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How A Trial In Finland Could Have Worldwide Effects On Government Persecution Of Religion

Paivi Rasanen talks to Joy Pullmann
Image CreditThe Federalist

‘If the prosecution wins, the ability of pastors to preach the gospel is effectively over in Finland, without criminal sanction.’

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The trial of two Finnish Christians for publicly stating mainstream religious teachings that reserve sex only for heterosexual marriage is heading towards a judgment scheduled for March 30. The case could end up hitting Finland’s Supreme Court and even the European Court of Human Rights, which means its outcome could affect the rights of religious believers and political dissidents across the world.

Member of Parliament Paivi Rasanen and Lutheran Bishop Juhana Pohjola have been prosecuted now for nearly three years after Rasanen tweeted a picture of Bible verses in June 2019. Complaints about this tweet led to her prosecution under Finland’s “hate crimes” laws.

The government investigation of Rasanen’s tweet uncovered a theological pamphlet she wrote and Pojhola published in 2004, for which they have both been charged. The booklet states classic Christian teachings about sex as reserved only for marriage, and defining marriage as comprising only one man and one woman for life.

“The teachings concerning marriage and sexuality in the Bible arise from love to one’s neighbor,” Rasanen said in a Feb. 17 statement. “This case is about whether it is allowed in Finland to cite the Bible and to agree with it in topics that go against the tide and challenge the current ethos and thinking.”

Oral arguments in the case wrapped up this week on Valentine’s Day. On Feb. 17, a Finnish court also heard a related request from the prosecutor to force a Finnish radio show to take offline a two-minute audio clip of Rasanen speaking about marriage in 2019.

“Being criminally charged for voicing my deeply held beliefs in a country that has such deep roots in freedom of speech and religion feels unreal,” Rasanen told The Federalist.

Prosecutor Seeks to Ban Christian Speech, Including From Pastors

On Feb. 14, Pojhola’s lawyer Jyrki Anttinen argued “if the prosecution wins, the ability of pastors to preach the gospel is effectively over in Finland — without criminal sanction,” said Lorcan Price, a lawyer assisting the case for Alliance Defending Freedom International who attended the Helsinki hearing. An Irishman, Price listened with the aid of a Finnish translator.

The Finnish prosecutor who brought the case is seeking a fine of one-third of Rasanen’s annual income, the public erasure of documents and audio she’s made on the subject, and a financial penalty against the small religious organization Pohjola runs, the Luther Foundation. If the two Christians are convicted, the steepest possible penalty could be two years in prison.

“I’ve been to his headquarters, the Mission Diocese of the Lutheran Evangelical Church,” Price noted. “It’s fairly utilitarian. It’s not luxurious — there’s no marble foyer with a fountain and receptionist. There’s a kitchen and a communal area and Bishop Juhana’s office.”

“They’re a breakaway from the main Lutheran church,” Price continued. In fact, Pohjola was expelled from the state church in 2014, also for affirming classic Christian theology about differences between the two sexes. He was elected bishop by his growing missionary congregations last year. “The main church abandoned the teachings but got to keep all of the buildings. That’s what we have here. He’s in fairly basic accommodation, let’s say. I think anything of their income is outrageous.”

Attempt to Expand Government Censorship

It’s not clear Finland’s hate crimes law even bans controversial speech, but Finland’s top prosecutor is arguing that it does. If the prosecutor wins the case, it would mark an unprecedented expansion of identity laws that exist in most European countries, many U.S. cities and states, and that U.S. Democrats are trying to make a nationwide law in The Equality Act.

“The prosecutor believes the law means you can’t preach the gospel in public, but some believe it means you can’t directly incite violence,” Price noted.

The charges against the two Christians include an attempt to criminalize statements they made years before the law being used to prosecute them passed. That’s the only charge against Pohjola, and one of three charges against Rasanen.

“The fact that Bishop Juhana is even in this trial is Kafkaesque, it’s insane,” Price said. “He’s being charged with something he did as the head of a charitable foundation, the Luther Foundation, that publishes theological documents, for a document he didn’t write that expresses mainstream, orthodox Christian teaching… Finding that Bishop Juhana as a publisher broke the law would damage the rights of publishers to publish things that are controversial and as a church leader [would] damage his ability to publish and evangelize and disseminate in public Christian teaching.”

The Federalist interviewed Pohjola in person in November, and Rasanen via Zoom last week. As their case concluded arguments this week, U.S. members of Congress reiterated their public concerns about its implications for human rights both worldwide and in the United States.

Case Likely To Set International Precedents

It’s likely their case won’t be over even after the court decision likely out at the end of March, said Price. That’s because both parties are likely to appeal if they lose.

If the court convicts Rasanen or Pohjola, or both, their lawyers will “definitely” appeal, Price said. The Finnish prosecutor also seems likely to appeal if the two Christians are not convicted, as she has appealed similar cases attempting to criminalize politically incorrect views, he said.

The Finnish legal system allows prosecutors to appeal if they don’t win a conviction in their first round at court. In common law countries like England and the United States, usually only those convicted of crimes can appeal, not their prosecutors, except under unusual circumstances, Price said.

“I think that’s very burdensome for those accused,” he noted. “So you can go through multiple levels of the court and be vindicated at each level and the prosecutor can keep dragging the accused through the courts.”

All this means Rasanen and Pohjola’s cases could very well end up in Finland’s Supreme Court, where if they lose they could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, from where Price spoke to The Federalist by Zoom on Tuesday. That means their case could affect how all of Europe treats Christian doctrines and free speech more broadly.

Like the United States, Europe has been increasingly restricting political and religious speech, especially in international courts against countries seen as unfashionably conservative, such as Hungary and Poland, Price said. This case therefore comes at a crucial time as speech rights are receiving less government support than has been long standard in the West.

Silencing Attempt Backfires

Before this case, Rasanen and Pohjola’s theological booklet was printed years ago in a few hundred copies and mostly used within tiny Lutheran churches. Their prosecution has caused it to be distributed around the world and translated into several other languages, Price said.

“This obscure little pamphlet has made its way around the world thanks to the efforts of the prosecutor to shut it down,” he noted.

Being targeted for their faith has given Rasanen and Pohjola a global platform for preaching the Christian message of forgiveness for all sins and the deep importance to Christians of the Bible as the very Word of God. Rasanen told The Federalist that because of her case, European media are quoting Bible verses and people are debating their meaning. She says she’s received emails from people saying her case has prompted them to start reading the Bible, which the pastor’s wife and grandmother of nine says she’s read repeatedly since age 16.

Rasanen spoke to the huge worldwide audience of Fox News this week about her case. Political and religious leaders around the world have also expressed support for Rasanen and Pohjola’s rights to free speech and religious exercise, which are legally recognized in European human rights agreements.

“Many people and journalists around the world regularly ask me: ‘What keeps you going, from where do you find the courage to speak up?'” Rasanen told The Federalist. “My motivation comes from the Bible and from my will to have an impact on the society. A conviction based on the Christian faith is more than a [superficial] opinion. The early Christians did not renounce their faith in lions’ caves, why should I then renounce my faith in a court room? I believe it is my calling and honor to defend the foundational rights and freedoms at this point of my life.”

While some people have been scared into silence about their beliefs because of this prosecution, Rasanen said, it’s also prompted 1,000 Finns to stand in front of Parliament holding their Bibles up to “collectively show strong support for the freedom of God’s Word.” The Finnish Association for Freedom of Speech and Religion was also founded last June to support the legal defense for this case and possibly others.

“In one sense the prosecutor has frightened part of the population into being quiet and in another it has drawn huge attention to the issue,” Price said. “We can’t underestimate the chilling effect of these prosecutions. She [the prosecutor] cannot but regard this as at least a partial success that sending a tweet about the Bible could result in the police coming to your door. Not everyone has the grit and determination of Paivi.

“That’s our concern with these hate speech laws. It denudes society of the opportunity to hear something that can be shocking and provocative but is also a different perspective and for Christians founded on a fundamental truth of scripture.”