By BosNewsLife Americas Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
WASHINGTON, USA (BosNewsLife)– An American pastor remained jailed in “prison camp-like conditions” Sunday, August 5, for holding an unauthorized Bible study meeting at his home in the U.S. state of Arizona amid concerns about a possible “North Korean-style” crackdown in the country, his lawyer and activists said.
Pastor Michael Salman of the state capital Phoenix is serving his 60-day sentence in Tent City Jail, a prison compound in Maricopa County, Arizona, equated by his defense lawyer as similar to the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
“This is where you would put Osama bin Laden, not Michael Salman,” said Rutherford Institute founder and attorney John Whitehead in remarks distributed by advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC).
“The temperature there has been around 140 degrees, and there is no air conditioning. They’re [living] in tents. They have stun fences…barbed wire…large German shepherds walking the perimeter, armed guards and facial recognition software so that the prisoners are studied all the time,” he added.
Salman was sentenced to 60 days in jail, three years probation and received a $12,180 fine for “the crime” of unauthorized worship, his wife, Suzanne, told reporters earlier.
Suzanne Salman claimed the city told them that he was essentially arrested because the Bible study was at a private house “and that essentially, it’s a church.”
Since they weren’t “zoned for church” they were told they were breaking the rules.
“It defies logic, honestly. I don’t understand … that something so small got so large like this,” she explained. “People do it all over the United States all the time.”
Whitehead added that Pastor Salman has reported being imprisoned with “really hardened criminals” and that they were unsure why the pastor had been specifically sent to Tent City.
In late June, the jail was the focus of thousands of protesters who gathered outside the Maricopa County Sherriff’s office to express their disapproval of the allegedly prison camp-like conditions, ICC told BosNewsLife.
Whitehead warned that the same “zoning laws” used in Arizona to imprison Michael Salman for holding home Bible studies “will probably be passed across the United States.”
He argued that the laws, which were written by the International Code Council, are very specific about controlling religious groups.
“If you have a small gathering in your home for any kind of religious meeting, you’re going to be harassed by the government to somehow square with the zoning regulations for a formal institution,” stressed Whitehead, whose advocacy group defends constitutional rights.
“We’re getting people who now are getting phone calls from zoning agents because they have five or six people meeting in their home.”
The lawyer’s Rutherford Institute is petitioning the Arizona Supreme Court to intervene in Pastor Salman’s case, challenging his imprisonment as a violation of the First Amendment of the United States, which guarantees freedom of religion.
ICC’s Regional Manager, Ryan Morgan, said in a statement that the arrest of Pastor Michael Salman and his subsequent detention in “a military-like compound” for holding Bible studies in his home “would not be much of a surprise if it had taken place in an authoritarian police state like North Korea.”
Yet, “The fact that it happened in the same state as the Grand Canyon should be a resounding wake up call to every American who holds the right to worship freely close to their heart.”
He noted that, “Around the world, governments are using all sorts of laws to control and suppress religious gatherings. We cannot stand idly by as the United States does the same.”
Morgan said that the ICC urgently calls on the Arizona Supreme Court “to intervene in the case of Michael Salman for his immediate release.”
Christian rights groups, including Open Doors, have been warning that persecution is not only limited to non-Western countries. They have warned especially devoted Christians in the West to also prepare for cases of persecution amid concerns of attempts by governments to control Christian worship.