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Religious Tolerance logo

Decline of religious freedom
in parts of Europe

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Status of religious groups in 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

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Threats to religious freedom:

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:
bullet 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

bullet 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.

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Monitoring by the International Helsinki Federation (IHF or IHFHR):

"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 American countries.

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 minority religions:

Annual Reports: IHF Criticism with respect to religion
bullet "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 forcefully relocated."
bullet Media engaged in hate speech, victimizing religious minorities; this was often supported by the government
bullet Greek Orthodox church given priviledged status.
bullet Only Greek Orthodox church, Roman Catholic, some Protestant churches, Judaism, Islam recognized.
bullet Catholics, some Protestants, Scientologists and Jehovah's Witnesses suffer state discrimination
bullet Proslytism is a criminal offense in Greece.
bullet European Court of Human Rights issued multiple rulings that Greece was guilty of breaching European standards on freedom of religion, in both 1996 & 1997.
bullet The Church of Scientology was ordered disbanded. More details on the Greece situation.
bullet The Russian Duma passed a Law on Freedom of Conscience and On Religious Associations
bullet Russian Orthodox church was given preferential status; it receives tax reductions and state subsidies
bullet Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism recognized; finanancial benefits are granted
bullet Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations given lower status and privileges
bullet 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:

Oppressed Group Country 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) Greece "denied official recognition and freedom of expression & association."
Non-Croatians, (e.g. Serbian Orthodox or Muslim Croatia denied "citizenship papers and fundamental legal rights."
Jehovah's Witnesses Bulgaria Police have shut down their meetings and have confiscated books and pamphlets.
Followers of minority religions France "denied access to public meeting halls or charged unreasonably high rents."

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European Union Activity:

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 Religious Movement).

Some items raised in the report are:
bullet The term "NTM" has no legal definition; the word does not imply a negative value judgement.
bullet Organizing a "NRM" is a fundamental right derived from the "...freedoms of religion, conscience, thought and assembly."
bullet People join NRMs because they long for "meaning and purpose in life."
bullet There is a potential danger that some NRMs may damage some individuals' "mental and physical integrity or their social and financial standing"
bullet Only one state has produced a survey of NRM membership, and it found that the total membership of all NRMs is very small.
bullet Most states in the Union do not consider NRMs to be a significant problem
bullet NRMs pose no danger to democratic institutions
bullet Specific federal legislation against NRMs is inappropriate
bullet There is no need to develop a common European policy against NRMs.
bullet NRMs are problematic only "when they threaten public order and/or the standard civil liberties"
bullet NRMs should not be penalized, unless they engage in illegal activities.
bullet Governments should take action against NRMs only if they negatively "...affect a person's physical and mental integrity or the social and financial standing..."
bullet Some NRMs offer psychological services. ** Legislation should be checked to make certain that it is adequate.
bullet Governments should use the same criteria in dealing with a religious group as with a secular group.
bullet States should provide support structures for persons who leave NRMs, and their families.
bullet Unbiased information, education, and advice should be available to the public and school students.
bullet NRM activity may be on the increase. A Europe-wide survey is worthwhile.
bullet The report expressed concern that some states are discouraging or banning NRM members from the civil service
bullet 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 of Scientology.

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Legal remedies for oppressed faith groups:

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.

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More detailed discussion by country:

bullet Belgium
bullet France
bullet Germany
bullet Greece
bullet Poland
bullet Russia

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  1. Willy Fautre, "Strategies for Religious Puralism without Discrimination and Inequalities in Europe," Human Rights Without Frontiers, at:  
  2. The new Cult Awareness Network, as reorganized by the "Foundation for Religious Freedom," has a Web site at: The "old" Cult Awareness Network (CAN) had a home page at: <> This link has been dead for some time. Someone has placed a copy of that site at:
  3. "The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights" at:
  4. "Human Rights Violations in Some OSCE States at 'Crisis Levels' " at:
  5. 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:
  6. "Resolution on Cults in the European Union," at:

Copyright © 1997 to 2000 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2000-JUL-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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