The coronavirus pandemic is testing international religious freedom commitments

April 14, 2020

Last month the coronavirus pandemic became a stark reality for Americans. Our normal routines disappeared seemingly overnight, including church activities. Calls for “social distancing” suddenly precluded most gatherings, including those in houses of worship.

We are not alone. Governments around the world are seeking to contain the spread of the highly contagious virus by placing dramatic restrictions on travel and assembly. Religious groups are not exempt.

Should we be worried about religious freedom that we cherish at home and seek to advance abroad?

At home—not yet. Russell Moore recently made a strong case that generally applicable public health directives are not religious liberty violations. “The current situation facing us is not a case of the state overstepping its bounds, but rather seeking to carry out its legitimate God-given authority,” he wrote.  

Abroad—well, that depends. 

A test for societies

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a report last month exploring international law that guides deliberations at the intersection of public health and human rights. The commission concluded that religious freedom should be remembered by governments “for reasons of both legality and policy effectiveness.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are widely accepted in the global community. Both guarantee freedom of religion or belief. Curtailment of that liberty is permissible in public health emergencies, but only in ways that do not destroy the right, are narrow in application, and are not discriminatory against certain sets of believers.

Quoting United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, USCIRF argues that pandemic countermeasures should be limited to those “necessary and proportionate to the evaluated risk.” Bachelet, a former president of Chile and public health professional, called this time a “test” for countries—one in which “human dignity and rights need to be front and center . . . not an afterthought.”

Troubling trends

Some nations are rising to the challenge of Bachelet’s test better than others. 

China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, is already a well-known persecutor of many faiths in the name of “sinicization.” According to groups like Voice of the Martyrs and China Aid, the pandemic has only given Communist authorities new cover to harass house church leaders and to demolish houses of worship. Shadong Province has even forbidden online preaching

There are also reports that China has relocated many of the million-plus Uyghur Muslims detained in concentration camps to factories around the country in order to make up for work lost during quarantines. USCIRF Vice Chair Nadine Maenza states, “If these reports are accurate, it means that the Chinese government is trafficking in the slave labor of religious minorities.”

China is not the only one to get tough reviews. USCIRF also criticizes South Korea, a democratic ally of the United States, for vilification of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus after the virus was found rapidly spreading among the fringe sect’s adherents. According to the commission, local prosecutors are even investigating the leader of the group—considered a secretive cult by many church leaders—for murder by “willful negligence.” USCIRF does note, however, that South Korea’s vice minister of health publicly declared the cooperation of the group in efforts to contain the outbreak.

India, the world’s largest democracy, is also seeing its already intense religious persecution problem against Muslims, Christians, and others being exacerbated during the coronavirus lockdown. While protests in Delhi may have been dispersed in response to the pandemic, TIME reports that the inflammatory hashtag #CoronaJihad has been used hundreds of thousands of times by Hindu extremists on Twitter since March 28. 

Meanwhile, India’s longtime foe, Pakistan, has also been flagged for allowing religious minorities to be blamed for the coronavirus. The Sunni Muslim majority in one province is reportedly clamping down on a Shia minority community and referring to the pandemic as the “Shia virus.”  

Opportunities in openness 

While scapegoating and outright persecution are on the rise in numerous places around the world, there are also opportunities for freedom to advance.

Iran is a far cry from a religious liberty hero. However, in a recent press conference, U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said the rapid spread of the coronavirus there has led Iranian authorities to furlough some 100,000 prisoners of conscience. More remain, but it is a development to build on.

Brownback also noted an “encouraging trend” of new openness in several countries to religious groups. He said it stems from a growing recognition that we’re all in this struggle together. And respect for the faithful is not just properly principled, but practical. The ambassador declared, “A lot of times in developing countries the religious community is the most organized in the place to be able to distribute information and assistance, and we need to work through these communities.” 

Reflecting on roles of the church and state in combating the coronavirus scourge domestically, Moore similarly called for a “team” mentality to “avoid overreach on one side or paranoia on the other.” 

May such a relationship of mutual respect truly bloom here and around the world. May we work together to overcome this pandemic and promote life for the good of all.

Aaron Mercer

Aaron Mercer is a seasoned policy strategist and communicator. He aids organizations with research, analysis, and writing services, and he reflects on faith, technology, and the public square at FTPolicy.com. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24