Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Hon. Christopher H. Smith
Chairman - Helsinki Commission


Opening Statement
The Honorable Christopher H. Smith, Chairman
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
July 19, 2000

Briefing on
“Religious Liberty: The Legal Framework in Selected OSCE Countries”

I am honored to open today’s briefing alongside the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, as I believe the report being released today represents an extraordinary effort by researchers at the Library and within the American Law Division of the Congressional Research Service to outline the treatment of religious groups by a representative sample of countries which have signed onto the Helsinki Final Act and are participating States of the OSCE.

The OSCE participating States have committed to ensure that their laws, regulations, practices and policies conform with their obligation under international law and are brought into harmony with the provisions of the Declaration on Principles and other OSCE commitments.

In keeping with its mandate to monitor these commitments and in light of the longstanding concerns over the status of religious liberty in the OSCE region, the Helsinki Commission requested through the Congressional Research Service that a study be conducted of legal systems in various OSCE States and the effect of these laws on religious liberty. We know of no other repository of such legal detail and focused analysis of laws.

Twelve countries, including the United States, were selected for their diverse geographical, historical, and religious characteristics. The views expressed in the report represent the views of the individual researchers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Helsinki Commission, the Congress, or any individual Commissioner. It is our hope that this two-year project will be a resource for governments, academics and religious groups in fostering a better understanding of the legal framework for religious liberty, and in encouraging countries where restrictions exist to amend or abolish their restrictive laws and practices, bringing them into conformity with their OSCE commitments.

The issues raised in the report are timely. For instance, last month, the lower house of the French parliament passed a law creating a new crime of “mental manipulation” and establishing civil and criminal penalties for activities by religious or philosophical groups that government officials deem unacceptable. This is the latest French parliamentary action to threaten the religious liberty of French citizens. I have urged the French Parliament to abandon this course of action. Regarding Greece, the Helsinki Commission and minority religious groups have been critical of Greece’s policy of listing religion on national identity cards because it left minority religious groups in Greece vulnerable there and wherever else they may travel on that card in the European Union. I commend the Greek Government’s decision to abandon that policy in May. In Turkey, various raids on Protestant groups over the last year and the continuing conflict over the closure of the Greek Orthodox seminary on the island of Halki indicate serious issues of religious discrimination in that country.

The ramifications for these laws and governmental polices are broad, affecting people throughout the OSCE region. For instance, Austria’s restrictive law passed in December 1997 is often referenced as justification for other OSCE countries -- Russia, Uzbekistan, Romania, Ukraine and Belarus -- to have restrictive laws. French polices are reportedly having an influence in former French colonies, well beyond the OSCE region. A negative precedent is being established, in contravention to international religious liberty commitments.

I am pleased to be joined by my good friend, The Honorable James Billington, with whom I traveled to Moscow two years ago to discuss the 1997 religion law with Russian Government officials. I appreciated his insights during that trip and look forward very much to his participation in this briefing. I welcome Mr. David Sale, Director of Legal Research in the Law Library, who shepherded the report through its critical final stages; Wayne Merry of the American Foreign Policy Council who will comment on the report Library of Congress. I thank the staff of the Law Library and the Congressional Research Service for their work on this project and look forward to comments from a number of the researchers as well.