1999 OSCE Review Conference

RC.DEL/103/99 23 September 1999


The Finnish Presidency of the EU

EU Statement on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Review Conference Human Dimension, on 23 September 1999

1. Mahatma Gandhi once said that a civilisation should be judged by how it treats its minorities. The states that comprise the European Union have experienced, over their long histories, encounters not only with new religious movements, but with heresies, crusades, inquisitions, and martyrs. As far back as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe was filled with branches of Christianity that were then seen as peculiar and radical but that now constitute part of our rich and treasured history including Quakers, Anabaptists, Lutherans, Calvinists and Presbyterians. Each of these faiths was once reviled and persecuted. Curiously, we have seen some of these formerly persecuted movements, once labelled as heretical, become established or traditional churches - at times forgetting their past andbecoming intolerant in turn. We have also witnessed the disestablishment of official churches, whether by revolution or by peaceful devolution.

2. The OSCE region has not only witnessed reformations and counter-reformations, but also has produced great figures of tolerance including Erasmus, Pierre Bayle, Spinoza, and St. Francis. In recent years the OSCE region has been experiencing the growth of religions and beliefs that are new to many of our countries. We must be careful to remember our OSCE commitments and our history and to treat these new faiths with the tolerance that many of the older faiths did not enjoy. In this connection, we recall the pledge that each of us made in Vienna ten years ago, to "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, and to ensure the effective equality between believers and non-believers." [principle 16 (1) of the 1989 Vienna Concluding Document]

3. Matters governing religion, belief and conscience are not to be decided by the state, but in the individual's conscience. The role of the state is not to decide religious truth, but to promote tolerance so that people can pursue truth as individuals and in communities. Rather than endorsing any particular religion or belief, the EU endorses the notion that people shouldbe free - at any time - to have, to profess, to maintain, to adopt, and to change their own beliefs. It emphasises, however, that membership of a religious organisation or adherence to a particular faith cannot be used to sanction criminal behaviour. Such behaviour must be subject to the normal process of the law.

4. Furthermore, the European Union endorses, as enshrined in the relevant OSCE commitments, that everyone is, as a matter of principle, free to manifest his or her beliefs. We acknowledge that manifestations of some new religious movements may present challenges as well as difficult issues for modern democratic states. Such issues may involve education for their children, conscientious objection to military service, unusual recruitment methods, peculiar lifestyles, and unorthodox beliefs. To accommodate such situations and to ensure that religious activities are in keeping with the principles underlying democratic societies, international human rights instruments stipulate the countervailing interests that may justify limiting certain religious manifestations. Clearly, however, discriminatory and unnecessarily restrictive laws or practices on freedom of religion or belief have been emerging in different parts of the OSCE region including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Russia and are now being considered in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. Such laws and practices are not permissible and should be abrogated or brought into conformity with internationally agreed requirements. We understand the predicament those countries find themselves in, where the revival of freedom of religion, after long years of official suppression, elicits the interest of outsiders, using overwhelming and in some cases even controversial means and practices. However, their efforts to deal with this problem should not result in unduly favouring established churches.

5. A number of issues continue to cause a storm in different parts of the OSCE region and deserve our attention, most notably, laws with unnecessarilystrict and discriminatory registration requirements of religious communities, the issue of restitution of religious property, lack of alternatives to military service, and the controversy over the permissibility of women and girls wearing religious garb in public settings. This is all the more disturbing when it prohibits someone to exercise his or her right as an elected representative of the people, as was recently the case with a parliamentarian in Turkey.

Some issues require that national legislation be brought into conformity with OSCE norms governing freedom of religion or belief and legal remedies be provided in the event of discrimination or violation. Furthermore, proactive solutions are needed to tackle the wide spectrum of root causes of discrimination or violation, including ignorance and lack of understanding of other beliefs, claims to a monopoly on truth, and the need for scapegoats in times of socio-economic distress. Flexible and tolerant attitudes expressed through dialogue and education are especially important in this respect.

6. The EU welcomes the fact that the Chairman-in-Office has made this year two important markers in the area of freedom of religion or belief. Firstly, in March, the CiO organised a supplementary human dimension meeting, the first of its kind, where a variety of issues were discussed in an open and unofficial setting. Secondly, Norway as CiO organised a Roundtable Conference on Religion and Conflict Prevention in Oslo in June. Especially considering that issues related to religion or belief have been a recurrent common denominator in a wide variety of conflicts in the OSCE region, both events emphasised the importance of interreligious dialogue. There is growing evidence that the denial of freedom and equality for religions and beliefs and different forms of identity and association lies at the heart of many conflicts and that guaranteeing freedom and equality in this area is indispensable for reducing conflict and creating the conditions for peace. What has therefore become more obvious is the connection between interreligious dialogue - or its absence - and conflict prevention, which is one of the core functions of the OSCE.

7. Finally, the EU expresses its support to the activities of ODIHR to promote freedom of religion and encourages ODIHR to follow up with this issue in the future.

The Associated Countries Bulgaria, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and the Czech Republic subscribe to this statement.


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