Bruce J. Casino
International Coalition for Religious Freedom
delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998
Thank you very much and welcome to Berlin. We are delighted to have each of you here. We are looking forward to an exciting conference and to your participation and involvement in shaping the activities of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom. My name is Bruce Casino, and I am an attorney with a law firm of about 500 lawyers in the United States. I am a partner in the Washington, DC office.
I have recently been told the story of a Lutheran minister, a Catholic priest and a lawyer who died and went to Heaven. They met St. Peter at the gate, and a choir of angels came out to meet the lawyer and a great band struck up as the lawyer approached. The heavenly hosts welcomed the lawyer with great emotion and enthusiasm. The Lutheran minister and the Catholic priest looked at each other. They didn’t understand why they were not receiving such treatment. So they went to St. Peter at the gate and they asked, “We are also going to heaven, why is it that this lawyer is getting such a wonderful reception?” St. Peter looked at them and replied, “You would have received the same reception if you were the very first Catholic priest or the very first Lutheran minister ever to come to Heaven. This is the first lawyer.”
I am told that Britain has more lawyers than Germany and that Germany has more toxic waste dumps than Britain. When I asked why that is, they said that Germany had gotten the first choice.
So we are grateful that you have all been able to come today. We are here today to focus on the issue of religious freedom around the world. We are inspired and instructed by the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Article 18 which says that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes “freedom to change one’s religion or belief and to manifest it in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.” We take these words to be of great significance and look to them as the direction or guidance for our activities.
The International Coalition for Religious Freedom actually began as the Coalition for Religious Freedom in the United States in 1983 and worked primarily in that nation to promote the issue of religious freedom. In the last couple of years, our efforts have developed an international focus. We publish the International Religious Freedom Report, a regular newsletter covering religious freedom issues. We also have a web site, probably the leading Internet site on the issue of religious freedom, with reports on the religious freedom situation, in more than 100 nations around the globe.
We are concerned about gross violations of religious freedom, including those in countries such as the Sudan, where literally tens of thousands of Christians and nativist religionists have been executed because of their religious faith. This is a country with a constitution that purports to recognize religious freedom, and yet has in its Penal Code Number 126 a provision for the execution of those who convert from the Muslim faith. There are well-documented reports that children of Christians and animists in the Sudan are sold into slavery, after their parents are executed, and raised and indoctrinated in the Muslim faith.
We are concerned about China, where thousands of Christians not registered with the government suffer persecution. There are also, of course, the great problems in Tibet where the Dalai Llama has been excluded for these many years, and Tibetan Buddhism has been unable to freely practice it’s religious faith.
We are concerned about these issues across the globe. We are not focused on one particular religious faith or denomination, although we recognize with gratitude, the funding that we receive from businesses and individuals associated with the Unification Church and, in particular, for the support of Mr. Joo, who is with us today from the Washington Times Foundation in the United States.
We are concerned not only with the grossest forms of religious freedom violations, but also with the disturbing trends and developments in the democracies. There has been, of course, a great increase in the spread of democracy with the demise of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, however, we see a trend that religious freedom has not always kept pace with the development of economic and political freedoms. We are very concerned about that issue. We are concerned that in many countries there seems to be steps moving backwards. For instance Russia, where new legislation which provides for restrictions on the ability of certain religions to practice their faith. The new law in Austria, which, in order for one to have the fullest benefits as a religion, requires that one has 16,000 members and have existed for at least twenty years. One wonders what Jesus and the twelve disciples would have done in that situation.
We are also concerned about the situation in Western Europe: the development of parliamentary commissions to investigate and focus on new and unpopular religious faiths. In France, we see the National Assembly creating a report in which 172 objectionable religions are identified—including religions that are often in the main stream in other countries such as the United States.
We are concerned not just about the minority religions, but the majority religions as well that suffer from religious freedom concerns. For instance, in China, the Catholic Church suffers persecution. In many cases, of course, what is a majority in one country is a minority in another country. In Japan, were I have just come from the Christian faiths together amount to perhaps one percent of the population while Buddhism is the major religious faith. In contrast, here in Germany, Buddhism is undoubtedly a smaller religious group. I note with distress that many Buddhist groups are listed as objectionable cults in these government reports.
We see the parliament in Belgium issuing a report, which includes a listing of 189 objectionable groups. In Germany recently a case of the Pentecostal Church that was denied tax exempt status and benefits of religious status because it was asserted that they did not contribute to the public interest. There is of course, the Enquete Commission of the German Bundestadt, which is addressing the issue of so-called sects and so-called psycho-groups here in Germany. We are concerned about the creation of laws that intend to differentiate between the majority religions and the minority religions and do not apply the principle of neutrality to each religion.
The United Nations Rapporteur on Religious Freedom, Dr. Amor, recently visited Germany and issued a report on the status of religious freedom there. Among the issues that he raised, and that we want to emphasize, is the fact that government should not censor smaller religions. Small religions indeed face a climate of intolerance and suspicion. He encouraged a dialogue between the minority religions and the majority religious faiths in order to prevent and overcome this climate. He encouraged that tax and other laws be applied neutrally—apparently seeing a problem in that arena. He advised that there should be active efforts on the part of the German government to encourage tolerance for persons of many religious faiths that are not within the main stream. He also encouraged training of the media in tolerance. I am not sure how easy it is to train the media to do anything but these are all things that I think we want to emphasize and embrace in the course of our conference here.
We are looking forward to working with you over the next few days: to dialoguing together and learning together from the speakers that we have with us. Before I go, let me just mention two issues that I think are on our minds concerning Western Europe and the problem of religious freedom in Western Europe. One, is the definition of religion, which is used by many European governments and is, we believe, unnecessarily restrictive. Every government in Western Europe of course proclaims that there is religious freedom and we all respect that. Article IV of the German Constitution mentions religious freedom and the importance of religious freedom, but the reality is that religious freedom is determined by how one defines religion. If smaller religious groups including small Pentecostal groups, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons or other small faiths are not considered religious, they will not be afforded the benefits of religious freedom. We are concerned that such a limiting definition is being applied too broadly.
The American author, Tom Wolfe, defined a cult as any religion without political power. That is one of the problems. The majority religion in a particular country may not perceive the need for protection of religious freedom because they tend to have the political power necessary to insure their rights. The minority religious faiths are always the place where religious freedom concerns are most focused and have to be most focused because that is where the guarantees of religious freedom are tested most surely.
The second issue I want to raise is the notion of “public order.” Public order is an exception to the general religious freedom principle in many of the documents promulgated by the United Nations and under various constitutions. We are concerned that the notion of public order has been applied much too broadly. The governments of certain democracies have used the notion of preserving public order to squelch anything that is arguably an irritant. For instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses giving out their materials on the street, in a very broad sense, offends the public order because it may be distracting to people who are receiving the materials. We do not believe, however, that those sort of irritants should be considered violations of the public order in the context of international legal norms and documents regarding the basic human right of religious freedom. We are concerned about the misuse of that term and that notion with respect to religious freedom in Europe.
I thank you very much for your time and your participation and I look forward to meeting with you and to working together in this great cause for religious freedom. Thank you.