Payday loansPayday Loans
Religious Freedom in Developed Countries PDF Print E-mail

Lee Boothby
International Academy for Freedom of Religion and Belief

delivered at the
Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Tokyo, Japan May 23-25, 1998

I am not quite certain what a developed country is, because I don’t think any country is yet fully developed in the area of religious liberty. What is happening in developed countries is, however, arguably, a greater concern than how the goal of reaching full religious freedom is faring in developing countries. This may seem surprising, but if developed countries compromise religious human rights, that failure will be used as an excuse—and has been used that way—by those who oppose the ideals of religious liberty in developing countries.

The struggle for religious freedom will always be incomplete. The promotion of understanding, tolerance, and freedom relating to religion has been one of the major concerns of the United Nations. That organization has played an important part in establishing the yardstick by which we can measure the extent to which countries measure up in the field of human religious rights. On November 25, 1981, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the Declaration on the Elimination on All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based Upon Religion and Belief.

What is particularly disturbing, as we prepare for the new millennium, is to find that developed countries still fall far short in reaching the standard. The current threat to religious human rights can perhaps be best understood by comparing current actions in developed countries with the UN Declaration.

Article 1, sub-1 of the declaration provides,

Everyone shall have a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have a religion, or whatever belief of his choice, and freedom either individually or in community with others, and in public or private to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

But today in developed countries, we find the right to hold a belief under assault by religious deprogramming. We have examples of how the right to manifest one’s religion is threatened by anti-proselytizing laws. And the right to practice one’s religion is violated through registration requirements imposed on religious organizations.

The Greek constitution, for example, prohibits proselytizing, which is defined as “direct or indirect attempts to influence or alter the religious beliefs of others, in particular by fraudulent means or with promises of any type of material or moral gain.” But most religions engage in persuasion at some level, including promises of spiritual or material benefits. The Bible teaches that the reward of striving to eliminate sin from our life is eternal life. It also teaches that the paying of an honest tithe will be rewarded tenfold.

Focus on fraudulent means of religious activity is a more plausible means of limiting religious expression. Yet the problem exists of proving fraud in the case of highly subjective spiritual benefits. This is an uncharted area of law that remains unclear in many human rights instruments. And I fear it is an ambiguity now being exploited by both developed and developing countries.

Menous Kokonokus and his wife are Greek Jehovah’s Witnesses who went to the home of an Orthodox Christian. Telling her that they had brought good news, they began reading from a book interpreting the scriptures. The visit lasted approximately 10 minutes. For that act of manifestation of their faith, they were arrested, prosecuted, and convicted. Each was originally sentenced to four months’ imprisonment. Ultimately the case was appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which noted the distinction between bearing Christian witness and improper proselytizing. The court held that only the first type of conduct was proved and reversed the Greek court’s conviction. Unfortunately, Greece continues to inhibit Christian witnessing. This sends a signal to Orthodox countries that the state may prohibit an individual from manifesting his or her religious beliefs. Even the right to believe is under assault.

Here in Japan there has been an explosion of religiously motivated kidnappings with the intent of altering the victim’s religious beliefs. It is, of course, true that in a democratic society certain religious practices must be subject to necessary limitations for the protection of the rights of other individuals. But the right to believe is subject to absolutely no limitation. Governments, especially law enforcement agencies, should never tolerate the assault on a person by so-called religious deprogramming. Kidnapping is wrong, regardless of the motivation. Those generally involved in faith-breaking by deprogramming generally (1) are poorly trained to engage in mind-bending tactics, (2) are many times motivated only by money, and (3) are willing to deprogram an adherent of any religion at a price.

Another major threat to religious freedom is the continuation of religious discrimination. Recently, there appears to be an increase of discrimination in certain parts of the world. Article 2, sub-1 of the UN Declaration states, “no one shall be subject to discrimination by any state, institution, group of persons or person on grounds of religion or belief.” But in Israel, Muslims have no recourse to civil courts. In Germany, Scientologists continue to report acts of religious discrimination, alleging both government-condoned and societal harassment.

So-called sect filters (statements by individuals that they are not affiliated with Scientology) are used by some businesses and other organizations to discriminate against Scientologists in business and social dealings. One Christian charismatic church in Germany had its tax status revoked on the ground that it did not contribute to the cultural, religious, or spiritual values of German society. In Bavaria, applicants for state civil service jobs are screened for Scientology membership.

In Greece, non-Greek Orthodox religious leaders assert that their followers face discrimination in reaching the senior ranks of government service. In the military, only two Muslim officers have advanced to the rank of reserve officer. In France, Muslim girls are denied the right to wear headscarves in the public schools, even though it is required by their religion. In the United States, I am currently litigating in the courts a case in which an evangelical Christian was denied employment in New York as a police officer after being given a pre-employment psychological test. The test included questions such as, “Do you believe there is only one true religion?” “Do you believe that the man should be the head of the home?” and “Do you believe that evil spirits exist?” The written test was followed by an interview by the psychologist, who asked, “Are you a born-again Christian?”

Article 4 of the UN Declaration states, “All states shall take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in all fields of civil, economic, political, social and cultural life.” The laws of many developed countries profess to guarantee equal treatment for all religions, but paraphrasing George Orwell’s Animal Farm, some religious organizations are more equal that others. The traditional religions are commonly treated more favorably than minority or newer religions. Even in many developed countries, minority religions are experiencing greater difficulty in carrying out their ministries.

In Austria, religious organizations are still subject to an 1874 law-the law of recognition of churches. Those 12 churches that have been recognized under the law have the right to participate in the state-controlled religious taxation program, engage in religious education, and import religious workers. Last December, the Austrian Parliament enacted an amendment to the Law of Church Recognition that permits non-recognized religious groups to obtain status as confessional communities. But what do they have to do? They first must demonstrate that they have a membership of at least 300. They must submit documents for the government to determine whether the group’s believers violate public security, public order, health and morals, or the rights and freedom of other citizens. And once recognized as a religious community, if all goes well, there is a 20-year observation period before they can qualify for the higher status of a recognized church organization.

Numerical requirements such as those imposed in Austria and other countries are problematic. Religions are not dependent on the number of individuals within a religious group within a particular country. Registration requirements can and have been used to prevent bona fide religious groups from entering a particular nation. It is certain that Christ and the 12 Apostles would have flunked the religious registration requirements of many countries.

In Singapore, all religions are subject to government scrutiny and must be legally registered. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were barred in 1972, because they oppose military service and refuse to salute the flag or swear an oath of allegiance to the state. In 1996 a 72-year-old grandmother was arrested, convicted, and fined $500 for possessing Jehovah’s Witness literature. She was jailed for seven days when she refused to pay that fine.

In Belgium, the Evangelical Association, a joint group of evangelicals and Baptists, was refused recognition because there was already a recognized Protestant religion registered in that country. Regulations regarding the establishment and functioning of religious ministries must not be left in the hands of bureaucrats who make activities of religious organizations illegal by arbitrary or capricious decisions.

Last July, the Federal Administrative Court in Berlin upheld a decision denying corporation status to an organization because it did not offer “indispensable loyalty” toward the democratic state, “essential” for lasting cooperation. That referred in part to that group’s view that members should not participate in public elections.

Ominously, several western European countries recently established parliamentary commissions to investigate and monitor sects. It is my educated view that within the developed countries, there are at least seven major threats to religious freedom. It may be useful to briefly catalog those seven threats.

  • The tendency to take a parochial, instead of a global, view of religion. Governments attempt to fence in a few favored religions to protect their continued existence and fence out the remainder so as to eliminate being bothered by those other religious groups. Governments must adopt a global view in our shrinking world, because religious organizations have to be recognized as being transnational. They cannot be restricted by national borders. In one country, a religion is a majority religion and, in another country, it is a minority religion. In our mobile society today, we cannot restrict religious groups.
  • The use by governments of requirements limiting acceptance based upon the organization’s size or age. Such laws have the purpose and effect of preventing full participation in the marketplace of religious ideas.
  • The over-regulation of religious activities. Religiously motivated activities should only be regulated to the extent that such limitations are absolutely necessary in a democratic society. That is, when there exists demonstrated evidence of a state interest that cannot be satisfied by governmental action in a less intrusive means.
  • Attempting to control possible criminal behavior by a few rogue religious groups by enacting criminal legislation, usually with broad and ill-defined language directed only at religious organizations, religious leaders, and religiously motivated activity. It has been demonstrated time and time again that criminal laws applicable equally to secular and sectarian activities prove just as effective without the inherent danger of using special criminal laws selectively to harass disfavored religious groups.
  • Adopting legislative requirements and engaging in administrative actions that have the purpose or effect of making some citizens within a country political outsiders, based solely on their religious beliefs or identity.
  • Permitting religious vigilantes to forcibly attempt to alter another individual’s religious beliefs by force and failing to prosecute those engaged in such conduct.
  • Finally, establishing official witch-hunting agencies with the exclusive function of monitoring disfavored religious groups within a country. Such agencies have the tendency to harass those groups that are not politically favored within that particular country, making them special targets for discriminatory treatment.

The fact that developed countries are still wrestling with the issue of religious freedom is proof that this is a subject worthy of the time and attention of each of you participating in this conference.