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When it comes to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and religion, look no further than the United States, where white evangelical Christians are the most opposed, by a long way: 24% were classified as vaccine refusers in a recent US poll — twice the rate of the secular population.

In Australia the role of religion has not been so clear. But now there is an organised backlash from conservative Christians in the form of a national petition called The Ezekiel Declaration. Started by three Baptist church ministers from Queensland, the declaration calls on the federal government to halt plans for a vaccine passport.

The Baptist minister and social justice campaigner Reverend Tim Costello fears that The Ezekiel Declaration is “sowing seeds of vaccine hesitancy” which would “likely see Australia never reach the 80% vaccination figure set by the prime minister”.

The declaration began circulating at the end of August. It has since been signed by some 2800 church leaders and 21,200 members and attendees around Australia. The signatories are a mix of Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican and Pentecostal Christians. The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) has endorsed the declaration. So has NSW One Nation. It has also been taken up by Christian bloggers with large readerships.

The declaration argues that a vaccine passport is a form of coercion to be vaccinated. It states that “conscience should never be coerced” and that the passport would create “an unethical two-tiered society” in which Christian leaders would be expected to “refuse entry into our churches to a subgroup of society based on their medical choice”.

Rev Costello has weighed heavily into the debate in the online Christian publication Eternity News, where he has warned that the declaration is “subtly undermining vaccination” and dressing up the national push by the government towards 80% vaccination as “coercion”.

“It’s all about liberty,” Costello told Crikey. “Christian conservatives are hardwired to believe that the practise of our faith under God is limited under government and secular forces.

“It also plugs into the USA and Trump, who ran strongly on the idea of religious freedom,” he said. “That is the trigger here.”

Costello said The Ezekiel Declaration raised a fundamental question for Christians: who do you trust?

The impact is being felt mainly in the Northern Territory and Queensland, where a number of church attendees have signed up.  

In a separate-but-related development, Indigenous leader Senator Pat Dodson has spoken against “rogue” Christian groups spreading anti-vaccination propaganda in remote WA, where community leaders have been combating rumours that the “infernal spirit of Lucifer” is being injected into people who get the COVID-19 jab.

Some American-based preachers have reportedly been distributing emails and video.

Dodson told Crikey that those involved were “usually more fundamentalist”. 

“They tend to be Pentecostal and they tend not to be very well-trained ministers.”

Foetal cell lines also a factor

As we reported yesterday, a group of ultra-conservative Catholic doctors has raised religious objections to vaccines developed using cell lines that originated in cells extracted from foetuses aborted in the 1970s. AstraZeneca is one of those vaccines. 

The ACL has also pointed to foetal cell lines as a reason not to make vaccination mandatory.

The lobby conceded that “most theologians, Christian bioethicists, and all church denominations” do not consider it “sinful” to use vaccines which have had “an association” with foetal cell lines. The reasoning was that it did not amount to complicity in abortion, nor endorsement of abortion because the vaccines did not cause or support abortions.

ACL executive director Martyn Iles, however, confessed to “harbouring uncertainty”. 

“On the one hand, the association is incredibly remote — materially and historically. On the other hand, an abortion is a serious matter.

“Pfizer’s is the best from an ethical standpoint, but not perfect,” he wrote, adding that Pfizer, while not relying on a foetal cell line for its development or manufacture, had made use of a foetal cell line to conduct some trials.

Health department clears cell lines 

Crikey asked the federal Health Department for information on vaccine hesitancy due to religious objection to the foetal cell lines.

“Generally the world’s major religions consider that the use of vaccines with remote foetal origins to be permitted and ethical, when there are no alternative products available,” the department said in a statement.

It said round tables had been held with community leaders and religious leaders, including representatives from the Catholic Church. 

“The COVID-19 vaccine from AstraZeneca is manufactured using a cell line that was developed from foetal tissue in the 1970s (HEK293 cells), that has been grown under laboratory conditions and no foetal tissue has been added since the cell lines were originally created in the 1970s.

“It is the vaccine manufacturer’s decision about the most appropriate cell line to use for a specific vaccine and it is paramount that any cell lines used in vaccine production are well characterised and have a well-established safety profile. The cell line used for the AstraZeneca vaccine meets these criteria,” the statement said.