The State of Religious Liberty

John Graz January/February 2000 This article has become the cornerstone of the international instruments defending religious freedom. In the General Comment we read: "The fundamental character of these freedoms is also reflected in the fact that this provision cannot be derogated . . . from even in time of public emergency."2

Another key document is the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion and Belief. It adds more details on religious freedom and includes in Article 6, paragraph h, the freedom of the day of rest. 3

For the first time in human history, religious freedom is under the protection of international instruments voted by the majority of the countries of the world. As a result, most of the national constitutions have adopted similar articles.

On the religious side, the World Council of Churches has stood up for religious freedom since its foundation.4 The Roman Catholic Church turned the page of a long history of intolerance during its historical Second Vatican Council.5 This has had a positive effect in many Catholic countries where religious freedom is generally well protected today such as Italy, Spain, Poland, Argentina, Colombia . . .6

The pendulum of religious freedom reached its apex when totalitarian Communism collapsed in 1989 - 1990 in Russia and Eastern Europe. A new page was turned for a world of peace and freedom. However, in 1997, the pendulum began to swing back with a law signed by President Yeltsin on September 26, 1997, under pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church and the nationalist feelings of the population.7 It was evidence that less than tolerant religious forces have made a comeback.

It is notable that in the last decade of the twentieth century, revolution, wars, and terrorism have all been promoted or justified within a religious terminology or symbolism. Religion is again becoming a factor of division and persecution between people.

In a 1997 report8 the United Nations special rapporteur on religious intolerance, Professor Abdelfattah Amor, stated that the religion of Christianity was persecuted in 23 countries, Islam in nine, Buddhism in two. The freedom to change one's religion is also being violated in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Pakistan, Sudan, Egypt, and Afghanistan. Religious freedom is also threatened in some European democracies where lists of "sects" have been published.

Then, in a 1998 report, the special rapporteur underlined: "The persistence in antireligious state policies; an upsurge of state policies directed against minorities in matters of religion and belief, and particularly against sects or new religious movements; a growing number of politics and practices of intolerance and discrimination on the part of non-state entities . . ."9

The International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) identifies four major threats to religious freedom at the beginning of the twenty-first century.10 They are extremism, nationalism, secularism, and proselytism.

You can find extremism in almost every religion and church. Extremists are a minority in Islam, but they have a strong influence in several countries. They have succeeded in implementing the Chari'a, which is religious law dating back about a millennium in Iran, Sudan, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan, and also in the beautiful Maldive Islands, where 30-50 Christians had been detained and questioned in June 1998. Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia are probably the most challenging countries in the world in matters of religious freedom. Saudi Arabia prohibits religious worship and every kind of religious activities for the 500,000 immigrant Christian workers.

Some governments, while not officially under the control of extremists, seem unable to stop them. Is it political weakness or complicity? Indonesia is a good example. Hundreds of Christian churches have been burned there. In Egypt non-Muslims are largely unprotected from the harassment of extremists. Algeria is a particularly tragic case, where antigovernment extremists have killed more than 70,000 people-"on behalf of God."

Religious extremism is perhaps the most concrete threat to religious freedom in the world today. We see radical extremism in almost every religious group. Their acts are producing the same tragedy all over the world.11 Religious Extremists can be neutralized, or they can receive the support of the population. It is up to every believer to decide what kind of power he or she will give to religious extremists.

Nationalism is a threat to religious liberty in those countries where religion is an integral part of the traditional culture and identity. In this context it is not a private choice, but a national heritage. It means you are inhibited as an individual from choosing your religion or having differing religious convictions. Therefore, if you are not Buddhist in Tibet or in Myanmar, you become a second-class citizen.

Secularism is another factor of religious intolerance. We can see this at work in Western Europe. Religious minorities are confused with dangerous sects and are constantly attacked by the media. This inhibits their growth and marginalizes them. For example, commissions of the French National Assembly and of the Belgian Parliament have both recently published a list of "sects." The French list 172 groups or churches,12 and the Belgians, 189.13 They contain a curious mix of true sects/cults and Evangelical groups, and Catholics. Experts and scholars have denounced such lists. Unfortunately, these two lists became the "official" reference authority to discriminate against religious minorities.14

To publish an official list of "sects" or to work on anti-sect legislation without giving an acceptable definition of the word "sect" is totally wrong. "One cannot say that sects should not benefit from the protection given to religion just because they have had no chance to demonstrate their durability," states Professor A. Amor. "It is not the business of the state or any other group or community to act as the guardian of people's consciences and encourage, impose, or censure any religious belief or conviction." 15

Professor Massimo Introvigne, director of the Center for Studies of New Religions, in Torino, Italy, states: "Everyone is being lumped together. It is reminiscent of the McCarthy era in the United States."(16) Secretary general of the French Protestant Federation Christian Seytre has asked: "Why don't they give to the groups which are listed as sects the possibility to be heard? This is shameful for a state of law. Freedom of conscience and religious freedom are a sacred right in a democracy."(17)

Fortunately a number of other European countries, including Italy, Poland, and Spain, have so far refused to make lists of "sects."(18) After seriously studying this issue, Switzerland and Germany recognized that democracy was not threatened by "sects." In Germany, scientists have met to warn against the "inquisitory work of the sect-hunters," which can be more dangerous or more truly sectarian than the "sects" themselves.

Of course, religious liberty does not mean that everything is possible under the cover of religion. Nothing and no one is above the law. If children are abused in religious groups, the guilty parties must be punished, whether members of a religious minority or of a well-known church. There cannot be two ways to implement a law, and everyone is equal before it. We would say to any government: "Put criminals in jail, but allow people to have their own religious convictions and freedom to practice them."

The fourth factor of intolerance is proselytism. In using this word we face a difficult question: What does proselytism mean? Every church has its own definition. It is like the word "sect", everyone tries to use it against the other. We might say that when a well-known church or religion wants to share its faith, it is "evangelism" or "mission." But when another group does the same thing in a very simple way such as going door-to-door, it is "proselytism."

A study document entitled "The Challenge of Proselytism and the Calling to Common Witness" was issued by the joint working group between the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church on September 25, 1995. In the introduction it states: "Serious concerns about tensions and conflict are created by proselytism in nearly all parts of the world" (19)

There is, of course, "good" and "bad" proselytism. The "bad" proselytism would show a lack of respect for others and the use of material benefits to attract people, or it would use force to convert someone.

To study this issue, experts were invited by the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) and the Ministry of Justice of Spain to a May 1999 meeting in Madrid. A consensus statement describes "bad" proselytism as an unethical activity that can take many forms, including willful misrepresentation of the beliefs and practices of others, or the use of force, coercion, compulsion, mockery, or intimidation to press for conversion.(20) But this definition does not apply in many countries where the concept of religious exclusivism dominates. (21)

An arrogant, violent proselytism can be a threat to peace and freedom. But before accusing other religions of proselytizing, we have to give a clear definition that will apply for all. In some countries, the law forbids proselytism, but at the same time the religious majority receives money and media coverage from the government.(22) Official religions often use the power of the state to achieve their agenda or neutralize their competitors. Is that not an unfair form of proselytism?

The Increasing Role of the United States of America

The United States of America seems to be an island of freedom in an ocean of intolerance. While intolerance has not totally disappeared from the American society, religious discrimination is infrequent.

In 1996 the United States created an Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad. Then in October 1998 President Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) into law, after it was adopted by Congress. (23)

The IRFA created the Office for International Religious Freedom, Department of State, chaired by an ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom; a commission on International Religious Freedom; and a special adviser to the National Security Council.(24) In addition, the law requires an annual public report on religious freedom in the world.

In his report on the U.S., the U.N. special rapporteur admitted a "satisfying" condition. But he mentioned a few exceptions such as the lack of respect for Native American traditions. He also underlined the difficulties of Seventh-day Adventists in the workplace, and the difficulties Buddhists, Hindus, and Jehovah's Witnesses have in obtaining permits for places of worship.(25) These are minor problems if we compare them to the rest of the world. But it is enough to say that religious freedom is always fragile, even if the government defends it. Intolerance can grow as a wave and change harmony and respect, bringing tension and oppression. Defending religious freedom in the U.S.A. is important and useful not only for those who are living there, but because it has an influence on the whole world.

On December 10, 1986, when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel said: "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must at that moment become the center of the universe."

Freedom and religious freedom are gifts of God for all of us. We have to defend them for all the inhabitants of our planet, everywhere. This is the best way to protect our freedoms.

John Graz, world director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Swiss-born and with a doctorate in history from the Sorbonne University, Paris, France, brings an informed international view to this topic.



(1) J. Paul Martin and Tad Stahnke, eds., Religion and Human Rights: Basic Documents (Center for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University, 1998), p. 59.
(2) United Nations Human Rights Committee General Comment No. 22 (48) (Article 18) Comment 1, and as stated in Article 4 (2) of the "International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights" (ICCPR) adopted on December 16, 1966 (ibid., P. 92).
(3) Which is called The Declaration of 81, proclaimed by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 36/55 in November 1981 (ibid., P. 104).
(4)The World Council of Churches: Declaration on Religious Liberty. Adopted at the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam August 1948 (ibid., pp. 207, 208).
(5) Declaration on Religious Freedom: Dignitatis Humanae, adopted by the Second Vatican Council and proclaimed by Pope Paul VI, Dec. 7, 1965 (ibid., pp. 210-219). Cf. Giorgio Filibeck, Les droits de l'homme dans l'enseignment de l'Eglise: de Jean XXIII a Jean-Paul II (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Cite du Vatican, 1992). See also the address to the Diplomatic Corps, "Time has come to ensure that everywhere in the world effective freedom of religion is guaranteed." L'Observatore Romano, No. 2 (1574), Jan. 13, 1999.
(6) Alberto de la Hera and Rosa Maria Martinez de Codes, "Spanish Legislation on Religious Affairs" (Ministerio de Justicia, Centro de publicaciones, Madrid, 1998). Carlos Saul Menem, "Religious Liberty: Essential to the Dignity of Humanity and Preservation of Peace," Fides et Libertas, 1998, pp. 8, 9, International Religious Liberty Association.
(7) In spite of the warning of the U.S. government. See "Gore Urges the Kremlin to Reject Religious Bill," Washington Post, Sept. 23, 1997.
(8) Document E/CN.4/1998/6. pp. 11, 12.
(9) Document E/CN/1999/58, p. 28.
(10) Bert Beach is recognized as being the first to mention extremism, nationalism, and secularism as main causes.
(11) U.N. special rapporteur: "Major challenges are therefore posed in particular by the proliferation of manifestations of hatred, intolerance, and violence based on sectarianism and extremism..." (E/CN.4/1999/58).
(12) Assemblee Nationale, Les Sectes en France, Rapport fait an nom de la commission d'enquete sur les sectes. President M. Alain Gest, Rapporteur M. Jacques Guyard. Document No 2468, distribution Jan. 10, 1996.
(13) Document E/CN.4/1999/58, p. 58, items 41, 42, 43.
(14) Karen S. Lord, "The European Retreat From Religious Liberty," Helsinki Monitor, No. 3 (1998). Read also Massimo Introvigne, "Religious Liberty in Western Europe," briefing of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, July 30, 1998.
(15) Document E/CN.4/1997/91 of December 30, 1996. United Nations, Economic and Social Council.
(16) News Religious Service, June 19, 1999.
(17) SPP Information, No. 12/15.07.1999.
(18) Rosa Maria Martinez de Codes, "The Contemporary Form of Registering Religious Entities in Spain," Fides et Libertas, 1998, pp. 85-96.
(19) "The Challenge of Proselytism and the Calling to Common Witness," Sept. 25, 1995, p. 2.
(20) Bert B. Beach, "Principles for Proper Dissemination of Religion and Belief," IRLA Draft on the Declaration of Madrid, August 1999.
(21) "Message of the Primate of the Orthodox Churches," Patmos, Sept. 26, 1995. We read: "The consideration of these countries (traditional Orthodox countries) as 'terra missionis' is unacceptable, since in these countries the gospel has already been preached for many centuries" (p. 4). Read also: Cecil M. Robeck, Jr., "Mission and the Issue of Proselytism," International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 1996, pp. 2-8.
(22) According to Anatoly Krassikov, The Pravda, Winter 1993, alleged that "200,000 preachers from the United States of America were going to attack our country and establish the same number of religious congregations." Anatoly Krassikov, "Proselytism and Religious Liberty in Russia," IRLA Document, July 1999, p. 5.
(23) "Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad to the Secretary of State and to the President of the United States," (Department of State, Publication 10628, May 17, 1999).
(24) Ibid., pp. 8-10.
(25) Document E/CN.4/1999/58/Add.1, Dec. 9, 1998, p. 17. Abdelfattah Amor, Introduction Orale des rapports, E/CN.4/1999/58/Geneve, Apr. 12, 1999.

Article Author: John Graz

John Graz is secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association.