The Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) held a seminar on constitutional, legal, and administrative aspects of freedom of religion, 16-19 April 1996. Forty-seven of the participating states sent delegations, two international organizations sent representatives, and 83 nongovernmental organizations participated in the seminar discussions.
The most contentious topics of discussion were issues relating to proselytism, religious education, and registration of foreign religious groups. Regarding proselytism, it was acknowledged that governments have concern for the most vulnerable in society, yet it was noted that most religions do engage in persuasion at some level, including promises of spiritual or material benefits. Fraud was suggested as a more plausible means for limiting religious expression, yet the problem exists of proving fraud in the case of highly subjective spiritual benefits. This is an uncharted area of law which remains unclear in many of the human rights instruments. There was broad agreement that great care must be exercised when deciding these questions. Overly restrictive regulation of religious speech prevents the free exchange of ideas, which is one of the fundamental pillars of democracy and one of the guarantees underpinning freedom of religion.
The topic of religious education, both in public schools as well as in private schools, was dealt with at length by the delegates. In many of the participating states, the tenets of the majority religion are taught in the public schools. Concern was expressed that children of minority faiths are necessarily forced to undergo religious instruction of the majority unless liberal regulations are instituted allowing a pupil or the parents to abstain. Regarding private religious schools, it was recognized that in several of the participating states of the OSCE, the government subsidizes some private educational institutions of the majority religions, but does not subsidize or subsidizes to a lesser degree the schools of minority groups. This was acknowledged as a particular problem for the Moslem and Jewish minorities in Europe.
Registration of religious organizations was discussed, and it was noted that numerical requirements are problematic because rights under the Helsinki framework do not exist based on the number of individuals within a group. Freedom of belief is absolute, yet the state can regulate certain religious actions. Some problems were discussed relating to the amount of discretion individual bureaucrats can exercise in deciding issues relating to the freedom of worship. Several participants stressed that limits on religious liberty should be narrowly construed and restraints on religious practice should be the exception, not the rule.
All three discussion groups recommended that the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights compile the laws pertaining to religion in the participating states of the OSCE, and commence a study or schedule a future seminar to address the issue of proselytism within the participating states of the OSCE. Some issues of focus could be freedom of speech and expression, the rights of minority indigenous groups to practice their faith, and whether a government can place limits upon activities that are intended to persuade individuals to another religious point of view.
Excerpt reprinted with permission from CSCE Digest 19 (May 1996): 3, 8.
Karen Lord is counsel for religious affairs with the U.S. Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
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© 1996 Institute for East-West Christian Studies