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U.S. STATEMENT ON FREEDOM OF THOUGHT, CONSCIENCE,  RELIGION AND BELIEF

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T. Geremy Gunn, Executive Fellow, United States Institute of Peace, delivered the following speech on freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)  on 1999-SEP-23 on behalf of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE. He deals with governments' role in the preservation of religious freedom.

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Ten years ago, in this building, the CSCE participating states accepted responsibility for implementing some of the most important human rights commitments to religious freedom that have ever been made. In the Vienna Concluding Document, the participating states agreed to "take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination against individuals or communities on the grounds of religion or belief [and to] foster a climate of mutual tolerance and respect between believers of different communities." (Vienna Concluding Document 16.1) 

There have been many welcome changes for religious freedom in the OSCE region since January 1989. The Orthodox Church can now freely practice its faith not only in Russia, but throughout the area of former Communist domination. Catholics can attend Mass in Poland without fear. Most Muslims in the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia may now worship openly. It would have been unimaginable to the delegates meeting here in 1989 that such developments might occur within ten years. Many states have been extremely effective in reducing -- and often eliminating -- religious discrimination against majority religions. 

While much progress has been made, and many millions more people are now free to practice their religion throughout the OSCE region, we cannot help but observe that these freedoms have not always extended to minority religious and belief groups. Indeed, in many places throughout the OSCE, governments are actively engaged in "discrimination against individuals or communities on the grounds of religion or belief ..."

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I. Vienna Commitment 16.1: 

"take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination against individuals or communities on the grounds of religion or belief in the recognition, exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms in all fields of civil, political, economic, social and cultural life"

Although Uzbekistan is among the countries with the worst legacies regarding rights of religion and belief, there has been some progress. On the positive side, the Muslim majority may now practice its religion in relative freedom. Last month, six Christian prisoners of conscience were pardoned and released from prison. The government also has modified and expedited the registration process (a process we still believe to be unnecessary and easily subject to abuse) and has agreed to review its law on religion. Despite these welcome signs, the number of prisoners of conscience in Uzbekistan has increased dramatically since the beginning of the year. Over 200 individuals remain imprisoned for their faith. Today, arbitrary arrests and abuse are pervasive, and judicial proceedings have become rubber stamps. The pattern of harassment and detention of members of unregistered Muslim groups is alarming. Recent closed trials that fail to meet standards of basic due process have attempted to discredit members of unregistered religious groups as dangerous extremists or criminals. Defendants have been convicted of criminal offenses, reportedly based on forced confessions and planted evidence. These Soviet-era tactics, which are serious violations of OSCE commitments, should be stopped without delay. The threat of terrorist attacks is no justification -- either in the United States or in Uzbekistan -- for indiscriminate arrests of people and torture of prisoners.

Earlier this month in Azerbaijan, there was a raid on a Baptist service in Baku. Several Azeri Baptists were imprisoned on Soviet-style charges, and the subsequent expulsion of several foreign Baptists raise grave concerns about the rights of religious minorities. 

Despite a number of judgments against Greece in the European Court of Human Rights, its Constitution and Laws of Necessity continue to be used against religious minorities in contravention of the freedom to express religious beliefs and to convince others of their views. The United States notes that the Greek Government's tolerance of minority religious groups has improved since the end of 1997 and there have been fewer arrests for proselytizing. Still, the United States urges the Government of Greece to bring its laws and regulations into conformity with OSCE standards. 

Turkey continues to restrict religious speech and manifestations of religious faith, including the wearing of head scarves in public buildings and universities. The United States remains concerned by the continued closure of facilities for religious higher education for minority religious communities, including the world-renowned Orthodox Seminary at Halki. The right to establish and maintain places of worship must be protected.

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II. Vienna Commitment 16.3: 

"grant upon their request to communities of believers, practising or prepared to practise their faith within the constitutional framework of their States, recognition of the status provided for them in their respective countries"

Most OSCE participating states require religions to register with the state. Since 1989, a continuing problem has been the use of the registration process to discriminate against minority religions. There have been, of course, some positive developments. The Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, have now been officially recognized in Russia, Latvia, Bulgaria, and Kazakhstan. But there are many negative signs as well. 

Russia's restrictive 1997 law on religion creates categories of religious communities with differing levels of legal status and privilege. The vagueness of the law and regulations, as well as contradictions between interpretations of the 1997 law and other federal and local laws, have permitted an intensification of discriminatory practices at the local level. Federal authorities have not taken sufficient action to reverse discriminatory actions taken at the local level, or to discipline those officials responsible. We hope that Russia's Duma will take every opportunity to guarantee religious freedom for its citizens and visitors and will enact the government's proposal to extend the deadline for registering religious organizations. 

We have heard discouraging reports that new laws that might further restrict registration are now under consideration in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Ukraine. The United States urges parliamentary and governmental officials to be mindful of their countries' commitments to take measures to prevent discrimination and to facilitate registration.

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III. Vienna Commitment 16.5: 

"engage in consultations with religious faiths, institutions and organizations in order to achieve a better understanding of the requirements of religious freedom"

In his famous study of religious discrimination, the distinguished UN Rapporteur, Arcot Krishnaswami, stated: "Greater intolerance is usually shown towards the new groups, especially if they are splinters of the predominant religion or belief which attempt to win converts to what the predominant religion considers to be a schism or a heresy." (Study of Discrimination [1960], p. 22) Three European countries, Austria, Belgium, and France, have established government "anti-sect" agencies that give rise to the very concerns about tolerance raised by Mr. Krishnaswami forty years ago. A delegation from the United States met with officials from these commissions to learn how the agencies would operate and what steps would be taken to ensure that the agencies do not become vehicles for promoting prejudice and stereotypes. In several cases, we were pleased to hear assurances that the agencies would be open-minded and fair. One official stated, however, that his agency would refuse to meet with the groups that it describes as "sects" - thereby giving the groups no official opportunity to respond to the allegations that are made against them. Parliamentary reports in Belgium and France attached lists of "sects" without giving the groups the full opportunity to respond to allegations against them. By failing to hear directly from the groups that are being criticized, governments and parliaments are falling short of the repeated advice provided at the OSCE Supplementary Meeting earlier this year to engage in a dialogue with the groups.

The United States urges the new agencies in Austria, Belgium, and France to demonstrate their commitment to the principles of tolerance by:

  1. Avoiding use of the pejorative terms "sect" and "cult" when speaking of new religious movements.
  2. Refraining from implying that most new or small religious and belief-based groups are dangerous or threatening.
  3. Engaging in a serious and open dialogue with all religious and belief-based groups that are of concern to governments.
  4. Establishing open, transparent, and fair procedures, including the right to respond to allegations, when investigations are conducted against groups.
  5. Publicly announcing support for the principles of tolerance and discouraging citizens from discriminating against minority groups.
Showing tolerance, fairness, and open-mindedness is not always easy -- but such is the responsibility of governments -- including the United States. The Vienna Concluding Document obligates states to "foster a climate of mutual tolerance and respect between believers of different communities as well as believers and non-believers." We must all work harder to do so.

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