Finland recently made the news for denouncing Pakistan’s legislative body for condemning a man to death for religious transgressions. On January 18th, Mika Niikko, Chair of Finland’s Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to Pakistan’s Standing Committee on Law and Justice to condemn the death sentence Zafar Bhatti had received there. Bhatti had been detained since 2012 for sending blasphemous text messages, which is punishable by death under section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code.
“Violations against human rights and religious freedom cannot be tolerated anywhere,” the letter insisted, expressing the belief that it is in both countries’ interest to build peace inside of their societies and among all ethnic and religious groups.
Such pleas for tolerance, though, may fall on deaf ears. The commendable sentiments of the Finnish committee actually sound quite brazen in light of the recent treatment of Finnish Minister of Parliament and former Minister of the Interior Päivi Räsänen.
On January 24th, Räsänen was in court facing the charge of “inciting hatred against homosexuals,” the culmination of litigation that sprung from a 2019 tweet of a Biblical verse, Rom. 1:24-27 in response to her church’s support for a ‘Pride’ march. As further evidence of her “hatred,” Finnish authorities clipped a sound bite from a 2019 radio interview and dug up a church pamphlet on marriage she authored almost twenty years ago. For publishing this pamphlet for his congregation, Bishop Juhana Pohjola also faces trial. According to Section 10 of the Finnish Penal Code, Räsänen faces a sentence of two years in prison or a fine.
Finland explicitly says “violations against human rights and religious freedom cannot be tolerated anywhere;” however, just days later, a politician is put on trial for expressing her religious convictions. Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom Nina Shea captured the irony with biting concision:
Finland acts like a pyromaniac at home and like a fireman for Pakistan when it comes to freedoms of religion and speech.
If convicted, Räsänen would not lose her life. Yet, the contrast between Finland’s rhetoric at home and abroad remains striking, as religious freedom is the principle that is purportedly being safeguarded. In light of her treatment by Finnish courts, it is difficult to read certain passages from Niikko’s January 18th letter without cringing:
Here in Europe, there is no contrast between different religions or people in our justice system. We treat people equally because it’s the right thing to do in the eyes of God and of a human [sic]. As you know, we have many Muslims here in Europe. We are working to build tolerance and peaceful coexistence. We intervene if Muslims are oppressed.
EU Parliament underwrote Finland’s disapproval, and both the EU and Finland expressed their concern over whether Bhatti’s sentence was justified, after a 10-year jail confinement. The letter also queried the Pakistani government on the validity of the verdict, when there were doubts about the evidence.
Meanwhile, five U.S. senators recently wrote a letter condemning Finland’s “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.
The letter, penned by Senator Marco Rubio, was signed by Senators Josh Hawley, James Lankford, Jim Inhofe, and Mike Braun.