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.