East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter 1996, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Is Religious Liberty in Peril?

Karen Lord

On 28 August 1995 ten armed thugs attacked a place of religious worship in Yerevan, Armenia, desecrating the altar and assaulting worshipers.  The official police response was: "We are not going to protect people like you."  Russia is considering a law which would give the government the authority to ban a religious group if it can be found that its activities lead to a "decline of morality [or] psychological health of citizens," or if the group is "linked to the kindling of religious dissension."  Has the Cold War era of religious repression returned?  Or are these aberrations in societies that are moving toward more toleration?

These questions were addressed in a Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe briefing on 27 September 1995, "Religious Liberty in OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe):  Present and Future."  Panelists were Dr. Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow in Political Theory at the Institute for Christian Studies; Dr. Khalid Duran, Senior Fellow at the Institute for International Studies; and Mr. Micah Naftalin, National Director for the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.  They agreed that there have been significant improvements in religious liberty since the fall of Communism.  Places of worship that had been closed for many years have been reopened.  Religious groups now have more freedom to publish and distribute literature and maintain contacts with fellow believers in other nations.  They concluded that much work remains to insure that religious liberty is a reality.  Even with the flowering of religious practice, intolerance and discrimination continue against people of faith.  Some governments have passed laws favoring one religion over others, and officials often turn a blind eye to harassment and discrimination at the local level.  Minority faith traditions encounter bureaucratic roadblocks to practicing their faith and are often subjected to unchecked civil harassment.

Dr. Marshall outlined three factors that contribute to violations of religious liberty--repressive strains within Orthodox Christianity, militant Islamist movements, and the legacies of Communism and nationalism.  Orthodox Christianity is too often equated with national identity and is the root of many problems.  Dr. Marshall felt that when the state treats a religion as a national possession, it feels the need to control religious activities, which explains the mania for registration of religious organizations in many OSCE countries.  He concluded that the dual rights to propagate and to change one's religion are not always recognized by governments and the situation warrants the attention of the international community.
Dr. Duran focused primarily on the Bosnian Muslims who are suffering at the hands of the Serbian Orthodox.  Muslim moderates in other nations find it difficult to remain neutral because Christian symbolism has accompanied so much of the barbarity, i.e., crosses have been carved into the bodies of Serbian victims of genocide.  Duran fears reports of these atrocities will create a backlash in other countries.  Noting that Muslims receive their strongest support from the international Jewish community, Duran believes that fruit will be borne from this extension of friendship in the future.

Mr. Naftalin noted that the Jewish community faces discrimination in favor of established churches, particularly concerning return of religious and cultural properties.  Anti-Semitism has reappeared in much of the OSCE, leading to harassment and discrimination.  He noted that often Jews are targeted for unsolved crimes, and suggested that the investigation and prosecution of such cases is one way to stop the rise of anti-Semitism in the OSCE.

The briefing reinforced suspicions that true religious liberty has not been uniformly achieved throughout the OSCE.

Source:  CSCE Digest 18 (November 1995):  5.  Abridged article reprinted with permission.  The Digest is available free of charge.  Contact:  CSCE, 234 Ford House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515-6460; tel:  202-225-1901; e-mail:  CSCE@HR.HOUSE.GOV. 

Karen Lord is council for religious affairs with the U.S. Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Karen Lord, "Is Religious Liberty in Peril?" East-West Church & Ministry Report, 4 (Winter 1996), 9.

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1996 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664

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