div CESNURCenter for Studies on New Religions


"Discrimination on the Basis of Religion and Belief in Western Europe"

Testimony of Benjamin A. Gilman

before the

House International Relations Committee

U.S. House of Representatives

June 14, 2000


WASHINGTON (June 14) -U.S. Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (20th-NY), Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, made the following statement today at a full committee hearing on the treatment of religious minorities in Western Europe:

The Committee on International Relations meets in open session today to take testimony on the topic of "The Treatment of Religious Minorities in Western Europe." We do so as part of the full Committee's geographic responsibility for Europe.

Today's hearing allows the Committee to turn its attention to a problem that has troubled many Americans who respect and value the nations of Western Europe -- countries who are without doubt friends of the United States and places where in general freedom flourishes.

The "blind spot" that some of those countries seem to have is their attitude toward religious minorities. As Ambassador Felix Rohatyn has written with respect to France "recent actions by (its) government vis-a-vis sects raise questions about intolerance toward religious minorities, and contravene France's international human rights commitments" although it "is a country with a long tradition of religious freedom and rule of law."

I want to point out that the purpose of this hearing is not to support the religious doctrines or other activities of the religious minorities active in Western Europe.

But we are called on not only to protect the rights of those we like, but of those with whom we may disagree with as well. I have put on the record repeatedly, for example, my concern over the use of Nazi-era imagery by supporters of Scientology in their effort to make their points about German policy. But I am also here to say that I must defend their human rights.

Holding or expressing a religious belief or worshiping in public and private as one pleases is not as such forbidden by law in Western Europe. In practice, however, expressing a minority religious belief often leads to discrimination -- the loss of a job, of educational opportunities, of the right to gain custody of one's own child or to be a foster parent -- which seriously burdens one's exercise of freedom of religion. Some European governments discriminate among religions, giving some favors -- such as financial aid or simply the right of clergy of that religion to visit a sick parishioner -- while withholding those privileges from others.

Moreover, religious discrimination by private parties is far from universally discouraged. It is encouraged in some cases, for example, by the compilation and publication by governments of lists of "sects," although encouraging religious tolerance is an international human rights obligation.

Such problems are complained of frequently and vociferously with respect to Austria, Belgium, France, and Germany. It is frankly difficult to understand how our friends in these countries can say that they have freedom of religion, given the burdens on the free exercise of religion I have mentioned and which will be described today.

The Committee's attention has been drawn to this issue for several reasons. The practices to be discussed appear to be in contravention of internationally accepted human rights standards and seek to be leading to an atmosphere of religious intolerance.

Americans abroad who wish to evangelize, or merely to practice their religion, professions, or businesses, face discriminatory treatment on the basis of their religion. Emerging democracies in Eastern Europe may copy the bad examples that are being set by some Western European countries.

And finally, the growth of political extremism on the left and right in some of the same countries where religious discrimination appears to be on the rise to questions of whether there are links between such discrimination and those political trends.

Witnesses at the hearing were: The Honorable Robert A. Seiple, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, U.S. Department of State; Catherine Bell, Actress; Philip Brumley, Esq., General Counsel, Jehovah's Witnesses; T. Jeremy Gunn, .J.D.)., Ph.D., Guest Scholar, U.S. Institute of Peace; Pastor Robert A. Hunt, English Speaking United Methodist Church, Vienna, Austria (via digital video conference); Mr. Craig Jensen, Chairman and CEO, Executive Software; and The Rev,N. J. L'Heureux, Executive Director, Queens Federation of Churches.

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