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Freedom of Thought, Conscience, Religion, or Belief

The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 recognizes religious freedom as a “human right and fundamental freedom.” Participating States of the OSCE “will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.”

To help ensure this commitment is fully honored, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has senior staff focused on religious freedom.

The Helsinki Commission promotes and defends the religious freedom of people in the OSCE region, particularly prioritizing the cases of individuals and communities whose religious freedom has been violated and laws and policies that conflict with the Helsinki Final Act.

Staff Contacts: Nathaniel Hurd, senior policy advisor; Mischa Thompson, senior policy advisor

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  • U.S. Statements on the Human Dimension, 1996 OSCE Vienna Review Conference and Lisbon Summit

    This compendium of statements illustrates the U.S. perspective that one of the key and distinguishing features of the OSCE is the interlocking framework of critical, politically binding commitments which provide a common set of principles to which all participating States can aspire. The OSCE draws its real strength and practical flexibility from participating states' commitments to the values of the original Helsinki Act, rather than from a legalized, treaty-based institutional structure. A fundamental strength of the OSCE is the review process, which provides a regular opportunity to assess a participating states' efforts to further the realization of the Helsinki Accords within its own borders, and in its relations with other OSCE states. The OSCE is increasingly a pillar of European security. By facilitating honest implementation review the OSCE can strengthen security links based on common values.

  • Turkish Minority in Western Thrace

    This briefing presented an overview of the problems and the situation of the Turkish minority in Thrace, which had suffered from human rights abuses, including the deprivation of citizenship, denials of the right to buy land or houses, restriction of freedom of expression, movement, and religion, and the degrading treatment of ethnic Turks by Greek government officials. In spite of some reforms taken to improve this situation, many issues still remain, involving education, the expropriation of land, and religious discrimination. Witnesses providing testimony at this hearing – including Tozun Bahcheli, Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace; Van Coufoudakis, Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs at Indiana University/Purdue; and Western Thrace residents Adem Bekiroglu and Irene Laganis – discussed the limitations established by the Greek government’s failure to acknowledge without restriction the existence of the Turkish minority. Issues such as arbitrary deprivation of citizenship, the election of muftis, job discrimination, and discrimination in providing public services were identified as obstacles faced by the Turkish minority.  

  • Religious Liberty: The State Church and Minority Faiths

    Samuel G. Wise, Director for International Policy at the US Helsinki Commission, presented the second briefing in a series focusing on religious liberty in the participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This particular discussion was intended to evaluate the relationship between state churches or traditional religious and freedom of religion for minority faiths in the OSCE region through an analysis of the effects of certain historical legacies on individual states. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Father Kishkovsky, Ecumenical Officer of the Orthodox Church in America; Father George Papaioannou, Pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church; Gerard Powers, Foreign Policy Advisor for the U.S. Catholic Conference; Lauren Homer, Founder of Law and Liberty Trust; and Lee Boothby, Vice President of the Council on Religious Freedom – focused on the issue of minority and majority in society as it relates to religion and the potential for this issue to result in conflict. The historical origins of these tensions, especially in Eastern Europe, were particularly emphasized. 

  • Religious Liberty in the OSCE: Present and Future

    Speaking on behalf of Congressman Christopher H. Smith and Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato, chairman and co-chairman of the Helsinki Committee, the Committee’s Director for International Policy, Samuel G. Wise, addressed the improvements made by the countries of the OSCE in religious liberty since the demise of communism. Observed deficits in this particular subject were also evaluated, including acts of OSCE governments perpetrating religious intolerance and discrimination against people of faith by passing laws favoring certain religions, turning a blind eye to harassment, and establishing bureaucratic roadblocks to prevent religious minorities from practicing their faith. Each panelist – including Dr. Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow of Political Theory for the Institute for Christian Studies; Dr. Khalid Duran, Senior Fellow for the Institute for International Studies; and Micah Naftalin, National Director for the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews – spoke to the overall factors affecting religious freedom in the OSCE, including: respect for other freedoms such as freedom of speech and religion, ethno-cultural tensions, and the relevance of old prejudices. These ideas were presented in the context of moving towards a more comprehensive respect for religious freedom among OSCE member states in the future.

  • Status of Media Freedom in Democracies

    This briefing detailed the progress of media freedom in newly democratic states, especially within Eastern Europe. The role of the media in the democratization process and methods for promoting freedom of the media were examined as well. Witnesses testifying at the hearing – including David Webster, Chairman of the  Trans-Atlantic Dialogue on European Broadcasting and Sandra Pralong, President of Democracy Works – detailed several major values that a free media promotes in the democratic process, including peaceful social change, education of the democratic electorate, dissenting opinions about the government and society in general, and transparency of political corruption.

  • Human Rights and Democratization in Romania

    Romania's ongoing journey toward democracy is generally viewed, even by the government of Romania, as slower and more circuitous than that of its neighbors. Romania has certainly had farther to go; Nicolae Ceausescu's regime was the most repressive and demoralizing of the Warsaw Pact countries. Yet Romania's gloomy distinctiveness carried into the post-Ceausescu era. The Romanian revolution of December 1989 was the bloodiest of the region. The early months of 1990 were marked by confusion and tension, including violent inter-ethnic clashes. The first free elections of May 1990 were tainted by serious irregularities in the campaign period; one month later, thousands of pro-government miners rampaged through Bucharest, bludgeoning anti-communist demonstrators and ransacking opposition party headquarters. This report examines the developments in the areas of human rights and democracy in post-Ceausescu Romania.

  • CSCE to Examine Repression against Evangelicals in Former Soviet Union

    Chris Smith, ranking Republican on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, addressed both the opportunities for democratic, economic, and social reforms in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and the difficulties of achieving these reforms presented by renewed tensions based on nationality and religion. The rise of extreme nationalism was cited as a key factor in the rise of religious intolerance in this region. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Boris Pechatkin and Edward Zawistowski of the Russian-American Institute for Adaption, and Lauren Homer, Director of Law and Liberty Trust – addressed the difficulties that have been encountered in ending religious prosecution following the fall of the Soviet Union. The impact of a breakdown of law and order in the countries of Eastern Europe was evaluated as a mechanism for religious injustice.

  • The Current State and Future Prospects of Democracy in Russia

    As its name suggests, this hearing, which Steny H. Hoyer presided over, dealt with the prospect for the implementation of democratic institutions in the former Soviet Union. In addition, though, part of the hearing focused on the Russian legislature’s dissolution after the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev (i.e. post-Communism), as well as, of course, Russia and its formerly incorporated countries’ courses for the future. Witnesses who attended this hearing were: Michael Dobbs, Resident Scholar at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute; Dr. Leon Aron, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and Dr. Robert Krieble, Chairman of the Krieble Institute of the Free Congress Foundation.

  • Human Rights and Democratization in Bulgaria

    The Helsinki Commission's last comprehensive report on Bulgarian CSCE implementation was published in 1988. (The Commission also published a report in 1991 on the ethnic Turkish minority in Bulgaria). At that time, Bulgaria was in violation of many of its CSCE commitments. Its human rights record was among the worst of the Helsinki signatory states. Clearly, much has changed since then. Since the fall of communism in November 1989, Bulgaria has made impressive strides towards becoming a democratic state based on the rule of law. Bulgaria is experiencing a rare historical opportunity in which it can genuinely forge its own fate. Unshackled from the external Soviet empire of communist rule with which it had especially close links, Bulgaria is developing a democratic, rule of law state where the rights of all of its citizens are being met with greater respect. While Bulgaria faces considerable problems in its post-communist transition, and will continue to in the foreseeable future, it is doing much better than most of its Balkan neighbors. Moreover, it is exceeding the expectations of those who until recently viewed Bulgaria through the prism of being the Soviet Union's “16th republic” and the home of papal assassination plots and forcible assimilation campaigns. Despite its very real problems, Bulgaria is indicating that it is more tolerant, pluralistic, democratic and stable than many would have supposed.

  • Report: Northern Ireland: Codel DeConcini Trip Report

    The Helsinki Commission was urged by several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to make a contribution to the public debate on Northern Ireland. Human rights reports by well-respected NGOs such as Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch have documented persistent human rights abuses by security and paramilitary forces. Serious questions have been raised about the administration of justice as well. And to this day, issues of social and economic justice dominate the political dialogue between the two communities of Northern Ireland. Prior to its visit, the Commission was warned that, given its complex realities and historic passions, Northern Ireland often defies understanding. Nevertheless, the delegation, which in. addition to Senator DeConcini, included Commission Deputy Staff Directors Jane Fisher and Mary Sue Hafner, as well as, Mary Hawkins of Senator DeConcini's personal staff, came away with a better perception of what drives this conflict. The delegation began its fact-finding trip on the premise that any evaluation of the situation in Northern Ireland must consider not only traditional human rights violations, bu he erosion of a democratic system by terrorist activity. Indeed, the delegation viewed errorist acts by paramilitary forces from both communities as one of the worst recurring auses of human rights violations. At the same time, the delegation agreed the root causes of that terrorism should also be examined. As local religious leaders admonished, "an valuation of Northern Ireland based upon CSCE standards and principles must addres he dangers it confronts.'' This view reflected the competing interests that challening Northern Ireland today: on the one hand, efforts by one of the world's oldest democracies to promote and protect human rights and the rule of law; on the other, the need to combat a vicious terrorist movement that has taken thousands of lives.

  • The Moscow Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE

    In accordance with the mandate of the Vienna Concluding Document, the 38 states participating in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) met in Moscow from September 10 through October 4, 1991, for the third meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension (CHD, or CDH from the French acronym) of the CSCE. The first meeting of the Conference was held in Paris from May 20 through June 23, 1989, and the second was held in Copenhagen from June 5 through 29, 1990. The meetings of the CHD address the full range of human rights and humanitarian concerns associated with the Helsinki process.

  • Geneva Meeting on National Minorities and Moscow Meeting on the Human Dimension

    The hearing will focus on two important CSCE meetings, the Geneva Experts Meeting on National Minorities.   The Geneva meeting which recently ended was mandated to discuss national minorities, the meeting had three components: exchange of views on practical experience; review of the implementation of relevant CSCE commitments; and consideration of new measures. The distinguished speaker will outline the major points of the Geneva meeting and how the United States can best utilize its success while moving towards the upcoming human dimension meeting in Moscow.

  • Revolt Against the Silence - The State of Human Rights in Romania: An Update

    Patterns of repression in Romania remain sadly the same year after year. The Romanian regime has kept up pressure on members of religious and national minorities, as well as on all who have sought to express themselves freely. It has harassed and punished would-be emigrants by removing them from jobs and housing. It has exiled writers, philosophers and former leaders. It has jailed those who have sought the means to worship freely, and used psychiatric incarceration to punish free expression. The regime has steadily curtailed the opportunities for members of ethnic minorities to maintain and cultivate their cultural heritage, cutting minority-language instruction and publishing to a minimum. Minority cultural and family ties have also been strictly limited. The regime has used violence and threats of violence to discourage citizens from seeking to exercise their rights. Many Romanian dissidents inside and outside the country have received black-bordered death threats, widely believed to be a favorite calling-card of Romania's notorious Securitate (secret police). Increasingly, the regime's persecution has touched all Romanian citizens, who suffer from severe, state-imposed food shortages and the threat of displacement through the sjstematizare, or systematization, program. Despite the Romanian Government's March announcement, with great fanfare, that it had repaid the country's foreign debt, there is no sign that the regime will reorder its fiscal priorities in favor of consumption. Rationing continues unabated, while construction of new industrial projects seems to be moving forward with redoubled speed.

  • THE RIGHT TO RECEIVE AND IMPART INFORMATION - PRELUDE TO THE LONDON INFORMATION FORUM

    This Commission hearing focused on the implementation of the provisions of the Helsinki Accords in the member countries of Eastern Europe. The hearing reviewed the compliance records of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, with the provisions regarding the free flow of information. The East has had a mixed record in regards to its compliance of the information provisions of the Helsinki Accords. Expert witnesses gave testimony to bring better understanding of the bewildering, and sometimes contradictory signals the East is sending on its information policies.

  • The State of Human Rights in Romania: An Update

    One year after worker-led disturbances erupted in Brasov and other Romanian cities, Romanian society remains tense, divided and increasingly impatient with a regime that exhibits little regard for the well-being of its citizenry. While the Romanian Party and Government have succeeded in quashing most open expressions of dissent, they have failed abysmally in garnering popular support for their programs -- if such support was ever solicited or even de­sired. Systematically depriving its citizens of the possibility to exer­cise the most fundamental human rights, and robbing them of the social and economic rights it supports so heartily in words, the Ro­manian regime has lost any legitimacy it might once have enjoyed among its citizens. Romanian citizens and recent emigrants from that country testi­fy that repression has grown in the year after Brasov. While most prisoners of conscience were released under a January 1988 amnes­ ty, dissidents continue to be surveilled, followed, called in repeatedly for questioning by the Securitate, and placed under house arrest. Telephone lines are cut and mail intercepted to increase the dissidents' sense of isolation not only from the world outside Romania, but also from contacts within the country. Censorship has become more severe, and the security apparatus maintains an even more visible presence than before. The notorious but still unpublished Decree 408, which requires Romanian citizens to report to police all meetings with foreign citizens within 24 hours, is stringently enforced. Romania's economy continues to deteriorate. Fuel and electricity have been rationed for years. Staple foods, including milk, bread and flour, are rationed, and in many localities even these are unavailable. Meat is a rarity; soup bones only occasionally appear in stores. Decades of financial misplanning and inefficient industrial devel­opment have led to the dire condition of the Romanian economy, making it the poorest in Europe after Albania. The Government continues to repay its foreign debts at a swift rate and modernizeat the expense of the Romanian people's well-being.  

  • Reform and Human Rights in Eastern Europe

    During the course of the last several years, tremendous political changes have occurred in Eastern Europe. On the plus side of the ledger, the United States normalized relations with Poland, symbolized by the reinstatement of Poland's Most-Favored-Nation trad­ ing status (MFN) in 1987, following a series of prisoner amnesties and political improvements peaking in 1986. In Hungary, progress has included the introduction of a new passport law, undoubtedly the most liberal in Eastern Europe to date, permitting passport is­ suance according to roughly the same standards as in the West. In the German Democratic Republic, record numbers of people have been permitted to travel and to emigrate. On the negative side of the ledger, to mention only the most striking case of deterioration, United States relations with Romania have chilled because of that country's progressively poorer human rights performance. This led Romania to renounce its MFN privileges rather than face what promised to be a highly critical as­sessment before the U.S. Congress in 1988. In spite of worldwide condemnation of its policies, Romania has forged ahead with plans to destroy up to half of its approximately 13,000 villages. All this is painted onto domestic political and economic canvases which can seem alternately diverse and yet uniform, capable of metamorphosis and yet stagnant. In spite of the notable changes, there are few discernible area-wide trends in this geographic region united by its postwar fate. It is no wonder, then, that East European analysts have been left scratching their heads, trying to make sense out of all that is happening, or -- in some cases -- not happening. One of the traditional questions posed by these analysts involves the degree of influence events in the Soviet Union have on developments in Eastern Europe. The latest angle in this sophisticated guesswork has become the question of what role Mikhail Gorbachev performs in Eastern Europe's own passion play. Since World War II, Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea has been the victim of push-me, pull-you politics emanating from Moscow: now racing to catchup with de-Stalinization, now being punished for taking de-Stalinization too far. Today's Eastern Europe seems to continue to walk a poorly defined path between being reactive to events in the Soviet Union, and proactively lead­ing the way to parts unknown. Understanding the changes taking place in the region -- and the opportunities for the West which have arisen as a result of them -- may be more critical now than at any time since the end of World War II. Consequently, the Helsinki Commission has followed develop­ments in Eastern Europe more closely during the past Congress than ever before. Extensive hearings have been held on virtually every aspect of the Helsinki Accords as they apply to Eastern Europe, drawing on a wide range of experts on East European af­fairs, including renowned scholars, high-ranking government offi­cials, representatives from nongovernmental organizations, and East Europeans speaking from their firsthand experiences. In addition, the Commission has led congressional delegations to all six East European countries. These unprecedented trips provid­ed Helsinki Commissioners and other Members of Congress with the opportunity to engage government officials in a dialogue on all aspects of the Helsinki Final Act, and to exchange views regarding specific areas of bilateral and multilateral concern. Just as impor­tant were delegation meetings with a wide range of private citi­zens, representing independent and unofficial thinking among the political, religious, and cultural communities. Commission staff del­egations to Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia have performed important follow-up activities. The report that follows is based on the information garnered by the Commission's numerous hearings, delegations, and reports. It is an attempt to take that information one step further and, like The Gorbachev Record which precedes it, present a sober, factual analysis of trends in the countries of Eastern Europe. It is hoped that, as a result, we will better understand where and in what ways positive change is taking place in Eastern Europe, and where compliance with the Helsinki Final Act cries for improvement.

  • Reform and Human Rights - The Gorbachev Record

    Based on the Commission's continuing, professional contacts with a wide range of experts on Soviet affairs in this country and abroad, this report is a sober, factual survey of Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts during his first three years as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party to promote significant reforms in the politics, economy and society of his country. The report is designed to contribute to that consistent pressure, for in describing how much has changed or seems to be in the process of changing, it also documents how many fundamental rights of Soviet citizens to freedom of expression, of belief, of movement and of national character remain restricted and unprotected. There has been much to applaud in the three years of Gorbachev's rule, especially compared to the repressive actions of his predecessors. The release of many political prisoners from camps and psychiatric prison-hospitals, the rise in the numbers of Soviet citizens permitted to emigrate and to travel, the increasing candor of the official Soviet press and the increasing tolerance shown to unofficial groups and unorthodox points of view are all welcome first steps in the right direction. They are, however, no more than first steps. And as our reportdocuments, they were taken slowly and could be retracted almost overnight. Until the rule of law establishes a decent balance between the power of the Soviet state and the human dignity of individual Soviet citizens, the latter will always be at risk.

  • List of Organizations Involved in Exchange Programs with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe

    The Commission developed this report to help in­terested persons and organizations participate in exchange pro­grams with the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe: Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. It lists organizations which conduct exchange programs and other contacts with these countries. The parties to the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe declared their intention to expand cooperation in security, economic, humanitarian, information, culture, and education affairs and to respect and put into practice certain basic principles, including those of human rights. The Final Act was signed in Helsinki on August 1, 1975, by 35 heads of state or govern­ment, including the United States, Canada, and every state in Europe except Albania. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsin­ki Commission) was created as an independent government agency in 1976 to monitor compliance with the Final Act and to encourage U.S. governmental and private programs to expand East-West eco­nomic and cultural cooperation and exchange of people and ideas. In the Final Act, the signatories express the view that cultural exchanges and development of relations in education and science contribute to the strengthening of peace, better mutual under­ standing, and enrichment of the human personality. In the Com­ mission's view, exchange programs with the Soviet bloc countries break down barriers and lessen distrust. They help Americans learn about the views and goals of these societies. Such programs help expose the peoples of these countries to the values and goals of our pluralistic society. Critical to such programs is that Americans are given the opportunity to tell the Soviets and their allies on a personal level about their concern for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

  • Transcripts: Restrictions on Artistic Freedoms in the Soviet Union, October 29, 1985; and the Budapest Cultural Forum, December 11, 1985

    * Public Hearing on Restrictions on Artistic Freedom in the Soviet Union The Commission met, pursuant to notice, in room 210, Cannon House Office Building, at 10 a.m., Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato, chairman, and Representative Steny H. Hoyer, cochairman, presiding. In attendance: Commissioners and Senators John Heinz, Gordon J. Humphrey, and Dennis DeConcini; Commissioners and Representatives Dante B. Fascell, Don Ritter, and Christopher H. Smith. Also in attendance: Michael R. Hathaway, staff director, and Mary Sue Hafner, general counsel of the Commission. This hearing concerned restrictions on creative freedom in the Soviet Union.   Public Hearing on the Budapest Cultural Forum The Commission met, pursuant to notice, in room 538, of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, at 11 a.m., Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato, chairman, and Representative Steny H. Hoyer, cochairman, presiding. In attendance: Senator Malcolm Wallop, Commissioner. Also in attendance: Michael R. Hathaway, staff director, and Mary Sue Hafner, general counsel of the Commission. In this hearing, the Helsinki Commission heard testimony on the most recent international meeting in the Helsinki process, the Budapest Cultural Forum.

  • THE OTTAWA HUMAN RIGHTS EXPERTS MEETING AND THE FUTURE OF THE HELSINKI PROCESS

    The commissioners gave testimony on the importance of the 35-nation conference which addressed "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief," The discussion centered on inconsistencies between the rhetoric of the United States on the subject of human rights and its actions.  The focus of human rights covered the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and also Afghanistan. In response to human rights violations- recognizing the framework provided by the Helsinki accords- the witnesses discussed constructive measures to concentrate on human rights violations that could be corrected with relative ease and without effecting systemic change within the Soviet Union or the other states in the Soviet sphere.

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