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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor > Releases > Remarks > 2001 > July - September

Religious Freedom in Western Europe

Lorne W. Craner, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Testimony Before the House Operations and Human Rights Subcommittee
Washington, DC
July 11, 2001

Chairman Ros-Lehtinen and members of the Subcommittee, it is an honor to appear before you today to testify on the status of religious freedom in western Europe. We appreciate your own commitment to religious freedom and your efforts toward our common goal of promoting religious freedom around the world.

Setting the Context

We have some important differences with our friends and allies in western Europe with respect to religious freedom. But we should, at the outset, place those differences in context. Minority religions are treated better in western Europe than in most other regions of the world. While we are quite concerned with the trends that I will outline today, we must also acknowledge that the severity of religious persecution we see in areas like China and Sudan is simply not present in western Europe. Civil liberties, in general, are respected and nourished by the nations of western Europe.

It is also important to note that there are genuine historical and cultural differences that help explain the divergences between the U.S. and European approaches to the role of religion in society. While most European states had longstanding ties to an official religion –- and some still do –- colonial America was from its earliest days a haven for people who sought religious liberty. By the time our Bill of Rights was adopted, the principle of religious freedom was already understood, codified, and widely accepted throughout our country.

In the two centuries that have followed, the United States became the most religiously energetic and diverse society in history. Today, virtually every major religion in the world can be found in our country and many of the smaller ones as well. This rich diversity reflects our conviction that the religious impulse is common to every human being, and that religion is a cornerstone of democracy and civil society. This belief is one of the motivating forces behind the President’s faith-based initiative.

In some European countries, public policy reflects the view that religions need to be regulated and controlled, notwithstanding their contributions to civil society and democracy. Europeans sometimes view these relatively new, minority religions as a source of disruption or even alarm, and appear to place a burden of proof on them to demonstrate they are not a threat. Of course, every organization –- religious or not -– is subject to the law. West European democracies, like our own, have ample statutory prohibitions on violence and fraudulent activities.

I should also note that most states in western Europe confer recognition on specific religious communities. In Belgium, Germany, Spain, and Italy, for example, the government determines what is officially recognized as a religion. If the criteria set by the state are met, legal recognition of the new religion is granted, and its relationship with society is codified and regulated. This usually entails things like prayer permits, tax benefits, the right to perform marriages, and chaplains in the military.

The Problem

With this background in mind, I want to call your attention to new legislation in France that we believe places religious freedom at risk. While much will depend on how the statute is implemented, we are concerned that it has established a precedent that is troubling, not only because of its potential impact in France, but also because of its potential use as a model by undemocratic countries or aspiring democracies who look to western Europe for guidance. The so-called About-Picard legislation, entitled "Prevention and Repression of Cultic Movements," is the most sweeping law on religious minorities which currently exists in Europe.

The law’s overly broad and ambiguous language gives the government authority to fine and even dissolve any religious association based on two or more convictions from a list of offenses. These offenses include such actions as "endangering the physical/psychological well-being of a person" or "violation of another person's freedom, dignity, or identity."

We do not yet know how the legislation will be implemented. Many in France have registered their objections to the About-Picard bill, including the French Council of Churches and Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant leaders. The Council of Europe issued a declaration on April 26, citing its view that the legislation could be discriminatory and violate human rights standards. We share this concern. We also hope that internal French and European voices will continue to be heard and will have an impact on implementation.

We are very concerned that the French model of anticult legislation will be adopted and misused by countries that possess neither the French rule of law nor France’s history of protecting human rights. We have seen evidence that French officials are actively promoting their model in some of these countries, and that some –- such as Russia and other countries of eastern Europe –- are considering its adoption. We are distressed at reports that the Government of Hong Kong, under pressure from China, may adopt a law based on the French model in order to deal with the Falun Gong. I do not believe that our French allies would be pleased at such a prospect.

I want also to note an apparent expansion in the monitoring and regulating of religious "sects" in Austria, Belgium, and to a lesser degree in Germany. Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary are considering similar approaches to dealing with the activities of groups suspiciously viewed as "sects" or "cults."

Typically, these policies involve the creation of a government agency to protect citizens against dangerous cults. For example the French Inter-Ministerial Commission to Battle Sects (MILS) was created to analyze the "phenomenon of cults." MILS publishes an annual report and is responsible for coordinating periodic interministerial meetings at which government officials can exchange information and coordinate their actions. A similar center has been established in Austria. In Belgium, the Center for Information and Advice on Harmful Sectarian Organizations collects and disseminates information on harmful sectarian groups and devises evaluative criteria to assess the risk for brainwashing, financial exploitation, and isolation from family. The Belgian list of sects includes Baptists, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, the Roman Catholic prelature of Opus Dei, and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).

The German Government does not have a formal commission to battle sects and appears to have rejected the French-Belgian approach to managing minority religions. It does not, however, recognize Scientology as a religion but views it as an economic enterprise that is opposed to the German democratic state. This has contributed to the use of so-called "sect filters" for employment, and has led some firms and individuals to screen out Scientologists in some sectors of business and employment. We have and will continue to express concerns over allegations of discrimination because of religious affiliation.

The U.S. Response

U.S. officials have consistently made our views known to authorities in these countries at every level. In late September 2000, the U.S. House of Representatives passed unanimously Resolution 588 which expressed "grave concern" about developments affecting religious freedom in western Europe and called upon the President and the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom to press the issue with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) countries. In October the head of the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Review Meeting in Warsaw detailed U.S. concerns regarding religious freedom in Austria, France, and Belgium, and called upon those governments to close their "sect offices." The Director of the Office of International Religious Freedom in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor traveled to Western Europe to express our views directly. U.S. Embassy officials at all levels have addressed the issue of religious freedom with their counterparts. The Department’s third Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, to be published this September, will detail the status of each country in the world, including those of western Europe.

Despite our differences of view, the United States and the democracies of western Europe share a strong commitment to universal human rights, including religious liberty. We have a relationship of cooperation in many areas, including defense and trade. While we have disagreements, we have developed, over the generations, the habit of cooperation. This has stood us all in good stead and enabled us to overcome our differences.

Today, we are in the process of expanding our Transatlantic dialogue to include religious freedom. I am confident that this will enrich both the American and the European understanding of religious liberty. We look forward to a positive result from our dialogue and to working with our west European partners to spread the blessings of religious liberty to every region of the world.

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