Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief: A Deskbook

Review by Anton Alyabiev

The observance of the freedom of conscience in Russia and in the rest of the world: basic principles in a single tutorial

Freedom of Religion or Belief: Basic Principles: A Deskbook. Edited by: Tore Lindholm, W. Cole Durham, Jr. and Bahia G. Tahzib-Lie. Editorial Board: Elizabeth Sewell, Lena Larsen, Leo Simkin and Roman Lunkin. Moscow: Institute of Religion and Law, Center for the Study of Religion and Law at Brigham Young University, Art Center Unesco, 2010. BBK 67.412.1 ISBN 978-5-904741-01-3.

Against the background of many problems and conflicts surrounding the observance of the freedom of conscience, the issue of international legal norms in this field is constantly being raised. However, few people are aware of the difficulties that European countries, the United States and other countries have to face when it comes to implementing the standards stipulated in the declarations and resolutions of the UN, the OSCE, PACE and the European Union, or those taken by the CIS; and few understand just how urgent the issues of religion have become. As noted in Chapter I, “Introduction. The new role of religion and freedom of religion and belief," the issue of the freedom of religion and belief has been around since time immemorial, but it still remains just as relevant as the headlines in the news as of this morning.

In essence, this book is a scientific publication that contains a compilation of original articles and represents a sort of textbook, reflecting certain aspects and issues in connection with the observance of the freedom of religion and belief, as well as the main principles that relate to the freedom of religion and belief, as well as relevant international standards and guarantees.

This book is a translation of selected articles from the collection by Tore Lindholm, W. Cole Durham, Jr., and Bahia G. Tahzib-Lie (eds.), Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief: A Deskbook, © 2004 Koninklijke Brill NV. Printed in the Netherlands (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers). Of the 38 chapters originally published in the English edition, the introduction and 12 chapters have been translated for the Russian edition. In addition to that, this edition also includes a chapter specifically devoted to the situation with respect to the freedom of religion and belief in Russia. It was first published in 2004 at the initiative of the Coalition of Freedom of Religion or Belief in Oslo (Norway) to honor the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

This book was not intended to discuss all the new theoretical thinking on this subject to help understand the ideas, institutions, and those that form and contribute to this field. Rather, it presents an introduction to the historical and philosophical foundations, written by Tore Lindholm, a Norwegian scientist who described the "philosophical and religious justifications of freedom of religion or belief" in Chapter II in a manner that is directly connected with its practical aspects.

The thorough description of the relevant international norms and institutions comprises the core part of the book. The idea expressed in its chapters explains that human rights specialists need to have access to the qualified and relevant comments about the all the existing norms and international institutions that apply these standards. Therefore, a number of chapters in the book are designed to guide the reader through the complex maze of rules, institutions and procedures that have been established to protect the freedom of religion and belief. The collection of all relevant international legal materials may easily be expanded to the most incredible proportions. It is namely for this reason that Chapter III, "Defining the Nature and the Minimum Standards of Freedom of Religion or Belief," written by Nathan Lerner, represents an extremely useful overview of the entire set of respective standards. Also complementing the ideas of Chapter III is Chapter IV, "Permissible Restrictions on Freedom of Religion or Belief,” written by Manfred Nowak and Tania Vospernik. These two chapters can be seen as the core of the entire publication since much of the interventions in terms of religious freedom do not generally occur as a result of officials questioning the right to the freedom of religion and belief, but rather specifically when they (mistakenly) believe that the particular restriction they are imposing is indeed justified. The discussion on the basic norms is also complemented with a chapter dedicated to describing the most advanced international institutions in the sphere of the freedom of religion and belief, two of which are the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights (Chapter V by Martinez Torrona and Navarro Valls). The main objective here is to show the foundation of the institutional and procedural levers that are available on the international level in order to provide better protection with respect to the freedom of religion and belief.

Chapters VI, VII and VIII touch upon the subject of freedom of religion and belief in relation to the state. In Chapter VI, Ronald Minnerat discusses the significance of the right to autonomy in religious affairs. Chapter VII addresses the important topic of relations between religion and the state, where W. Cole Durham, Jr. examines the inclusion of the norms of religious freedom in legislation on religious associations. This chapter is particularly important for understanding the legal problems that religious institutions often face when they interact with the state. In Chapter VIII, Roman Podoprigora examines one extremely complex and problematic area – namely “Freedom of Religion or Belief and Discretionary State Approval of Religious Activity.”

In Chapter IX, Bahia Tahzib-Lie lays out a number of issues that arise in connection with the changing societal attitudes towards sex, family, and children, noting a number of cases that involve so-called "women dissidents."

Chapter X discusses the sensitive areas of freedom of religion and belief, which are essentially the problems of religious "sects" and "cults." In recent years, we have witnessed a number of legislative acts passed on the grounds of fear that is typically rooted in the stereotypes often held about any new religious movements. This trend follows suit with the previous cases of legislation passed as a reaction to the potential danger posed by "religious extremists" coming out of various religious traditions. Events in recent years undoubtedly indicate that this problem remains very acute; however, the legal response to this problem often goes too far, by putting pressure on legitimate groups as well and creating situations that are openly unacceptable within the norms of religious freedom. Eileen Barker, an internationally renowned British sociologist and leading expert on this phenomenon, helps us to reconsider some of the myths and stereotypes in this regard. She believes that, in accordance with the current recommendations issued by the Council of Europe, it is very unproductive and inappropriate to make special laws in relation to the new religious movements (NRM) and to punish entire groups on the basis of preconceptions about cults or bad behavior on the part of their individual followers. Instead, Barker provides testimony for and argues in favor of the need to apply conventional criminal and civil laws to any individual that is engaged in illegal activity.

One of the most pressing and important problems faced in terms of religious freedom - namely proselytism and its methods - is analyzed in Chapter XI, "The Right to Engage in Religious Persuasion," written by Tad Stahnke. Issues on this subject generally arise in most countries of the world namely when they have to deal with the activities of missionaries and, subsequently, with clashes and disputes in relation to the so-called "traditional" and "nontraditional" religious groups. The ongoing processes of globalization continue to bring about the opening of cultural and religious boundaries all over the world, and this is also what brings such issues as proselytism to the attention of both society as a whole and the state. Attracting new followers, preaching to non-believers, and the proselytizing of adherents to other religion persuasions are all integral parts of active religious communities, regardless of whether it happens to be a new religious movement or a recognized historical religion. The author concludes that the actions on the part of the state that ultimately resort to the restriction of proselytism by applying discriminatory measures or supporting the interests of other parties are not consistent with international standards of human rights.

In Chapter XII, Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania and one of the presidents of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, writes about the contributions that religious groups are able to make to help form common values and a common civil position in a secular and pluralistic society. Relying on his vast experience in this field, Archbishop Anastasios discusses how religious communities can contribute to building a culture of harmonious coexistence between different religious groups and individuals.

In Chapter XIII, Ingvill Thorson Plesner discusses the subject of religious education and the freedom of religion and belief in the context of compulsory school education. Here, he notes the existing challenges to human rights in societies characterized by religious diversity. Plesner focuses primarily on the experiences of different European countries. In her chapter, she outlines many collisions that may occur between three important issues: the responsibility of individual states to ensure religious tolerance, a child’s own best interests, and observance of the rights of the parents or guardians to bring their children up in accordance with their religious beliefs and moral convictions. For instance, a Special Reporter criticized the approach of taking a “separationist” or a “ghetto-like” approach to religious education, whereby students are divided according to their religious affiliation in order to receive religious education that is provided by public schools, instead supporting an "integrationist" approach. Finally, in Chapter XIV, “The Constitutional Rights of Citizens to Freedom of Religion and the Problems of Their Realization in the Russian Federation,” Anatoly Pchelintsev presents an analysis of the problems associated with the freedom of religious belief in Russia. Pchelintsev writes about how Russia has developed extensive judicial practice regarding the protection of the rights of believers and religious organizations. At the same time, believers are not limited to only accessing courts of general jurisdiction. They have repeatedly appealed to the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation with respect to the issues of constitutionality of certain provisions of the Federal Law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations,” as well as to the European Court of Human Rights. In 2009 alone, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has reviewed six cases involving serious violations of the rights of believers and religious organizations in Russia. In every one of these cases, the Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff(s).

The concluding elements of the book are its appendixes, with key documents and regulations presented in Appendix A and B. Appendix A contains declarations and other documents issued by the UN, the Council of Europe, the European Union, and the CSCE/ OSCE. Appendix B completes the book with pertinent documents on human rights, issued by the CIS, in addition to the Declaration of the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

The significance of this publication is that it presents the combined efforts of scientists from around the world, intended to help us gain a wide spectrum of opinions on issues pertaining to the freedom of religion and belief. Despite claims that religious groups are losing their influence within society, it is actually quite the contrary, as it turns out that the religious factor continues to wield an increasing impact on culture, politics, law and society on the whole. The studies and research presented by the authors of this collection of articles prove that the issue of freedom of religion and belief is becoming crucial in various public debates, while the observance of its principles remains, in many ways, an important indicator of the democratic freedoms in any country.

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