Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB) as a universal, fundamental right must not be compromised by the pretext of “spiritual” or “cultural” security

The Need of a Shared Understanding of Freedom in the OSCE Region

Austrian Chairmanship 2017


Vienna, 23.06.2017 (HRWF/FOREF) – The Austrian OSCE Chairmanship and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights hosted a Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDM) on the 22nd and 23rd of June in the spacious halls of the Hofburg, the former imperial palace in the inner city of Vienna. This SHDM’s theme was Freedom of Religion or Belief for All and was aimed at discussing the opportunities and challenges in confronting intolerance and discrimination against Jews, Christians, Muslims and members of other faith communities. As the contributions to the SHDM have shown, notions of what FoRB means and how basic freedoms form a normative basis for government policies are becoming increasingly blurred in the OSCE region. Restrictive government policies tend to prioritize concepts of security over the individual and collective right to religious freedom with impunity. The lack of a shared understanding of freedom in the region makes it even easier for authoritarian governments to compromise on fundamental human rights.

In his introductory remarks to one session of the meeting, Ambassador Jean-Christophe Peaucelle, the Advisor for Religious Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France, stated: “France is not hostile to religion. France is committed to non-segmented freedom of religion and belief, and ensures the protection of universal and indivisible human rights.” He underlined that the French version of secularism does not view religion negatively, but takes a neutral stance on religion.

Considering Ambassador Peaucelle’s declaration of religious freedom principles, it is somewhat puzzling that FECRIS, the most aggressive network of anti-cult organizations in Europe, in fact has its origins in French policies on minority religions. The network was created in 1994 at the initiative of the French organization UNADFI (National Union of Associations of Defense of Families and Individuals), a group that was predominantly financed by the French State. FECRIS, an acronym for European Federation of Centers of Research and Information on Sectarianism, has likewise been financed almost entirely by public funds. Between 2003 and 2016 an annual average amount of about 35.000 EUR (in total: 485.200 EUR), or more than 90% of the total funding of FECRIS, was provided by the French Prime Minister in order to export the French interpretation of secularism to other European countries (cf. above diagram).

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The French treatment of minority religions over the past two decades has given international legitimacy to Russian compromises on religious freedom. For years, the vice-president of FECRIS, Alexander L. Dvorkin, has been the key promoter of the Russian Orthodox concept of “Spiritual Security”. This ideological view holds that Russia’s historical traditions and cultural heritage must be protected inter alia by countering “the adverse impact of foreign religious organizations and missionaries”, as stated in the 2000 National Security Concept of the Putin Administration. Since the introduction of the “Law on Fighting Extremist Activity” in 2002, the Russian federal government has used spiritual security as a pretext to combat “religious extremism”. The broad definition of extremism in the law holds that “incitement to racial, nationalistic, or religious enmity, including social enmity” may count as “extremist activity”, thus de facto allowing the authorities to interpret non-traditional religious teachings as “inciting to religious enmity”. Accordingly, the Russian law on extremism resulted in wide-spread hate speech and physical assaults against non-Orthodox religious groups – e.g. the Jesuits, the Salvation Army, the Baha’i, Hare Krishna, Falun Gong, Pentecostals and Mormons – and eventually culminating in this year’s ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist” group. About 170,000 Russian citizens are currently affected by this law. (See also the contribution of HRWF and FOREF to the SHDM here.)

What gives reason for concern is that Ambassador Peaucelle’s remarks passed uncontested in the presence of about 70 civil society representatives. Does the silence on France’s contribution to the systematic persecution of minority religions in the OSCE region indicate ignorance among international observers, or, even worse, indifference?

See full article here.  

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