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CIS PDF Print E-mail

Peter H. Juviler
Barnard College

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

Those concerned with questions of human rights and democracy turn increasingly to religious freedom as a key foundation of a democratic community and the active civil society sustaining it. There comes to mind the opinion of the court in the landmark case, Kokkinakis vs. Greece, May 25, 1993.

In that case the European Court of Human Rights found Greece in violation of religious rights under the European Human Rights Convention for the arrest and jailing of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The court opined that “freedom of religion is one of the foundations of a ‘democratic society.’”

That this was a Western European case before the European court will not surprise observers of religious persecution in Europe. Infringements on religious freedom appear in Europe, east and west, including the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

A Conference On Religious Liberty held by the CSCE just two years ago in Warsaw, attended by 47 member countries, two international organizations, and 87 NGOs, highlighted this all-European (and of course, worldwide) problem.

The time sequence of religious discrimination and responses to it varies across Europe. The issue has unfolded in three stages: (1) post-totalitarian freedom; (2) backlash against “foreign” and allegedly harmful “new religions,” “sects,” and “cults;” and (3) reaction to the discrimination in the form of domestic and international initiatives for religious human rights.

This process of movement through stages of freedom, backlash, and championship of religious freedom seems furthest along into the third stage in western Europe, with its lively advocacy and litigation in defense of religious freedom. The drama of religious freedom versus discrimination has entered phase three in the again-independent states of eastern Europe. In Bulgaria, for example, advocates of human rights and aggrieved religious groups joined to protest restrictive rules, and, as in western Europe, appeal to the Council of Europe under the European Human Rights Convention’s guarantees of religious freedom.

In the CIS countries, responses to discrimination are just beginning to move into the third phase of protest and advocacy. As with progress in democratization, these countries lag behind their post-communist neighbors in eastern Europe. Discrimination against those “nontraditional” and “foreign” religious groups usually occurs where there is a preeminent church associated with the history and traditions of the majority ethnic group. Discrimination against “nontraditional” or “foreign” religious groups occurs in more than half the CIS countries—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, and much of Central Asia, containing the vast majority of the CIS population.

The governments legislate and act to forbid, harass, or curtail certain target faiths in matters of registration. They also support the return of property confiscated by the communists to majority religions but limit the freedom to worship and proselytize for “nontraditional” religions. Discrimination seems less a matter of religious conflict as such than it is a matter of politics, nationalism, and defense of one’s national culture! Such a mix of hostile motivations serves to aggravate existing prejudices.

The issue of religious freedom centers particularly these days on discrimination against “nontraditional religions,” “new religions,” “sects,” and “cults.” Depending on the country, discrimination on the basis of newness and foreignness may affect faiths ranging from long-established “nontraditional” Catholic and Lutheran Churches to Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Hare Krishna, the Unification Church, and Scientologists-indeed, virtually any foreign religious groups, whether imported yesterday or centuries ago. The struggle for religious freedom and the degree of its success will be a portent and a measure of progress toward freedom and democracy in general.