Attacks on Places of Worship in the Balkans

Attacks on Places of Worship in the Balkans

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
107th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Wednesday, May 16, 2001

Mr. Speaker, news reports from Bosnia and Kosovo earlier this month give reason to despair. First, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, about 30 people were injured and property was damaged during riots in the "Republika Srpska'' cities of Trebinje on May 5 and Banja Luka on May 7. Islamic leaders, Bosnian officials and representatives of the international community were attacked during ceremonies to lay the first stones of mosques being rebuilt where mosques destroyed by Serb militants in 1993 once stood.

We remember well, hundreds of mosques were destroyed during the war as part of the genocidal campaign of ethnic cleansing. The apparent purpose was to erase the cultural vestiges of the Bosniac population which was terrorized and forced to flee. It was not uncommon for the local ethnic Serbs subsequently to deny a mosque had ever existed, once the rubble had been cleared away. The famous Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka built in 1583 was blown to bits on May 7, 1993. The ceremony exactly eight years later was the culmination of persistent efforts, including the Helsinki Commission which I co-chair, to get Republika Srpska leaders to permit the reconstruction of destroyed mosques, which they finally did this year.

The riots last week demonstrate the continued intolerance in the region. Moreover, while Bosnian Serb officials have officially condemned the incidents, there are indications that both the Trebinje and Banja Luka events were orchestrated and perhaps linked. In Trebinje, the police force seemed simply to be not adequate. In Banja Luka, though, some believe that the police forces may have been involved in plans to disrupt the ceremonies. Radovan Karadzic, the wartime Bosnian Serb leader who has been indicted for genocide but remains at large, is alleged to have been responsible. Meanwhile, in Kosovo on May 6, local Albanians threw stones breaking windows and the doors of the Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Dimitrije in the village of Susica. Damage was done inside, and some cash offering was stolen. This was only the most recent in a wave of attack since the end of the conflict in Kosovo in 1999 in which about one hundred Orthodox churches have been damaged or destroyed. Many of these incidents have been documented by Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije in testimony before the Helsinki Commission.

Mr. Speaker, there are signs that in Kosovo, too, these attacks are not spontaneous acts of intolerance. Unfortunately, it seems that an environment has been created in which such acts of violence are not discouraged, let alone thwarted. Mr. Speaker, attacks on places of worship are reprehensible, no matter what the faith, no matter what the ethnicity of the worshipers. These sites are sacred to believers, and important as cultural symbols even to many who are not. Orchestrated or spontaneous, these attacks must be stopped. The international presence, including peacekeeping forces, local law enforcement, political leaders, and religious figures across faiths must be part of the solution, not the problem.

I was particularly disappointed with the response of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who, while criticizing those who engaged in violence, sought to place some of the blame on those working to rebuild the mosques in Republika Srpska. He was quoted as saying that some churches and mosques should not be rebuilt because they might provoke such incidents. Blaming the victim, sadly, has become a norm in the minds of too many who could and should, instead, be champions of justice. In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, let us remember that freedom of thought, religion and belief is a fundamental human right, and attacks on religious sites are attacks on that right, attacks that must be wholeheartedly condemned and hopefully prevented from happening again.

 

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Hastings (FL-20) stated, “This year, under my leadership, the Helsinki Commission has held events on the importance of international election observation, good governance, and focused on democratic backsliding in particular countries as part of our continued commitment to the underlying principles of the Helsinki Final Act.  Common to all of these issues is the role good leaders can play in ensuring free and fair elections; laws that are equitable, transparent, and enforced; and laying the groundwork to ensure protections and rights for all in their constituencies […] for the long-term stability of our nation and the transatlantic partnership.”  In his opening remarks, Chairman Hastings also noted that he planned to introduce legislation to support of leadership exchanges and knowledge-building between diverse transatlantic policymakers, and to encourage representative democracies. He also announced a February program for young OSCE parliamentarians to strengthen their political inclusion and advance peace and security efforts. Chairman Hastings was joined by Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Veasey raised the importance of metrics in assessing the impact of leadership programs and soft diplomacy, while Rep. Cleaver stated, “For the first time since the end of World War II, the extreme right is actually winning seats in the German Parliament,” highlighting increased security risks related to public diplomacy programs operating in countries that have seen an increase in hate crimes and racial prejudice. Witnesses included Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director of the Socrates Program at the Aspen Institute; Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair of the American Council of Young Political Leaders; and Lora Berg, Counselor for Inclusive Leadership at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Carter reviewed the Aspen Institute’s public policy programming on transatlantic relations and discussed the importance of promoting democratic values, including efforts to strengthen the capacity of congressional staff and encourage dialogues around the United States on being an “inclusive republic.”  He concluded by asking Congress to create more opportunities for public discourse on issues that threaten the stability of democracies around the world. Fujii discussed the importance of international exchanges in supporting democracies and the work of American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL). ACYPL was founded in 1966 to strengthen transatlantic relationships by promoting mutual understanding among young political leaders in Western Europe and the former Soviet Union.  Critical aspects of the program include offering international leaders the opportunity to come to the U.S. to observe campaigning, polling stations, election returns, and the response of the American people to elections, complemented by follow-on educational conversations about democratic processes in their countries.  Berg highlighted the importance of public diplomacy initiatives in advancing inclusive leadership and observed that nations gain in richness and capacity when diversity is reflected in leadership. She also noted that inclusive leadership not only plays an important role in promoting social harmony, but it also helps to ensure economic growth, stating that “the places with the highest social cohesion are the most reliable for investment.” Berg explained that the GMF’s Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) grew out of work she engaged in while working for the Department of State. TILN is an innovative network of young, diverse leaders across the United States and Europe supported by the Helsinki Commission and State Department.    Berg argued for the expansion of U.S. Government-supported public diplomacy inclusive leadership initiatives targeting youth and diverse populations in western democracies, including through public-private partnerships, the creation of a public diplomacy officer position in Europe to foster Europe-wide next generation transatlantic leadership, and increased political participation measures domestically and abroad for diverse populations.   

  • It's All About the Money

    As the countries of the Western Balkans continue to seek the integration that promises stability and prosperity, the inability to genuinely confront and overcome official corruption through good governance measures has undoubtedly slowed their progress. Foreign investment—vital to improved economic performance—is discouraged by a business climate characterized by weak adherence to the rule of law.  As a result, the countries of the region are witnessing a “brain drain” as the most talented and well-educated leave.  They also remain vulnerable to malign foreign investors, including Russia, that pursue political influence rather than profits.    Current political leaders have little incentive to make further democratic changes that could lead to their removal from power; they instead rely on lingering nationalist sentiments to continue benefiting from the corrupt practices they tolerate. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, experts from Serbia, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina analyzed the gaps in governance that facilitate the inflow of “corrosive capital” and subsequent foreign meddling in the Western Balkans, and encourage an exodus of the best and brightest from the region. Panelists also suggested specific ways to strengthen economic resiliency, democratic transition, and the possibilities for integration.        

  • Helsinki Commission to Review Role of Professional Exchanges in Strengthening Democratic Institutions

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PUBLIC DIPLOMACY, DEMOCRACY, AND GLOBAL LEADERSHIP An Approach for the 21st Century Thursday, December 5, 2019 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For more than a century, the United States has advanced human rights, economic, and security policy goals in Europe by cultivating people-to-people ties across the Atlantic. More than 500 heads of state, 100 Members of Congress, and thousands of professionals have participated in U.S. Government-sponsored exchanges, including the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, while public and private organizations have hosted similar programs to bring leaders together.    Witnesses at the hearing will explore the origins and role of professional exchanges and other public diplomacy programs that strengthen relationships with U.S. allies in the face of shared challenges including eroding trust in democratic institutions, demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats. In particular, the hearing will focus on international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region.  The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Lora Berg, Senior Fellow, Leadership Programs, German Marshall Fund of the United States Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director, Socrates Program, The Aspen Institute   Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair, American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL)   Photo credit: German Marshall Fund of the United States

  • Corruption in the Western Balkans Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY Corruption as a Brake on Balkan Recovery Tuesday, December 3, 2019 2:00 p.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission As the countries of the Western Balkans continue to seek the integration that promises stability and prosperity, the inability to genuinely confront and overcome official corruption through good governance measures has undoubtedly slowed their progress. Foreign investment—vital to improved economic performance—is discouraged by a business climate characterized by weak adherence to the rule of law.  As a result, the countries of the region are witnessing a “brain drain” as the most talented and well-educated leave.  They also remain vulnerable to malign foreign investors, including Russia, that pursue political influence rather than profits.    Current political leaders have little incentive to make further democratic changes that could lead to their removal from power; they instead rely on lingering nationalist sentiments to continue benefiting from the corrupt practices they tolerate. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, experts from Serbia, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina will analyze the gaps in governance that facilitate the inflow of “corrosive capital” and subsequent foreign meddling in the Western Balkans, and encourage an exodus of the best and brightest from the region. Panelists also will suggest specific ways to strengthen economic resiliency, democratic transition, and the possibilities for integration.          Panelists scheduled to participate include: Martina Hrvolova, Program Officer for Europe and Eurasia, Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) Igor Novakovic, Research Director, International and Security Affairs Centre (ISAC) in Serbia Misha Popovikj, Project Coordinator - Researcher, Institute for Democracy Societas Civilis Skopje (IDSCS) in North Macedonia   Igor Stojanovic, Researcher with the Center for Civic Initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina

  • Hastings and Cardin Condemn Mob Attack on Budapest Community Center

    WASHINGTON—Following Wednesday’s mob attack on Aurora, a small Jewish community center that provides office space to civil society groups in Budapest, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statements: “Wednesday’s mob attack on Aurora is an alarming escalation of violence toward minorities and civil society groups in Hungary. This second attack by paramilitary-style extremists in less than a month sends a frightening message: Authorities cannot, or will not, protect you,” said Chairman Hastings. “A decade ago, far-right extremists in Hungary orchestrated dozens of violent attacks, murdering six Hungarians including five-year-old Robert Csorba. The Government of Hungary must not allow such a tragedy to occur again.” “The Hungarian Government may boast of a ‘zero-tolerance for anti-Semitism’ policy abroad, but in reality, in Budapest they traffic in anti-Semitic tropes, honor fascist-era leaders and ideologues, and stoke hatred of migrants and Muslims,” said Sen. Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. “Actions speak louder than words. I hope that available photographs of the mob will aid law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators, and I commend the district’s newly elected mayor for visiting Aurora and seeking to ensure its safety.” Marom, a Hungarian Jewish association, established and runs Aurora Community Center, an umbrella organization that provides office space to small civil society groups including the Roma Press Center, migrant aid, and Pride Parade organizers. In Wednesday’s attack, the mob burned a rainbow flag and branded a para-military logo onto the premises. On September 26, the center also was attacked and vandalized by extremists. Under the Orbán government, the conditions for independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Hungary have deteriorated. Over the past two years, Hungarian authorities have accused Marom of administrative violations ranging from mismatched dates on official documents to, most recently, lacking an appropriate agreement with the center’s landlord. In 2018, Hungary passed a law establishing a 25 percent tax on organizations which engage in “propaganda activity that portrays immigration in a positive light.” It is a tax on government-disfavored speech. Hungary also adopted amendments to its "law on aiding illegal migration" that make handing out know-your-rights leaflets punishable by up to one year in prison. In 2017, Hungary adopted a Russian-style "foreign agent" law which, according to the U.S. Department of State, “unfairly burdens a targeted group of Hungarian civil society organizations, many of which focus on fighting corruption and protecting human rights and civil liberties.” The bill was proposed by the far-right wing party Jobbik. In 2014, armed police carried out raids on 13 civil society organizations, seizing computers and documents for alleged financial misconduct. No charges were ever brought against the NGOs. Between 2008 and 2010, at least six people were murdered, many others were injured, and whole communities were terrorized in a series of attacks by right-wing extremists.  Maria Balog was shot in her own home in a middle-of-the-night raid that also wounded her 13-year-old daughter. Jeno Koka was shot as he got in his car to go to work. Five-year-old Robert Csorba and his father were killed by sniper fire while attempting to escape an arson attack on their home.

  • Chairman Hastings on Yom Kippur Shooting outside German Synagogue

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s shooting outside of a synagogue in Halle, Germany, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I am heartbroken to hear about the shooting near a synagogue in Germany where Jewish worshippers gathered to observe Yom Kippur. I stand in solidarity with the two innocent lives lost and the families and worshippers who were impacted by this senseless act of violence and hatred. As we commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Pittsburgh synagogue tragedy later this month, we must do more across borders to address these common challenges together.”

  • 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    From September 16 to September 27, OSCE participating States will meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  As Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, the HDIM brings together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress. During the 2019 meeting, three specifically selected topics will each be the focus of a full-day discussion: “safety of journalists,” “hate crimes,” and “Roma and Sinti.” These special topics are chosen to highlight key areas for improvement in the OSCE region and promote discussion of pressing issues. Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2019 Since the HDIM was established in 1998, the OSCE participating States have a standing agreement to hold an annual two-week meeting to review the participating States’ compliance with the human dimension commitments they have previously adopted by consensus. The phrase “human dimension” was coined to describe the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as refugee migration and human trafficking), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (such as countering anti-Semitism and racism). Each year, the HDIM allows participating States to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement. The HDIM agenda covers all human dimension commitments, including freedoms of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief; democratic elections; the rule of law; tolerance and non-discrimination; combating trafficking in persons; women’s rights; and national minorities, including Roma and Sinti. Unique about the HDIM is the inclusion and strong participation of non-governmental organizations. The United States has been a stout advocate for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. OSCE structures allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. Members of the U.S. delegation to the 2019 HDIM include: Ambassador James S. Gilmore, U.S. Permanent Representative to the OSCE and Head of Delegation Christopher Robinson, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Roger D. Carstens, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Elan S. Carr, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Alex T. Johnson, Chief of Staff, U.S. Helsinki Commission

  • Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing

      Today, many countries seek to address historic wrongs, heal wounds, bridge divisions, and build a shared future. Truth and reconciliation efforts to encourage restitution, reparations, and restorative justice have been called for in many places, including the United States, Western Europe, Canada, and the Balkans, while Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution continue to seek justice worldwide. In June, Amsterdam city councilors voted to apologize for the city’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. In April, Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel apologized for the kidnapping of thousands of children born to mixed-race couples during its colonial rule in several African countries.  In 2015, Sweden published a historic white paper on abuses and rights violations against Roma in the 20th century.  A decade ago, Canada established a reconciliation process in response to the Indian Residential School legacy, which forced First Nation children to attend government-funded boarding schools. On July 18th, 2019, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing entitled, “Truth, Reconciliation and Healing: Towards a Unified Future,” where expert panelists reviewed lessons learned and discussed ways to heal and reunify societies divided by war, genocide, hierarchal systems of human value, and other tragedies stemming from extreme nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of ethnic and religious discrimination. Speakers addressed official government apologies, truth and reconciliation processes, restitution, reparations, and other policy prescriptions that have been used or are currently being considered to address historic wrongs and unify citizens in countries across Europe and North America. According to Dr. Gail C. Christopher, “this country was built over two and a half centuries with the deeply embedded fallacy of a hierarchy of human value, that some human beings just simply don’t have value.” She continued, “racism, anti-Semitism, religious bias, extremism, xenophobia – they all have their root in this fundamental fallacy of a hierarchy of human value. […] Our country has a history of enslaving people, committing genocide among Indigenous people, and embracing centuries of institutionalized racism [additionally] inequities caused by racism [are] costing our nation almost $2 trillion annually in lost purchasing power, reduced job opportunities, and diminished productivity.”  She went on to note that unlike other countries that have endured war, sectarian or racial strife, the United States has never undertaken a comprehensive Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) or other process, undergirding the antiquated belief in a hierarchical separation of races.  To address this problem, she discussed her efforts to adapt a truth and reconciliation process across America based upon “truth, racial healing, and transformation.”    Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat discussed his work over three U.S. administrations to provide belated justice for victims of the Holocaust and other victims of Nazi tyranny during World War II, as a Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State on Holocaust-era issues. “I’ve negotiated $17 billion in recoveries for Holocaust survivors who suffered under the Nazis.  Eight billion as a U.S. government representative under Clinton and Obama administrations and $9 billion as the chief negotiator for the Jewish claims conference in our annual negotiations with Germany,” he stated.  The payments covered everything from forced enslaved labor, unpaid insurance policies, to looted works of art including for non-Jews in some cases.  His other efforts included a presidential commission on the Holocaust led by Eli Wiesel that led to the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and $5 billion for a German remembrance foundation. He also described how Jewish refugees were refused entry into some countries, or their assets confiscated and then used to finance Nazi war efforts.  Citing the Justice for Uncompensated Holocaust Survivors (JUST) Act, he called for Congress to hold hearings on findings from a report to be released in November 2019 on whether countries have met their commitments under the Terezin Declaration. Former Flemish Christian and Democratic Party (CD&V) Councilwoman Tracy Tansia Bibo spoke in her video testimony about recent efforts to address the horrors of Belgian colonialism from the period of Leopold II through the 1960s where people's hands were cut off when they did not reach their rubber quota, communities and villages burned in response to uprisings and women were raped.  As one of the authors of Belgian legislation that led to an apology from the Prime Minister, Councilwoman Bibo described efforts to provide reparations and other means of redress for the kidnapping and forced adoption of close to 20,000 children from former Belgian colonies in Burundi, Congo, and Rwanda.  She noted that in addition to the apology, archives had been opened and travel assistance provided to support families in finding one another.  With the work of the Belgian government on hold since the last elections, she highlighted continuing efforts towards reconciliation and healing for Belgium and its former colony, including open societal dialogue; recognition of colonization and its modern day-effects; education and knowledge about colonization and racism; and reparations to address social and economic inequities stemming from institutional racism and colonization. “It's hard to talk about reparations,” she said. “Reparations is about fighting racial inequalities created by political systems that in the past were maintained by a privileged group. Hearings to determine exactly what this recovery means are therefore necessary… What if we finance programmes that, for example, aim to provide better health care for the black population who, according to studies, are more affected by certain diseases? What if we eliminate inequality in education by means of targeted programmes? Reparations is about more than handing out cheques to the black population. It is about eliminating inequalities.” Dutch Councilman and ChristienUnie Party Leader Don Ceder shared a European perspective on truth and reconciliation efforts, following his role in passing June 2019 legislation calling for a formal apology for the city of Amsterdam’s role in enslaving close to 600,000 Africans in the colonies and the Netherlands being the largest slave trader between West African and South America in the 17th century.  The apology is scheduled to take place July 1, 2020 on the Dutch day of remembering the abolition of slavery also known as Keti Koti - a Surinamese term that means “the chains are broken.”  According to Ceder, the effort was a result of seven political parties coming together because, “we see that a formal apology for the shared past is a mature step to a consolidated shared future in Amsterdam [in part because] though slavery has been abolished since 1863 in the Netherlands, the traces remain visible everywhere around the city today.”  Amsterdam will join cities such as Liverpool and Charleston and countries such as Benin and Ghana in issuing formal apologies for their participation in racial oppression, in addition to the European Parliament calling for all Member states to apologize for their roles.  Ceder recognized that a new narrative may be needed to redefine Amsterdam with the understanding that withholding truth only creates an obstacle to a unified future.    Dr. Diane Orentlicher cited numerous lessons learned from her work in Bosnia-Herzegovina. “Experience in many countries has shown that, unless they are adequately addressed, historic wrongs leave deep wounds, whose toxic legacy afflicts not only victims but whole societies.  […] Social divisions rooted in wrongs and oppression will not be fixed without an honest reckoning, including a robust acknowledgement and condemnation of the original wrongs and a determination to address their toxic legacies.”  Listing “denial” and “silence” as some of the main barriers to societies recovering from tragedy, she stated, “I do not believe Bosnia can become unified in any meaningful sense until public officials and other elites, as well as ordinary citizens, acknowledge the full extent of atrocities committed by members of their in-group and unequivocally condemn their crimes.“  Acknowledging that addressing historic wrongs can be painful, she noted the importance of honesty, bringing people together, courageous and innovative leadership, and persistence.

  • OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: STATE OF MEDIA FREEDOM IN THE OSCE REGION Thursday, July 25, 2019 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room HVC-210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Journalists working in the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) are facing increased risks to their lives and safety. According to a new report released the Office of the Representative for Freedom of the Media, in the first six months of 2019, two journalists have been killed and an additional 92 attacks and threats—including one bombing, three shootings, and seven arson attacks—have targeted members of the media. In his first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir will assess the fragile state of media freedom within the OSCE region. Mr. Desir also will address the number of imprisoned media professionals as well as the violence, threats, and intimidation directed toward female journalists. The hearing will explore the threat posed by disinformation and online content designed to provoke violence and hate.  Following the hearing, at 5:00 p.m. in Room HVC-200, the Helsinki Commission will host a viewing of the documentary, “A Dark Place,” which details the online harassment of female journalists working in the OSCE region.

  • Minority Faiths Under the Hungarian Religion Law

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law This is a July 16, 2019, update to the article “Minority Faiths Under The Hungarian Religion Law," originally posted on July 8, 2017 (reprinted below). In 2011, Hungary adopted a new church law that entered into effect in 2012. The law stripped hundreds of faiths of their legal status overnight, deprived them of state resources to which they had previously been entitled, and resulted in other limitations. In December 2018, Hungary amended its religion law (effective as of April 15, 2019). The purpose of the amendment was to implement judgments of Hungary’s Constitutional Court as well as the European Court on Human Rights which held that Hungary’s religion law discriminated against faiths and churches. However, the amended law includes elements that, in practice, will continue discriminatory elements of the 2011 law for several more years and, in some respects, exacerbate the situation for minority faiths. The existing (2011) legal framework already distinguished among churches for the purposes of allocating government resources and benefits. The 2018 amendment added additional tiers to the categories, resulting in a more complex system. The four new tiers or categories are: religious association (with the right to be called a “church”), listed church, registered church and recognized church. Only the most “privileged” tier (recognized church) has the rights previously enjoyed by religious organizations recognized as churches before the passage of the 2011 law. Faiths which enjoyed legal recognition before the 2011 law but were stripped of that recognition under the 2018 law continue to be forced to accept the status of religious association and excluded from all the “privileges” granted to the higher categories. In other words, the 2018 amendment simply carries over the framework of the 2011 law. Additionally, the Hungarian Parliament – a body of elected officials – still decides which religious organizations are in the privileged tier (recognized church), making this an inherently political distinction. The amendment does make two improvements. First, it allows all religious organizations that secure state recognition to determine their own internal organizational structure. (Under the law passed in 2011, this was not the case.) Second, it permits people to donate 1% of their income tax to any religious organization that secures one of the four approved statuses. However, the amendment does not automatically enable organizations previously excluded from this support to receive it. On net, the December 2018 amendment fails to implement fully the court’s rulings or end the discrimination of the 2011 law, leaving some religious groups in limbo. The amendment did not provide a remedy for churches that were stripped of their status under the 2011 law, and faiths categorized in what is now the lowest tier (“religious association”) cannot be upgraded to the status of listed or registered churches without renouncing all future state, European Union, and foreign support or collecting the 1% income tax donation but remaining excluded from the benefits of "recognized" status during a prolonged transitional period. Minority Faiths Under The Hungarian Religion Law June 8, 2017 On April 25, 2017, the European Court on Human Rights announced a judgment in the case of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship v. Hungary.  This decision followed a 2014 finding by the Court that Hungary's 2011 law on religion violated the rights to freedom of association and freedom of religion.  In light of the failure of Hungary to end continuing violations, the April judgment awarded the Evangelical Fellowship €3 million in damages.  Religious Discrimination after the 2011 Law The case has its origins in changes made to Hungary’s religion law, which establishes a framework for the registration, or official recognition, of churches.  The law was rushed through parliament in June 2011 in a midnight parliamentary session as part of a massive three-year wave of 700 new laws, a new constitution, and five amendments to the Constitution passed between 2010 and 2013.  The “church law,” as it is known, came into force in 2012 and stripped legal recognition from over 300 previously recognized faiths; only 14 faiths retained their status under the new law.  The law gives the exclusive authority to the elected politicians in the Hungarian parliament to determine what constitutes a church, based on a parliamentary review of a religious community’s faith and rites; bylaws and internal rules; and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies. The parliament then makes its decision according to a two-thirds vote.  Churches recognized by the parliament are granted a range of financial benefits and other privileges, including the ability to minister to co-religionists in public institutions such as schools, prisons and the military; unregistered faiths are denied these benefits.   Religions that lose their state recognition may have their assets confiscated by the state.  Hungarian Ombudsman Mate Szabo criticized the law when it was adopted and the Constitutional Court has twice struck down parts of the new religion law.  Parliament changed the law to allow unrecognized groups to identify as “churches” (translation:  “you can call yourself whatever you want”), but refused to alter the discriminatory framework that excludes unregistered faiths from the benefit of official status (translation:  “you’ll still have second-class status”).  In other words, there was no meaningful legislative change to address the law’s shortcomings.   The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, joined by several smaller groups, including Mennonites, two small reformed Jewish congregations, and a Buddhist congregation, brought the case that was decided by the European Court in 2014.  The European Court held that the “church law” is “inconsistent with the State’s duty of neutrality in religious matters that religious groups had to apply to Parliament to obtain re-registration as churches and that they were treated differently from incorporated churches with regard to material benefits without any objective grounds.”  Damages were awarded to the other religious communities in 2016, but the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship continued to seek damages in light of continuing violations. In its April 2017 decision, the court awarded €3 million to the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.  The damages for discriminatory treatment included the loss of personal income tax donations and the corresponding supplementary State subsidy; the loss of State subsidies intended to support the applicant’s social and educational institutions; the loss of subsidies for religious teaching; and the loss of salary supplements paid to the staff employed by church institutions providing public-interest services. Unfortunately, the Court does not have the authority to compel Hungary to change its religion law and it is up to the Hungarian parliament to take the measures to comply with the ruling.  (The Court may award damages again – and again – in the case of continuing violations.) De-registered churches may be able to get a judgment for damages in Strasbourg, but only Budapest can provide a legal remedy.  The government may be trying to squeeze the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship out of existence by depriving them of the benefits extended to other faiths and forcing them to devote resources to constantly litigate and re-litigate the same violations.  Smaller churches de-registered after 2011 have already largely been shuttered.  About the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship broke from the Hungarian Methodist Church in the mid-1970s over the issue of collaboration with the communist regime. As a faith that would not bend to the communist regime, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was subsequently forced underground and persecuted for engaging in charitable work with the poor at a time when the communist regime was loath to admit that poverty was a serious problem.  After the fall of the communist regime, in 1991 the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was officially recognized until stripped of this status under the 2011 law.  The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is known for its charitable and humanitarian work, particularly with Romani communities, and runs schools, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. However, becausethe Hungarian tax authority has refused to issue a tax number to deregistered churches such as the Evangelical Fellowship, it is impossible for them to be designated them as recipients of a 1 percent charitable donation on tax forms.   Related Issues In 2017, the Hungarian Government has also proposed a Russian-style “foreign agents” law, which is currently scheduled for a vote by parliament, possibly on June 13. In recognition of criticism that, among the draft law’s many problems, it would stigmatize groups that receive foreign funding – including support from co-religionists in other countries – the current draft was altered to include a carve-out exception for religious organizations and sports.  If adopted, the law may spur the adoption of copycat laws in the region that might not have the same carve-outs for religious groups.  During a press conference in April, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff Janos Lazar suggested that Hungarian groups that receive foreign funding should be designated with a star.  He later apologized.

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