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Freedom of Religion Remains in Peril

WASHINGTON – Governments are still imposing restrictions on individual religious liberties, despite a prior agreement to curtail anti-religious laws and governmental practices designed to prevent people from practicing or expressing their religious beliefs, according to panelists at today’s Helsinki Commission briefing on religious liberty.

At a Capitol Hill briefing today, the Helsinki Commission formally released an in-depth study examining the religious liberties laws and constitutional provisions of twelve countries: Austria, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, the United States, and Uzbekistan. The report documents a “frightening” trend in France to limit an individual’s right to freely express religious views or participate in religious activities according to one Library of Congress researcher who, as part of a team of legal experts, has spent nearly two years compiling information for the report.

The lower house of the French parliament last month passed a law creating the new crime of “mental manipulation” and established civil and criminal penalties for activities by religious or philosophical groups that government officials have deemed unacceptable. “This is the latest French parliamentary action to threaten the religious liberty of French citizens,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ). “I have urged the French Parliament to abandon this course of action.”

France is not alone in its zeal to curtail citizens’ religious activities. Greece had implemented a policy requiring one’s religious affiliation to be listed on government-issued identification cards. But in a welcomed development, that policy was recently rescinded. Such a scheme to identify members of groups left minority religious groups in Greece vulnerable, not only in their homeland, but wherever else they may have traveled, Smith said. “I commend the Greek Government’s decision to abandon that policy,” Smith added.

Chairman Smith added that religious liberty conditions in Turkey remain in question, along with those of other OSCE countries included in the report. “In Turkey, various raids on Protestant groups over the last year and the continuing conflict over the closure of the Greek Orthodox seminary on the island of Halki indicate serious issues of religious discrimination in that country,” Smith noted.

The Helsinki Commission requested the Law Library of Congress to prepare a comparative study of legal systems in selected participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the effect of those laws on religious liberty. The countries were selected for their diverse geography, history and religious communities. The study is the culmination of research by legal experts from the Law Library of Congress, and the Congressional Research Service. The project was inspired by the agreement of OSCE participating States to “ensure that their laws, regulations, practices and policies conform with their obligation under international law and are brought into harmony with the provisions of the Declaration on Principles and other OSCE commitments.” The study is available to the public in order to further understanding of various legal approaches to religious liberty issues and encourage compliance with relevant OSCE commitments.

Copies of the report can be obtained by calling the Helsinki Commission office or by downloading the document from www.house.gov/csce. The presentations, made by several Library researchers, which summarize the study’s reports on France, the Netherlands, Russia, Ukraine, the United States and Uzbekistan may also be downloaded from the Commission’s web site.

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