Islam Freedom

Islam Freedom of Thought | Conscience | Religion or Belief

Islam Freedom of Thought, Conscience, Religion, or Belief

Islam Freedom

Statement of Dr. Laila Al-Marayati
U.S. Delegation to the OSCE Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues

At previous OSCE meetings, the U.S. Delegation has applauded the expansion of religious liberty in this historic decade. At the same time, we want to address concerns we have regarding the increasing intolerance toward religious and belief groups in many OSCE participating States. The U.S. Delegation has three areas of concern:

Laws That Hinder Religious Practice and Discriminate Among Religious Groups

Recently, several participating States have enacted legislation disproportionately and adversely affecting minority religious communities. The enactment of these laws, the progression toward more state control of religious institutions, and the similarity of these legal provisions in restricting religious communities considered less desirable reflect disturbing intolerance of minority faiths.

Since our last meeting, two new laws have been enacted that restrict religious liberty in Uzbekistan. On May 1, 1998, the parliament of Uzbekistan passed amendments to the 1991 law on religious organizations and the Criminal Code, which blatantly violate virtually every Helsinki commitment to religious liberty.

Among other restrictions, the amendments now require 100 Uzbek citizens to sign a religious community’s application for registration, criminalize any unregistered religious activity, and penalize free speech based on its religious content. The new amendments particularly affect both non-Russian Orthodox Christian minorities and Muslim communities who want to practice their faith outside Uzbekistan’s religious establishment.

Observers note that these amendments to the law merely legalize what has been the practice of the Government of Uzbekistan toward religious groups over the last few years. In December 1997, the Government engaged in a series of crackdowns in the Farghona Valley, in gross violation of human rights and Helsinki principles.

Muslims were arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured, and confessions were forced while in police custody. Several well-documented cases exist of Muslim leaders who have simply disappeared, under extremely suspicious circumstances. The U.S. Delegation calls on the Government of Uzbekistan to repeal the new law and ensure that governmental practices comply with international law and Helsinki principles.

In August 1997, the Parliament of Macedonia passed a religion law that prohibits religious work and rituals from being performed by unregistered communities or groups and requires the signature of 50 citizens for registration. One of the more disturbing sections of the law prohibits the existence of two “religious communities” with the same creed, which in effect establishes the government as the arbiter between religious factions.

Some harassment of non-Orthodox religious groups has been reported and Protestant groups complain of being unable to register their churches and obtain regular employment status for their employees in violation of Macedonia’s commitment in Paragraph 16.3 of the Vienna Concluding Document to “grant upon their request to communities of believers, practicing or prepared to practice their faith within the constitutional framework of their States, recognition of the status provided for them in the respective countries.”

On September 26, 1997, President Boris Yeltsin signed a law containing discriminatory provisions against “new” religious faiths, onerous registration requirements, and vague criteria for “liquidating” religious organizations. Although this law has not led to widespread repression of religious believers and sections of the law are being challenged in the Constitutional Court, it is clear that Russian citizens now have less religious freedom than in 1991.

Furthermore, certain local officials in Russia are using this law arbitrarily to discriminate against religious organizations whose presence or practices are not to their taste. The Lutheran Church in Tuim, Khakassia, is experiencing a series of harassing lawsuits under the rubric of violation of this law and was recently ordered closed by local officials. Even in Moscow, city officials have commenced a civil court case to ban a local Jehovah’s Witness organization under article 14 of the law presumably because the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe they should not accept blood transfusions.

The U.S. Delegation acknowledges that there are instances when a government may contravene a fundamental right in the interest of the health and safety of society. However, as agreed in the Copenhagen Concluding Document Paragraph 24, any restriction on fundamental freedom is an exception, must be limited and narrowly tailored to the problem. Banning a religious group based on an aspect of their belief violates this OSCE principle of proportionality.

While no new laws have been passed in Greece and Turkey, it should be noted that these countries have had constitutional provisions, laws, and government policies for many years that violate OSCE commitments on religious liberty. For Greek law, especially onerous are the anti-proselytism provisions, including Article 13 of the Constitution and the Metaxas-era Laws of Necessity 1363/1938 and 1672/1939, which have been used almost exclusively against religious minorities.

These statutes harm religious liberty in the Hellenic Republic and are inconsistent with numerous OSCE commitments, including paragraph 16 of the Vienna Document and paragraph 9 of the 1990 Copenhagen Document. We urge repeal of these laws to help ensure the freedom of all individuals in Greece to profess and practice their religion or belief.

We are well aware of the controversy surrounding the selection of individuals to serve as Mufti in the Hellenic Republic and understand that relevant Muslim practices vary from country to country.

In this regard, we stress the importance of respecting the right of members of the Muslim community to organize themselves according to their own hierarchical and institutional structure, including in the selection, appointment, and replacement of their personnel in a manner consistent with relevant OSCE commitments. We are particularly disturbed over the lengthy prison sentences – a total of 49 months – handed down against Mehmet Emin Aga for “usurping the title of Mufti.”

We are also concerned by the burdensome Greek requirements imposed on minority religious communities to obtain special permits issued by “competent ecclesiastical authorities” and the Ministry of National Education and Religious Affairs for the establishment or operation of churches, including places of worship. Reportedly, permission for the construction or repair of places of worship is often difficult or impossible to obtain despite the commitment of OSCE participating States to respect the right of religious communities to establish and maintain freely accessible places of worship or assembly.

Historically non-Orthodox churches have encountered difficulties in securing so-called “House of Prayer” permits although it appears the record for approval of permits is improving. Members of the Muslim community have similarly reported difficulty in securing permission for the repair of mosques, including the Suleymaniye Mosque on Rhodes. The rights of individuals belonging to minority religions or beliefs must be fully respected without discrimination or subordination. In this regard, we are aware of the pending request submitted by a community of the Macedonian Orthodox Church seeking to open a church building to conduct worship services in the Florina area.

The United States remains concerned over the inclusion of religious affiliation on Greek national identity cards. The inclusion of such information on this widely used document could lead to discrimination against individuals from minority religions or beliefs. Accordingly, we urge the repeal of the 1993 identity law. In addition, we urge further action to implement the recommendations of the advisory committee on anti-Semitic references in public school textbooks.

In a positive development, we note the Greek law on a conscientious objection that came into force earlier this year and understand that the authorities are instituting arrangements whereby those objectors imprisoned under the old law will be given the option of engaging in alternative civilian social service.

The situation in Turkey remains largely unchanged. Minority religious communities face significant challenges and are occasionally targeted for acts of violence and vandalism. Members of the majority Muslim community may even face restrictions on some religious practices or customs in certain settings. Minority religions not recognized under the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, for example, generally may not acquire additional property for worship services.

Even some recognized communities are prevented from fully utilizing existing facilities, such as the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Halki Seminary and the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church’s Holy Cross Seminary, both closed to theological studies since 1971. In other cases, the property of religious communities has been confiscated by the state without compensation. Securing the necessary permission to build new houses of worship or the renovation of existing churches is often difficult, if not impossible, to secure.

While proselytism is not outlawed per se, activist Muslims and evangelical Christians have been jailed in Turkey on the pretext of disturbing the peace for sharing their faith in public. Eight Americans were arrested briefly in March for handing out New Testaments on the streets of Eskisehir.

The United States also takes note that even among states with a longstanding tradition of support for human rights and fundamental freedoms, there have been unfortunate developments legalizing discrimination among religious groups. For example, in December 1997, the Austrian Parliament passed legislation on the “Legal Status of Religious Belief Communities” that established a two-tier system for receiving state funds and other privileges.

In the first tier are 12 legally recognized communities, only a few of which could satisfy the pre-requisites to gain such recognition under the new law. For instance, the religious community must have existed for at least twenty years and have a minimum number of members, equal to 0.02% of the population or about 16,000 members.

Organizations that place themselves under government observation for a period of time with the hope of becoming legally recognized comprise the second tier. During the observation period, legal status is denied and the religious organization is liquidated if the government ascertains that the beliefs of the group violate, among other criteria, democratic interests, public security, public order, health, and morals, or the protection of the rights and liberties of others.

The groups in this tier cannot sponsor foreign religionists for visas and do not have other privileges that the 12 legally recognized communities enjoy. The requirement that the statutes of a religious body must include a description of religious doctrine which is different from the doctrines of existing religious belief communities or churches is of concern to the U.S. Delegation because this establishes the government as the arbiter in theological disputes.

Some religious groups, including several independent Protestant churches, are granted the status of “association” and have a rudimentary juridical personality to open bank accounts and own property. However, they do not have visiting rights in prisons or hospitals, cannot sponsor foreign co-religionists for visas, and do not have other privileges that the 12 legally recognized communities enjoy.

A few groups have been denied “association” status, including the Unification Church, which is barred from countering potentially libelous reports in the press because they do not have legal status under Austrian law. The inherent inequality of this legal structure is of concern to the U.S. Delegation, especially in light of Austria’s own authorship of the language in Paragraph 16 of the 1989 Vienna Concluding Document, which calls on the participating States to “foster a climate of mutual tolerance and respect” for all religious groups.

Governmental Actions that Perpetuate Discrimination Against Minority Religious Groups

Several western European parliaments, most notably France, Belgium, and Germany, have investigated and reported on the beliefs and activities of minority religious groups in the last few years. These parliamentary investigations have had a detrimental effect on religious liberty as many groups being investigated or labeled “dangerous” have experienced a public backlash. The French Parliament’s 1996 report contained a list of “dangerous” groups to warn the public against them.

The Belgian Parliament’s 1997 report had a widely circulated informal appendix that listed189 groups and included various allegations against many Protestant and Catholic groups, Quakers, Hasidic Jews, Buddhists, and the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association).

In Belgium, some public officials have relied upon the unofficial appendix to justify denial of access to publicly rented buildings for Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baha’is merely because they were identified in this appendix.

A German Bundestag “Enquette Commission” on June 18, 1998, issued a report on its two-year investigation into “so-called sects” and “psycho-groups.” While concluding that such groups pose no danger to German society, the report did recommend continued investigation and surveillance of Scientology. Several religious and belief groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Scientology, and independent Pentecostal Protestant churches have complained about harassment, discrimination, and biased media reports in Germany in connection with this Commission and its work.

Also of concern is the establishment of government information centers to alert the public about groups deemed by the government to be “dangerous.” The Austrian and French Governments have set up hotlines for the public and, through government-sponsored and funded advisory centers, distribute information on groups.

The German Enquette Commission recommended that such a center be created there as well. The Belgian information is scheduled to open in early 1999. We note that the Government of France, only this month, created a new Interministerial Mission to Battle Against Sects” (“Mission interministerielle de luttre contre les sectes”). The very name of this mission suggests confrontation with religious minorities rather than tolerance.

The U.S. Delegation notes that characterizations of religious beliefs by government-operated centers, particularly the publication of unproved or potentially libelous materials, create a climate of intolerance towards members of groups. Government dissemination of information that may be construed as propaganda through these centers calls into question the commitments that Austria, France, Belgium, and Germany have made to “foster a climate of mutual tolerance and respect.”

Furthermore, these activities excessively entangle the government in the public discussion on religious beliefs that foists the government into the role of religious arbitrator.

Religious Liberty of Muslims and Other Minorities in the OSCE Participating States

The status of both immigrant and indigenous Muslim minorities and majorities in the OSCE participating States is often precarious. Many countries, such as Spain, Austria, and Belgium, are adopting a variety of measures to accommodate and integrate their Muslim populations. Elsewhere, religious persecution and intolerance of Muslims in the OSCE region are closely linked to racial and ethnic hatred, xenophobia, social malaise, and international political conflicts.

Fear of potential violence or terrorism spawned by “Islamic” fundamentalism or extremism is often used as a pretext to justify gross violations of the human rights of Muslims who are practicing their faith. Mindful of the broad spectrum of religious and ethnic oppression of Muslims in several participating States, the U.S. Delegation calls on those countries to re-examine their policies in light of existing OSCE commitments. We are not seeking special rights for Muslims or any other group for that matter. We seek to uphold the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all of our citizens without distinction of any kind.

A combination of ethnicity and religion underlie human rights violations against Muslim populations in Europe. The most extreme form of anti-Muslim sentiment manifested in Europe was the brutal assault against Bosnian Muslims, today increasingly referred to as Bosniaks, by Serbian forces of the former Yugoslavia. Recently, the inhabitants of Kosovo, the vast majority of whom are ethnic Albanians and Muslims, have suffered mass killings, arbitrary detention, rape, destruction of property, and forced migration at the hands of the Belgrade regime. These atrocities yet again test the will of the international community to take a strong stand against such assault.

Muslims who are members of an ethnic minority, such as North Africans in France and Turks in Germany are subjected to violent crimes often perpetrated by racists and sometimes by police. Indo-Pakistanis have occasionally been the subject of racist attacks in the United Kingdom. Inadequate efforts to convict the perpetrators of these violent acts contribute to a climate of impunity for such crimes.

Religious education is often abridged or denied to Muslims in the OSCE region in direct violation of OSCE commitments expressed in paragraph 16 of the 1989 Vienna Concluding Document. In Turkey, the parliament enacted measures designed to eliminate the system of state-funded Islamic education by extending compulsory primary secular education. In Uzbekistan, religious teachers Obidkhon Nazarov, Rahim Otagulov, Olinjon Glofurov have been harassed, evicted, and arrested by government authorities repeatedly over the past 2 years. In addition, unofficial Islamic teaching institutions have been closed.

Economic and political discrimination against Muslims is common in the OSCE region. In Greece, particularly in Thrace, Muslims experience discrimination through loss of promotion opportunities, confinement to low-paying jobs, inadequate political representation, and prevention from advancement in the military. Similarly, in the Bulgarian military, Muslims are consistently assigned only to construction units.

The Muslim minority in Russia, which represents 10% of the population, also faces societal discrimination in the workplace and housing. Some Muslim minorities, like other minorities, have difficulty obtaining citizenship in countries such as Germany, Croatia, Serbia, and Greece. There are numerous reports that Muslims in Serbia, particularly in the Sandzak region and in Montenegro, are arbitrarily fired from their jobs and often driven from their homes.

In Turkey, some Muslims are labeled by the military and the government as “extremist” and thereafter experience widespread discrimination. Political participation is significantly denied, most notably by the banning of the Welfare (Refah) Party earlier this year and the recent conviction and banning of Istanbul Mayor Erdogan. Observant Muslims are excluded from certain jobs, demoted or expelled from the military, and marginalized politically.

Throughout much of the OSCE area, wearing the hijab in a particular way is interpreted as a sign of extremism, although the wearing of the hijab normally represents to the woman modest dress and an expression of faith. In Uzbekistan, Muslim women in hijab have been expelled from universities.

In France, the Ministry of Education issued a decree stating that a headscarf is an “ostentatious display of a religious symbol” that should be strongly discouraged in public schools. There has been a controversy in Baden-Wurttemburg regarding a proposal to ban headscarves worn by teachers, reflecting societal trends of intolerance against Muslims. In Turkey, women who wear headscarves may become targets of discrimination and be banned from public sector jobs such as nursing, teaching, and judicial posts, and are prohibited from registering at public universities.

Efforts to respond to global threats of terrorism may lead to further restrictions and the continued marginalization of Muslim populations in the OSCE region. The U.S. Delegation notes the disturbing tendency of some OSCE participating States to assume arbitrarily that Muslims are responsible for violence and threats to national security.

In the United States, Muslims are too often victims of negative stereotypes in the media, as seen in the recent movies GI Jane or True Lies, which contributes to societal assumptions equating violence and terrorism with Islam. Arbitrary detention of over 100 North African Muslims in France at the opening of the World Cup similarly reflects a disregard of rights in the name of security.The United States supports freedom of religion, not criminal behavior. The blanket condemnation of Muslims, or any other marginalized group, is not only a violation of Helsinki principles but is a counterproductive and dangerous policy. Such policies could contribute to desperation in some quarters and lead to radicalization that might not have occurred otherwise.

If this growing problem is to be addressed, OSCE participating States must comply fully with their OSCE obligations, the core of which is that the government cannot and should not control all aspects of society and certainly not matters of faith and must accept religious groups as a positive, integral part of society.


The U.S. Delegation:

  • calls on the Governments of Uzbekistan, Russia, and Macedonia, to repeal or amend significantly their laws on religious associations to comply with OSCE commitments;
  • calls on the Governments of Turkey and Greece to ensure that their laws and practices conform with OSCE principles of freedom of belief, association, and expression;
  • calls on the Government of Austria to recognize the potential that its law has for encouraging other states to enact prejudicial legislation and urges the Government to amend its current law;
  • calls on the Governments of Austria, Belgium, France, and Germany to foster a climate of tolerance and respect toward minority religion or belief groups and insure through law and governmental practice that religious freedoms for minorities are protected;
  • calls on all OSCE participating States to re-examine their laws, governmental practices, and societal trends that discriminate against Muslims and other religious minorities.

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