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Religious Intolerance in Europe Today

 

Written Testimony
for a Hearing
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Fr. Drew Christiansen, S.J.
Director, Office of International Justice and Peace
U.S. Catholic Conference

September 18, 1997

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to contribute to the Helsinki Commission's ongoing efforts to promote greater respect for religious freedom, in accord with the commitments undertaken by the Member States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The congressional Helsinki Commission is to be commended for its strong leadership in protecting religious liberty in OSCE states for many years now.

The U.S. Catholic Bishops' perspective on religious freedom in Europe is based on our experience working in the region and our close ties to the Catholic Church there. Since 1990, our program to aid the Catholic Church in Central and Eastern Europe, which is funded by a national collection, has given some $37 million to help revive the life of the Church, from training priests and catechists to establishing charitable programs. This program has also sent hundreds of volunteers to share their expertise with the church in the region. Catholic Relief Services provides training and relief and development aid to people of all faiths in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Turkey, and Russia. In addition to these aid programs, the bishops' conference works closely with the Bishops of Europe on matters of religious liberty, human rights, conflict, and ecumenism.

In all our activities, we first listen to the pleas of those who are suffering under intolerance of religion, and seek their counsel and advice on how we can help relieve their plight. For us that means close consultation with the bishops of the given country as well as the Holy See. We are convinced that the people who are the victims of intolerance and discrimination are the best sources of information and advice. They are the experts on their own situation; they understand the cultural and social conditions in which they must struggle for their own liberty, and they will be the ones impacted by the protests and actions of outsiders.

In my testimony, I will, first, outline the Catholic understanding of religious liberty. I will, then, summarize the major religious liberty problems that remain unresolved in Central and Eastern Europe, citing a few specific examples. Third, I will comment on tensions between majority and minority religions as they are reflected in church-state issues. Finally, I will conclude with a few suggestions as to how Americans can support religious liberty and religious tolerance in Europe.

A Catholic Perspective on Religious Freedom

Pope John Paul II has said religious freedom is a "cornerstone" of the structure of human rights," an "irreplaceable factor" in both the individual good and the common good, which consists of a just and peaceful social order.1 Religious freedom has both a personal dimension -- the freedom of conscience -- and a social dimension - the free exercise of religion.2

Freedom of conscience is the freedom to make a personal decision based on one's beliefs free of external coercion and discrimination. Freedom of conscience requires that government policies, the media and other institutions respect religious beliefs and not attempt to destroy or undermine them.

Because human nature is both personal and social, freedom of conscience is tied to the social dimension of religious liberty: the free exercise of religion. Free exercise means that no one may be forced to act contrary to one's beliefs, nor may one be restrained from acting in accordance with one's beliefs. The free exercise of religion may be divided into three interrelated components. Freedom of religious expression and evangelization includes freedom to worship as a community, freedom to publish and to communicate through the media, freedom to educate one's children in their faith, and freedom to address the religious and moral dimensions of social, economic and political quesions. Ecclesial or institutional freedom is the right of religious bodies to internal autonomy, including the right to a legal personality, the freedom to develop and teach religious beliefs, to choose, train, appoint and train ministers, and to obtain and use property. Freedom of religious association affirms the freedom of a person to enter or leave a religious community, the freedom to form religious groups for educational, charitable and other purposes, and the freedom to associate with co-religionists at home or abroad.

A state may restrict or limit religious freedom only for serious reasons, such as when the exercise of religious freedom is violating the rights of others, the public peace or order is threatened, or public morality is at risk.

It is clear from this brief summary that religious liberty is not just a right of the individual believer but is also a right of religious communities. Denial of juridical status to a religious body violates religious liberty just as discrimination against an individual believer does. It is also clear that religious liberty covers a broad range of activities, from freedom of worship to the right to establish charitable groups and to participate in and to seek to influence public affairs. Finally, it is clear that religious freedom is inextricably linked to other human rights, such as freedom of association, freedom of speech, and legal recognition of voluntary associations. The countries in Europe that continue to restrict religious liberty also tend to restrict these other rights, and vice-versa.

Current Areas of Concern

While there are many problems of religious intolerance in Europe today, others testifying today are more expert on some areas than I, so I will focus, with a few exceptions, on the experience of the Catholic Church -- especially in the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, where the transformation in the area of religious liberty has mirrored the broader transformation in these countries since 1989. The current situation is incomparably better for religious believers than it was eight years ago, but religious liberty issues continue to be a source of considerable turmoil and tension in some parts of the former Soviet bloc and in other countries.

The religious liberty problems in Europe today arise from a variety of sources: lingering intolerance of religion among former communists who have remained in the bureaucracy or have regained power; the general difficulties involved in moving from communism to democracy and instituting the rule of law; ethnic and nationalist conflicts with a strong religious dimension; conflicts within and among religious groups; and widely different conceptions of the meaning of religious liberty and the models of church-state relations. Intolerance on the part of majority religions towards minority religions is just one of several factors that explain infringements of religious liberty

  1. Intolerance associated with ethnic/ nationalist conflicts.

    The "ethnic cleansing" of whole communities and the destruction of churches and mosques in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina is a form of religious repression that was unmatched even in the darkest days of communism. The conflict in the Balkans is not a religious war, but it has a religious dimension because of the way religion and nationalism have interacted. Serious problems remain after the Dayton Accords. Authorities in Republica Srpska refuse to give permission for Catholic priests to return to Trebinje, Doboj, Brcko, and parts of Banja Luka to minister to the Catholics that remain there. In Croatia, Catholic priests are restricted from ministering in Eastern Slavonia due to resistance and threats from local Serbs, while some of the few Serbian Orthodox clergy who have attempted to return to Krajina face similar harassment. These restrictions on pastoral ministry are symptomatic of the larger problem of the inability of refugees of all religious and national groups to safely return to their homes in areas where they would be a minority. Those who attempt to return face harassment and violence, including several recent bombings of churches and mosques. The very survival of the Catholic Church in much of Bosnia is threatened by this failure to implement the right of return contained in the Dayton Accords; displaced Serbian Orthodox and Muslim communities face a similarly bleak future.

    The integral link between religion and national/ ethnic identity in Romania, Ukraine, Northern Ireland and several other countries also provides a pretext for discrimination and tensions, albeit of a much lesser magnitude. For example, in the past year in Northern Ireland, several dozen Catholic and Protestant churches and halls have been victims of arson amidst deepening sectarian divisions there.

  2. Restrictions on "foreign" religious bodies and "sects".

    Laws in several countries restrict "non-traditional" religions by imposing special regulations on so-called "foreign" religions, often at the behest of the majority religion.

    The new law on religion being considered in Russia is a well-known example of these illegitimate restrictions on minority religions. The current version of the bill which was sent to the Russian parliament by the Yeltsin administration accords different treatment for different religions based on whether they are "traditional" and on the length of time they have been legally recognized in Russia. The proposed bill would also construct a process of obtaining legal status -- essential, for example, for owning property, employing religious workers, and producing religious literature -- that is impossibly labrynthine. The flawed bill is coupled with a proliferation of discriminatory local laws on religion pose a serious threat to so-called minority or non-traditional religious bodies in Russia.

    In Armenia, a 1993 presidential decree, issued in response to the Armenian Apostolic Church's concerns about the influx and growth of foreign and minority religious groups, gave the Council for Religious Affairs authority to investigate and dissolve minority religious groups that proselytize in violation of the law and to closely regulate foreign religious organizations.

    The government in Belarus is also restricting minority and foreign religious bodies. The law prohibits foreigners from holding church leadership positions, and gives the Council of Religious Affairs considerable discretion in excluding foreign religious workers. In January of this year, the government dropped its threat to not extend the visas of most of the 130 foreign Catholic priests serving there, but many priests could eventually be deported and the situation of some 100 Catholic nuns, who have been refused residence and work permits, remains tenuous. These foreign religious workers are essential to the life of the Church in Belarus and other countries because of the strict limits on the number of indigenous priests and religious orders under communism.

    In several other countries, minority religious bodies and their adherents are discriminated against in various ways. In Bulgaria, some minority groups, such as the Mormons, have been refused registration. In Greece, the Catholic Church and other minority religious bodies have difficulty obtaining permits to operate houses of worship, permits which are granted on advice of the local Orthodox official. In Russia, it is common practice for the Orthodox Church to be consulted before a local official agrees to return a Catholic Church property or before permission is given to build a new one. In Turkey, minority churches also face difficulties gaining permission to acquire property and operate religious institutions. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, for example, continues to be denied permission to reopen the Halki seminary, which has been closed for two decades. Throughout Bosnia, religious minorities face discrimination in housing, employment, access to the media, and other areas of life.

  3. Return of church property.

    The return of property confiscated under communism has been a contentious issue in most countries of the region. In past years, disputes over restitution of property have strained the Catholic church's relationship with the state in the Czech Republic and Lithuania. This issue remains particularly problematic in Romania, where the Greek Catholic Church has faced obstacles in gaining restitution of properties confiscated by the communist government and transferred to the Romanian Orthodox Church after World War II. An Orthodox-Greek Catholic commission has failed to resolve this issue. Greek Catholic representatives are supporting pending legislation that would return certain properties in rural areas where there is more than one formerly Greek Catholic church.

  4. Bureaucratic obstacles.

    In many formerly communist countries, religious leaders, minority and majority alike, complain that administrative agencies or local governments fail to comply with laws on religion or place burdens on religious believers. In Russia, for example, government officials charge relatively large sums to license a new priest or to grant permission to purchase or build a church building.

Church-State Separation and Religious Freedom

The problem of respecting both the rights of majority and minority religions, is played out most visibly in the area of church-state relations. In general, the historical experience of religions in much of Europe, especially Central and Eastern Europe, has approximated one of two models.3 Through the first part of this century, many countries had a "state" church, which had a monopoly of religion in society and relied on the state both for special privileges and to limit or deny the rights of minority religions and nonbelievers. In communist countries, a second model, the atheist state, which was intolerant of all religion, was the norm. Obviously, the state church and the atheist state model present serious religious liberty problems.4

With the transformation of 1989, many in the West hoped and expected that Central and Eastern Europe would quickly adopt a third model, something akin to the American-style of religious pluralism based on a sharp church-state separation and the state's neutrality toward religion. Instead, in some countries, there is a tendency of majority churches to revert to the pre-communist model of a state church, because, among other reasons, it was the model under which the majority church was free and flourishing and, from the perspective of some nationalist politicians, it is a model which can be easily manipulated to serve their interests.

In other countries, majority churches have not reverted to a state church model of the past, nor have they embraced strict church-state separation. Instead, their approach fits better under a fourth model, common in Western Europe, in which the state gives practical preference to the majority church or religion, but the majority church is not a "state church" because it and the state remain independent of each other and no effort is made to restrict minority religions. The Catholic Church in Poland, Hungary, and Lithuania, for example, are opting for a version of this model over strict church-state separation because they see it as more in keeping with their historical and cultural realities. They fear that church-state separation is being promoted, often by former communists, as a way to promote secularism and to exclude the church from public life, effectively marginalizing and privatizing religion. The way church-state separation was misused under communism to repress religion only reinforces this fear.5

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church would consider both the church-state separation model and the church preference model acceptable means for protecting religious liberty, depending on the circumstances. Obviously, if one accepts this view, then one will be more tolerant of religious education in state schools (assuming opt-out provisions are available for children of different or no religious background), clergy salaries paid by the state, state funding for religious groups, "Christian" standards for the media, and other policies that might not pass muster under the American system. Religious minorities and nonbelievers often contend these policies are unwise, incompatible with a modern democracy, or discriminatory. Whatever one's view, it is necessary to appreciate the theological and cultural underpinnings of this model of church-state relations if one is to understand majority-minority church dynamics in Central and Eastern Europe.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I would like to offer a few suggestions for a constructive approach by concerned Americans to promoting religious liberty in Central and Eastern Europe.

  1. We should be careful not to impose a peculiarly American church-state model on countries of Central and Eastern Europe that have very different histories, cultures, and theological perspectives on this issue. Despite all the strengths of our First Amendment, American advocates for religious liberty should not fall victim to the temptation to remake other countries in our image. As deep divisions in our own country reflect, there is no simple answer to the church-state question nor is there only one legitimate church-state model for protecting religious liberty.

  2. The efforts by some traditional churches to impose restrictions on foreign and minority religions, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, derive in part from a deep-felt sense of insecurity, arising in large part from the effects of communist restrictions. Traditional religious bodies often feel that they are at a distinct disadvantage vis-a-vis Western groups with significant resources and expertise, and these historic churches see the sometimes aggressive and insensitive activities of these groups as contemporary embodiments of centuries-long Western hostility. Those of us from Western religious groups must make a special effort to understand and show respect for the culture, history and theology of these traditional churches. It is vital that we reach out to leaders of these churches, and even help them rebuild the life of their churches, rather than seeing their countries and their congregants as fertile grounds for new converts. In that spirit, the Holy See encourages Catholics to assist the Orthodox in recovering from the long decades under communism control.

  3. Ecumenism is in its formative stages in parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Western religious groups can contribute to this development by ensuring that our activities are undertaken in a spirit of ecumenism and by looking for ways to support ecumenical initiatives in the region. Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, Archbishop of Prague and president of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences, said at the ecumenical assembly in Graz, that "the cries and wounds are still present in Europe among the churches, among us. On the other side, we have been surprised to find an incalculable number of signs that give rise to great trust...historical gestures of pardon, meetings, pilgrimages and above all a big network of prayers..."6 Among the many worthy interfaith initiatives to resolve problems, I would highlight major ecumenical meetings in 1994 in Russia and 1995 in Hungary to discuss religious and ethnic conflict and peacebuilding. These meetings were supported by the National Council of Churches, CAREE, and the U.S. Catholic Conference, among others. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the World Conference on Religion and Peace is assisting local religious leaders in forming an interfaith council that should be an important forum for renewing interfaith dialogue in a post-conflict situation. The historic assembly of all the Christian churches in Europe a few months ago in Graz, Austria, is another example of the tremendous effort many churches are making to chart a new path of understanding and tolerance among the churches in Europe.

  4. Finally, U.S. policy must continue to press for adherence to the religious liberty commitments outlined in the OSCE's Vienna Concluding Document and other international commitments. The deep concern shown by the Clinton administration and Members of Congress for the proposed legislation in Russia are to be commended and should be replicated in other cases, where appropriate.

Endnotes

  1. Pope John Paul II, "World Day of Peace Message," January 1, 1988, Origins 17:28 (December 24, 1987): 493.

  2. See the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) (1965); National Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Word of Solidarity, A Call for Justice: A Statement on Religious Freedom in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (Washington, DC: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1988): 6-9.

  3. The four models used here are adapted from Paul Mojzes, "Religious Human Rights in Post-Communist Balkan Countries." Paper presented at the Conference on Religious Human Rights in the World Today, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, October 6-9, 1994.

  4. Archbishop Paul Tabet, Address to UN Human Rights Commission, Geneva, Feb. 14, 1994.

  5. For example, in opposing a proposed constitutional provision that would declare the state "neutral" towards religion, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Poland argued: "The state's neutrality of world view, like the notion of church-state separation, has associations with our postwar experience when nonbelievers received favors and the religious dimension was excluded from public life. The constitution should ensure the permanence of moral values rooted in the history and tradition of our nation, which is mostly composed of believers and which has lived with the Gospel for ten centuries. Its preamble should refer to God as the supreme authority and final protector of all human rights." Statement of March 18, 1995, quoted in Catholic News Service, March 29, 1995.

  6. L. Weil, "Pope Prays for Success of European Ecumenical Meeting," Catholic News Service, June 23, 1997. 


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