By BosNewsLife Americas Service with additional reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
WASHINGTON, USA (BosNewsLife)– Jailed American Pastor Michael Salman faces more prosecution, including up to three-and-a-half years probation and government inspections, for holding an unauthorized Bible study at his home in the U.S. state of Arizona, a well-informed rights official told BosNewsLife Wednesday, August 15.
“I have been following the case for some time now,” said Ryan Morgan, regional manager of Washington-based advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC).
Salman, an ordained pastor at the Church of God in Christ congregation and a founder of the Harvest Christian Fellowship group, is currently serving a sixty-days prison sentence after Phoenix city authorities convicted him of “violating” dozens of city code regulations that Morgan claimed “normally applied to commercial properties.”
The father of six, who is to be released in early September, faces ten days of house arrest followed by three-and-a-half years of probation, Morgan and other trial observers said.
Michael Salman’s family seemed relieved that he may not be facing additional jail time.
“Considering we were thinking it would be quite a bit more jail time, we are pleased with this outcome,” they wrote in a post on the social network website Facebook after the court ordered the probation and a 12,180 dollar fine.
Yet, Morgan cautioned that the pastor could “be forced to serve the remainder of his probation in prison if at any point he violates the terms of his probation, one of which bans Salman from having gatherings of more than 12 people at his home.”
Additionally, the city of Phoenix can carry out unannounced inspections once a month at the pastor’s home to ensure he is no longer holding Bible studies with over a dozen participants, according to the ICC official and others familiar with the case.
It was now immediately clear whether this number includes Salman’s immediate family, his six children and wife, Suzanne.
“The entire ordeal, which has seen the beleaguered Arizona pastor subjected to armed police raids, a [over] $12,000 fine and several weeks in a Guantanamo Bay-like prison camp, has stirred controversy over the possibility of zoning ordinances being used to violate citizens’ First Amendment rights to religious freedom,” Morgan wrote.
John Whitehead, president of the advocacy Rutherford Institute and an attorney assisting Salman, noted that zoning officials in Phoenix “had no problem with group gatherings for family reunions, football parties, Tupperware parties, or Boy Scout meetings.”
He added that the “harassment” of Michael Salman by officials began because they believed that “religious activities, even in the home, have to be governed by building codes for churches, rather than residential homes.”
Rights activists have expressed concerns the case could further encourage what they called a “North-Korean-style” crackdown on devoted Christian groups meeting outside the mainstream.
ICC investigators say they uncovered a similar controversy over properly applied zoning ordinances in the case of Opulent Life Church, a small southern Baptist congregation located in rural Holly Springs in Mississippi state.
The church has taken its case to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after local authorities banned the church from having a building on the town square.
Last September, a California state couple, Chuck and Stephanie Fromm, were also fined for violating local zoning ordinances after holding Bible studies in their home, Morgan recalled.
“The fine was later refunded and zoning ordinances changed to allow for private religious gatherings after the incident sparked widespread outrage.
Christian rights groups, including Open Doors, have stressed that persecution is not only limited to non-Western countries.
They have warned devoted Christians in the West to also prepare for cases of persecution amid concerns over attempts by governments to control Christian worship.
Morgan expressed concerns that while government “around the world” use “all sorts of laws to control and suppress religious gatherings” the “United States does the same.”
Supporters of the pastor have urged the Arizona Supreme Court to intervene, but there were no indications Wednesday, August 15, when and if that would happen.