U.S. STATEMENT ON FREEDOM
OF THOUGHT, CONSCIENCE,
RELIGION AND BELIEF
T. Geremy Gunn, Executive Fellow, United States Institute of Peace,
delivered the following speech on freedom of thought, conscience, religion and
belief to the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on 1999-SEP-23 on behalf of the U.S.
Mission to the OSCE. He deals with governments' role in the preservation of
Ten years ago, in this building, the CSCE participating states accepted
responsibility for implementing some of the most important
human rights commitments to religious freedom that have ever been
made. In the Vienna Concluding Document, the participating states
agreed to "take effective measures to prevent and eliminate
discrimination against individuals or communities on the grounds of
religion or belief [and to] foster a climate of mutual tolerance and
respect between believers of different communities." (Vienna
Concluding Document 16.1)
There have been many welcome changes for religious freedom in the OSCE
region since January 1989. The Orthodox Church can now freely practice
its faith not only in Russia, but throughout the area of former
Communist domination. Catholics can attend Mass in Poland without
fear. Most Muslims in the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia may
now worship openly. It would have been unimaginable to the delegates
meeting here in 1989 that such developments might occur within ten
years. Many states have been extremely effective in reducing -- and
often eliminating -- religious discrimination against majority
While much progress has been made, and many millions more people are
now free to practice their religion throughout the OSCE region, we
cannot help but observe that these freedoms have not always extended
to minority religious and belief groups. Indeed, in many places
throughout the OSCE, governments are actively engaged in
"discrimination against individuals or communities on the grounds of
religion or belief ..."
I. Vienna Commitment 16.1:
"take effective measures to prevent and
eliminate discrimination against individuals or communities on the
grounds of religion or belief in the recognition, exercise and
enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms in all fields of
civil, political, economic, social and cultural life"
Although Uzbekistan is among the countries with the worst legacies
regarding rights of religion and belief, there has been some progress.
On the positive side, the Muslim majority may now practice its
religion in relative freedom. Last month, six Christian prisoners of
conscience were pardoned and released from prison. The government also
has modified and expedited the registration process (a process we
still believe to be unnecessary and easily subject to abuse) and has
agreed to review its law on religion. Despite these welcome signs, the
number of prisoners of conscience in Uzbekistan has increased
dramatically since the beginning of the year. Over 200 individuals
remain imprisoned for their faith. Today, arbitrary arrests and abuse
are pervasive, and judicial proceedings have become rubber stamps. The
pattern of harassment and detention of members of unregistered Muslim
groups is alarming. Recent closed trials that fail to meet standards
of basic due process have attempted to discredit members of
unregistered religious groups as dangerous extremists or criminals.
Defendants have been convicted of criminal offenses, reportedly based
on forced confessions and planted evidence. These Soviet-era tactics,
which are serious violations of OSCE commitments, should be stopped
without delay. The threat of terrorist attacks is no justification --
either in the United States or in Uzbekistan -- for indiscriminate
arrests of people and torture of prisoners.
Earlier this month in Azerbaijan, there was a raid on a Baptist
service in Baku. Several Azeri Baptists were imprisoned on
Soviet-style charges, and the subsequent expulsion of several foreign
Baptists raise grave concerns about the rights of religious
Despite a number of judgments against Greece in the European Court of
Human Rights, its Constitution and Laws of Necessity continue to be
used against religious minorities in contravention of the freedom to
express religious beliefs and to convince others of their views. The
United States notes that the Greek Government's tolerance of minority
religious groups has improved since the end of 1997 and there have
been fewer arrests for proselytizing. Still, the United States urges
the Government of Greece to bring its laws and regulations into
conformity with OSCE standards.
Turkey continues to restrict religious speech and manifestations of
religious faith, including the wearing of head scarves in public
buildings and universities. The United States remains concerned by the
continued closure of facilities for religious higher education for
minority religious communities, including the world-renowned Orthodox
Seminary at Halki. The right to establish and maintain places of
worship must be protected.
II. Vienna Commitment 16.3:
"grant upon their request to communities
of believers, practising or prepared to practise their faith within
the constitutional framework of their States, recognition of the
status provided for them in their respective countries"
Most OSCE participating states require religions to register with the
state. Since 1989, a continuing problem has been the use of the
registration process to discriminate against minority religions. There
have been, of course, some positive developments. The Jehovah's
Witnesses, for example, have now been officially recognized in Russia,
Latvia, Bulgaria, and Kazakhstan. But there are many negative signs as
Russia's restrictive 1997 law on religion creates categories of
religious communities with differing levels of legal status and
privilege. The vagueness of the law and regulations, as well as
contradictions between interpretations of the 1997 law and other
federal and local laws, have permitted an intensification of
discriminatory practices at the local level. Federal authorities have
not taken sufficient action to reverse discriminatory actions taken at
the local level, or to discipline those officials responsible. We hope
that Russia's Duma will take every opportunity to guarantee religious
freedom for its citizens and visitors and will enact the government's
proposal to extend the deadline for registering religious
We have heard discouraging reports that new laws that might further
restrict registration are now under consideration in Bulgaria,
Romania, Hungary, and Ukraine. The United States urges parliamentary
and governmental officials to be mindful of their countries'
commitments to take measures to prevent discrimination and to
III. Vienna Commitment 16.5:
"engage in consultations with religious
faiths, institutions and organizations in order to achieve a better
understanding of the requirements of religious freedom"
In his famous study of religious discrimination, the distinguished UN
Rapporteur, Arcot Krishnaswami, stated: "Greater intolerance is
usually shown towards the new groups, especially if they are splinters
of the predominant religion or belief which attempt to win converts to
what the predominant religion considers to be a schism or a heresy."
(Study of Discrimination , p. 22) Three European countries,
Austria, Belgium, and France, have established government
agencies that give rise to the very concerns about tolerance raised by
Mr. Krishnaswami forty years ago. A delegation from the United States
met with officials from these commissions to learn how the agencies
would operate and what steps would be taken to ensure that the
agencies do not become vehicles for promoting prejudice and
stereotypes. In several cases, we were pleased to hear assurances that
the agencies would be open-minded and fair. One official stated,
however, that his agency would refuse to meet with the groups that it
describes as "sects" - thereby giving the groups no official
opportunity to respond to the allegations that are made against them.
Parliamentary reports in Belgium and France attached lists of
without giving the groups the full opportunity to respond to
allegations against them. By failing to hear directly from the groups
that are being criticized, governments and parliaments are falling
short of the repeated advice provided at the OSCE Supplementary
Meeting earlier this year to engage in a dialogue with the groups.
The United States urges the new agencies in Austria, Belgium, and
France to demonstrate their commitment to the principles of tolerance
Avoiding use of the pejorative terms "sect" and "cult"
speaking of new religious movements.
Refraining from implying that most new or small religious and
belief-based groups are dangerous or threatening.
Engaging in a serious and open dialogue with all religious and
belief-based groups that are of concern to governments.
Establishing open, transparent, and fair procedures, including the
right to respond to allegations, when investigations are conducted
Publicly announcing support for the principles of tolerance and
discouraging citizens from discriminating against minority groups.
Showing tolerance, fairness, and open-mindedness is not always easy --
but such is the responsibility of governments -- including the United
States. The Vienna Concluding Document obligates states to "foster a
climate of mutual tolerance and respect between believers of different
communities as well as believers and non-believers." We must all work
harder to do so.
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