Press Release


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Section: Religious Intolerance and Discrimination

March 25, 1998


The Monitoring Role of NGOs in the Specific Cultural and Historical Setting of the European Continent

The European continent is multicultural, multilingistic and multireligious.

It can be said that religious pluralism really exists within the borders of the Member States of the European Union and more widely of the Council of Europe. However, the variety of their national histories, which is a richness in itself, raises some problems. In many cases, a specific religion has been closely linked to the edification of modern Nation States and pretends to enjoy or effectively enjoys some privileged status legally, politically and socially. Consequently, most European countries have a two-tiered and even a three-tiered system in which religions have different statuses and in which citizens are not treated on the same footing and even suffer from various forms of institutionalized inequalities and discrimination on the basis of their religious or philosophical beliefs.

The main break is indeed between religions which the State recognizes and therefore legitimizes with some sort of quality label and second-rank religions which are not recognized, exclusively minority religions, also called "sects" or "cults", which do not enjoy the State quality label.

However, even in the top category you have a second break between the prevailing religion(s), so-called historical or traditional, and minority religions which are considered as honourable. Nobody can snap one's fingers at this reality inherited from the past of the various European States and ignore it when aiming to promote the implementation of international instruments regarding religious freedom.

Therefore, UN and NGO bodies and European institutions monitoring and protecting religious liberty should always keep in mind these religious, political and historical contingencies which must remain the starting point upon which they can build up their strategies if they want to transcend them successfully.

In our European countries which are either secularized or impregnated with the culture of a majority religion, very few human rights NGOs deal and want to deal with freedom of religion and belief issues for reasons which I will not analyze here. Therefore, the first step of a dynamic strategy would be to raise the awareness of more secular organizations in Europe and to signpost the way already followed by European and American experts.

However, cloning the system of religious liberty in the U.S., its strategies both inherited from its own history and its own case-law would be a major pedagogical and cultural error insofar as the image of the American free market of religions conveyed by European media is rather negative. Purely academic work would also be quite insufficient and inoperative, which implies at least a partnership between human rights NGOs and universities.

Europe has therefore to work out its own forms of religious pluralism from which inequalities and discrimination will have to be banned. In this regard, I would like to propose a twofold strategy.

1. The first facet of the strategy would consist in multiplying legal battles in Member States of the Council of Europe and at the European Court in Strasbourg to enrich the European religious case-law. In the last few years Greece and Bulgaria have been the main targets of this policy which has proved or is proving to be successful. However, to be more effective, an international task force should be set up in order to select typical cases to be defended and financed: i.e. the religious dimension of freedom of expression and association, already defended in Strasbourg with Greek cases, religious classes in public schools, conscientious objection, sects issues, and so on.

2. The second facet of the strategy would involve battles to be fought on the human rights field. They should focus on equality of individuals whatever their religious or philosophical beliefs rather than on equality among recognized religions and between the latter and non-recognized religions labeled as "cults". This choice is of major importance in Europe if one wants to avoid fatal accusations of defending or even promoting dangerous or harmful sects often made by anti-cult movements and the media.

In this regard, I would like to share with you the experience that our human rights NGO "Human Rights Without Frontiers" based in Brussels has accumulated in the nineties in countries which were or are still applying for membership to the European Union and the Council of Europe or for grants from European institutions. The top priority has been given to such countries because they are more vulnerable and sensitive to campaigns orchestrated in the field of human rights, and more particularly religious liberty. In this context, we have elaborated four levels of activities based on publicity and pressure.

First level

Running a press service in English on a daily basis, which means collecting news in various languages from local correspondents and other sources, translating them, (E)mailing them to journalists, sociologists of religions, legal experts, religious liberty advocates, international institutions (UN, OSCE, European Parliament, American Congress and Senate ...), law faculties, universities, NGOs, human rights organizations (Amnesty, Human Rights Watch...). This networking aims to have a fast multiplying effect of the information on the relevant political authorities.

Mass scale mailing of press releases among potential decision-makers such as the 600 members of the European Parliament, the Council of the Europe, the OSCE, embassies...). For example, we circulated a press release about Romania's ban on building places of worship for non-recognized religions and some time later, the implementation of the restrictive and discriminatory decree was suspended so that works could be resumed all over the country.

Second level

If the situation has not improved decisively after the first level action, we resort to mass scale circulation of a first 4-page newsletter describing the problems and proposing solutions. For example: Is Latvia Fit for European Integration? If there is no significant change, mailing 2 or 3 more updated newsletters might be necessary.

Third level

If the second level operation remains unsuccessful, publishing and circulating a special issue of our magazine in English and in local languages is the next step with regular updating through our Email press and information service.

For example: "Religious Minorities in Albania, Bulgaria and Romania", "Greece, Religious Intolerance and Discrimination" or "Conscientious Objection in France" where we managed to have the conscription laws changed and to stop the imprisonment of 700 to 1,000 young Jehovah's Witnesses every year.

Fourth level : Organizing international seminars in target-countries with foreign and local experts to publicize some acute problems and propose solutions. That is what we did in Athens, Sofia, Tirana and Bucharest.

These activities can be combined at any moment with attendance of trials to give an international dimension to a case being judged, what we did recently in Azerbaijan for a Jehovah's Witness who had been in prison for three months and who was eventually released personal visits to European MPs and to embassies, private meetings with officials of other international institutions, in a nutshell the usual lobbying work visits to prisons for conscientious objectors, fact-finding missions and publication of reports, etc.

All the aforementioned activities need more human, material and financial resources than we can provide. Some faiths defend their own rights and the ones of their members but freedom of religion and belief is indivisible and in our secularized countries, where indifference to religious matters prevails, the sources of financing programmes based on such a broad-minded approach are very limited. Up to now, "Human Rights Without Frontiers" has been the only NGO to get a grant from the European institutions for a project defending religious minorities in some countries of Central Europe.

Consequently, some form of partnership between human rights advocates in Europe and America is of utmost importance insofar as it contributes to strengthen and develop internal monitoring processes to be carried out by European institutions and NGOs. In such a setting, our secular NGO is quite open to being one of the bridges of some intercontinental cooperation and cross-cultural dialogue.

Willy Fautre

March 9, 1998



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