Michigan man’s Bible art flagged as security threat

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Holland artist who created Bible-based art to support Syrian refugees says he was banned by PayPal because of national security concerns.

For the last 25 years, Joel Schoon-Tanis’ artwork has graced the walls of West Michigan hospitals, churches and businesses. When one of his pieces based on a Jesus parable was flagged, he was surprised.

“I’m a person of faith so those things come out in my artwork,” said the Hope College graduate. “A lot of my art is having a whimsical theme to it.”

Schoon-Tanis supplied the art for a children’s Bible for Zondervan. Last week, he completed a piece based on the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke.

“In the story of the Good Samaritan, the guy you don’t think is going to help is the guy that helps – people that would be national enemies.”

Schoon-Tanis said he wanted to bring the story into a modern context.

“I made it ‘the Good Syrian’ and instead he’s helping a guy who’s got a white tank top and a Confederate flag tattoo on his arm,” he said.

Schoon-Tanis put it up for sale on EyeKons website, which sells artwork to churches.

Half of the total proceeds were to go to relief programs with the Reformed Church in America and Partners Relief & Development. But within minutes of posting the piece, people contacted Schoon-Tanis saying they were blocked from purchasing it through PayPal.

“We were told by PayPal this was due to government regulations around countries that we have sanctions against,” he said. “We were blacklisted and now we’ve been told we have been whitelisted.”

Schoon-Tanis said the company that listed the art spent hours on the phone with PayPal representatives who finally relented.

There have been other reports in North America where PayPal blocked donations to Syrian refugee charities and blocked payment for transactions when Syria was mentioned in the listing. Syria is included on a list of countries where PayPal does not accept transactions.

When 24 Hour News 8 contacted PayPal, a spokesperson acknowledged what happened, but said the company was following rules laid down by the U.S. Department of Treasury, not Homeland Security. She said they are working to make sure it won’t happen again.

On Jan. 31, Paypal CEO and co-founder Max Levchin commented about the Trump Administration’s travel ban when he appeared on CNBC.

“It sends the absolutely worst message possible. And with respect to the refugee crisis that’s happening — particularly in Syria, but in many places around the world – it’s just inhumane and wrong,” Levchin said.

Schoon-Tanis said this experience has been an eye-opener.

“It feels like I’ve been censored, it feels like my small business entrepreneurship has been shut down. Those things seem un-American to me. On the flip side, I’m glad the algorithms work,” he said. “But it seems really murky and that’s the trick here – this doesn’t work quite right.”

An upside for Schoon-Tanis: this situation has people talking about his art. He’s busy and has no intention of slowing down.

“I’m going to the West Bank this coming summer to lead an arts camp for Palestinian kids, am I going have troubles traveling? I don’t think I am, but it does make you a little nervous.”

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