Europe’s Top Human Rights Court condemns Russia for punishing a Christian pastor for hosting a prayer in his home

Don Ossewaarde

Europe’s Top Human Rights Court condemns Russia for punishing a Christian pastor for hosting prayer group in his home

Europe’s Top Human Rights Court condemns Russia for punishing a Christian pastor for hosting prayer group in his home

  • Don Ossewaarde was arrested, convicted, and fined over a prayer gathering at his home in Russia.
  • European Court of Human Rights reaffirms that “missionary work or evangelism…is protected under Article 9” of the European Convention on Human Rights.

STRASBOURG (15 March 2023) – Russia has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for violating the right to religious freedom and discriminating against a Christian pastor. In a judgment issued on 7 March 2023, the ECHR held that a 2016 punishment levied by Russian authorities for organizing a peaceful prayer gathering in the pastor’s house in Oryol, Russia was a clear breach of human rights.

In 2016, Donald Ossewaarde, an evangelical Christian pastor, was arrested, taken to the police station, sued, and convicted after he invited locals to his house for worship, singing, and bible study. He was fined 40,000 roubles (appr. 650 euros at the time). After the sentence was upheld by Russian courts, Ossewaarde appealed to the ECHR. ADF International supported Ossewaarde in bringing the case to the Court.

“Nobody should be discriminated against or persecuted for sharing their faith, regardless of their religion or denomination. The European Court of Human Rights has yet again affirmed that evangelization and mission work is a key, and robustly protected, element of the freedom of religion under the European Convention on Human Rights,” stated Dr. Felix Böllmann, Director of Advocacy Europe at ADF International, a human rights group that defends religious freedom worldwide.  

Convicted for inviting people to prayer gatherings

Since 2005, Ossewarde, originally from Michigan, had been living with his wife in Oryol, less than 200 km from the Ukrainian border. They regularly organized prayer gatherings and communal Bible reading. On 14 August 2016, three police officers entered their home. The door was open to give anyone access who wanted to join the Sunday worship. After the service, the officers questioned the attendees. Then they ordered Ossewaarde to come to the police station for fingerprinting.

The police took Ossewaarde directly from the police station to the Zhelezhnodorozhnyy District Court in Oryol where he was convicted for carrying out missionary work.

Anti-terrorism law used to criminalize sharing one’s faith

In July 2016, Russia introduced a new anti-terrorism law, which criminalized “missionary work” by individuals in many instances. This served as the legal basis for the conviction of Ossewaarde. The law furthermore provides for higher penalties if the accused person is not a Russian citizen.

“I was unjustly punished for exercising my basic human right to speak about my faith and pray with others. My wife and I invited people into our home to sing hymns, read the Bible, and pray together. Millions of people around the world are free to do this without interference, but I was treated like a criminal and convicted under a Russian law directed at terrorists,” Don Ossewaarde recalls.

The right to religious freedom protects missionary work

In its judgment, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the penalty for missionary work constitutes a violation of the right to religious freedom. The Court confirmed that the “freedom to manifest one’s religion includes … the right to express one’s religious views”. Furthermore, missionary work or evangelism “is protected under Article 9 alongside with other acts of worship”. 

According to the Court, sharing one’s faith is a “vital dimension of a religion” and as such worthy of highest legal protection. The Court also dismissed the distinct penalties for foreign citizens, in contrast to those for Russian citizens, as “discriminatory”. As such they manifest a violation of Article 14—the right not to be discriminated against.

Russia should serve as a warning

“I am encouraged that the Court has clearly affirmed the individual right of religious freedom, and the key importance of protecting group worship and evangelism efforts. Nobody should be criminalized for praying, or for inviting others to partake in peaceful religious gatherings. Criminalization of religion leads to tyranny. We hope and pray that the international community will pay attention to the erosion of religious freedom in Russia, and that this Court decision will prompt other countries to affirm and robustly protect the religious freedom of their people,” Don Ossewarde said.

“We enthusiastically welcome the Court’s judgment, as it makes clear that religious freedom extends to people of all faiths and beliefs who are fully entitled to speak about their convictions and invite others to join in as well. We strongly call on Russia to respect the international human rights framework in accordance with this ruling,” concluded Böllmann

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“Thoroughly illegitimate”: forced conversion and marriage of women and girls called out at UN event

Giorgio sitting down with a group at UN

Coinciding with the expert meeting of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, the high-level event, hosted by Poland, Hungary, and ADF International, brought together the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief and other actors to discuss challenges and solutions to the problem of forced conversions.

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Priest faces legal battle for “praying for free speech” – and pro-life bumper sticker

Fr. Sean und Auto

Priest faces legal battle for “praying for free speech” – and pro-life bumper sticker

“This is About Saying No To All Forms of Government-Led Discrimination and Persecution of Religious Minorities”: Nigerian Human Rights Defender Appeals to International Community

  • Father Sean Gough stood silently holding a “praying for free speech” sign near a closed abortion facility
  • Priest interrogated, charged with breaching censorship zone which prohibits prayer and the sharing of pregnancy support information

BIRMINGHAM (9 February 2023) – A Catholic priest is facing a legal battle after he was charged for breaching a censorship zone by silently praying, in addition to holding a sign with the words “praying for free speech,” near a closed abortion facility in Birmingham.

A further charge related to parking his car, which for some time has had on it a small “unborn lives matter” bumper sticker, within the same area. The area surrounding the facility, located on Station Road, has been covered by a local Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), in force since November, which prohibits prayer, distributing information about pregnancy help services, and other activities considered to constitute “protest”.

For peacefully supporting free speech within the censorship zone, Father Sean Gough was charged with “intimidating service-users” of the abortion facility. This was despite the fact that all this happened while the abortion facility was closed.

“I pray wherever I go, inside my head, for the people around me. How can it be a crime for a priest to pray? I often pray in my head near the abortion facility, but at the time in question, I was praying for free speech, which is under severe pressure in our country today. At all times, I believed my actions to be lawful – freedom of expression, especially when peaceful, is protected in domestic and international law. It is deeply undemocratic to censor public streets, particularly those spaces where we know that many women have benefitted from peaceful offers of help about services available,” said Father Sean Gough.

When police officers initially approached the priest holding the “praying for free speech sign”, they told Father Gough that they did not think that he was breaking rules. However, the priest was later invited for interview at the police station, interrogated on his actions, and eventually criminally charged.

The Crown Prosecution Service subsequently dropped the charges against Father Gough, but made clear that they could be reinstated. Like Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, Father Gough has stated his intention to pursue a clear verdict on his charges in court, in order to clear his name.

A Censorial Trend

Amid several recent cases of individuals facing fines or criminal charges for praying near abortion facilities, Father Gough marks the first where prayer that is not related to abortion, but to free speech, has led to criminalisation.

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was recently searched and arrested by three police officers, as captured in a viral video, after she made clear that she was not “protesting,” but “might be” praying inside her head within the Birmingham censorship zone.

Similarly, father and army veteran Adam Smith-Connor was recently fined in Bournemouth after local authorities questioned him as to the “nature of his prayer,” within a censorship zone, to which he answered, “I’m praying for my son, who is deceased”.

“The process in and of itself has become the punishment for people like Father Sean, who face onerous legal battles simply for holding peaceful views in certain public spaces, against the will of authorities. Nobody should be criminalised for peaceful activities like praying for the state of free speech in our country, or having a simple bumper sticker on their car that expresses a belief that ‘unborn lives matter’. This case demonstrates the far-reaching and illiberal consequences of so-called ‘buffer zones’. Father Sean’s years of service to women in crisis pregnancies are testimony to the good of his character and intention,” commented Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK, the organisation supporting Father Sean Gough.

Commenting on Father Gough’s decision to pursue clarity in court, Igunnubole added:

“Father Sean is understandably seeking clarity as to the lawfulness of his actions. Though charges were dropped after several weeks due to ‘insufficient evidence,’ he has been warned that further evidence relating to the charges may soon be forthcoming, implying the entire grueling process could soon restart from the beginning. This is a clear instance of the process becoming the punishment and creating a chilling effect on freedom of expression in the UK – a value that this government, incidentally, had promised to champion in their election manifesto”.

“ADF UK remains committed to supporting Father Sean’s pursuit of a verdict. No one should fear prosecution for expressing peaceful beliefs, let alone on a small bumper sticker, nor through a sign that simply reads ‘praying for free speech’,” commented Igunnubole.

Speaking about his broader work in service to women in crisis pregnancies, Father Gough explained:

“A large part of my ministry is working for ‘Rachel’s Vineyard,’ a charity that supports the healing of hundreds of women and men in the UK every year wounded by abortion. I don’t judge or condemn those who have had abortions – but volunteer my time to work for their healing.”

“It’s an issue that means a lot to me because my mom made a bold choice for life when I was a baby. I was conceived in the context of severe violence, and she found the grace and strength to fight for us both. So many people thought she should abort me, but by the grace of God, she didn’t, and we’re both so grateful for that today,” he continued.

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