Be careful when and where you pray—hostility toward public prayer in the West is on the rise. A Canadian rail company recently sparked international outrage by prohibiting a Muslim man from praying in a train station. The company has since apologized, but the incident is nonetheless indicative of an alarming and escalating international trend to ban public manifestations of one’s faith.
On the other side of the world, a battle for the right to pray in public is taking place on the main square of Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, on the first Saturday of every month. Walking across Ban Jelačić Square you will see on one side a group of men kneeling in prayer, and on the other, a group of demonstrators opposing the peaceful gathering. For a stranger to the city this might be a bizarre sight, but in Croatia it has become a ritual which occurs like clockwork every month. The protestors are calling for a ban on the group’s public prayer—something that should be anathema in a free and open society.
The Zagreb prayer gathering draws inspiration from the First Saturday Devotion, a practice of the Catholic Church which originated in the Fatima apparitions. Similar initiatives are present in other countries, including Australia and Poland. In Croatia, they pray for seven intentions, including peace, the country, and for an end to abortion. Each month, the number of people that come together has increased, and by now the gatherings have spread to around ten other cities in Croatia.
Opponents of the prayer gatherings have decried them as a threat to gender equality, an attack on female autonomy, and ultimately, unconstitutional. MEP Fred Matić, author of an infamous European Parliament abortion promotion initiative, who himself has joined the protests, made the disturbing comment that while he does not oppose those who pray, they should pray for other intentions. In his words: “The people that are here provoke chills among the citizens because they pray for things that surely do not belong in the 21st century. … It would be nice if they prayed according to what the Gospel propagates, which is peace, love, understanding, forgiveness.” The politician is turning religious freedom on its head—making the acceptability of public prayer contingent on what you pray for.
Such a conception of prayer fundamentally violates what the European Court of Human Rights has reiterated numerous times. The right to freedom of religion and belief, enshrined in international law, includes the right to manifest one’s belief both in private and public. It is not for politicians or the government to dictate what words we direct toward God nor to interpret religious scripture. The separation of church and state is a two-way street—the church is not to inappropriately dictate what the state does, nor is the state to interfere with church teaching and religious beliefs.
The backlash against the prayer gathering in Croatia is just one of many examples of growing hostility toward public manifestations of religion. Recently, we saw Isabel Vaughan-Spruce in the UK arrested after admitting she “might be praying” inside her head in Birmingham, England, in violation of an abortion facility censorship zone. Since then, the UK Parliament passed a bill imposing ‘buffer zones’ around abortion facilities across England and Wales.
In Finland, MP Päivi Räsänen was charged with ‘hate speech’ for sharing her religious beliefs and a picture of a Bible verse on Twitter. Four years since she posted her tweet, she still is being dragged through an onerous legal ordeal. Last March, she was unanimously acquitted by the Helsinki District Court, but the Finnish state prosecution has appealed, and Päivi will be back in court this summer. What has befallen her has all the makings of a modern-day inquisition.
Most evidently, we are experiencing a global wave of censorship, targeting specifically the freedom of every person to express their faith-based convictions. This censorship goes to the core of what the believer believes. Fred Matić said it himself—it is the very content of the public prayer that he opposes. Likewise, Isabel and Päivi and the countless others committed to defending their right to peacefully live out their faith have been singled out for the beliefs that they hold. We must call out this troubling trend of intolerance, and hold steadfast to our rights to peacefully think, pray, and act in accordance with our beliefs, both in our own homes and in the public square.