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Parliamentary Assembly Convenes on Religious Freedom, Mediterranean Issues

Volume 36 Number 22

By Chadwick R. Gore, CSCE Staff Advisor
and H. Knox Thames, CSCE Counsel

More than 160 parliamentarians from 49 participating States took part in the 2003 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s (OSCE PA) Conference on Religious Freedom (October 9-10) and Parliamentary Forum on the Mediterranean (11 October) held in Rome at the invitation of the Italian Chamber of Deputies.

Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) led the United States delegation comprised of Commission Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the OSCE PA Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and Environment, Commissioner Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA), Commissioner Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), one of the OSCE PA Vice Presidents, and Rep. JoAnn Davis (R-VA).

Conference on Religious Freedom

The OSCE PA and the Italian Parliament hosted parliamentarians from across the OSCE region for two days in the Italian Chamber of Deputies to discuss and debate the importance of religious freedom.

Mr. Pier Ferdinando Casini, President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, opened the conference, followed by welcoming remarks from Mr. Bruce George, President of the OSCE PA and from Mr. Marcello Pacini, President of the Italian Delegation to the OSCE PA. Three sessions were held during the conference, each focusing on a different aspect of religious liberty. The first session on the Law and Politics of Religious Freedom, and the second session on Religious Tolerance in Pluralistic Societies, both addressed germane issues facing parliamentarians throughout the region.

Presenters spoke of the need to create legislation to protect minority religious groups and to combat intolerance through education. Experts also noted that if religious communities cannot enjoy religious freedom, then individual members also lose that freedom. For instance, official government status for religious groups must be equally accessible for all, without any major obstacles, and groups should not have to complete more requirements than other civic organizations. In short, fundamental rights should not be curtailed due to the size or age of a religious community.

On the second day of the conference, Chairman Smith gave a keynote address during the Round Table on Religious Freedom and Democracy, in which he stated that “religious liberty, in my view, is the single most tangible reason why America has prospered in so many ways. Our strength isn’t in our military might or even in our economy but in our collective faith.”

Chairman Smith continued, discussing the importance of fighting for human rights. “Some say to intervene is to be a nuisance. Some say we are arrogant. Let me note here, none of these criticisms could be further from the truth. We did it…because human rights are universal and cannot be abridged by selfish and cruel policies. We took bold action because we were inspired to act by brave individuals like Pastor Richard Wurmbrand of Romania, Alexander Solzhenitsyn of Russia, Armando Valladares of Cuba, Yuri Kosharovsky or Natan Sharansky, and Bishop Su of China. They never quit nor tired in their opposition to tyranny. Can anyone of us do less? Especially when we are the lawmakers?”

The conference was also addressed by expert speakers including Abdelfattah Amor, Special UN Rapporteur for Religious Freedom, as well as Silvio Ferrari and Brigitte Bas-devant-Gaudemet, Members of the European Consortium for Church and State.

Conference participants attended a special audience with Pope John Paul II. In his statement, the Pope said, “When States are disciplined and balanced in the expression of their secular nature, dialogue between the different social sectors is fostered and, consequently, transparent and frequent cooperation between civil and religious society is promoted, which benefits the common good.” He concluded with a challenge to the parliamentarians saying, “the respect of every expression of religious freedom is therefore seen to be a most effective means for guaranteeing security and stability within the family of Peoples and Nations in the twenty-first century.”

Parliamentary Forum on the Mediterranean

The second OSCE PA meeting in Rome focused on strengthening security in the Mediterranean and developing the OSCE Mediterranean Dimension. The Parliamentary Forum followed up on the outcomes of last year’s OSCE PA Fall Conference in Madrid on ensuring peace, democracy and prosperity in the Mediterranean.

There has been a Mediterranean dimension of the Helsinki process from the outset. Throughout the negotiations that preceded and produced the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, issues relating to the Mediterranean were discussed. The result was a section of the Final Act entitled “Questions relating to Security and Cooperation in the Mediterranean.” Under the rubric of “non-participating Mediterranean countries,” Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia contributed to relevant discussions in the security dimension. These discussions were held in recognition of the relationship between security in Europe and in the Mediterranean region.

The Mediterranean dimension of the OSCE was reconstituted in the mid-1990s under the designation “Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation.” Countries included were Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Tunisia. Jordan subsequently joined as a partner. All six were represented in Rome.

In opening the forum, OSCE PA President Bruce George expressed his belief that “there is a growing awareness in the OSCE that only a free, democratic, prosperous and undivided Europe will be able to promote security, stability and prosperity in the adjacent area.” He also noted that European security will benefit from positive developments in other regions, including the Mediterranean.

During the session on Strengthening Security in the Mediterranean, Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs Franco Frattini pointed out that the countries of the southern Mediterranean–Islamic countries–have confidence in Italy and her objectives for trade and peace in the region. The emphasis among these states today must be in rooting out and eliminating terrorism, as “terrorism is the enemy of peace, and the negation of dialogue.” He also emphasized that “immigration is a European issue, not a national issue” when calling for a joint solution to the problems of illegal immigration. “EU immigration policy should focus on developing non-EU countries so people stay in those countries, and so people do not come, have no need to come, to EU.”

There was a general discussion that included the suggestion that a regional Mediterranean Center for Conflict Prevention be established. This was in conjunction with some comments asserting that the United States was more concerned about U.S. national security than regional security issues around the globe, including in the Mediterranean. Proponents suggested such a center would allow the States of the region to function in this arena of security without dependence on the United States.

During the session on Developing the OSCE Mediterranean Dimension a general discussion–some would call it an argument–about the Israel/Palestinian situation took place. Members of the delegations of Mediterranean Partner States Tunisia and Egypt said that while Palestinian claims and concerns have a firm historical and geographical basis, they are given short shrift in the considerations of the West. Instead, the West and Israel should give the Palestinians concrete details and specifics about the creation of a Palestinian state, should accelerate the Road Map calendar, and set conditions for the violence to cease. Most of all, they said, the United States needs to be visibly engaged and committed to the process. Many felt that the Quartet (the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations) should consult with the Arab states Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and some felt that Arabs should take the initiative reflecting a recent Saudi proposal.

During concluding remarks, President George made note of the fact that the Mediterranean Partners were, for the first time, seated in alphabetical order among the other attending participating States as signs that all are trying to work more closely with each other and the Mediterranean States are to be dealt with as equals.

Other prominent speakers included: Cesare Salvi, Deputy President of the Italian Senate; Jan Kubis, OSCE Secretary General; and Christian Juret, Diplomatic Advisor of the EU Representative for the Middle East.

On October 3, 2003, the Helsinki Commission held a briefing on human rights and democracy in the six Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation. The transcript is available on the Helsinki Commission website at www.csce.gov.

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.

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