East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 6, No. 3, Summer 1998, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe


What, Exactly, IS Religious Freedom?

Karen S. Lord

From the Helsinki Final Act (1975) through the Vienna (1989) and Copenhagen Concluding Documents (1990), participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have affirmed time and again that religious liberty is a fundamental human right. No other international body has so consistently supported the right to religious liberty or so consistently monitored restrictions on religious liberty in practice.

What constitutes religious liberty within the Helsinki framework? A key concept found throughout the Helsinki process is the pledge of noninterference by governments in the affairs of religious communities. In Sections 16.3 and 16.4 of the Vienna Concluding Document, the participating States have committed to granting legal status to religious communities and respecting their right to establish and maintain freely accessible places of worship, select and replace their religious personnel, and solicit voluntary contributions. The participating States also have agreed to take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination and foster a climate of mutual tolerance and respect between believers of different communities as well as between believers and nonbelievers. (See Sections 16.1 and 16.2.)

However, religious intolerance is on the rise and recent trends are chilling. In 1997 and 1998, OSCE participating States Russia, Macedonia, Uzbekistan, and Austria passed laws restricting religious liberty, while Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, and Belarus are reportedly in various stages of considering similar laws. Furthermore, religious liberty continues to be restricted in practice in OSCE participating States Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzia.

The two areas in particular where religious liberty is being denied routinely and with impunity are in the requirement for registration of religious groups and in the denial of religious free speech.

Registration of Religious Communities
While the requirement of registration is not a prima facie violation of the Helsinki Accords, the very fact that a government can decide which religious groups may function as entities under the law represents a violation of the spirit of the agreements. As noted above, the keystone principle found in the Helsinki process regarding religious liberty is the concept of noninterference by governments in the affairs of religious communities. When governments require registration for religious communities, they create the opportunity for arbitrary and capricious abridgement of religious liberty, both at the national and at the local level. Rather than a right that is God-given and stems from the recognition that all humans have worth, religious liberty becomes a privilege granted by the State whenever the State deems appropriate. All too often, the requirement of registration becomes a de facto violation of the Helsinki Accords.

Following are examples of the misuse of registration requirements within the participating States. In August 1997, the Parliament of Madeconia passed a religion law that restricts religious liberty for nonrecognized groups. Registration of a "religious community" or "religious group" requires the signatures of 50 citizens (Article 10). Article 3 states that religious work and rituals can be performed only by registered religious communities or groups and violations of this provision result in significant fines (Article 28). One of the more disturbing sections of the law prohibits the existence of two "religious communities" with the same creed (Article 8), which in effect establishes the government as the arbiter between religious factions.

The Russian Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations (26 September 1997) contains discriminatory provisions against "new" religious faiths, intrusive registration requirements, and vague criteria for "liquidating" religious organizations. Proof of a 15-year existence is required, and the regulations have been unclear as to what types of proofs will be accepted.

On 1 May 1998 a new law was passed in Uzbekistan which, among other restrictions, requires 100 Uzbek citizens to sign a religious community's application for registration and criminalizes any unregistered religious activities. The new law represents a serious step backward by codifying religious intolerance in direct violation of Uzbekistan's human rights commitments within the framework of the OSCE.

In Bulgaria the government restricts the practice of a number of non-Orthodox religious groups and restricts access to the media for religious groups to counter lurid and inaccurate depiction of their activities by the media. In Albania minority religious groups have also been refused registration, severely hindering their ability to freely practice their faith. In addition, the Helsinki Commission is monitoring the proclivity in Bulgaria, Romania, Belarus, Albania, and Latvia to pass laws that would create a hierarchy of religions with different privileges before the law.

Religious Free Speech
No discussion of religious liberty would be complete without addressing free speech as it relates to religious liberty. One of the most hotly contested issues in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe regarding religious liberty is whether governments can limit religious speech intended to persuade the listener to adhere to a particular religious viewpoint. Intolerance of individuals expressing alternative religious viewpoints has led to severe restrictions on religious liberty among OSCE participating States. With angry charges of proselytism, many governments prohibit religious groups from engaging in free speech or printing materials intended to persuade individuals to understand and perhaps join a particular religious community. An analogy can be drawn to governments prohibiting political parties from persuasive speech intended to gain adherents to a particular political point of view. If governmental restrictions similar to those being placed on religious groups in many countries were applied to political opposition parties, these governments would be denounced as undemocratic and would garner an enormous amount of negative attention from the international community. Examples of restrictions on free speech that contradict Helsinki commitments can be found in the constitution of Greece and in the laws of Azerbaijan and Armenia. In addition, in Uzbekistan, under the new 1998 law on religion, all imported religious materials are censored by the state.

It is essential to the freedom of religion that OSCE participating States place the same priority on religious speech as political speech. The free exchange of ideas, whether religious, political, or philosophical, is a fundamental pillar of democracy, a basic Helsinki commitment and a crucial underpinning for the freedom of religion.

In conclusion, religious liberty has been uniquely recognized and supported in the Helsinki process. In practice, however, the infringement of religious liberty through the misuses of registration requirements must be ended, as must the limits that governments place upon free speech when speech has religious content.

Attorney Karen S. Lord is Counsel for Freedom of Religion with the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Washington, DC.

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from CSCE Digest 20 (March 1997), 31-33, and the author's unpublished paper, "The European Retreat form Religious Liberty," July 1998.


Karen S. Lord, "What, Exactly, IS Religious Freedom?," East-West Church & Ministry Report 6 (Summer 1998), 15-16.

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

1998 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664


EWC&M Report | Contents | Search Back Issues | From Our Readers | Subscribe
Feedback