Legal Presence, Perseverance Vital to Confront Religious Persecution

Rick Plasterer on July 21, 2022

Sean Nelson, Legal Counsel for Global Religious Freedom with ADF International moderated a panel on recent trends in religious freedom litigation at the International Religious Freedom Summit on June 30. He was joined by Temina Arora of ADF India, Nguyen Dinh Tharg of Boat People SOS, and Haytham Ereitej, a Jordanian lawyer with with ADF International’s Global Religious Freedom team.

Nelson pointed out that in many countries, religious believers who are subject to persecution may be unable to afford a lawyer or may face social or governmental pressure not to fight back. International pressure has been the only real mechanism to push back against religious persecution, which may be expanded by governments without pushback. He said that “Christians and other religious minorities worldwide face hostile governments, unfair and discriminatory treatment, mob violence, church closures, entry bans and deportations in places like India, Vietnam, and Turkey amongst many others.” In some countries where substantial persecution exists, it is possible, using the court system, to obtain protection for religious freedom. Sometimes just having a lawyer to take up a case is sufficient for the case to be dropped, he said. “In other instances, legal support is an important first step in helping victims to obtain justice.” This may involve appeals to higher courts. ADF International has been involved in religious freedom litigation in many countries, and Nelson said “we hope to strengthen not just the rule of law and religious freedom in these countries, but to provide a greater community of religious freedom fighters by growing capacity and number of allied lawyers and partners. We want there to be a lawyer for anyone in the world whose had their rights to religious freedom violated. We want to make sure that governments and non-state actors cannot ignore or harm religious freedom with impunity.”

Nelson turned first to Arora and asked about religious freedom litigation in India. He said that she has successfully challenged “an Indian law requiring religious converts to register with the state.” Arora said that “last year there were over 500 incidents of violence that were documented.” The violence is often in the form of pogroms directed at particular religious communities. Religious facilities of faith communities are destroyed, leaders of the religious community arrested “and this happens over and over again.” Another situation occurs where there is only one or a few Christian families in a given village. They may be told to renounce Christianity or leave the village. Destruction of homes or crops or other property may follow if they remain in the village as Christians. Police often may not defend such minority families. Arora said that in one specific case “it took several interventions in court” for the police to act. Eventually ADF International was able to get the state to rebuild homes, cleanup the damage done to property, and compensate the families for loss of crops and livestock. Christian villagers were also compensated for the violent attacks. Perpetrators of the attack were not punished, however. But there have been no repeat attacks after a warning to the perpetrators.

In another incident a large Christian prayer gathering, scheduled three months in advance, was prohibited two days before it was scheduled to happen, with the claim that “Christians were going to convert people.” ADF International persisted in court to get an order allowing the event to take place. The case was heard at 5:00 p.m. on the day before the event. After some discussion between the court and the police, in which the police expressed their belief that the Christian gathering would involve superstition and disorderly conduct, the court decided that the meeting should be protected regardless of the police’s evaluation of Christian beliefs. The meeting of 30,000 was able to proceed with police protection.

Nelson then introduced Nguyen Dinh Tharg, a refugee from Vietnam, who joined Boat People SOS as a volunteer, and later became its Executive Director. He also co-launched the Southeast Asia Freedom of Religion or Belief Network (SEAFORB). Tharg said that in working with ADF International, Boat People SOS has been developing strategies to defend religious freedom within the legal framework of Vietnam. This is challenging, because courts in Vietnam are “not independent, but everything is under the control of the communist party.” He said that the real legal situation in Vietnam is that if one is perceived to be on the “wrong side” of the party “you lose. And not only that, you may end up in prison.” He said that “so many human rights lawyers are now prisoners of conscience themselves, so that no one wants to touch these [religious freedom] cases.”

However, ADF International and Boat People SOS are working with the Montagnards and Hmong people, who are often Christians and supported America during the Vietnam War, and therefore are not well thought of by the government. He said that pushback against religious persecution focuses on the requirement that all religious groups in Vietnam be registered. House churches, however, “don’t want to be monitored or controlled.” Control is exactly what is involved in church registration. The government can “even have a say in who your minister will be,” he said. But Tharg said that Vietnam’s Law of Freedom of Religion or Belief “actually does not require groups to register if they don’t form a religious organization.” Yet the government has prosecuted Montagnard and Hmong Christians for holding prayer meetings. ADF International and Boat People SOS selected nine groups to test government regulations that go beyond the existing law. Four of these groups initiated legal challenges, notifying the government of their religious activities. The government then retaliated (in the form of fines) against three of the persons who signed the notification. But these individuals will continue\to challenge the government’s action until the legal challenge “reaches the central government in Hanoi.”  

ADF International and SOS Boat People have also selected three groups of Hmong Christians in Vietnam’s northwest province. Many of these people are forbidden from practicing their religion, or coerced into abandoning it, despite being members of registered churches “in blatant violation of the law.” People who fail to comply with state pressure may be forced from their homes. Religious freedom lawyers estimate that about 100,000 Hmong have been victims of forced eviction. The three groups of Hmong ADF International is working with in a religious liberty defense have repeatedly asked their registered church organization, Evangelical Church of Vietnam-North, (ECV-North) for help, but so far have gotten no response, or urged continued patience.

Tharg said that both ADF International and Boat People SOS are training selected groups of Montagnard and Hmong Christians to submit administrative complaints regarding their treatment with respect to religious freedom, challenging the authorities “to comply with their own laws.”

Nelson said that a new legislative proposal in Vietnam would increase the punishment for violating the religious restrictions “even if they are baseless. So that’s a very concerning thing.”

Nelson then introduced Haytham Ereitej, a Jordanian human rights lawyer on ADF International’s Global Religious Freedom team, and a member of the Jordan Transparency Center, who has been defending religious freedom in the Middle East for more than twenty years. He discussed the religious freedom situation in Turkey. Turkey is almost entirely Muslim and is situated in an area which is “full of conflicts.” He noted that Turkey is a country of 85 million people, with 330,000 Christians, including Evangelical Christians. Evangelicals in Turkey are generally Muslim-background believers. Unlike people in many other Muslim countries, everyone in Turkey has the right to change their religion. However, unlike other Christians in Turkey, Evangelicals have no right to church buildings; they instead meet in buildings which appear to be apartments or stores. Another problem is physical violence, e.g., attacks on pastors. “The most current challenge” is the deportation of Christians “who have been living … in Turkey for decades.” Evangelicals have been seen as a danger to Turkey, and could be deported under “Code N-82.” Over 100 people have been assigned an N-82 status. Turkish families are also in danger, if one parent is married to a non-Turkish citizen.

Ereitej said that a problem with defending religious freedom in Turkey is that the prosecutor can simply designate the case to be a national security case, and the judge will reject the case from being litigated. In one positive decision that ADF International and an allied lawyer obtained, the subject again received the same penalty from the state as before. Currently ADF International is working on training Turkish lawyers to handle religious freedom cases. They expect their over 100 cases to be rejected from the Appeals, Administrative, and Constitutional courts. They can then appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. There are also about 30 to 50 religious freedom cases that can be appealed to the ECHR in hope of positive decisions. Earlier, Turkey amended its constitution in view of the decisions of the ECHR.

The key lessons conveyed by the panel seemed to be the importance of presence and perseverance in dealing with religious persecution in other countries. As Nelson noted, sometimes simply a legal presence can lead authorities hostile or unfamiliar with religious freedom to desist in a particular case. With a continuing presence, reasonably the environment for religious freedom will improve. Another key observation is that even in a very hard tyranny, such as a communist dictatorship, it is possible to work with available law to get a just result. Both the need and the promise of legal presence and perseverance need to be kept in mind, even if defeats are suffered in the struggle for international religious freedom along with victories.

  1. Comment by David on July 21, 2022 at 7:58 am

    One might add Israel to the list of places where Christians are persecuted according to this BBC article:

    https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-59740356

    States based on religion almost always end up being intolerant. There is something to be said for secularism.

  2. Comment by Loren J Golden on July 21, 2022 at 9:22 am

    David,
     
    Secularist states are no more tolerant than religious ones.  Look at your own country!  The United States is growing increasingly secular, and the institutions of American society, and especially the political party currently in power, are increasingly intolerant of those who deny the prevailing sexual narrative, that all people ought to find their identity in sexual orientation and gender identity, where gender is fluid, and all manner of sexual perversions (except abuse) are regarded as appropriate behavior.  Indeed, if one dares to suggest in the public square that the narrative is in the wrong and is inflicting harm against individuals and society, especially on religious grounds, he is publicly castigated as an intolerant bigot.  Name-calling and an oppressive stifling of dissent is crowding out reasoned discourse in American society, much the same way the men and women of Ephesus shut down Paul’s preaching, when they gathered in a mob, shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19.28)
     
    No, David, increasing secularism does not lead to reduced intolerance.

  3. Comment by David on July 21, 2022 at 12:15 pm

    Secularism admits faults and allows revisions. Divine right governments feel their positions are God-given and not subject to question. Transexuals are a rather minor part of the population and people go to some trouble to demonize them. It seems some require a constant moral panic about something.

    What we have seen is religious intrusion into secular government. Religious slogans are adopted for money, the pledge, and the national motto that previously were not there. People claim a religious right to discriminate against disfavored groups. A restaurant owner tied this after the passage of the Civil Rights Act so he could refuse to serve Blacks. A practice of religion does not reasonably include purely secular matters as the operation of public accommodations.

  4. Comment by Rick Plasterer on July 21, 2022 at 1:06 pm

    David,

    I don’t see that Vietnam or (more in the past, but still in its current legal framework) Turkey is any more amenable to “revision” than India (or for that matter Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, although they are at different places in their intolerance).

    As I have said repeatedly, James Madison, the author of the First Amendment, was quite clear that our ultimate allegiance is to God, not the state. Complicity in sin – of the type your allude to (homosexuality and transgenderism) – is certainly a religious matter, and something that the state should not require. Racial discrimination was a cultural preference, not a religious precept, although ludicrous justifications were given from the Bible to support it. Any religious authority likely to be used in this country – the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran – does not require racial discrimination.

    Rick

  5. Comment by Rick Plasterer on July 21, 2022 at 2:11 pm

    I should add that when men who claim to be women rape female prison inmates, or demand entry to shelters for homeless and abused women, or children and adolescents are encouraged to alter the bodies at a crucial stage of sexual development, there is certainly cause for “moral panic.”

    Rick

  6. Comment by David on July 21, 2022 at 3:26 pm

    Turkey is actually a good example of what happens when a religious party takes over a previously secular government.

    As far as transexuals are concerned, if a person has male genitalia, then they should use male or private facilities.

  7. Comment by David on July 21, 2022 at 5:25 pm

    I would add that a secular democracy is quite different from a secular totalitarian state that fears any organization it does not control.

  8. Comment by Loren J Golden on July 21, 2022 at 10:03 pm

    In his 1887 correspondence to Bishop Creighton, Lord Acton famously wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.”
     
    Yet for all its fame, Lord Acton’s quote is not quite accurate.  The truth is, the human heart is corrupt—every human heart (save One).
     
    “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6.5)
     
    “And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.’” (Gen. 8.21)
     
    “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity;
         and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Ps. 51.5)
     
    “The heart is deceitful above all things,
         and desperately sick;
         who can understand it?
    I the LORD search the heart
         and test the mind,
    to give every man according to his ways,
         according to the fruit of his deeds.” (Jer. 17.9-10)
     
    “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled?  But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person.  But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” (Mt. 15.17-20, Mk. 7.18-23)
     
    Power, then, does not itself corrupt, for God has absolute power and is absolute good.  Rather, power magnifies the corruption that already resides in the human heart.  To be sure, some men and women are corrupt to a greater or lesser degree than others, but we are all corrupt—every single one of us—and power magnifies that corruption.  To take an example from a popular motion picture from thirty years ago, Hill Valley High bully Biff Tannen, the villain in the Back to the Future movies, was corrupt.  But in the second movie, when his older self gave his younger self a sports magazine from the future that recorded all the winners in every major sports event in the latter half of the 20th Century, Biff gambled his way into a massive fortune, the power of which effectively turned him into a terrible despot, who pulled the strings of power in American government.
     
    Now, while most politicians are not as corrupt as Biff Tannen, the power they exercise as senators, representatives, judges, and presidents allows them to turn things to their liking, within limits.  And this is true, whether one is conservative, moderate, or liberal, Democrat or Republican, Christian, or non-Christian.  No one is immune from the corrupting influence of the power they wield in their lives.  “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3.23)  To be sure, many Christians with the power of influence have exhibited significant moral failure in recent years—Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Bakker, Mark Driscoll, Bill Hybels, Jerry Falwell, and Ravi Zacharias, to name a few—and their failures, like David’s, has “given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme” (II Sam. 12.14 NKJV).
     
    But let us be clear about one thing: Christians are no more susceptible to the abuses of power than secularists.  Further, we Christians know that we will have to give an account for every thought, word, and deed—and for all the souls entrusted to our care—when we stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ (Mt. 12.36, 16.27, Rom. 14.12, II Cor. 5.10, Heb. 4.13, 13.17, I Pet. 4.5), and Christian leaders will be held to a higher standard still (Lk. 12.48, Jas. 3.1).  “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” (Ps. 111.10)
     
    Yet what, but the grace of God, keeps unbelievers who are in places of power, who do not fear the Lord, from abusing their authority?  And what, if these people dominate the American government, is going to keep them from persecuting the Church, as their forefathers did before them?  And we see the beginnings of this already.  The freedom of religion, guaranteed in the First Amendment, is being reinterpreted as the freedom of worship only, and not the freedom to engage in dialogue on matters pertaining to faith in the public square.  During the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, elected officials were using the excuse of limiting assemblies, so as to prevent the spread of the disease, to unfairly target churches, keeping them closed, while allowing businesses and public protests to continue to assemble.  And as we have already been accused in one of the comments above, Christians have been all but accused of discriminating against LGBTQ+ persons, because we believe the Bible’s testimony that the practices in which they find their identity are sins—for which God will judge those who commit them, and which thus must be repented of—and because we believe the Bible’s testimony that God commands us to warn them to turn from their wicked way.
     
    “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  Remember the word that I said to you: ‘If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.  If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.  But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.  If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin.  Whoever hates me hates my Father also.  If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father.  But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’” (Jn. 15.18-25)

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.