(Washington) – Despite extensive consultations with Romanian officials and parliamentarians, Helsinki Commission members are increasingly concerned about the draft Law on Religious Freedom and Status of Religious Denominations currently before Romania’s Chamber of Deputies.
“Romania has made considerable advancements since the Ceausescu period concerning respect for religious freedom. This draft law could undermine that progress,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS). “I am particularly alarmed by reports of amendments that would limit religious-based speech for believers in Romania. The draft legislation should be withdrawn or significantly amended to comply with OSCE commitments.”
The draft law is currently before the Judicial Committee and the Human Rights Committee of the lower house of parliament. Reports indicate that these committees recently approved an amendment criminalizing the vaguely defined act of “aggressive proselytizing” with fines or jail terms of up to three years.
“Romania is approaching a historic moment, as it stands at the door of accession into the European Union,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ). “The parliament has the duty to ensure Romania upholds its religious freedom commitments, so I urge the withdrawal of the current draft and the removal of provisions limiting free speech. Religious speech is a fundamental part of religious liberty and must be protected.”
In addition to the speech limitations, the draft would create the most burdensome registration system in the entire OSCE region, by creating a multi-tiered system where applicant religious communities for the most preferential status must wait 12 years and show their membership exceeds 0.1% of the population of Romania, or 23,000 persons. Of the 18 currently registered religious groups, approximately one-fourth would fail to meet the proposed numerical threshold.
“Ensuring the full realization of religious freedom in Romania in compliance with OSCE commitments is critical,” said Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD). “Considering that Romania wishes to host a major OSCE meeting next year on tolerance, the Chamber must ensure its own laws promote that theme rather than discriminate against minority religious groups.”
Efforts to improve the text last year were unsuccessful, as the draft was rushed to the Romanian Senate under “emergency procedures” before additional technical improvements could be made. The bill passed passively in the Senate in December, without modification, despite more than 60 substantive amendments that were never considered. The bill was registered with the Chamber of Deputies in February of this year.
“I have fought for religious freedom in Romania for years, and I am very troubled that such a regressive law is being considered,” said Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-VA). “I urge the Deputies reviewing the draft to respect international norms and eliminate the onerous tiered system of recognition, in favor of a system that provides one general status for all religious communities.”
“In addition to the concerns expressed by my colleagues, I believe forcing ‘religious associations’ to wait more than a decade before qualifying for the highest ‘religion’ status is blatantly discriminatory,” said Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA). “The 12-year moratorium amounts to a ban and should be eliminated. Romania should do more to uphold its OSCE commitments.”
The concerns raised by members of the Helsinki Commission have also been voiced by other groups. The OSCE/ODIHR Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief has been consulted in the drafting process, providing technical assistance for some time. In October 2005, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission found several key areas needing further refinement. The Venice Commission’s concerns have also gone unaddressed.
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, is a U.S. Government agency that monitors progress in the implementation of the provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The Commission consists of nine members from the United States Senate, nine from the House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.