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January 10, 2005
How would you define success?
At an Advocates' Board meeting in 1994, a Board member expressed concern that we were not growing fast enough or having the impact he felt we should have. We had been in existence for only two years and had begun activities in five countries. In his opinion, with over 200 nations in the world, our progress was not good enough.
In response, I shared that if we worked 30 years and the only "success" was that we had helped one nation, Albania, achieve a little more religious freedom and justice, who could say that we had failed? Success is in the eye of the beholder. There are companies, service organizations and even churches in the USA that take great pride in keeping a stretch of highway clean and get a nice blue sign that tells the world what they're doing.
I was reminded about the 1994 Board meeting and my comments when I read a report last week from the Helsinki Commission of the U.S. Congress on religious freedom in southeastern Europe. With respect to Albania, which was the North Korea of Europe for several decades where the mere possession of a Bible or a cross in 1985 meant a ten-year prison term, the report states: "Albania's system for conferring registration and legal status to religious communities could serve as a model to others in the region."
There is no doubt that Advocates International has had a role in helping Albania move from its hellhole to being a role model. In 1992, soon after the fall of communism, a leaflet pasted inside the front cover of the Koran, funded by Saudi Arabia, stated: "We have defeated the devil of communism. We will now defeat the devil of Western democracy." Their game plan was to make Albania the first Islamic republic in Europe by 2011. The challenges facing religious freedom and justice in Albania were tremendous when we first got involved, but the fruits of working with lawyers, judges and national leaders in this small Balkan nation since 1992 include:
§ Co-sponsoring with Albania's Supreme Court annual judicial conferences in most years since 1993. Their motto, "Justice is truth in action" is one fruit.
§ Giving input to Albania's 1998 Constitution for an independent judiciary and protecting religious freedom. Its preamble states: "We the people of Albania, proud and aware of our history, with responsibility for the future, and with faith in God ... establish this Constitution" (italics added).
§ The former official residence of Enver Hoxia, the brutal Albanian dictator who declared in 1967 that Atheism was the official religion, is now the place where Grace Community Church of Tirana worships weekly.
§ Toni Gogu is a Christian lawyer, former youth pastor and former President of the Evangelical Alliance of Albania. Today Toni oversees the judicial ethics issues for the High Council of Justice and is highly respected by lawyers and the judiciary.
We thank God for the lawyers and judges in Albania who are "doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly." Success in Albania encourages advocates elsewhere. Consider some current crucial issues that we are engaged in that will impact not just one nation, but continents:
Shackling pulpits in Sweden and sending pastors to prison for sermons violating politically correct views: The enclosed letter to Sweden's ambassador to the USA expresses our concern about sentencing Pentecostal Pastor Ake Green to prison for a sermon on the biblical view of homosexuality. If the State and its police and courts can do this in Sweden, known for its tolerance, it will be a carte blanche invitation to other nations to follow suit.
Protecting human life in Central America: Costa Rica hosted 235 delegates from 15 Latin nations at the second Advocates Latin America conference in 2002. It is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited.
In 2000, Costa Rica's Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling stating, "the human embryo is a person from the moment of conception...not an object" and that the embryo must be protected by law from conception. In-vitro fertilization (IVF) was therefore banned due to the "disproportionate risk of death" to embryos used in the procedure.
The Supreme Court's decision has been challenged by Costa Rica's only IVF clinic. Recently the UN-funded Center for Reproductive Rights, the most active pro-abortion litigant in the United States and a major global pro-abortion force, filed briefs in the case against Costa Rica. The outcome of the case could have major repercussions on pro-life legislation throughout the Americas.
Costa Rica ratified the American Convention on Human Rights in 1970. The Convention contains a strong Right to Life provision stating that: "Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life."
The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (firstname.lastname@example.org) is active in the case. Advocates Latin America is reviewing the steps it should take in support of the Costa Rica Supreme Court decision declaring that an embryo is a person under the law as set forth in the Convention.
Drafting laws on religion in Kosovo and Serbia: A few years ago, the former Yugoslavia was a war zone. Now the region is engaged in rebuilding. Just laws on religion are essential for these nations to progress. The Advocates Europe network is actively engaged in these issues.
The common thread running through human rights issues in the Balkans, Scandinavia and Central America is the Advocates International network. In 1994, there were activities in only five nations. Today the network reaches over 120 nations. "Success" is not our focus. Rather, our goal is to be faithful in the opportunities to do justice that come our way, as we continue...
Living in His-Story,
Samuel E. Ericsson
Founder & President
December 17, 2004
His Excellency Jan Eliasson
Ambassador of Sweden to the United States
Embassy of Sweden
1501 M Street NW, Suite 900
Washington, DC 20005-1702
Subject: An Open Letter of Concern about Pastor Ake Green's Prison Sentence for Preaching a Sermon
Dear Ambassador Eliasson,
The good news about Sweden's Kalmar District Court sentencing Pastor Ake Green to prison for preaching a sermon is that it demonstrates to the world that even one of the best legal systems can make mistakes. The great news is that the case enables the government of one of the most democratic societies in the world to take the initiative to protect freedom of expression by seeking a dismissal of the case before other nations with less refined human rights traditions are tempted to make the same mistake.
I am a Swedish immigrant to America, the son of a former Pentecostal pastor of a small church in the suburbs of Stockholm. During a 35-year career as a Harvard-trained lawyer, my primary focus has been in the church-state arena, particularly the freedom of expression and related issues. I have participated in 50 briefs before the United States Supreme Court on these issues. I served as lead counsel in a landmark California Supreme Court case barring lawsuits against clergy for so-called "clergy malpractice." My argument was that the courts should not serve as Pastoral Counseling Review Boards. To date every state without exception has followed that Supreme Court decision.
I was a key architect of the 1984 Equal Access Act passed by Congress to ensure freedom of speech for public school students to hold meetings with political, philosophical and religious content. As a result of the Act, there are an estimated 50,000 active campus clubs this year engaged in scores of issues. The Act provides safeguards dealing with disruptive hate groups, such as those promoting racism or anti-Semitism. The 20-year experience with freedom of expression on public campuses has been successful but not without some challenges.
Since 1991 my focus has been on protecting human rights globally as president of Advocates International, a network of lawyers and judges committed to human rights in over 120 nations. The freedom of expression is at the core of our mission. We have advocated equal protection under law for religious groups as diverse as Muslims and Evangelicals in Greece, Roman Catholics and Protestants in China, Eastern Orthodox in Turkey, Jews in Russia, Messianic Jews in Israel, Evangelicals in Bulgaria and Pakistan, Baptists in Portugal, and Pentecostals in France and Greece. Our philosophical cornerstone is Jesus' statement: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets."
We are very concerned by the prosecution of Pentecostal Pastor Ake Green for preaching a sermon to 50 parishioners setting forth his biblical view of homosexuality. When prosecutors and the courts act as Sermon Review Boards, the ghosts of the Inquisition smile.
It is reported that during the 2002 hearings on amending Sweden's hate speech law by adding sexual orientation as a protected group, clergy and others in opposition to the amendment expressed concern that the law might be used to attack sermons. The sponsors of the amendment denied that this was their intent. But by prosecuting Pastor Green, Sweden's government has done what the sponsors assured would not happen. The District Court appears to have ignored this legislative history in convicting Pastor Green.
When Sweden sends a pastor to prison for preaching a sermon on what he believes the Bible teaches about any issue, it sends negative ripples around the globe. Every society has its unpopular groups and topics. In China, pastors can be sent to prison for preaching about the second coming of Christ in violation of government policies. Atheists may be offended. In Pakistan, Christians have been sentenced to death under the Blasphemy Law for alleged comments that a Muslim found offensive. Conceptually there is little difference between those cases and Pastor Green's. Ironically, it is unlikely that Pastor Green would have been prosecuted in either China or Pakistan for the sermon he gave in Sweden.
The harm in prosecuting Pastor Green is not limited to the chilling effect on the freedom of expression on clergy in Sweden who may feel restrained to speak on controversial topics for fear that they may be prosecuted. The greater harm is global. Sweden has a well-established reputation on human rights. It is a party to all major international conventions protecting freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief, as well as speech. When Sweden spurns those conventions, other nations will be less hesitant to do the same.
The price society pays for the freedom of expression is that someone will be offended by the views expressed. Justice Robert Jackson, the Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, wrote in a Supreme Court decision dismissing a criminal fraud charge against a phony faith healer: "Freedom means we must put up with a good deal of rubbish." The freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief guaranteed under international conventions that Sweden has ratified includes the freedom to teach those beliefs. Freedom of belief without the freedom to teach those beliefs is worthless.
In December 2001 I invoked my Swedish Pentecostal roots as the expert witness at a trial of 15 Greek Pentecostals accused of proselytizing by distributing magazines. An Orthodox bishop was offended by the magazines and viewed the Pentecostals' conduct as disrespectful of Greek Orthodox traditions and destructive of Greek culture. The local prosecutor was pressured to file criminal charges against the unpopular Pentecostals. However, after hearing 15 testimonies at the trial, the prosecutor apologized to the accused and the court for filing the indictments. He asked the court to acquit all 15 defendants. The court did so.
A lesson from the Greek case was that prosecutors might be subject to political, social and cultural pressures to indict those who express unpopular views. Prosecutors implement government policies often driven by community values. Through its prosecutors, the government of Sweden initiated the proceedings against Pastor Green. The government of Sweden has the power to move for a dismissal of any criminal case at any stage of the proceedings. It is hoped that Sweden will dismiss this troubling case before it bears fruit elsewhere.
When courts act as Sermon Review Boards, they have stepped onto a slippery slope. Secular courts should steer clear of reviewing controversial sermons because they are inevitably, inextricably intertwined with moral, doctrinal, spiritual, ecclesiastical, and theological dimensions flavored by secular social, political and legal issues.
For example, a judge from a Jewish tradition may be offended by a sermon by an evangelist, such as Billy Graham, that some may consider anti-Semitic because of claims that Jews and others who reject Jesus as Messiah will go to hell. Likewise, a judge from a Roman Catholic tradition may be ill equipped to review a Friday sermon at a Swedish mosque by an imam quoting verses in the Koran calling for death to infidels. If Pastor Green goes to prison for preaching a sermon on his biblical view of homosexuality, Sweden's prosecutors must not turn a deaf ear to an imam's sermon from the Koran on infidels even if given in Arabic.
The District Court opinion demonstrates the danger when courts act as Sermon Review Boards. Consider four statements from the District Court opinion as illustrations:
1) "A person may not hide behind biblical quotations in order to convey his/her opinions about a certain people group." In writing briefs and opinions, lawyers and judges cite quotations from court cases, statutes and treatises in their analysis and advocacy. They are not hiding behind anything. Likewise, pastors, priests and rabbis use Bible verses to support their points. For most pastors, the Bible is their Law Book and Constitution. In his sermon on homosexuality, the 65 verses quoted from 13 books in the Bible that Pastor Green used are verses that have been used for 2,000 years in preaching. He is not hiding behind Bible quotations but citing those verses as his authority. Under international conventions and the Swedish Constitution, Pastor Green has the right to quote the Bible as much or as little as he chooses. He does not have to conform his preaching to contemporary values on sexual morality or Hollywood's worldview that is infamously anti-religion and anti-family.
2) "The rights of homosexuals as a group...are worthy of greater protection than is Ake Green, who in the name of religion, put forward the discussion that caused the infringement." The notion that one group deserves greater protection and is to be preferred over another is the antithesis of human rights jurisprudence. "Equal justice under law" is the Guiding Star. At this time, the only persecuted person who will lose his liberty is Pastor Green and the only persecuted group is the Pentecostals. No homosexual is going to prison for his speech or values that may offend Pentecostals and others.
3) "His sermon was intentionally designed to clearly show disrespect for people on the grounds of their sexual orientation." Freedom of expression invites dissent, disdain and even anger by those who disagree. Pastor Green's sermon focused on conduct and biblical values. He did not attack anyone by name. He focused on the moral, spiritual, social and physical consequences of rejecting biblical standards.
At the end of his sermon, Pastor Green said: "We cannot condemn these people - Jesus never did that either. He showed everyone He met deep respect for the person they were... Jesus never belittled anyone. He offered them grace. We must never belittle anyone who lives in sin. The sin we cannot bear - but the human being we must hold up." This is hardly disrespect.
4) "Ake Green is guilty of persecution of a people group." Persecution requires loss of life, limb, liberty or property. Words in a sermon are not persecution even if people are offended. There must be more than mere words. Even children know the lines attributed to Shakespeare: "Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me."
In the global village of our 21st Century world, sentencing a Pentecostal pastor to prison for a Sunday morning sermon at his small church in a village in Sweden can become a global precedent. The government of Sweden is at a historic crossroads to take the best road to equal justice under law by moving to dismiss the proceedings against Pastor Ake Green.
British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said, "Justice is truth in action." The truth is that Sweden's Parliament did not intend to shackle the pulpit when it added sexual orientation to the hate speech law. Justice requires that the State and the courts abide by this truth and the universal human right of freedom of religious expression. The world is watching as Sweden acts in defense of rights guaranteed to all its citizens, including Pentecostal pastors whose sermons may not be popular with some prosecutors and judges.
Very Truly Yours,
Samuel E. Ericsson
Founder & President
cc: Ministry of Justice of Sweden
Mr. Percy Bratt, counsel for Pastor Ake Green
Mr. Alf Svensson, MP, Parliament of Sweden
Mr. Christopher Smith, Member, U.S. House of Representatives, Chairman, Commission on Security
and Cooperation in Europe Committee
Mr. Joseph Pitts, Member, U.S. House of Representatives
Advocates International Board of Directors
Friends of Advocates International