An open society should be defined by open debate, not smears

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Pakistani lawyer Sumera, one of the ADF's worldwide network of 3,400 lawyers, with her client Maira, who is being prosecuted on anti-conversion charges. [ADF]

*ADF was invited to provide the following opinion piece in response to an article which EURACTIV published on 27 October.

ADF is a faith-based legal advocacy organization that protects fundamental freedoms and promotes the inherent dignity of all people. We receive funds from private donors who believe in our vision but there is nothing ‘dark’ about our money, writes Lois McClatchie.

Lois McClatchie is a communications officer at ADF International.

We could use this space to prove that the labels thrust upon us recently by political activists are false. But we’ve already done that. You can read about it here.

We maintain an office in Brussels because we advocate for religious minorities at institutions like the UN,  OSCE, and  EU. We take human rights seriously and believe that nobody should be persecuted, harassed, or lose their job because of their faith.

We have a network of over 3,400 lawyers worldwide. One of them is Sumera in Pakistan. With our help, she is defending a fourteen-year-old girl, who is being prosecuted on anti-conversion charges.

She escaped her abusive abductor – but not before he forcibly became her husband. Maira is a Christian and her case is not an isolated one. About 1,000 women and girls from religious minorities are forcibly married and converted every year.

The Lahore High Court initially ordered that she be returned to her captors. She and her family wait in hiding for news regarding her appeal.

We’re supporting Maira’s court case, but that’s not enough.

And then there’s Pastor A Dao, leader of the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ.

He’s just spent four years in prison on trumped-up charges; arrested shortly after publicly remarking on challenges his Church faced under government pressure. Montagnard and Hmong Christians across the country have had to flee or face coercion, imprisonment, or torture in efforts to force them to renounce their faith.

Our team have seen Pastor Dao set free to return home. But that’s not enough either.

We want to see long-term justice enacted so that young women no longer suffer because of their faith, and nobody is imprisoned for living out their beliefs.

When talking about these cases, it is important to note that the EU provides Pakistan’s biggest export market. Trade has doubled since 2014. The EU External Action Service has sought to preface these benefits with human rights commitments from the Pakistani government, but religious minorities have seen little progress.

Similarly in July this year, the EU celebrated the establishment of a profitable trade agreement with Vietnam. The deal demanded safe working conditions, but the plight of Pastor Dao’s persecuted brothers and sisters was again ignored.

We also work in Europe, primarily regarding issues of freedom of speech and conscience. Persecution is not always a matter of life and death but can take on many forms.

We’re not here for financial gain. All our work for clients is pro bono. But still, it costs money. We receive funds from private donors who believe in our vision.

Our records are easily accessible on the European Commission’s Transparency Register, and we comply with similar laws and guidelines at the national level. There’s nothing “dark” about our money, but that doesn’t mean we’re about to publish the names of our 200,000 supporters worldwide – in clear contravention of data privacy law.

It’s true that some of our campaigns attract debate. Take the Vanishing Girls project we support. 63,000,000 women are missing from Indian society today because of sex-selective abortion. We’re advocating that daughters shouldn’t face discrimination before or after birth.

This campaign is grounded in human rights, but some people support our stance on abortion, while others disagree.

Amongst those who disagree exist sizeable, influential organizations who also raise their voices within Europe. Major pro-abortion advocacy groups receive millions of dollars from US-based foundations.

And websites like openDemocracy, which recently published complaints about faith-based advocates such as ourselves, also receive a healthy bloodline of funds from American supporters. So why is only one side of the policy spectrum called out for trying to support a cause?

We welcome robust debate. We do not accept the “de-platforming” of certain groups through smear campaigns. We believe in a European society defined by the free exchange of ideas, and tolerance for those with differing views. Even – or especially – on the difficult topics that touch individuals and groups like our clients all over the globe.

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