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European Perspective on Religious Freedom PDF Print E-mail

Christian Brunner
University of Graz, Austria

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Tokyo, Japan May 23-25, 1998

Let me first briefly characterize the position of religion in western European society. If you analyze it, you will discover a contradictory picture in many ways. I will mention some of them.

On the one hand, European identity is still defined by religion, namely by Christianity in its Catholic and Protestant denominations. In political and public discussions, especially when dealing with Islam, participants often refer to the occidental culture and say that one of its pillars is Christianity. On the other hand, in surveys, the words Christian and church range only in the middle on a scale of sympathy. Home, country, television, and work are rated more likable than Christian and church.

Formal membership in a church is highly rated. For instance, 77 percent of the population of Austria is Catholic. The level of participation in worship and other religious ceremonies is low and steadily declining, however. For instance, only 14 percent of Austrians participate regularly in Sunday worship services. In Germany, 49 percent of the population, although by and large Christian, do not believe in a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith, namely the resurrection of Jesus.

The mainstream Christian denominations lose members constantly, but 54 percent believe in God and another 3-5 percent in a spiritual force. Above all, young people orient themselves toward spiritual and esoteric ideas. Furthermore, the psychological services market, in which people often are looking for a sense of the meaning of life, is booming.

There is a very contradictory picture. Despite this, the interest in religious and spiritual questions outside well-established religions is large and will grow during the next decades. This fact, which was addressed yesterday evening, especially by Mr. Elliott Abrams, is a reality in western Europe, too.

Let me now turn to some legal aspects. European states have signed and ratified quite a few international conventions dealing with human rights. One of the most important in Europe is the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which is on a constitutional level in many European states. It was signed and ratified by 40 western and eastern European countries, including Albania, the Czech Republic, Russia, Slovakia, and so forth. Article 9, subsection 1 says that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. And subsection 2 says that the freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interest of public safety and for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others. Here you have a far-reaching public order clause, which I will refer to later.

Article 2 of the First Supplementary Protocol to this European convention is important, too. It says that

the state shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical conventions.

The constitutional traditions and constitutions of all western European states attach great importance to freedom of religion, conscience, belief, association, and assembly. The basic right to religious freedom can be restricted by legislatures. In Sweden it may not be restricted at all or only under limited conditions. In general, one can say that in Protestant countries like those of Scandinavia and the Netherlands, freedom of religion ranks very high and therefore restrictions on religious groups of any kind are quickly felt as an infringement of liberty. Catholic countries such as France, Belgium, or Austria, however, have introduced an anti-cult policy and legislation that jeopardizes the religious freedom of religious minorities. Just to give an example, in the Netherlands Hare Krishna is recognized as a religious group; in Germany and Austria it is handled as a dangerous sect.

If one reviews the level of international and national constitutional law in western Europe, one can say that religious freedom is guaranteed, but there are decades of the invasion of discrimination against religious minorities that are jeopardizing religious freedom.

The first gate of discrimination is a restrictive notion of the term religion and the second is wide-ranging public order clauses. As for the first, although many individuals and scholars favor a broad definition of religion—for example, a system of answers to the questions where do I come from, who am I, and what is my destiny—definitions by political institutions and traditional churches are often mainstream oriented. For instance, in denying the Church of Scientology the status of a religion, the appeals court of Milan, Italy, defined religion as “a system of doctrines centered on the assumption of an existence of a Supreme Being who has a relation with humans.”

Fortunately, a year later the Italian supreme court overruled this decision, castigating the earlier definition as unacceptable because it is based only on the faith of biblical religions and excludes a number of mainline religions, including Buddhism.

It is evident that only broad definitions of religions are consistent with the aims of religious freedom in a number of national constitutions and international declarations and conventions.

The second gate through which discrimination invades is public order clauses in law documents on an international and national level. These clauses are intended to ensure that users of religious freedom do not violate public order, but the clauses are often wide ranging. I read to you Article 9, subsection 2 of the European Convention. Furthermore, proportionality between a possible infringement of liberty and the possible infringement of public order is often solved in favor of public order.

Let me give you an Austrian example. Ten years ago the Jehovah’s Witnesses applied for state recognition, and that application was recently rejected by the Ministry of Education. The reason given was partly the following:

In the writings of Jehovah’s Witnesses an intolerant attitude against the state, communities of states, and other religions can be identified. They say that political systems are part of the world of Satan. In this sense, members are admonished to keep away from politics and not take part in elections. Considerable problems arise in the case of necessary blood transfusions, especially with children of members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, because a life-saving medical provision is declined.

Just a few remarks on factual aspects in Western Europe. In a draft report of the European Parliament on cults in the European Union, some types of behavior and activities of religious groups are listed that are seen as problematic or dangerous. For instance, financial exploitation of members through excessive cost of courses; aggressive recruitment of members; separating people from their family, social, and professional environment; use of so-called psycho-techniques and methods of psychological manipulation; or persecuting critics and people who had left the cult.

Some of the types on the list are very unclear, like the use of psycho-techniques. Some are not really valid, such as separating people from their family, social, and professional environment. Because of the focus on spiritual dimensions, a retreat for meditation may be part of the convictions and practices of a certain religious group. By the way, if you become a member of certain Catholic orders, you also are separated from your family and environment.

Furthermore, there are growing anti-cult initiatives and movements, such as parliamentary proposals for public information campaigns on the danger of sects and cults or for the enforcement of regulations on sects. Some bad consequences have already occurred as a result, besides problematic legislation. For instance, in Austria, yoga was canceled as a course offered by an Austrian adult education institution. The reason given was the danger of developing sects and mental dependence. The national court of Vienna dealt with deprivation of parental rights because the mother is a member of Scientology. The managing board of the Austrian People’s Conservative Party decided that membership and holding a position in the party are not compatible with belief in a sect or actively advertising for a sect. The list of bad consequences includes the case of Rev. and Mrs. Sun Myung Moon, which was referred to yesterday.

Do facts overrule the legal situation and infringe upon the freedom of religion in western Europe? The answer for some western Europe states, in quite a few cases, has to be yes, unfortunately. On the other hand, there are some hopes. One is a draft report of the Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs of the European Parliament in December of last year on cults in the European Union. When you read the contents of the motion, you will notice it retains draft language in favor of religious freedom, as far as anti-cult measures and, especially, legislation are concerned.

Let me conclude. Religion, especially in a secularized society, is always critical of the state and society. This is even more true for religious minorities. They threaten established philosophies of life, values, churches, conventions, etc. by their philosophies of life and values. Their often radical, spiritual orientation toward life may have far-reaching cultural implications, which often differ widely from the cultural conventions. This fact jeopardizes the religious freedom of such minorities and is one of the causes of anti-cult movements and regulations.

The policy of controlling the growth of religious minorities in Europe often takes three forms. First, the government supports some traditional religions. Second, the government tolerates the presence of other religious communities that it deems to be not dangerous. Third, the government suppresses the presence of religious movements that are new and popular or labeled as dangerous. In executing such a policy, state officials decide whether a community is religious, which types of behavior and activities are seen as problematic, and so on. In making these decisions, government and state officials rely increasingly on the advice of psychiatrists and psychologists, information sent by the churches and the government, threatened family members, disgruntled anti-cult movements, and so on.

Such statutes as criminal law, consumer protection laws, and laws against tax evasion that already exist in the states of western Europe are in general sufficient to fight criminality and misuses within religious movements. In the case of crimes and abuses, we should investigate and prosecute the suspects as criminals who are law abusers, not just as members of a religious group. In case of doubt whether a religious group is somehow strange, we should orient our thinking and decisions in favor of the right of religious freedom, which is not only an individual but also a collective human right and one of the fundamental rights of mankind.