HUMAN RIGHTS WITHOUT FRONTIERS
RUE DE LA PRESSE 5
Tel.: 32 2 219 88 80 - Fax: 32 2 219 02 85
PRESS AND INFORMATION SERVICE
Section: Religious Intolerance and Discrimination
March 25, 1998
STRATEGIES FOR RELIGIOUS PLURALISM WITHOUT DISCRIMINATION AND
INEQUALITIES IN EUROPE
The Monitoring Role of NGOs in the Specific Cultural and Historical
Setting of the European Continent
The European continent is multicultural, multilingistic and
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
March 9, 1998