Do Registration Requirements Thwart Religious Freedom?

Do Registration Requirements Thwart Religious Freedom?

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
107th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Tuesday, December 18, 2001

Mr. Speaker, the “Helsinki” Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe recently convened a briefing which examined the policies of various governments which require registration of religious groups and the effect of such policies on the freedom of religious belief and practice. There was evidence that such requirements can be, and often are, a threat to religious freedom among countries in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). As Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, mandated to monitor and encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act and other OSCE commitments, I have become alarmed over the past decade by the creation of new laws and regulations in some OSCE countries that serve as a roadblock to the free exercise of religious belief. These actions have not been limited to emerging democracies, but include Western European countries such as Austria.

Many of these laws are crafted with the intent to repress religious communities deemed nefarious and dangerous to public safety. One cannot deny that certain groups have hidden behind the veil of religion in perpetrating monstrous and perfidious acts. The September 11th tragedies have been a grim reminder of that. Yet, while history does hold examples of religion employed as a tool for evil, these are exceptions and not the rule. In our own country, during the Civil Rights Movement, religious communities were the driving force in the effort to overturn the immoral “separate but equal” laws and provide legal protections. If strict religious registration laws had existed in this country, government officials could have clamped down on this just movement, possibly delaying long overdue reform.

While OSCE commitments do not forbid basic registration of religious groups, governments often use the pretext of “state security” to quell groups espousing views contrary to the ruling powers’ party line. Registration laws are often designed on the premise that minority faiths are inimical to governmental goals. Proponents of more strenuous provisions cite crimes committed by individuals in justifying stringent registration requirements against religious groups, ignoring the fact that criminal laws should be adequate to combat criminal activity. In other situations, some governments have crafted special church-state agreements, or concordats, which exclusively give one religious group powers and rights not available to other communities. By creating tiers or hierarchies, governments run the risk of dispersing privileges and authority in an inequitable fashion, ensuring that other religious groups will never exist on a level playing field, if at all. In a worst case scenario, by officially recognizing “traditional” or “historic” communities, governments can reflect an ambivalence towards minority religious groups. Such ambivalence can, in turn, create an atmosphere in which hostility or violence is perpetrated with impunity. The persistent brutality against Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelical groups in Georgia is an example of State authorities’ failure to bring to justice the perpetrators of such violence.

Mr. Speaker, religious registration laws do not operate in a vacuum; other rights, such as freedom of association or freedom of speech, are often enveloped by these provisions. Clamping down on a group’s ability to exist not only contravenes numerous, long-standing OSCE commitments, but can effectively remove from society forces that operate for the general welfare. The recent liquidation of the Salvation Army in Moscow is a lucent example. Who will suffer most? The poor and hungry, who now benefit from the Salvation Army’s ministries of mercy.

Each OSCE participating State has committed to full compliance with the provisions enumerated in the various Helsinki documents. The Bush Administration’s commitment to religious freedom has been clearly articulated. In a March 9, 2001 letter, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor, wrote: “President Bush is deeply committed to promoting the right of individuals around the world to practice freely their religious beliefs.” She also expressed her concern about religious discrimination. In a separate letter on March 30th of this year, Vice President Dick Cheney echoed this commitment when he referred to the promotion of religious freedom as “a defining element of the American character.” He went on to declare the Bush Administration’s commitment “to advancing the protection of individual religious freedom as an integral part of our foreign policy agenda.”

Since the war on terrorism was declared, the President has made clear the distinction between acts of terrorism and religious practice. In his address to the country, Mr. Bush stated: “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends....... Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.” He further stated, “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.” Accordingly, I believe this administration will not stray from supporting religious freedom during this challenging time.

Out of concern about recent developments and trends in the OSCE region, the Helsinki Commission conducted this briefing to discuss registration roadblocks affecting religious freedom. I was pleased by the panel of experts and practitioners assembled who were kind enough to travel from Europe to share their thoughts and insights, including Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, a professor of law in The Netherlands and current Co-Chair of the OSCE Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr. Gerhard Robbers, a member of the OSCE Advisory Panel of Experts and professor of law in Germany; Mr. Vassilios Tsirbas, interim executive director and senior legal counsel for the European Centre for Law and Justice in Strasbourg; and Col. Kenneth Baillie, commanding officer for the Salvation Army in Eastern Europe. Dr. van Bijsterveld made the point that “the assessment of registration from the point of view of religious liberty depends entirely on the function that registration fulfills in the legal system, and the consequences that are attached to registration.” She continued: “A requirement of registration of religious groups as a pre-condition for the lawful exercise of religious freedom is worrisome in the light of international human rights standards. [Needing the government’s] permission for a person 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. This touches the very essence of religious liberty.”

Dr. Robbers noted that registration of religious communities is often a requirement but “it need not be a roadblock to religious freedom. In fact, it can free the way to more positive religious freedom if correctly performed.” If utilized, “registration and registration procedures must meet certain standards. Registration must be based on equal treatment of all religious communities....... [and] the process of registration must follow due process of law.” He further noted that “religious activity in and as community, must be possible even without being registered as religious community.” He made clear that the minimum number of members required for registration need not be too many and there should be no minimum period of existence before registration is allowed.

The third panelist, Mr. Tsirbas, opined, “Within this proliferation of the field of human rights, the Helsinki Final Act is a more than promising note. The commitment to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion, basically summarizes the ..... protection of international and domestic legal documents. 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.” Mr. Tsirbas also stated, “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. The right itself is one of the most recent to be recognized and protected, yet it embraces and reflects the inevitable outworking through the course of time of the fundamental truths of belief in the worth of a person.”

Lastly, Col. Kenneth Baillie, spokesman for the Salvation Army in Eastern Europe, outlined the experience of registering his organization in Moscow. “In Russia, as of February this year, we are registered nationwide as a centralized religious organization, [however] the city of Moscow is another story. We have been registered as a religious group in Moscow since 1992. In response to the 1997 law, like everyone else, we applied for re-registration , thinking that it would be merely pro forma. Our application documents were submitted, and a staff person in the city Ministry of Justice said everything was in order, we would have our signed and stamped registration in two days. “Two days later,” Col. Baillie continued, “the same staffer called to say, in a sheepish voice, ‘There’s a problem.’ Well, it is now three years later, and there is still a problem. Someone took an ideological decision to deny us, that is absolutely clear to me, and three years of meetings and documents and media statements and legal briefs are all window-dressing. Behind it all is an arbitrary, discriminatory, and secret decision, and to this day I do not know who made the decision, or why.” Based on the difficult experience of trying to register in Moscow and the Salvation Army’s subsequent “liquidation” by a Moscow court, Col. Baillie offered some observations. He noted how “the law’s ambiguity gives public officials the power to invent arbitrary constructions of the law.” Col. Baillie concluded by stating, “We will not give up,” but added he is “understandably skeptical about religious registration law, and particularly the will to uphold what the law says in regard to religious freedom.”

Mr. Speaker, this Helsinki Commission briefing offered a clear picture of how the law and practice affecting, registration of religious groups have become critical aspects in the defense of the right to freedom of conscience, religion or belief. No doubt registration requirements can serve as a roadblock which is detrimental to religious freedom. The Commission will continue to monitor this trend among the region’s governments which are instituting more stringent registration requirements and will encourage full compliance with the Helsinki commitments to ensure the protection of this fundamental right.

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