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Contemporary Trends in Religious Freedom PDF Print E-mail

Lee Boothby
International Academy for Freedom of Religion and Belief

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights. I think it is appropriate, therefore, for us to assess where we are with respect to the benchmarks that have been set so far as minimum standards for religious liberty. It is well for us to consider contemporary trends in the area of religious freedom.

In America, we have ignored the UN Declaration. We haven’t paid much attention, probably because under our own Constitution, at least as it has been interpreted, the floors may be a bit higher than those set by international standards.

The Declaration of Human Rights addresses religious freedom most specifically in Article 18. That section recognizes each person’s freedom, either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance. Article 18 also provides that everyone has the freedom to change his religion or belief. This is probably the most controversial provision contained in the declaration; it was very much opposed by the Islamic delegates, and in fact the Saudi Arabians offered an amendment to delete that particular language.

The ideals contained in the declaration subsequently were expanded upon in later declarations, treaties, international agreements, and some national constitutions. In fact, it is very much in place in the Russian constitution.

The formal and enforceable legal commitments, as far as religious rights were concerned, were also set forth in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was adopted in 1966. Article 18, paragraph one is a binding obligation on those signatory countries. It is a very important declaration of rights. Under that article everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This includes freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice and freedom either individually or in community with others and in private or public, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching. It is basically the same as Article 18 of the Declaration of Human Rights.

The Human Rights Committee, established under the covenant in its General Comment #22(48), has explained that the freedom to manifest one’s religion includes acts integral to the conduct by religious groups of their basic affairs, such as choosing religious leaders, priests, and teachers; preparing and distributing religious texts or publications; and the liberty of parents or legal guardians to ensure that their children receive a religious and moral education in conformity with their own conviction. These are very important guarantees.

Article 18(b) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights mandates that the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. Now this proviso has been used as an excuse in country after country to limit rights that seem to be very clear in the other provisions. In other words, many countries take this as the opportunity to take away what was previously given.

A doctrine of proportionality must be applied. Under international norms no law or decree may be issued limiting the religious liberties of individuals or religious organizations except as necessary to address those specifically enumerated governmental concerns. A proper interpretation of the international norms also dictates that any limitation on religiously motivated conduct, or actions permitted by international legal norms, must be proportionate to the aim of protecting those concerns that are specifically set forth, and must not be applied in a manner hostile to the protections provided for religious liberty.

In the United States, we have said it in a different way, although we are having problems maintaining the proposition. If an individual’s religious beliefs come in conflict with governmental determination, law, proclamation, or action, the only way that the individual’s religious rights should be set aside would be if the government were to demonstrate that there was a compelling state interest to override those interests of the individual. And, in addition, demonstrate that there is no less intrusive means by which the government can protect its own interests.

In 1981, the United Nations also adopted a declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief. This particular document sets forth in more detail some of requirements, such as the responsibility of governments to permit the establishment and maintenance of charitable and humanitarian institutions; allow religious organizations to acquire and use the necessary articles and materials related to the rights or customs of religion; permit religious groups the right to publish and disseminate relevant publications; teach a religion or belief in places suitable for those purposes; and observe days of rest and celebrate holidays and ceremonies in accordance with precepts of one’s religion. We have some very specific statements by the United Nations as to what really is to be protected under the international norms.

The major trends in the area of religious freedom can generally be described today as going downhill, rather than uphill, not only in Europe but in the United States. There are five main trends that should be explored. Some of these are global in nature and some are not.

The trends are, in my judgment: (1) toward official religious preferences, (2) toward sect vilification, (3) toward religious feudalism, (4) toward religious persecution, and (5) away from religious accommodation.

Before I explore the first trend, I would like to mention a U.S. Supreme Court decision. In Larson v. Valente, Justice Brennan wrote that free exercise can be guaranteed only when legislators and voters are required to accord to their own religions the very same treatment given the small, the new, and the unpopular denominations. If that rule were to be followed, we would have no problems today.

Now let’s look at the trends. In Saudi Arabia, all religions but Islam are outlawed. In Vietnam, Buddhists and Christians who act independently of the officially approved temples or churches are subject to arrest. In Switzerland, sects are not accorded the status of public law corporations. Austrian law grants freedom of belief but limits the right to organize as a religious entity. There are currently 13 recognized religious organizations. China restricts all actual religious practice to government-authorized religious organizations. You have to be authorized before you can practice there. In October 1996, China launched a national campaign to suppress unauthorized religious groups. In Iran, the constitution declares that Islam is the official religion.

Russia recently adopted legislation establishing a hierarchy for religious organizations, with the Russian Orthodox Church being given some special recognition. Those religious organizations that have been in existence for at least 15 years are generally given official recognition to function. If a church happened to have come into Russia after the fall of communism, it is basically afforded the opportunity to get together in a small group and pray. You cannot own property, you cannot publish materials, you cannot ask for your religious people from outside to come in to Russia as part of your religious mission.

The second trend, toward sect vilification, has been with us for a very long time. In the United States we experienced it for a number of years, and we went through the process of religious deprogramming and all kinds of problems. I think we have now exported that to western Europe and, more recently, to eastern and central Europe. Recently the parliaments of France, Germany, and Belgium have established sect commissions to investigate dangerous cults.

In April the Belgian Parliamentary Commission released a 670-page report on sects. The report listed 189 organizations as sects, including Mormons, Opus Dei, Quakers, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Amish. In France, 172 groups were classified as sects. Jehovah’s Witnesses were characterized as a criminal sect because of their opposition to blood transfusions.

In Bulgaria, in the last two or three years, sects have been the target of a mass media campaign that has resulted in, for instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons being subject to physical violence, illegal searches, and confiscations. In Bavaria, Germany, the government began requiring civil servants to sign declarations forswearing Scientology membership.

In Russia, a book attacking Protestants was published. This particular guide was intended for use with civil and military administrations. In Armenia, the government has refused to register Jehovah’s Witnesses on the ground that they oppose military service.

The third trend is toward religious feudalism. When traveling in eastern and central Europe, I am always amazed when I go to a place like the Republic of Georgia and they say to be Georgian is to be Orthodox. I point to the synagogue and say, “How do you feel about that?” They say that it is not a problem. I go to Romania and they say to be Romanian is to be Orthodox. If you point out some Muslims, they say that is no problem. You go to Bulgaria and they say to be Bulgarian you must be Orthodox.

In Russia, for instance, they say that since we have been Christian for a thousand years, we don’t want any other Christians here. We don’t want any foreign ministers. This, I believe, is really religious feudalism. This statement was made a few years back: “Religion is the most dangerous thing for Russia. Moscow isn’t a pabulum for cults, for Protestant congregations who resemble wild wolves rushing in here, or Catholic thieves using their billions to try to occupy new territory.” That really is the view, unfortunately, in some eastern and central European countries.

In the United States, I hear similar statements. This is a Christian nation, and many are not particularly happy to see the Eastern religions come to town. I recall that a lot of problems developed outside Dallas when a Buddhist temple was being built.

The next trend to look at is the trend toward religious persecution. Pakistan enforces a blasphemy law with a possible death penalty against Christians and Muslims. In Iran, members of the Baha’i faith are put to death. Currently, there are four Baha’is in prison under a death sentence, convicted on charges of apostasy in 1996.

On March 4, 1997, in southern Russia (the Caucasus area), a husband and wife who had become members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church were tortured and publicly burned in the public square.

The fifth trend is away from religious accommodation. This is primarily an American phenomenon, perhaps because, in many other areas of the world, there hasn’t been a lot of accommodation. We always prided ourselves on our accommodation of religious belief. But recently, the Supreme Court, in a historic case, said that when a neutral law of general applicability adversely affects an individual because of his religious practices, he basically is not entitled to an accommodation, although for years the Court had said that such individuals were.

This particular determination did not just have an impact within the United States. The interesting point is that in a place like Russia, time and time again they say, “Your laws don’t apply here because you have a different culture and background.” Yet as soon as our Supreme Court said that neutral laws of general applicability were such that you don’t get an accommodation, every Russian official knew about that law and said, “Aha, even your laws don’t accommodate religious observers.” So, that particular determination by our Supreme Court had a very direct impact in eastern and central Europe.

There are currently conflict areas that we need to be aware of. We know, for instance, that the word proselytization is a red flag in eastern and central Europe. The idea of pluralism is only tolerated in many places in Europe, particularly in eastern and central Europe and Russia. In the former communist countries, those people who are enforcing the laws and registering religious organizations are normally one of two types. They are either former communists who really don’t have much regard for religion to start with. Or they are people who were trained in theological schools and all they think about is their own theology. Therefore, you have a real problem if you are a new religion, or if you are what they refer to as a sect, which is not a compliment.

In the area of legal status, it is our view that any organization under international standards that holds themselves up to be a religious organization ought to be able to function at least at the entry level and do things that churches always do. They may not be subsidized by the state, but they should be able to function. However, in most of the countries in eastern and central Europe, Russia, and, I am afraid, in some other parts of Europe, there are registration requirements that are really designed to keep new religions out of business. That is true in many of the countries. They require 500 members, or 300 members, or whatever it may be. Or they require that you have been there for a certain period of time. Or they require that you register every year for the first 10 years. These are all real problems that we face today.

On the other hand, we have to recognize that there are other reasons for what is being done, in addition to the fact that there may be a communist mentality or that there are people enforcing the law who may have a theological viewpoint that they can’t get past. One of the concerns is stability. For instance, in Russia, we know the economy is not stable. We know that politics there is not stable. So they look around and they ask, what can we identify with that is stable? The Communist Party used to be what was stable. Now it is the [Orthodox] Church, so they look to the Church to preserve the norm and their culture. In the future, we have to understand that mind-set. We also have to work together to develop positive strategies.

My last point is this. The problems are great. Looking at the trends, if I were to give you an assessment as to whether things are good or bad, I would say they are bad. That’s why I think that meetings like this are extremely important.

It is absolutely necessary that all the groups concerned about religious freedom talk together and work together. There are not all that many. There are many groups that are concerned in a broad sense, but there are very few organizations that are really focused on religious freedom. It is necessary for all of us to be talking together, working together, and deciding how to resolve these problems collectively. If we don’t, the battle cannot be won. We cannot win this battle individually. It is absolutely impossible to win the battle that way. We all have to be together on our agenda. We have to know what our agenda is, and we have to collectively attempt to accomplish those particular points.