And it is worth noting that Erdogan is a loyal supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Libya: On June 20, The Jerusalem Post reported that Egypt and Turkey might come to blows over Libya’s civil war. Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, along with others, back General Khalifa Haftar in the conflict. Turkey and Qatar back the Government of the National Accord (GNA), and Turkey has been aggressively involved, providing aircraft, militias and arms. Notably, GNA is also rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Iraq: Turkey has recently bombed Sinjar Mountain, where countless Yazidi refugees have taken shelter. On FRC’s Washington Watch broadcast, Michael Rubin, a scholar and expert on the Middle East, explained that Erdogan’s primary goal is his continued ethnic cleansing of Kurdish groups. Rubin went on to say that many Yazidis have returned to live on Sinjar Mountain, “…the refugees, the women, the girls who have been returning from Syria, liberated from ISIS. They’re trying to get their life together.”

He went on: “And it’s not clear why the Turks are insisting on bombarding them… it raises questions about whether Turkey is waging counter-terrorism, and it’s clear they’re not—or whether they’re pursuing a religious agenda—an intolerant religious agenda.”

The Jerusalem Post also reported on Monday, June 22, that Turkish attacks have also put Christian villages in jeopardy in the same area.

Syria: The Washington Kurdish Institute reported, “During the first days of June 2020, around 20 different human rights organizations signed a¿petition¿to raise awareness on crimes carried on by the many Turkish-backed militias in Afrin, Syria and asked for international intervention….”

It is well known and widely reported that Afrin’s religious minorities have been violently abused by the Turks and their militias. Thousands of Christians fled the invasion of Afrin; few remain. And today, Christian and other minority communities in the Rojava region, where many fled Afrin, are again living in fear because of ongoing Turkish threats, attacks on resources, and occasional shelling. 

Greece: Arab News reported on June 14, “In an escalating war of nerves between Athens and Ankara, bilateral relations have deteriorated, sparking fears of a military confrontation between the two NATO allies. Greek Defense Minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos recently highlighted the country’s ‘readiness for military conflict with Turkey.’” Even rumors of an impending Turkish invasion of Greece have been reported, although unverified.

As for Greece, a historic perspective reveals widespread Turkish killings of Greek and Assyrian Christians in the early 20th century, with more than a million dead. 

And even today, Greek Orthodox properties in Turkey are confiscated and desecrated. Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq—Syriac, Protestant, and Orthodox alike—who fled to Turkey from ISIS have been deprived of their ability to support themselves and dare not practice their faith. Kidnappings and murders have been reported.

In its 2020 report, the U.S. Commission on International Religion Freedom recommended that the U.S. government “Include Turkey on the U.S. Department of State’s Special Watch List for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).”

Erdogan’s reckless, ruthless intrusion into country after country is believed by some observers to reflect his vision of a glorious, Neo-Ottoman Empire. Other scholars are more inclined to view  his motivation as strictly religious, demanding pan-Islamist conquest. Certainly the two intentions are not mutually exclusive.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government has been exceedingly, even excessively tolerant of Erdogan’s widespread human rights abuses. Perhaps the time has come for reevaluation and restoration of an uncompromised U.S. policy toward Turkey. It needs to reflect indiscriminatory justice and equality—including uncompromising demands for religious freedom for all.

An American Pastor was Finally Released from India. Hostility to Christians is Still on the Rise.

by Arielle Del Turco

June 15, 2020

American pastor Bryan Nerren was finally allowed to return home at the end of May after being detained in India for over seven months on a minor charge. “I am back with family and friends at home,” the Tennessee pastor told Morning Star News. “It is a wonderful time.” While his release is worth celebrating, the fact that the Indian government detained him for so long on such a minor charge signifies deeper religious freedom problems in the world’s largest democracy.

Authorities interrupted Pastor Nerren’s two-week trip to India and Nepal in October 2019, arresting him as he got off his flight in Bagdogra. Officials questioned him about failing to pay duty on $40,000—meant to fund two ministry conferences—that he brought with him when he arrived in New Delhi. 

But Pastor Nerren had done nothing wrong. He maintains he was never told to pay a duty. And he was not carrying enough money to be charged for evading tax duty anyways.

The real issue was his Christian mission. According to his lawyers, Indian officials “specifically asked if he was a Christian and if the funds would be used to support Christian causes.” After spending six days in jail, Pastor Nerren was required to pay a $4,000 fine. He was released but was banned from leaving the country.

The targeted interrogation about Pastor Nerren’s faith reflects a growing problem in India—the Indian government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is increasingly hostile to Christianity. Since the 2014 election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who rose to power with the BJP, things have been going from bad to worse for religious minorities.

Hindu nationalism advances the harmful narrative that “to be Indian is to be Hindu.” This belief implies that faiths other than Hinduism erode national unity.

Because they do not want Indians to convert to Christianity, Hindu nationalist leaders feel threatened by Christian missionaries and have, at times, been openly hostile to them. One former BJP politician called Christian missionaries “a threat to the unity of the country.”

In 2017, the Indian government cracked down on Compassion International, a Christian humanitarian aid group. Compassion International once provided food and medical assistance to around 145,000 Indian children. Yet, because the government was afraid it encouraged conversions to Christianity, the organization was forced to leave the country. The government’s hostility to Christianity had practical implications for impoverished children of all faiths. 

Just last week, India turned down a request for travel visas by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) which has wanted to review India’s religious freedom conditions. USCIRF, a federal commission tasked with advising the government on international religious freedom policies has been critical of India’s deteriorating religious freedom. In April, USCIRF’s annual report recommended that the U.S. officially designate India a “Country of Particular Concern” on religious freedom, clearly for good reason.

India is the world’s largest democracy, and the Indian government’s growing intolerance toward Christianity should be a concern that the rest of the world takes seriously. Facing discrimination from the government and mob violence from fellow citizens, Christians in India, many of whom are poor and marginalized, lack power to speak up for themselves. It falls to the rest of the world—including the United States, a strategic partner for India—to speak up on their behalf. 

FRC’s Top 7 Trending Items (Week of June 7)

by Family Research Council

June 12, 2020

 

Here are “The 7” top trending items at FRC over the past seven days:

1. Washington Update: “Like a Tweet, Lose a Lease”

For Birmingham Pastor Chris Hodges, a handful of “likes” were all it took to make the biggest church in Alabama homeless.

2. Washington Update: “From Riots to Repentance”

On Sunday, some demonstrations in Washington, D.C., took a different turn. Riots turned into rallies for reflection and repentance as hundreds of evangelicals in the D.C. area led a march. Together, different generations and races called for the church to rise up and help heal our nation.

3. Washington Update: “The George Floyd Culprit No One’s Talking about”

Derek Chauvin was no saint. That much was known long before his knee crushed the life out of George Floyd. After racking up 17 complaints in 19 years, the question most people have is — what was he still doing on the police force anyway?

4. Blog: “Governments Are Allowing Unrestricted Protests. So Why Are Churches Still Restricted?”

Since March, churches all over America have suspended in person worship services to comply with social distancing guidelines. The same cannot be said of many of the protestors in recent days.

5. Blog: “Prayerfully Responding to Civil Unrest”

As our nation faces brokenness and rioting, we must turn to the Lord and his word. Here are some ways we can prayerfully respond to the current civil unrest in our nation.

6. Washington WatchDr. Albert Mohler talks about the ironic timing of his new book, The Gathering Storm

Dr. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, joined Tony Perkins to discuss his new book, The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church.

7. Washington WatchJoe diGenova argues that defunding the police is an experiment in communism

Joe diGenova, Former U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, joined Sarah Perry to discuss the Left’s efforts to defund the police.

For more from FRC, visit our website at frc.org, our blog at frcblog.org, our Facebook pageTwitter account, and Instagram account. Get the latest on what FRC is saying about the current issues of the day that impact the state of faith, family, and freedom, both domestically and abroad. Check out “The 7” at the end of every week to get our highlights of the week’s trending items. Have a great weekend!

We Must Never Forget the Tiananmen Square Massacre

by Arielle Del Turco

June 4, 2020

Every year for the past 30 years, crowds have gathered in Hong Kong on June 4th to light candles, hear from former Chinese pro-democracy activists, and mourn the infamous massacre of student demonstrators by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 1989. This year, no legal vigil was permitted, but that didn’t stop thousands from bringing white candles to a Hong Kong park to remember the tragedy that came to be known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Hong Kong authorities refused to allow the annual public remembrance to be held this year, claiming to be concerned about the coronavirus, but such displays are always banned on the mainland. Many of the freedom-loving people of Hong Kong—who had long identified with those who called for freedom in Tiananmen Square—now fear the Chinese government is silencing Hong Kong dissenters much like they did in 1989.            

Beijing suppresses these annual memorials. Yet, the world must remember the tragedy that took place three decades ago because it reveals what the Chinese government is willing to do—even to its citizens: to squash perceived threats to its authority.

Thirty-one years ago today, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army fired live ammunition into crowds of their own people. Chinese civilians had been demonstrating in Tiananmen Square in Beijing for weeks, calling for a more democratic government. Their protests ended in a bloody crackdown that shocked the globe.

It is estimated that several hundred to several thousand people died that day, but an official death toll was never released. Family members of the deceased victims still beg for answers.

To this day, the Chinese government does not admit wrongdoing during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. When the government of Taiwan recently called upon Beijing to apologize for the violent crackdown three decades ago, a spokesman defended the legacy of communist party leadership. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian declared, “The great achievements after the founding of new China fully demonstrate that the development path chosen by the new China is totally correct and in line with China’s national conditions.”

Yet, the often-violent legacy of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule is nothing to take pride in. Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution took drastic human tolls and denied the Chinese people basic human rights.

The Chinese government still withholds such rights from its citizens today. Among them is freedom of religion, a right intimate and fundamental to the human conscience.

In the northwestern region of Xinjiang, the government is in a full-on assault against religion. At least 1.8 million Uyghur Muslims are forcibly detained in internment camps where they are brainwashed and abused. Outside the camps, the rest of the region is patrolled with facial recognition technology and other means to tightly control the oppressed Uyghur minority.

Throughout the mainland, Christians are intimidated, and churches are surveilled as crosses are torn down from their buildings. Well-known house church pastor Wang Yi sits in prison serving a nine-year sentence—a grave reminder to other pastors that they ought not step out of line.

Perhaps most alarmingly, evidence is mounting that the Chinese government is forcibly harvesting organs from political prisoners. These are thought to be mostly from Falun Gong practitioners, a long-persecuted faith group entirely undeserving of the abuse they endure. 

The Chinese Communist Party may want the world to forget its ruthless history, but it is critical that we keep the memory of the Tiananmen Square Massacre alive.

The Tiananmen Square Massacre exposed the blatant disregard with which the Chinese Communist Party views human lives. This disregard is unfortunately not relegated to history—it still affects the Chinese people, including religious believers. Today, we remember the Tiananmen Square Massacre and its countless victims. But let us also remember those who continue to suffer under the Chinese government’s oppressive policies.

The Trump Administration Is About to Do the Right Thing on Religious Freedom — Again

by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M. , Mary Beth Waddell, J.D.

May 22, 2020

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is about to finalize a rule it proposed last year to ensure that religious freedom and conscience are protected, the medical profession is not politicized, and patient care is prioritized. We urge this rule’s swift finalization.

This rule is great news for patients and the health care community alike. In 2016, under the Obama administration, HHS issued regulations on Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act defining “sex” in the context of “sex discrimination” to incorporate “gender identity” and “the termination of pregnancy”. Health care institutions sued, contending that the heavy hand of government was forcing them to violate their conscience and threatening their ability to operate. Understanding that HHS had exceeded its authority, a federal judge issued an injunction to prevent the Obama administration rule from taking effect.

Now, President Trump plans to clean up this mess, and protect religious freedom, for our caregiving institutions nationwide. This policy change will enable the medical community to fulfill the Hippocratic oath, while protecting the convictions of those in that community who want to hold to their religious beliefs and consciences about the biological understanding of sex.

President Trump’s proposed rule is also pro-life, and will ensure that the pro-life convictions of medical professionals will be honored. The inclusion of “termination of pregnancy” in the Obama administration rule could be read to require the provision of, and coverage or referral for, abortion. This could then lead to federal financial assistance being conditioned on the promotion and performance of acts that devalue the sanctity of human life. Thus, removing this language is important to ensuring that federal laws protecting the right of healthcare workers not to provide or refer for abortion will be upheld. 

We applaud HHS for standing with science and religious liberty to ensure that the medical community is free of political chains and can simply focus on providing the best possible care to their patients according to the best medical science.

The finalization of this rule is a high priority for religious freedom, and very important to protecting the faith of many throughout our country.

It should be finalized promptly, so that those with long-running conscience and religious freedom concerns in this area can finally put them to rest.

Iran Sends More Christians to Prison

by Arielle Del Turco

May 22, 2020

Four Iranian Christians are on their way to prison after a Revolutionary Court set their bail at the equivalent of $30,000 each—an exorbitant price they were unable to pay. The exact charges against these four—Moslem Rahimi, Ramin Hassanpour and his wife Kathrin Sajadpour, and another Christian who wishes to be anonymous—remain unknown. The charges are likely related to the Christians’ involvement in a house church, an act that the Iranian regime considers “hostile” to the state and to be connected to Zionist groups.

For Muslims in Iran, converting to Christianity is itself a crime. Iranian law stipulates that Muslim citizens may not “chang[e] or renouc[e] their religious beliefs.” The punishment for apostasy can include imprisonment or even the death penalty, though it is rarely carried out.

The four Iranian Christians converted to Christianity from a Muslim background, and are members of the same church movement to which Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani belongs. Pastor Nadarkhani has been in prison since July 22, 2018.

The Iranian regime classifies itself as an “Islamic Republic” and believes conversions away from Islam to Christianity undermines the regime’s authority. Consequently, Iranian Christians are often detained on trumped-up charges related to “national security.”

Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh know what it is like to be imprisoned in Iran for their faith. In 2009, the two friends spent almost nine months in Iran’s notorious Evin prison. They had been charged with apostasy, blasphemy, and anti-government activity because they converted to Christianity and dared to share their newfound faith with their countrymen. Before authorities caught them, they had managed to hand out 20,000 copies of the New Testament.

In their book, Captive in Iran, Maryam and Marziyeh describe the many challenges faced by Iran’s political prisoners. Facilities are filthy, access to health care is inadequate, and the trauma of life in prison—including knowing others who are executed by the state—is overwhelming.

However, despite the regime’s best efforts to stifle the Christian faith, reports indicate that Christianity is rapidly spreading in Iran. House churches are flourishing, and the regime is unable to contain their growth. This should be a lesson to governments around the world, that individual faith cannot be controlled in the long run, and religious freedom is the best policy for a healthy society.

To hear Maryam and Marziyeh’s story and learn what it is like to live as a Christian in Iran, watch the video of FRC’s event, Stories from Iran: Religious Freedom and the Secret Growth of the Underground Church.

A “Blasphemous” Text Put a Pakistani Couple on Death Row. They’re Illiterate.

by Arielle Del Turco

May 21, 2020

Today, a married couple in Pakistan is languishing apart in separate prisons, unable to see each other or their four children. Shafqat Emmanuel remains paralyzed from the waist down following an accident in 2004. His wife, Shagufta Kausar provided for her family by working as a cleaner. Shafqat and Shagufta lived simple lives on a church compound before their world came crashing down and a years-long nightmare ensued due to Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.  

The saga began in June 2013, when a Muslim cleric claimed he received a blasphemous text message from Shagufta’s phone. The cleric said he showed the text to his lawyer, and both subsequently claimed that they received more inflammatory texts from the phone registered to Shagufta. The alleged texts were written in English.

There are a few problems with this dubious story. Shagufta and Shafqat come from a poor background and are illiterate. They could not have crafted such a text in their native Urdu, and certainly not in English. The couple suspects the cleric’s accusation is retaliation for an argument between their children and their neighbors.

Nonetheless, authorities arrested the couple and charged them both with “insulting the Qur’an” (under Section 295-B) and “insulting the Prophet” (Section 295-C). These crimes are punishable by life imprisonment and death, respectively. In April 2014, Shafqat and Shagufta were sentenced to death, and they are still appealing the court’s decision.

Blasphemy laws are an affront to human rights, and Pakistan has proven to be one of the foremost abusers of these laws.

A new report from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan found that, as of December 2019, at least 17 people were on death row after being convicted on blasphemy charges.

Blasphemy laws prohibit insults to religion. Allegations of blasphemy made against religious minorities living in the Muslim world are often utilized to settle unrelated disputes. Religious minorities like Christians are particularly vulnerable to these accusations because of their marginalized place in society.

Unfortunately, blasphemy laws remain in many parts of the world. In its 2020 annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found that at least 84 countries have blasphemy laws, and even more have broad laws that are used to target speech deemed blasphemous.

The continued existence of blasphemy laws in so many countries makes this a global issue. Twenty-seven countries signed a statement of concern at last year’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, held by the U.S. State Department, calling upon the governments that utilize blasphemy and apostasy laws to repeal them. The international community should continue to push for the end of blasphemy laws everywhere. It should be high on the agenda for the new International Religious Freedom Alliance spearheaded by the State Department.

Blasphemy laws restrict freedom of speech and freedom of religion—both fundamental human rights. No one should be put on death row for their faith.

To learn more about blasphemy laws around the world, check out FRC’s publication on Apostasy, Blasphemy, and Anti-Conversion Laws.

Churches Are Filing Lawsuits Over Coronavirus Restrictions. Here Is a List.

by Katherine Beck Johnson

May 20, 2020

**UPDATED as of 6/11

As the coronavirus pandemic has swept across the globe, many state and local governments have issued stay-at-home orders. Almost everyone in the United States has had some kind of restriction placed on them.

Various government authorities, particularly governors in California, Kentucky, Illinois, and Maine, have failed to prioritize religious liberty even as they prioritize other secular interests. Rather than looking at churches as partners to help care for our communities at this time, the governors in these states have treated churches as antagonists. Along with other governmental authorities, they have failed to cooperate with churches, often hindering them from assisting their communities during this time.

The Department of Justice, which has been focused on protecting religious liberty, especially during the pandemic, released a memo expressing its concern that this right not be violated at this time. The memo notes that reasonable restrictions may be permissible. However, a state may not cross the line from “an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID-19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional and statutory protections.” Many churches have challenged discriminatory state and local orders by bringing suit in court. These court cases are listed below.

Churches that Won

1. Tabernacle Baptist Church v. Beshear

To curb the spread of the coronavirus, Kentucky governor Andrew Beshear ordered nonessential businesses to close. The state put a limit on “mass gatherings,” including those considered “faith-based.” Tabernacle Baptist Church planned to hold services in accordance with social distancing guidelines. Nevertheless, they were not allowed. The judge held that Tabernacle’s free exercise rights were violated, and granted a temporary restraining order.

2. On Fire Christian Center v. Fischer

On Fire Christian Center in Louisville, Kentucky was granted a temporary restraining order, allowing it to hold drive-in services for Easter Sunday. Judge Walker found that the Louisville mayor’s prohibition was not neutral because it allowed businesses, such as liquor stores, to remain open for drive-through purposes but not churches.

3. Maryville Baptist Church v. Beshear (church initially lost)

The district court denied the Hillview, Kentucky church’s emergency motion for a temporary restraining order. The district judge found that the order applied to “all gatherings” and not just faith-based gatherings. The judge found the exceptions to be singular transitory experiences, whereas church services are communal activities. However, the opinion was appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit held that the governor’s order likely prohibits the Free Exercise Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment, especially with respect to drive-in services. The governor had allowed law firms, laundromats, liquor stores, and gun shops to continue operating. The plaintiff’s motion for an injunction pending appeal was granted.

4. First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs v. City of Holly Springs

In Mississippi, First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs filed suit seeking a temporary restraining order permitting a planned Sunday service. At the hearing, the judge believed the city had made concessions that would resolve the dispute in question, but the court still put forth an order to clarify things. The judge noted that drive-in services should be permitted. Yet, the judge was less sympathetic to a request for a 35-person indoor gathering.

5. Berean Baptist Church v. Cooper

A federal judge in North Carolina granted a temporary restraining order, which allowed churchgoers to attend church in person. The North Carolina governor banned indoor church services of over 10 people, though outdoor services were still allowed. The judge noted that some religious services cannot be conducted outdoors or with fewer than 10 people. He also noted that the governor allowed over 10 people indoors for secular activities. Finally, the judge said, “The Governor has failed to cite any peer-reviewed study showing that religious interactions in those 15 states have accelerated the spread of COVID-19 in any manner distinguishable from non-religious interactions.”

6. Elkhorn Baptist Church, et al. v. Brown

More than 10 Oregon churches and multiple individuals brought suit against Governor Brown’s stay-at-home order. When the state started phase one opening, many churches still experienced heavy operating restrictions. The judge ruled that Brown’s executive order was null and void.

7. Edgewater Christian Church v. Brown

Two churches in Oregon sued Governor Brown. The church argues that if people are able to gather at restaurants, they should be able to gather at church.

*Update: Case voluntarily dismissed on June 10, 2020 after Phase 2 of Oregon’s reopening plans allows church to resume services.

Churches that Lost

1. Lighthouse Fellowship Church v. Northam (DOJ intervened)

In Virginia, Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island filed suit after the pastor was issued a citation for holding a Palm Sunday service for 16 people. The church sought a preliminary injunction against Governor Northam’s order, but a U.S. District Court judge denied that request. The next day, attorneys for the church filed a notice that it would appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and asked again for a temporary restraining order.

Governor Northam’s new order will allow churches to hold gatherings at 50 percent capacity.

2. Cassell v. Snyders

In Illinois, The Beloved Church sued because the stay-at-home order infringed on their religious practices. The governor reissued an order allowing churches to meet as long as they abided by the requirement of no more than 10 people. The judge held that the current crisis implicates Jacobson and advances the government’s interest in protecting Illinoisans from the pandemic. It has been appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

3. Legacy Church, Inc. v. Kunkel

In New Mexico, Legacy Church challenged the governor’s executive order, which restricts places of worship to gatherings of no more than five people within a single room. The judge held that the order did not violate the church’s First Amendment because it was neutral and generally applicable.

4. Calvary Chapel of Bangor v. Mills

In Maine, Calvary Chapel sued Governor Mills over her executive order, which limited gatherings to 10 people. The district judge held that the plaintiff was unlikely to succeed on the merits. The judge found that the order was placed to protect the people from the virus. The judge found the order to be neutral and generally applicable.

5. Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church v. Pritzker

Two churches in Illinois sued because they did not want to abide by the 10-person limit. The judge held that under Jacobson and a First Amendment analysis, the churches lost. The judge found that the order does not target religion. He noted that gatherings at church pose much more risk than gatherings at businesses. Finally, the judge noted that the order had nothing to do with suppressing religion but rather was executed to protect people from the disease.

6. Gish v. Newsom

A day after Easter, three church pastors and a congregant sued the state of California, as well as Riverside and San Bernardino counties, for refusing to designate houses of worship as essential services. The social distancing mandates are particularly challenging for James Moffatt of Church Unlimited in Indio, who, the lawsuit complaint said, “believes that scripture commands him as a pastor to lay hands on people and pray for them, this includes the sick.” Here is the church’s complaint.

*Update: Request for a Temporary Restraining Order was denied. The orders were found to be neutral.

7. Cross Culture Christian Center v. Newsom

After a Lodi, California church was ordered to temporarily shut down, the Cross Culture Christian Center sued. “Plaintiffs have sincerely held religious beliefs, rooted in the Bible, that followers of Jesus Christ are not to forsake the assembling of themselves together, and that they are to do so even more in times of peril and crisis.” Here is the church’s complaint.

*Update: Request for Temporary Restraining Order was denied. The court noted the general police powers to promote safety during a public health crisis.

8. Abiding Place Ministries v. Newsom

The San Diego church Abiding Place Ministries argued that California’s exemptions for non-religious businesses such as “cannabis retailers, grocery stores, pharmacies, supermarkets, big box stores,” betray a preference for non-religious activity. Here is the church’s complaint.

*Update: Request for Preliminary Injunction denied on June 4, 2020 (issue is moot in light of May 25 guidelines).

9. South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom

With Gov. Newsom declaring a transition from “Phase 1” to “Phase 2” of the state’s pandemic response, allowing for more businesses to open and operate, two religious institutions felt they were not treated equally in the reopening plans. The South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and the Chabad of Carmel Valley synagogue in San Diego are suing, arguing that the revised order restricts their congregation’s free exercise of religion, assembly, speech, and right to due process and that it constitutes “excessive government entanglement with religion.” Here is the church’s complaint.

*Update: Case went to the Supreme Court. Application for injunctive relief was denied May 29, 2020 (Roberts, C.J., concurring) (holding that California’s reopening procedures do not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment).

10. Spell v. Edwards

Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in Louisiana filed suit to stop Governor Edwards from enforcing restrictions on him and his church. Spell has proceeded in a manner lacking legal strategy, making it more likely he will lose.

*Update: Motion for Temporary Restraining Order was denied.

11. Bullock v. Carney

A pastor sued the Governor of Delaware claiming that the executive orders deprive his right to freely exercise his religion. A motion for a Temporary Restraining Order was denied.

Churches Awaiting an Opinion

1. Temple Baptist Church v. City of Greenville (DOJ intervened)

In Mississippi, Temple Baptist Church sued after congregants were ticketed for attending drive-in church services. The attorneys withdrew the request for a temporary restraining order because new guidance was issued.

2. Robinson, Knopfler v. Murphy

St. Thomas More Society is representing a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest against New Jersey’s Executive Order 107, which caps gatherings at 10 people. The police halted the celebration of Mass and a Jewish prayer ceremony, which requires 10 men.

3. High Plains Harvest Church v. Polis

High Plains Harvest Church sued Colorado health officials over their ban which prevents churches from gathering. The suit notes that if hundreds of people can gather at Lowe’s, they should be able to gather at church.

*Update: DOJ intervened in the case supporting the church.

4. Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak

Complaint filed on May 22, 2020 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, challenging Governor’s ban on church services of more than 10 people; complaint amended May 28, 2020 (updated Phase II plan says that churches not allowed to meet with more than 50 people)

** It should also be noted that some attorneys and legal firms sent letters to localities that resulted in churches being allowed to resume services. They did not get to the point of bringing suit. First Liberty has a list that can be found here.

While there seems to be a split in approaches to how some courts are handling the lawsuits by the church, there is an overwhelming willingness of judges to allow outdoor church services. While the pandemic continues to unfold, we will be monitoring the church lawsuits in the courts and making sure churches are treated equally. Leaders in states less interested in protecting religious liberty during the pandemic should not be permitted to prioritize secular interests over faith-based ones. It is crucial to religious liberty that churches are treated equally; the right to freely exercise one’s religion should not be infringed upon unnecessarily.

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