By Knox Thames, CSCE Staff Advisor
On Thursday, October 11, 2001, the United States Helsinki Commission conducted a public briefing to explore the issue of religious registration, one of many roadblocks to religious freedom around the world.
Expert panelists focused on religious registration among the 55 nations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Several OSCE participating States are following a troubling trend toward restricting the right to freedom of religion by using registration schemes, making it virtually impossible for citizens to practice their faith.
Registration laws exist for a myriad of reasons. Some are vestiges of the communist era, while others purposefully limit the ability of new groups to function in a country. Yet this trend toward onerous registration ordinances and statutes has gradually emerged across the OSCE region. Furthermore, restrictive practices could be exacerbated in the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks that could be used as a pretext to further restrict or ban individuals and religious communities from practicing their faiths or beliefs.
As Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission noted in a prepared statement, “Over the past decade I have observed a troubling drift away from a robust and vibrant protection of religious freedom in a growing number of OSCE States. I have become alarmed with how some OSCE countries have developed new laws and regulations that serve as a roadblock to the free exercise of religious belief. These actions have not been limited to emerging democracies, but also include Western European countries, with the definitive example being Austria.”
The briefing panel featured academic experts, lawyers and practitioners to discuss the various ways governments are chipping away at religious freedom. Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, Co-Chair of the OSCE/ODIHR Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Law Professor at Catholic University–Brabant, Netherlands, was the first panelist to present remarks. She called the imposition of registration requirements “worrisome.” She continued that the need for government permission to allow “a person to adhere to a religion and to exercise his religion in community with others is, indeed, problematic in the light of internationally acknowledged religious liberty standards. Religious liberty should not be made dependent on a prior government clearance, and this touches the very essence of religious liberty.”
Dr. Gerhard Robbers, also a member of the OSCE/ODIHR Advisory Panel and Law Professor at the Trier University, Germany commented, “Registration of religious communities is known to most, probably to all legal systems in the world in one form or another as centralized or decentralized registration. It need not be a roadblock to religious freedom. In fact, it can free the way to more, positive religious freedom, if correctly performed.”
The next panelist was Vassilios Tsirbas, interim Executive Director and Senior Counsel for the European Centre for Law and Justice, based in Strasbourg, France. Mr. Tsirbas declared, “If the protection of the individual is considered the cornerstone of our modern legal [system] . . . religious freedom should be considered the cornerstone of all other rights.”
He also said, “Within this proliferation of the field of human rights, the Helsinki Final Act is a more than promising note. . . . [and] religious liberty stands out as one of those sine qua non conditions for an atmosphere of respect for the rights of individuals or whole communities.”
Lastly, Col. Kenneth Baillie of the Salvation Army-Moscow, Russia, told of efforts by Moscow city authorities to “liquidate” that branch of the church, allegedly due to a minor technicality in its application for registration. Col. Baillie stated, “The [registration] law’s ambiguity gives public officials the power to invent arbitrary constructions of the law.”
He added that the Salvation Army appears to be in the middle of a power struggle between Federal and State authorities. Col. Baillie said that the Salvation Army “will not give up.” But Baillie was “understandably skeptical about the religious registration law, and particularly the will to uphold what the law says in regard of religious freedom.”
In Commissioner Sen. Gordon H. Smith’s (R-OR) submission to the briefing record, he addressed the 1997 Russian registration law. He stated, “The Russian law, among other things, limits the activities of foreign missionaries and grants unregistered ‘religious groups’ fewer rights than accredited Russian religious organizations such as the Russian Orthodox Church, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. This law, if poorly implemented, could also sharply restrict the activities of foreign missionaries in Russia.”
Senator Smith added, “The conventional wisdom regarding implementation of that law is that persecution occurs abroad – the farther away from Moscow and the centralized government, the greater the risk is for religious intolerance. But even in Moscow there is a requirement of vigilance. And I am happy to report that [the Senate] has been vigilant on this issue – especially regarding the old problem of anti-Semitism in Russia.”
Commissioner Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN) also submitted a statement for the briefing record, in which he highlighted Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and their efforts in regards to registration laws. While Mr. Wamp did note specific problems, he also wanted to “highlight and praise both countries for seeking assistance from the OSCE Advisory Panel on Freedom of Religion or Belief.”
He continued, “The choice to seek assistance and working to ensure the new legislation is in line with human rights norms are marks of wise governance. Even more, I want to encourage these governments to continue their close cooperation with this body of experts, and to continue to strive to uphold OSCE commitments and international norms for religious freedom.”
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.