A Canadian pastor has “exiled” his family to Kenya after his government invoked emergency war measures to punish citizens who attended a protest where he prayed and sang the national anthem.
Harold Ristau, a decorated veteran and seminary professor, participated in the “trucker convoy” against lockdowns last February, when The Federalist interviewed him last. He is now party to a lawsuit arguing the government’s response to Covid that included treating dissent as terrorism violated Canadians’ fundamental rights.
“The fight is far from over,” said Marty Moore, a lawyer for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), which is litigating Ristau’s case. More than 14 months after the protest, police arrested another convoy leader this May. Lockdown litigation will likely continue for several more years, Moore said. The same is true across the West.
For peaceably assembling to petition his government for one day last year, Ristau says, he was threatened with the removal of his security clearance and government confiscation of his retirement nest egg, kids’ college funds, and other life savings. Ristau says he’s also experienced serious damage to his reputation, career, and friendships after the government used anti-terrorism measures against peaceful protesters.
“There’s no protection, if a pandemic started tomorrow, from future mandates. So that’s why I was really open to coming here,” his wife, Elise Ristau, said, sitting beside her husband in a recent video interview from Kenya.
Besides dealing with overbearing health restrictions, their children were mocked at school for their family’s religious and political views, Elise Ristau told The Federalist. After enduring more than two years of severe social and government repression, the Ristaus moved outside Nairobi with their five children last August.
“I don’t know that I can go back and be a Christian in Canada. So that’s why we’re here in Kenya,” Harold Ristau said. There, the former chaplain with a Ph.D. in philosophy trains Kenyan pastors at the Lutheran School of Theology.
Confiscating Dissenters’ Life Savings
Government use of “debanking” to punish dissent is growing in the West. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government used it on essentially every convoy participant authorities could identify, said Moore.
“As soon as they knew your name if you were on the ground [protesting] in Ottawa, they froze your bank account,” Moore told The Federalist. “…The federal government met with the banks, they gave the [protesters’] names to the banks, and the banks were then pushed to freeze the bank accounts of anyone with that name in their banks. It was a fascist collaboration.”
In May, American whistleblowers disclosed the FBI obtained, without any warrants, “a huge list” of citizens’ private banking data in its Jan. 6, 2021 capitol riot investigation. Investigators targeted any American who legally bought a firearm using a Bank of America account all the way back to the 1990s, the whistleblower testified.
Treating a Veteran Like a Terrorist
After the Canadian government announced it would freeze the bank accounts of convoy protesters and their mostly small-dollar donors without legal due process, rumors of bank runs spread. Multiple large Canadian banks appeared to shut down online operations soon after the announcement.
Elise withdrew their family’s savings that Friday, too, she and Harold said. Like thousands of Canadians, they had donated to the convoy. Yet Ristau was the only one of the four plaintiffs in his lawsuit whose accounts were not frozen. He thinks it’s because of his military record.
“Some of the measures that were at least attempted to be invoked are the kind of measures you find to freeze terrorist financing,” Moore noted. “So peaceful protesters were the equivalent of terrorists and the government leaned on banks in the guise of a national emergency to freeze their bank accounts.”
Leftist activists also filed a class-action lawsuit against every Canadian who donated to the convoy. It seeks $300 million in damages. When before the convoy Canada experienced multiple race protests that included violence against stores and police, no class action was filed.
Christians Assisting Government Persecution
Canadian lockdowns kept gyms, restaurants, and liquor stores open but closed churches. Leftist protesters were allowed to yell and sing without masks, and the prime minister kneeled to them, all while provinces banned Christians from singing and chanting in church for years.
Rev. Johannes Nieminen wasn’t allowed to cross provincial borders to perform his pastoral duties, while other Canadians could do so for work, he told The Federalist. After he was denied border entry several times, he said, police finally let him through — but told him he wasn’t allowed to meet with parishioners or hold church services.
“If I’m going to go to the grocery store for physical food, I’m going to the church for spiritual food. If I’m going to the doctor’s office for physical medicine, I’m going to church for the medicine of immortality,” Nieminen said. His denomination believes Jesus Christ’s body and blood are physically present in the wine and bread of communion, and that Christians are commanded to physically eat these — impossible without gathering in person.
Until moving to pastor in New Mexico this summer, Nieminen was clergy in the same denomination as Ristau, the Lutheran Church Canada. He said lockdowns sharply divided many churches, and even though most Covid measures are now lifted, church leaders have largely failed to seek reconciliation and repentance, as commanded in the Bible.
“We need to repent. There’s been crazy division here, and we need to actually talk about it,” he said.
State-Run Western Churches
Nieminen said pastors who obeyed the government to treat churches worse than liquor stores and gyms taught lay people church is non-essential or can be conducted online. The Bible commands keeping a day of worship, meeting in person, singing hymns and psalms, and physically receiving the bread and wine of communion. Christians have done all these every week since the time of Christ.
Communion is a “sacrament,” an action God commands that produces faith and eternal salvation. Only pastors can deliver it, a tradition going back to Christ’s commissioning of His apostles. In all the great pandemics of history, priests and pastors knowingly braved death to bring the sacrament to the dying desperate for the peace and unity with God it promises.
Nieminen said he saw Canadian Christians publicly plead for the sacrament amid lockdowns that nearly lasted three years. They received no response from their pastors, who told Nieminen the pleading parishioners didn’t use the “proper channels.”
“There’s that lack of trust in pastors and a church that they see as giving up on them and basically persecuting them,” Nieminen said. “…They’re being coerced by tyrants to do something against their conscience, and then they go to church and then they’re hearing the same thing from the church.”
Within days of him praying at the protest, says Harold Ristau’s sworn affidavit, fellow clergy began refusing to let him preach and to take communion with him. Some checked with superiors on whether to commune him. Refusing communion to a church member is tantamount to excommunication.
Praying at the protest “demonstrated I was this political insurrectionist” to some clergy whose beliefs about Covid were shaped by state-funded, anti-Christian media, Harold Ristau said: “Prior to Covid, everyone recognized the media were a bunch of liars who hated Christians, but with Covid suddenly we trust them entirely.”
A Political Decision, Not a Health Decision
So far, “none of the [legal] challenges to worship restrictions on church services have succeeded” in Canada, said John Sikkema, a lawyer at the nonprofit firm ARPA Canada.
“Culturally, people find going to the gym very important and less so going to church,” Sikkema noted. “Especially when some churches don’t seem to care and don’t think it’s necessary.”
To secular authorities, keeping the economy going easily trumps the church’s work of caring for human souls, Sikkema noted. That’s why they opened restaurants while restricting churches despite similar health risks: “That’s not really a health decision, it’s a political decision about what’s important to the health of your society.”
Police regularly showed up at churches on Sunday mornings and fined pastors whose parking lots had too many cars, he said. ARPA Canada and JCCF litigated a number of those cases and were often able to get pastors’ fines negotiated down to charitable donations.
Most churches that capitulated to government discrimination against Christians were already declining before lockdowns, and disproportionate percentages of their members didn’t go back to church afterward. Churches that kept to historic orthodoxy, on the other hand, tend to have recovered better from post-lockdown membership losses and many have even grown, Nieminen and Sikkema noted.
Religious Freedom Better in Africa
The difficulty of raising their children in rapidly apostatizing Western culture also affected the Ristaus’ decision to move across the globe.
“Things are normal here, people have traditional values,” Elise Ristau said of Kenya. “It’s inconceivable to think of transgender mutilation. As a mother and father, we do our very best to keep our kids Christian.”
In Canada, Christians are often required to lie or betray their faith to access government grants and licensing credentials, and avoid punishment in many professions, Sikkema said. Many Canadian doctors, lawyers, and teachers, for example, are required to endorse abortion and LGBT sexual acts. Canadian doctors and many other health care workers must help patients obtain an abortion or doctor-assisted suicide.
In 2018, Canada’s Supreme Court banned a Christian law school from opening over Christian sexual standards. The Canadian military is also working to eject chaplains over Christian sexual ethics. Just about every Canadian business sports a government-provided pride flag, Nieminen said. Churches that object to transgender mutilation of children have faced naked protesters as families arrive to worship, Sikkema said.
“Canadians are very aware that we don’t have freedom of religion, we don’t have freedom of speech, we don’t have the right to assemble if that’s in disagreement with the regime,” Nieminen said. “Pastors and teachers cannot speak about the morality of human sexuality. That is a reality Canadians live in, and I think that’s partly why they’re afraid to speak out.”
Christians Welcome in Kenya
The Ristaus had been invited to their current post before lockdowns, but Elise hadn’t wanted to uproot after moving the family so many times for Harold’s military career. They had bought land in Canada for their dream home and planted more than 1,000 trees on it.
“I had dreamed of this perfect life for myself in Canada,” Elise said. But then “there was a kind of turning point where I said, ‘We can go. Nothing is holding us here.’ It was a ‘shake the dust off our boots’ moment.”
From Toronto to Nairobi is approximately 7,500 miles. Flying commercially between the two takes 16 hours or more.
“In Kenya, I know it’s poor, and there’s corruption, but we’re not getting arrested for praying silently outside abortion clinics,” Elise said. “For a Christian in Canada, it’s pretty bleak.”