Many churches around the world rent a space for their weekly worship services. But are rented spaces going to become a new front in persecution of Christians? A disturbing recent event in the Netherlands suggests this is where we are heading.
In September, the Mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, proposed having a “serious conversation” with the landlord of the local Hillsong Church congregation based on unsubstantiated claims that the church engaged in “gay conversion therapy.” Mayor Halsema had not discussed the issue with the church’s leadership directly and she also did not initially indicate any interest in doing so. Gay conversion therapy is currently not illegal in the Netherlands. Thus, Mayor Halsema was proposing using her office to strip a church of its rented building for something that – if they did it – would be entirely legal.
Hillsong Church, which originated in Australia, is best known for holding rock-concert style services and for attracting celebrity members like Justin Bieber. Within the Christian world, Hillsong’s theology is not regarded as particularly orthodox. However, it appears that any association with Christianity is grounds for suspicion.
The Mayor’s comments came during a city council meeting September 17 to discuss recent incidents of violence against LGBTQ residents of Amsterdam. The role of churches in promoting the “inequality” of gays came up in the course of the meeting. Mayor Halsema said:
“If there are any signs that churches are preaching or offering gay healing, we get in touch to let them know that we don’t like it. We state that we have no powers, but that does not prevent us from having a serious conversation, for example with the landlord of Hillsong.”
Hillsong Church NL rents its worship space from a large theatre. The theatre is also currently hosting a musical called Anne about the life of Anne Frank, the Jewish girl who kept a diary of her life in hiding from the Nazis and subsequently died in the Holocaust. Mayor Halsema stated in the council meeting that it would be a “tragic irony” if the same stage where Anne is performed was also used to promote intolerance.
Mayor Halsema’s comments sparked a backlash though, unfortunately, most of it was focused on the fact that Hillsong does not engage in gay conversion therapy. That is not really the point; Mayor Halsema’s tactics should be the primary concern. Hillsong Church NL’s leadership sent an open letter to the Mayor which did note “This is an attack on freedom of religion and freedom of speech” but most of the letter was devoted to refuting the allegation:
“We are troubled that this false accusation has been disseminated by various media outlets and that the good name of our church, our leadership and the thousands of members of our congregation has been maligned”
In response to the outcry, Mayor Halsema finally had a phone call with Hillsong Church NL’s leadership. They reassured her that they do not engage in gay conversion therapy. However, she did not apologize for her initial comments. Moreover, she says that during the phone call “we agreed the church would enter into dialogue with representatives of the rainbow community to remove any possible concern in this area.” In other words, even though Hillsong has done nothing wrong, they need to make atonement. She also wrote, “The city council has put representatives of the rainbow community in touch with the landlord.” Thus, the threat of losing their weekly worship space has not fully passed.
Hillsong Church NL is a large congregation with significant resources. They were able to rally popular support to stand up to Mayor Halsema. But how would smaller, less famous congregations fare if they were the ones to be targeted? That question should be deeply troubling to all churches, particularly those that rent a building.