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Helsinki Commission Briefing Explores Religious Registration

WASHINGTON – The United States Helsinki Commission will conduct a public briefing to explore the issue of religious registration, one of many roadblocks to religious liberties around the world. The briefing will focus on religious registration among the 55 nations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Roadblock to Religious Liberty: Religious Registration

Thursday, October 11, 2001

10:00 AM – 12:00 Noon

340 Cannon House Office Building

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.

Panelists at this Helsinki Commission briefing will discuss the various ways governments are chipping away at religious liberty.

Panelists:

Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, Co-Chair of the OSCE/ODIHR Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief; Law Professor at Katholieke Universiteit Brabant, Netherlands

Dr. Gerhard Robbers, Member of the OSCE/ODIHR Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief; Law Professor, Universitat Trier, Institut fur Europaisches Verfassungsrecht, Germany

Vassilios Tsirbas, Senior Counsel, European Centre for Law and Justice, Greece

Col. Kenneth Baillie, Salvation Army-Moscow, Russia

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 throughout OSCE participating States.

Restrictive trends 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.

In several Central Asian countries, the creation of stringent registration policies threatens to place another burden on religious freedom. The OSCE Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion and Belief has played an active role in the region by providing expert assistance in the drafting of new laws. However, other problems persist, with some states distorting domestic laws to control, and even persecute, selected religious communities.

New legislation concerning religious registration policies that could potentially stymie religious freedom are consistently cropping up throughout the OSCE region, such as in Ukraine, France, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and many Balkan countries. Austria’s anti-religion measure has led the Czech Republic’s Parliament to consider similar legislation.

Austria’s Government maintains a tiered system with an extremely high threshold for a group to gain the highest status. The 1998 Corporate Status Act mandated that religious groups must have existed for at least 20 years. Ten of those years must be in the form of a community of believers with corporate status. The group must also have a membership amounting to two percent of the population, as measured by the last census (currently, approximately 16,000 people).

Russia’s 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations has been used as a road block to religious groups and organizations. The Moscow city government recently refused to register the Salvation Army as a religious organization under provisions of the 1997 law, allegedly due to a minor technicality in its application for registration.

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