". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13

Commentary

Report: 99 Incidents of Persecution Against Christians in the West in Three Years

To many, religious intolerance and discrimination seems like a distant problem occurring mainly in repressive countries like China, Iran, or Pakistan. However, a new report from Family Research Council sheds light on the rise of government violations against Christians in Western countries.

The report entitled “Free to Believe? The Intensifying Intolerance Against Christians in the West” documents an alarming trend over the past three years of rising intolerance towards Christians in the West. The report lists 99 unique incidents of religious persecution across 14 separate countries spanning from January 2020 to May 2022. Government restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic are the leading cause of infringements of religious freedom featured in the report.

For example, Calvary Chapel in San Jose, California and its head pastor, Mike McClure, were fined over $2.8 million by Santa Clara County for holding in-person church services and allowing people to use the church building to pray despite California Governor Gavin Newsom’s (D) statewide order that churches be closed. McClure and his congregation felt a conviction from God to continue their ministry and challenge the county’s actions against them in court. Calvary Chapel claims that the county’s fines represent “cruel and unusual punishment.” As of today, the church remains locked in a legal battle with county officials over the fines.

Across the border in Canada, government abuses against pastors and churches during the pandemic were even more intense. Canadian Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church was jailed for holding worship services despite COVID-19 restrictions. Alberta’s public health inspector ordered GraceLife to be closed in 2020, but Coates felt convicted to keep the church open. In February 2021, Coates was arrested after a Sunday morning service for breaching the Public Health Act. He was given a court date, ordered to close the church, and then released. The following Sunday Coates held another church service that exceeded restrictive occupancy limits and turned himself in to the police. Coates was subsequently jailed for over a month and was given multiple fines of thousands of dollars.

Across the Western world, government COVID-19 policies often discriminated against churches while allowing other public facilities to remain open, which revealed a deep intolerance for Christianity that was brought to the surface. Yet, COVID-10 restrictions are far from the only challenges Christians increasingly face from governments in the West.

In April 2021, longstanding Finnish member of parliament Päivi Räsänen was charged by the Finnish prosecutor general with three counts of “ethnic agitation” under a hate speech law. Räsänen was accused of having engaged in “hate speech” simply for respectfully voicing her opinion on marriage and human sexuality in public. The charges came in response to statements she made in a 2004 pamphlet, comments during a 2019 radio debate, and a tweet in which she articulated a Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality. Yet, far from hateful, Räsänen is a soft-spoken grandmother who staunchly affirms that all people have dignity and worth, including those who disagree with her worldview.

Räsänen was eventually unanimously acquitted on all three charges in March of 2022. Despite the acquittal, the prosecutor general has decided to appeal the court’s decision. Räsänen’s experience highlights the growing dangers for Christians as the Christian worldview is being pushed out of mainstream culture and as governments take more authoritarian measures without respect for religious freedom or freedom of speech.

These stories serve as examples of what violations of religious freedom look like in the West today. As FRC’s report states, “When foundational Christian beliefs about human dignity or sexuality are widely portrayed as archaic and damaging, it becomes easy to see why Christians have been targeted in many of these countries.”

This report should serve as a wake-up for Christians who are too quick to brush off religious freedom as a concern for other countries. The profound importance of religious freedom — the ability to choose, change, and live out one’s faith — must be proactively protected by law and affirmed by culture. If left unprotected, this fundamental human right is at risk of eroding in the same Western countries it helped to flourish.

Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. Andrew Davenport is an intern with FRC’s Center for Religious Liberty.

Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council.