Andrew Lawton:

Earlier this year, Pastor Artur Pawlowski became something of a libertarian folk hero when he chased police and public health inspectors out of his Calgary church while barking that they were “Nazis” and “Gestapo.”

After a year of the state’s heavy hand coming down hard on churches (and businesses, and families, and individuals), it was cathartic to see the little guy emerge victorious in even one standoff. It wouldn’t last, of course. Just a few weeks later, Pawlowski was handcuffed in the middle of a busy road and taken downtown as the expression goes, after police followed him from an allegedly illegal church service over which he presided.

Pawlowski was released on bail a couple of days later, but nevertheless joined the club of clergymen who have been imprisoned for exercising their religious beliefs. In Canada. In 2021.

The circumstances that put Pawlowski and another Alberta pastor, James Coates, behind bars are vastly different than those responsible for jailing Christian missionaries in China or Laos. Even if the damage of wrongful detention can never be undone, the Canadian system, at least, offers due process and a path to seek justice in a way that states with explicit prohibitions of Christianity don’t.

Even with this caveat, what’s happening in Canada is still persecution, and this hasn’t been lost on Pawlowski, who knows all too well the perils of totalitarianism. This man grew up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. While I don’t go so far as to stack Canada’s public health industrial complex alongside communist regimes, I can understand why the enforcers’ behaviour looked a little too close for comfort to Pawlowski.

The government’s conduct towards churches is wrong, but far too many people are uncomfortable condemning this overreach if they happen to not like the people bearing the brunt of it.

Pawlowski is no stranger to controversy. He’s said unpopular things about contentious issues and has pushed buttons in his community as a street preacher. At one point, the Canada Revenue Agency stripped his church of its charitable status over supposedly “strong negative views about sensitive and controversial issues.” 

None of that has anything to do with the question of whether government should have the right to categorize worship and prayer as non-essential, and thus illegal. Yet, when I first spoke up in Pawlowski’s defense, quite a few people told me to “be careful.”

The same is true of Trinity Bible Chapel and the Church of God in Ontario. Both have received tens of thousands of dollars in fines, with the government changing the locks on the former’s doors to bar its pastors and congregation from entering. I’ve interviewed each church’s senior pastor, only to be cautioned by some listeners that they have strict traditions and beliefs.

I don’t need to join a particular church to call a spade a spade. If my support for free speech or religious freedom only extended to speech I like and beliefs I share, I wouldn’t actually be supporting freedom.

There is a tacit belief that rabble-rousers are undeserving of support because they willingly walk into battle and oftentimes seek out the fight. There is undeniably some truth to this, but it matters far less than people think.

We do not choose our martyrs, but when they appear we must make a choice as to whether they or their tormentors are the ones in the wrong. Most of the fiercest condemnation I’ve seen of churches who’ve stayed open in spite of lockdown orders has been from other churches. Christians who pick apart the theology of persecuted ministers are missing the point entirely.

I’m fine with churches – and other places of worship, for that matter – battling about whether Zoom services are sufficient or appropriate. What I’m not okay with is government determining what constitutes lawful worship in a country that supposedly affirms the right to freedom of religion and to freedom of assembly.

Years ago I vowed to never quote Martin Niemöller’s “First they came for…” poem in a column for no other reason than my frustration with its overuse. I will dance around the periphery of it here, however, by saying that an attack on one church is an attack on all churches, which is an attack on all religious houses, which is an attack on the fabric of a democratic society.