Europe spars over faith

In both East and West, minority religions face rising restrictions onrights of worship

While violence has flared between and against faiths in several regions of the world, quieter forms of persecution have emerged in surprising places. In Europe, on a continent that helped nourish the concept of universal human rights, religious freedom is taking some serious blows.

And these blows are glancing not just in Eastern Europe, where countries may still be struggling with the aftermath of totalitarian, atheistic pasts, but also in the heart of Western Europe, where a few governments have taken it upon themselves to call a whole host of minority religions "dangerous sects."

Jehovah's Witnesses have a lien against their property in France and have been put on trial in Russia.

Quakers, the YWCA, and Hasidic Jews have been blacklisted in Belgium.

Muslims have not been allowed to choose their own leader in Greece and are being tortured in Uzbekistan.

Evangelical churches have been harassed and vandalized in Germany and lost broadcast licenses in Romania.

Anti-Semitism has reached a new pitch in Russia. Stricter laws favoring some religions over others have been passed in Russia, Austria, Macedonia, and Latvia.

"In Europe in the last few years, partly as a function of nervousness about suicidal sects, governments have decided to step in and define what a religion is," said Robert Seiple, the US State Department's special representative for international religious freedom, in an interview in Vienna last month. "And when you do that, it's very easy to get it wrong."

And get it wrong they do, say many minority faiths, who see no reason for their inclusion on the lengthy blacklists. "There is the danger of creating a tiered system of religion in Europe," says James Pellechia, spokesman for Jehovah's Witnesses, who some observers say are being targeted most of all. "And this multitiered system is discriminatory and unfair according to European conventions of law and the UN Declaration of Human Rights."

Unfair treatment of religious minorities tends to encourage "chauvinism and intolerance, which threatens pluralism and political stability in the region," says Aaron Rhodes, executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), an independent watchdog group headquartered in Vienna.

Persecution on the rise

There is no doubt that "numerous European democracies and former Soviet republics" are violating their own commitments, says the IHF. It released a detailed report on religious discrimination last week in the lead-up to a special meeting on religious freedom held March 22 in Vienna by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The 54 nations of the OSCE (from Canada and the US to the former Soviet republics) have made "probably the most specific international commitments to religious liberty [see box] of any place in the world," says Karen Lord, counsel on freedom of religion for the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the independent US agency responsible for staying on top of OSCE commitments).

Yet "many OSCE countries are taking legal measures to suppress religious activity and to interfere in the internal affairs of religious communities," Dr. Rhodes says. And "the situation is gradually deteriorating," says Willy Fautr, who heads a Brussels-based group called Human Rights Without Frontiers, which has closely monitored the developments in Western countries.

While discriminatory acts are occurring across the Continent, the reasons behind them are not uniform. One overall factor, observers agree, is the proliferation of religious groups in recent years - from the Western missionary movements that rushed into Eastern Europe after the fall of communism to the mushrooming of small sects of all kinds in the West.

Filling 'a spiritual vacuum'

Ms. Lord says that, as a European Parliament draft report on sects suggested, "part of the reason for this proliferation is that there is a spiritual vacuum, a decline of attendance in mainline churches, and people are seeking something that gives their life meaning."

In the East, churches that were repressed under communism suddenly found themselves at a disadvantage in competing for the spiritually hungry with wealthy, technologically attuned Western groups. Often those from the West, when they arrived, didn't even bother to communicate with churches of the same faith in the East struggling to reestablish themselves, says the Rev. Jaromir Dus of the Czech Republic. And when evangelization didn't go beyond rallies and conversions, he adds, many young people became disillusioned with Christianity, making it harder for local ministers to reach them.

This "invasion" spurred resentment and reaction on the part of local churches, who felt the outsiders didn't understand their culture or people and didn't belong. The 1997 law passed in Russia putting restrictions on "new religions" is often seen as a reaction to this competition.

Meanwhile, in Western Europe, the shock of the suicides and homicides of the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland in 1994 and France in 1995 was followed by reports of children being taken away from their families by some groups, or of people being "brainwashed" by others. "People got scared, and the governments felt they had to respond," Lord says.

France and Belgium set up commissions to look into sects and published reports with lists of more than 170 "harmful" groups without consulting with the groups or with scholars in the field. "This resulted," says the IHF, "in media reports libeling minority religions, circulation of rumors and false information, and incitement of religious intolerance."

In both countries, groups have found that when they provide accurate information to the commissions, no attention is paid to it. Meanwhile, government bodies have been set up to "observe" the groups. And some countries in Eastern Europe are looking to these methods as models, Mr. Fautr says. Germany also created a commission, which did hold hearings. Its report was more moderate, but it pushed strong measures against Scientology and has been criticized for encouraging more control of religious associations.

Culture of state responsibility

"In Europe, the states generally think that it is their responsibility to protect their citizens against various forms of dangers, including 'new religions,' " says Paula Tscherne of IHF. "It appears that in some countries anything outside the mainstream religions [Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox] is regarded as dangerous." In some societies, state-recognized churches are subsidized, and they may be worried about splitting the pie.

Some scholars also see something else at work. Massimo Introvigne, director of the Center for Studies on New Religions, in Torino, Italy, has looked closely at the commissions and often directly connected anti-cult movements in Western Europe. In a briefing for a US congressional committee last July, he described "a dangerous ideology, hostile to religious minorities in general," and said it involves "a secular-humanist reaction against the postmodern return to religious interests."

"Modern anti-cult movements are ... primarily secular organizations fighting 'cults' based on brainwashing or mind-control paradigms" discredited in the US, he says, but that have been sold to the press and public bodies in France, Germany, and Belgium. "In some countries, including France," he says, they "operate with the help of taxpayers' money and are responsible for spreading misleading information about a number of religious minorities." France has created a Mission to Fight Sects, and plans to develop materials for the schools.

Jehovah's Witnesses and Evangelical groups have particularly been singled out. In Nmes, for example, an Evangelical church has been told it cannot continue its ministry to youth or drug addicts and has been rejected for a loan "because you are on this list as a dangerous sect." Jehovah's Witnesses in France are being threatened with a 60 percent tax on all donations, and have been told they owe millions in back taxes. Members have been fired from jobs because of their faith.

"The idea of tolerance is being tested in France, which was the seed bed for tolerance," says Mr. Pellechia. "Jehovah's Witnesses have been practicing our faith in France for over a hundred years."

"Witnesses are like the litmus test in many ways," he adds. "If you use Nazi Germany as an example, they began by targeting Jehovah's Witnesses in 1933 when they refused to adopt the ideology. Of course the persecution soon spread to others, and Jews were a main target."

They are serving as the litmus test in Russia, too. A trial began in Moscow last month in which they have been accused of many things, but, according to observers, no credible evidence has been presented. "The prosecution has put on such a weak case it would be going too far to decide in favor of the prosecution," says Larry Uzzell, director of Keston Institute in Oxford, England, and its former Moscow bureau chief. "But rather than vindicate the Jehovah's Witnesses, it's likely they will let the thing drag on forever and keep the sword of Damocles dangling over them."

"If it drags on, it will exercise a chilling effect on other faiths," he adds. "One of the charges is that they allegedly foment religious conflict. The evidence offered is that they distribute brochures in which they claim that their religion is true and others are false. If that becomes a precedent, then it can be used against any religion that takes itself seriously."

Since the trial began, Pellechia says, one-fifth of Witness groups in Moscow have lost their houses of worship.

The widespread pressures on them may be a reaction to growth. They are now "the No. 2 or No. 3 religious organization in all the states of Europe except Switzerland (excluding several countries formerly part of the Soviet Union for which we have no stats)," says J. Gordon Melton, of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Dr. Uzzell says the near-term prognosis for religious freedom in Russia is not good. The law is not being fully enforced (avoiding diplomatic complications with Washington and the Vatican), but many small groups are being harassed. "The Catholics have suffered less than the Protestants, and foreign missionaries less than indigenous Protestants," he says. He believes the Russian Orthodox Church is most concerned about schismatic Orthodox groups and Old Believers, a distinctively Russian form of Christianity.

In May 1998, Uzbekistan passed a law that many say is worse than Russia's and more vigorously enforced. "The main target of the law and other repressive measures is officially fundamentalist Islam," says the IHF report, "but small Protestant religious groups, Catholics, and Jehovah's Witnesses" are also "seriously affected." The government is "painting all Muslims with the same brush," says Human Rights Watch, "subjecting them on a mass scale to beatings, show trials, expulsions from universities and jobs, and lengthy prison terms." Muslims also face problems in other countries; wearing of the hijab (head scarf), for instance, which for Muslim women is just modest dress, is treated as a form of extremism.

"In new democracies," says the IHF, "the goal of restrictive laws often appears to be to strengthen the position of the majority religious communities, which are regarded as part of national identity.... [But] laws sometimes express values of atheistic, pro- or former-communist circles, which still reflexively attack religion."

On the positive side, a commission in Sweden opened dialogue with minority groups and said France and Belgium had gone too far. And at the OSCE meeting this week, government delegations and nongovernmental groups spoke forcefully on the issue. "The problem," Rhodes said after the meeting, "is what happens next. There didn't seem to be a lot of willingness to acknowledge a failure to abide by commitments. France made a rather dismissive response." The IHF has previously recommended a follow-up procedure to the OSCE that would involve governments reporting back later on what they have done to respond to problems identified.

It will all play out in the court of public opinion. "No country in Europe embraces the basic principle of religion in democracy as it exists in the United States," Rhodes says. "The religious issue is a mirror of the political tradition." In many countries, "they see democracy as majoritarianism. The sense of the rights of a minority is very hard to build up."

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