Decline of religious freedom
in parts of Europe
In the U.S., a wall of separation has been established between church and state. Thus,
the state and its institutions remain religiously neutral. The government promotes neither
religion nor secularism. Church and state try to keep out of each others' path. This is
not the situation throughout much of Europe, where most countries have a two (sometimes
three) tiered religious system. Some denominations and religions are given special
privileges, while others can be actively discriminated against. Many countries have a
single recognized state religion which receives special status for cultural and historical
reasons. A second group of religions, (e.g. Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc) are
recognized, but may be given a lower status. The lowest level is populated by small
religious groups, which the state may not recognize as religious institutions. These may
be regarded as cults or sects, and are sometimes allowed few freedoms. 1
European threats to freedom of religion, speech and assembly are very different from
those in North America. In the U.S. and Canada, the main, concentrated attacks on new
religious movements come from:
||The anti-cult movement (ACM). These groups target new religious
movements, believing them to be largely criminal, mind-controlling, dangerous cults. The influence of the ACM has been in decline for a few years,
partly because of. recent court rulings which have linked them to criminal activities. Law
suites drove the largest ACM group, the Cult Awareness Network,
into bankrupcy. 2
||The counter-cult movement (CCM). These groups are largely
conservative Christian ministries which hold traditional, historical religious
doctrines. They target fellow Christian faith groups whose theology deviates from their
own. Although there are many hundreds of CCM groups, most are quite small and often target
only a single non-orthodox faith group. Their influence is not great outside of the
Evangelical Christianity community.
In much of Europe, there appears to a gradual improvement in religious freedom and
tolerance. New religious movements are largely ignored. However the anti-cult movement
appears to have taken hold in a few countries, notably: Belgium, France, Germany, Greece and Russia. Governments in these
countries are now spreading the ACM message. They have inspired religious hysteria,
mounted economic attacks on faith groups, and spread heavily biased religious propaganda.
"The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights is a self-governing
group of non-governmental, not-for-profit organizations that act to protect human rights
throughout Europe, North America, and the Central Asian republics formed from the
territories of the former Soviet Union. A primary specific goal is to monitor compliance
with the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act and its Follow-up Documents."3 They are based in Vienna, Austria. The IHF supports and provides liaison with
thirty-four member "Helsinki committees" in various European and North
They issue annual reports describing human rights abuses in dozens of countries. Their
reports issued in early 1998 discussed a number of abuses directed against new and
|Annual Reports: IHF Criticism with respect
||"The Roma [a.k.a. Gypsies] continued to fall victim to
the most flagrant discrimination in all spheres of life and often whole communities were
||Media engaged in hate speech, victimizing religious minorities; this was often supported
by the government
||Greek Orthodox church given priviledged status.
||Only Greek Orthodox church, Roman Catholic, some Protestant churches, Judaism, Islam
||Catholics, some Protestants, Scientologists and Jehovah's Witnesses suffer state
||Proslytism is a criminal offense in Greece.
||European Court of Human Rights issued multiple rulings that Greece was guilty
of breaching European standards on freedom of religion, in both 1996 & 1997.
||The Church of Scientology was ordered disbanded. More details on the Greece situation.
||The Russian Duma passed a Law on Freedom of Conscience and On Religious Associations
||Russian Orthodox church was given preferential status; it receives tax reductions and
||Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism recognized; finanancial benefits are granted
||Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations given lower status and
||New Religious Movements given least privileges; restrictions on preaching, religious
education, publishing, invite foreign preachers. More details on the Russian situation.
On 1998-OCT-23, the IHF issued a statement: "Human Rights Violations in Some
OSCE States at 'Crisis Levels' "4 (OSCE refers to
the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe.) They concluded
that "Virtually no OSCE signatory State conforms completely to its Helsinki human
rights commitments. But some members violate those commitments at crisis levels, which
truly threaten security." Most of the brutal repression by member states relates
to a "...continuing trend of hostility towards immigrants, refugees, and members
of minority groups in most other nations..." with the Yugoslavia being the worse
offender. Some of the infractions of human rights that they noted in their summary report
are in the area of religion:
||Type of Oppression
|Roma minority (a.k.a. Gypsies)
||Czech Republic, Slovakia, Macedonia, etc.
||"suffer harassment and beatings by other citizens and by police."
|Ethnic Turks (Muslim)
||"denied official recognition and freedom of expression &
|Non-Croatians, (e.g. Serbian Orthodox or Muslim
||denied "citizenship papers and fundamental legal rights."
||Police have shut down their meetings and have confiscated books and
|Followers of minority religions
||"denied access to public meeting halls or charged unreasonably
The Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs of the European Parliament
prepared a report "Resolution on Cults in the European Union" 6 It was scheduled to be voted upon by the Parliament during 1998-JAN. It was opposed
by both the anti-cult movement (who felt that it was too weak) and by religious liberty
activists who felt that the topic did not lie within the jurisdiction of the European
Parliament. The report is now in limbo. The report appears to have used the term
"cult" to mean any new or small religious group. Since "cult" is such
a vicious snarl word in North America, we have replaced it with "NRM" (New
Some items raised in the report are:
||The term "NTM" has no legal definition; the word does not imply a negative
||Organizing a "NRM" is a fundamental right derived from the "...freedoms
of religion, conscience, thought and assembly."
||People join NRMs because they long for "meaning and purpose in life."
||There is a potential danger that some NRMs may damage some individuals' "mental
and physical integrity or their social and financial standing"
||Only one state has produced a survey of NRM membership, and it found that the total
membership of all NRMs is very small.
||Most states in the Union do not consider NRMs to be a significant problem
||NRMs pose no danger to democratic institutions
||Specific federal legislation against NRMs is inappropriate
||There is no need to develop a common European policy against NRMs.
||NRMs are problematic only "when they threaten public order and/or the standard
||NRMs should not be penalized, unless they engage in illegal activities.
||Governments should take action against NRMs only if they negatively "...affect
a person's physical and mental integrity or the social and financial standing..."
||Some NRMs offer psychological services. ** Legislation should be checked to make certain that it is adequate.
||Governments should use the same criteria in dealing with a religious group as with a
||States should provide support structures for persons who leave NRMs, and their families.
||Unbiased information, education, and advice should be available to the public and school
||NRM activity may be on the increase. A Europe-wide survey is worthwhile.
||The report expressed concern that some states are discouraging or banning NRM members
from the civil service
||They referred to the deaths of members of the Solar Temple
destructive cult as tragic "mass suicides"*
* The report is in error here. Some Solar
Temple members were murdered; others committed suicide.
** This is an apparent reference to the Church
In the U.S. and Canada, religious discrimination can be fought through the court
system, up to the country's Supreme Court. Among member states of the Council of
Europe cases can be appealed to the European Court in Strasbourg when all attempts at
the national level have failed. There have been some remarkable decisions by that court.
For example, the Greek constitution criminalized religious
proselytizing, unless you are promoting the state religion of Greek Orthodoxy. Anyone
wishing to operate a place of worship had to obtain a permit from the local Greek Orthodox
bishop. Cases have been fought by Jehovah's Witnesses, Evangelical Christians and
Pentecostal Christians to the Greek Supreme Court and finally to the European Court of
Human Rights in Strausbourg. They have been successful in overturning the decision of
the highest court in their own country.
- Willy Fautre, "Strategies for Religious Puralism without Discrimination and
Inequalities in Europe," Human Rights Without Frontiers, at: http://www.greekhelsinki.gr/english/pressrelease/hrwf25-3-98.html
- The new Cult Awareness Network, as reorganized by the "Foundation
for Religious Freedom," has a Web site at: http://www.cultawarenessnetwork.org The
"old" Cult Awareness Network (CAN) had a home page at:
<http://www.xnet.com/~can/index.htm> This link has been dead for some time. Someone
has placed a copy of that site at: http://home.icon.fi/~marina/can/canpage/
- "The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights" at: http://www.ihf-hr.org/about.htm
- "Human Rights Violations in Some OSCE States at 'Crisis Levels' " at: http://www.ihf-hr.org/appeals/981023.htm
- Reports on human rights abuses by dozens of countries, including the U.S. and Canada can
be accessed from the International Helsinki Federation home page at: http://www.ihf-hr.org/index.htm
- "Resolution on Cults in the European Union," at: http://www.cesnur.org/Europe.htm
Copyright © 1997 to 2000 by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2000-JUL-17
Author: B.A. Robinson
This page translator works on Firefox,
Opera, Chrome, and Safari browsers only
After translating, click on the "show
original" button at the top of this
page to restore page to English.