"Tantamount to a secular blasphemy law": US Senators condemn prosecution of Finnish politician on trial for Bible tweet
- Five US Senators have signed an open letter in light of “alarming” prosecution of Christian parliamentarian Päivi Räsänen and Bishop Juhana Pohjola
- Use of Finnish law to restrict freedom of expression “tantamount to a secular blasphemy law”, reads the letter, while Finnish politician stands on trial for tweet with Bible verses
WASHINGTON D.C. / HELSINKI (24 January 2022) – Five US Senators have sent a letter addressed to Rashad Hussain, US Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom, in light of the “alarming” prosecution of a Christian politician and grandmother for expressing her deeply-held beliefs.
“We are greatly concerned that the use of Finnish hate speech law is tantamount to a secular blasphemy law. It could open the door for prosecution of other devout Christians, Muslims, Jews and adherents of other faiths for publicly stating their religious beliefs that may conflict with secular trends. We believe that, regardless of whether Finnish prosecutors agree with the religious beliefs that MP Räsänen and Bishop Pohjola have expressed, all people have a fundamental right to the freedoms of religion and speech, which should be upheld without fear of government interference,” reads the letter, penned by Senator Marco Rubio.
Free Speech on Trial
The letter, signed by U.S. Senators Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, James Lankford, Jim Inhofe and Mike Braun highlights the case of Finnish parliamentarian Päivi Räsänen, who is also a medical doctor and the former Minister of the Interior. Räsänen faced criminal trial on Monday 24th January after being accused of engaging in “hate speech” for publicly voicing her deeply held beliefs on marriage and sexual ethics. Finland’s Prosecutor General brought three criminal charges against Räsänen over the contents of a pamphlet Räsänen wrote on these topics in 2004, for engaging in a debate on a 2019 radio show and for a tweet containing a picture of Bible verses Räsänen directed at her church leadership. Bishop Juhana Pohjola also faced trial alongside her for publishing a pamphlet for his congregation that Räsänen wrote on the topic over 17 years ago.
“Now it is time to speak. Because the more we are silent, the narrower the space for freedom of speech and religion grows. If I’m convicted, I think that the worst consequence would not be the fine against me, or even the prison sentence, it would be the censorship,” said Päivi Räsänen ahead of the trial.
A Global Concern
The letter joins other initiatives around the world that point to the potential significance of the case to the lives not only of Finnish citizens, but to citizens across the West.
In the UK, MPs have filed a motion to parliament, heralding concerns about the prosecution of the Finnish MP and the Bishop, noting the resulting cultural chill on free speech. “The more Christians keep silent on controversial themes, the narrower the space for freedom of speech gets,” reads the motion, available here.
Paul Coleman, executive director of ADF International who are supporting the defense, said that although a guilty verdict would not set an immediate legal precedent across Europe, “it will set a new European low bar for free speech standards.”
He said that people in Finland had found the case “very shocking” but warned that “it really could happen anywhere else” because of similar hate speech laws in place across Europe.
“We cannot remain silent on human rights abuses even when they are being committed by a friend and an ally”
The US letter, penned by Senator Marco Rubio and published shortly after the first day of the trial in Helsinki, raises concerns that the use of Finnish law to prosecute the politician and the Bishop was “tantamount to a secular blasphemy law”.
In light of the fact that “furthering the international right to religious freedom has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy”, the Senators have urged Ambassador Hussain to take three actions in order to uphold the international right to religious freedom in light of the case unfolding in Finland.
Hussain is called upon to raise concerns with the Finnish government over the court proceedings against Räsänen and Bishop Pohjola; to condemn the “unjust prosecutions”; and to continue to monitor other developments that threaten religious freedom in Finland and in Europe.
“We write to remind you that threats to this cherished freedom can come from the most unlikely of places, and we cannot remain silent on human rights abuses even when they are being committed by a friend and ally,” reads the letter.
“We greatly appreciate the long-standing and positive relationship between the United States and Finland. Our countries enjoy significant historic, cultural, economic, and security ties that speak to the values that we both share. This is precisely why we are concerned with these alarming developments that stand to weaken Finland’s commitment to the bedrock rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion,” it continues.
Ambassador Hussain, who was appointed to his role in December, is the principal adviser to President Biden and the Secretary of State regarding matters affecting religious freedom abroad.
“Freedom of religion or belief, and the freedom to express that belief, is a fundamental human right. ADF International welcomes this initiative of support for Päivi Räsänen and Bishop Juhana Pohjola.I In a democracy, nobody should fear arrest merely for expressing an opinion,” said Sean Nelson, legal counsel for global religious freedom at ADF International.
“We have been encouraged by Ambassador Hussain’s track record of advocating against blasphemy and similar laws, which continue to undermine the right to religious freedom throughout the world. We call on him to continue this work by heeding the urgent requests of these five senators and standing up to protect religious freedom in Finland,” he continued.
Court to rule on criminality of expressing Christian views
Police investigations against Räsänen started in June 2019. As an active member of the Finnish Lutheran church, she had addressed the leadership of her church on Twitter and questioned its official sponsorship of the LGBT event ‘Pride 2019’, accompanied by an image of Bible verses from the New Testament book of Romans. Following this tweet, further investigations against Räsänen were launched, going back to a church pamphlet Räsänen wrote almost 20 years ago. In the last two years, Räsänen has attended several lengthy police interrogations about her Christian beliefs – including being frequently asked by the police to explain her understanding of the Bible.
Räsänen is officially being prosecuted for the crime of “ethnic agitation”, which is the Finnish legal terminology for ‘hate speech’ under the section of “war crimes and crimes against humanity” in the Finnish criminal code.
Two of the three charges Räsänen faces come after the police made strong recommendations not to continue the prosecution. Räsänen’s statements also did not violate the policies of Twitter or the national broadcaster, which is why they are still freely available on their platforms.
ADF International continues to supports Räsänen’s defence and the right for everyone to freely share their beliefs.
“In a free society, everyone should be allowed to share their beliefs without fear of censorship. This is the foundation of every free and democratic society. Criminalizing speech through so-called ‘hate-speech’ laws shuts down important public debates and poses a grave threat to our democracies. These sorts of cases create a culture of fear and censorship and are becoming all too common throughout Europe. We hope and trust the Helsinki District Court will uphold the fundamental right to freedom of speech and acquit Päivi Räsänen of these outrageous charges,” said Paul Coleman, Executive Director of ADF International and author of ‘Censored: How European Hate Speech Laws are Threatening Freedom of Speech’.
Räsänen has served as a Finnish Member of Parliament since 1995, was chair of the Christian Democrats from 2004-2015, and from 2011-2015 she was the Minister of the Interior, during which she held responsibility for church affairs in Finland.
To support Päivi Räsänen’s case, visit www.ADFinternational.org/FreeSpeechOnTrial
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