European Interreligious Forum For Religious Freedom


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Tensions between the State and religious minorities in regards to family issues: the French example
Relations between civil society and religious minorities are dealt with in different ways throughout the countries of Europe. The significant increase of religious minorities, whether they are relatively new religious movements or traditional ones but new to European countries, can create tensions that the European States have to find ways of dealing with. Some approaches have been successful and others have proven to be unsuccessful, creating greater tensions rather than constructive dialogue. Even the more traditional religions have minority groups within them that can also be the target of stigmatization and discrimination. In the field of family matters, tensions can be particularly harmful as this touches the very core of society - the family unit. 
Here is an example of an unsuccessful approach to these matters and a source of tremendous tension between religious minorities and the State.
The French example
In a 22 March 2012 circular from the French Ministry of Education, professors and civil servants in the education field are asked to report on any child or family suspected of “sectarian abuses”. A “situation of sectarian risk, for a child” being defined as “one in which views and practices are imposed on him to the exception of any other views or practice”. 
Of course, this definition could apply to parents raising their children in any religion or even atheistic views.
What the French authorities conceive as a problem is that followers of minority belief movements educate their children according to their own faith. However, parents clearly have a right to educate their children according to their own convictions in line with the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Contrary to preceding Ministry of Education circulars from 14 May 1999 and 26 December 2011, which simply provided for legitimate control over the acquisition of knowledge and the level of education of children receiving education at home, this latest circular provides for the identification of “sectarian risks” by national education personnel. This has led to visits by national education agents to parents belonging to minorities of religion or belief whose children were doing “at-home” correspondence courses delivered by State recognized bodies. The national education agents were checking for any ideological or religious motivation behind the choice of the parents to take their children out of the regular school system.
Unfortunately, this kind discriminatory paranoia has been going on in France for dozens of years. It is certainly contrary to various recommendations made by various authorities in charge of human rights at European and international level. For example, in her report, following an official visit to France on 18-29 September 2005, Asma Jahangir, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, noted with regards to “new religious movements or communities of belief”: 
108. However, she is of the opinion that the policy and measures that have been adopted by the French authorities have provoked situations where the right to freedom of religion or belief of members of these groups has been unduly limited. Moreover, the public condemnation of some of these groups, as well as the stigmatization of their members, has led to certain forms of discrimination, in particular vis-à-vis their children. 
The UN Rapporteur made the following recommendations:  
112. The Special Rapporteur urges the Government to ensure that its mechanisms for dealing with these religious groups or communities of belief deliver a message based on tolerance, freedom of religion or belief and on the principle that no one can be judged for his actions other than through the appropriate judicial channels. 
113. Moreover, she recommends that the Government monitor more closely preventive actions and campaigns that are conducted throughout the country by private initiatives or Government-sponsored organizations, in particular within the school system in order to avoid children of members of these groups being negatively affected.
Clearly, this advice was not taken on board by the French government. As recently as 9 January 2013, the Director of Criminal Affairs of the French Minister of Justice, Ms. Marie-Suzanne le Queau, when officially interrogated by the French Senate, declared:
“We sometimes had to institutionalize children because they had no other parents than their father or mother and they belonged to a sect.”
This statement demonstrates that in France, you can lose the custody of your own children just because you belong to a religious minority targeted as a “sect”.
Some examples:
EIFRF has been made aware of various cases of stigmatization and discrimination in family matters based on parents belonging to religious minorities. Each of them have been verified and authenticated. Here are four examples covering a number of years:
• On the 15th April 2013, the newspaper “La Dépêche” tells the story of a father who was forbidden to see his son solely because of his religious beliefs. The father, Richard Dray is 45 years old and an Orthodox Jew. After divorcing, Richard Dray had custody of his 12 year old son at weekends.  The son started to have behavioral problems and was sent to psychologists for further evaluation. They in turn decided to place him in an institution. Richard asked for his son to be placed in a private institution and went before a judge to request this, who, seeing him with his kippah and his long beard, decided to remove his parental authority altogether, stating: “If you want to live like that, go live in Jerusalem.” 
Richard still retained a right of access to his son. However, the social services placed the child in a home without telling the father where he was located. Eventually the father found out where he had been placed and called the institution to talk to his son. The son told his father over phone that he misses him and is sad. The father answers “do not worry, everything that happens to us on earth is a test sent by God that must be overcome”. The social services, who were listening to the conversation, then forbade the father to approach his son because of these so called “fundamentalists words”, adding that he should not talk about God in 2013 to a 12 years old child and that it was contrary to their educational principles. It is now three weeks later and Richard still has no news of his son.
• We also had a report of a complaint concerning a family belonging to a religious minority. In November 2011, their son, Tom, had to attend a course in his school about “sects”. In that course, which lasted one hour, the religious minority to which his parents belonged was named and depicted as dangerous and practicing mental manipulation. Tom did not say anything during the course but afterwards went to see the teacher and politely told him that what he said was not true about the religion of his parents and that it should be respected as any other religion. The teacher became angry and told Tom that he should not follow his parents in their “sect”. Tom did not answer and left. On the 23 February 2012, the senior education advisor and the Director of the school called Tom to a hearing. They asked him why he went to see his professor at the end of the course on “sects”. Tom told them what happened. They then got angry with him and forbade him to repeat that the religious minority of his parents was a religion, “as it is a sect”. They kept him for a further 30 minutes, telling him that he would not be allowed to leave until he said that the religion of his parents was a “sect”. The child did not bow under pressure. The parents filed a complaint which is still ongoing, but the first defense of the school was to say that they were following the instructions of the Ministry of National Education.
• Another example is the case of a French Medical doctor who had a center for drug addicts, which accepted teenagers. His center had great results, but a defamation campaign was launched by a French “anti-sect” association (an association funded by the French government), that spread the word that the doctor belonged to a Hindu ‘sect’. This rumor was disseminated throughout the entire region in which he lived and it finally came to the attention of the Departmental Directorate of Health and Social Affairs. This Directorate then decided to close the center for this reason alone. The violence of this defamation campaign and the actions of the Department of Health and Social Affairs generated such suffering for the doctor that he committed suicide.
• One more history is that of a family of Christian believers, a Christian movement which had been reported as a ‘sect’ in a list created by some French parliamentary members in 1996. In 2002, the son, a nine year old boy, was diagnosed with leukemia. The mother was a medical doctor herself. She and her husband decided to explore all possible solutions that could heal their son with the best results. They made contact with several specialists in France and Germany in order to see what treatment they were going to choose to save him. After six days, they decided to take him to hospital and spent the night in hospital near their son and then went back home in the early morning, leaving their son with the hospital doctors. When they arrived home they found the police waiting for them saying that they had been “alerted” that there was a child that needed to be taken to hospital. 
The parents did not really understand why the police were there and answered that their son was already at the hospital. The police then left their home.
One month later, they were questioned by police. They had been “denounced” by a “friend” for having kept their son at home for six days before taking him to hospital, “because they were member of a sect”. When arriving at the police station, they were immediately separated and taken into custody. For the previous month they had spent day and night with their son in the hospital. His health was deteriorating, yet they were held in custody by the police for three days and nobody told the son why his parents were suddenly not visiting him. The parents, in custody, asked for news of their son but were not given any. 
They also had two small girls who were at home without any news from their parents. 
The police interrogated the parents about belonging to a “sect” and why they waited for six days after the diagnosis of leukemia before taking their child to hospital.  When they went to the toilet, they were told door had to stay open, in full view of the policemen. The policemen also made derogatory remarks about their religious beliefs. 
After being held in custody for three days, the parents were indicted by a Judge of Instruction and released by the police. The health of their son had deteriorated drastically. The parents were then put under the stress of investigation whilst also having to take care of their two small daughters and taking turns to watch over their son at the hospital. All their friends were interrogated by the police, as were they themselves, many times. The Judge of Instruction then decided that she should take the two daughters away from their parents because they belonged to “a sect”. A “Child Judge” was alerted by the Judge of Instruction who then summoned the daughters to a hearing as well as the dying son who was in the hospital. Fortunately, the Child Judge understood this situation and immediately took measures to release the family and end that aspect of the case. She apologized to them for the horrible treatment they have had to suffer.
Unfortunately, the Judge of Instruction decided to continue the criminal investigation into the parents. In February 2003, their son died at the hospital whilst the criminal investigation was still ongoing. The case finally went to court and the parents were finally found to have committed no error with regards to their son and it was stated that the whole case had been the most “suffering” case the judge had ever seen in her life, apologizing again for the treatment suffered by this family.

Rédigé par EIFRF le Thursday, May 2nd 2013 | Comments (0)

Western Europe has been criticized in the last report 2013 (just released) of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent federal advisory body created by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) to monitor religious freedom abuses abroad. Extracts of the report:

Western Europe strongly criticized by USCIRF 2013 report
There also have been issues in various European countries concerning the accommodation of religious objections to generally-applicable laws, government policies, or employer requirements. The ECtHR recently addressed two such cases in the combined case of Eweida et al. v United Kingdom. The decision did not establish a uniform approach for all cases, but rather gave great deference—in the court’s terminology “a wide margin of appreciation”—to national authorities to decide how to strike the balance in each particular case.
The cases involved a local registrar of births, deaths and marriages who objected to registering same-sex partnerships and a counselor who objected to providing psycho-sexual therapy to same-sex couples; both were disciplined and ultimately lost their jobs. The court recognized that objecting to homosexuality was a protected manifestation of religious belief under the European Convention, and that these individuals were severely impacted by their employers’ refusal to accommodate their beliefs. The court also rejected the argument that there was no violation of their rights because the individuals could find other jobs; instead, it said national courts should “weigh that possibility [finding another job] in the overall balance when considering whether the restriction was proportionate.” 
In both cases, the court found that the employers were seeking to “to secure the rights of others which also were protected under the Convention” and concluded that it could not say that the lower courts had erred in balancing the competing rights. However, two judges dissented with respect to the registrar, on the grounds that she had held the job since before civil partnerships existed and should have been permitted to opt out of performing them based on her conscientious objections, as other local authorities had allowed. 
Another example of individuals objecting to government policies that limit their ability to practice elements of their faith concerns homeschooling in Germany. Public school attendance is required by law in Germany with very few exceptions that do not include religious objections. This has implications regarding the right of parents to educate their children consistent with their own beliefs, which is protected by ICCPR Article 18. In recent years, German parents who want to home school their children for religious reasons have been fined and at least one family has sought asylum in the United States.
Since the 1990s, the governments of several European countries—particularly France, but also Austria, Belgium, and Germany—have taken measures against religious groups pejoratively characterized as “cults” or “sects.” These efforts have included the publication of official reports or lists identifying certain groups as harmful or dangerous “cults” or “sects;” the use or creation of government agencies to monitor these groups; the application of registration, immigration, tax or other generally-applicable laws in ways that restrict these groups’ rights; and in the case of France, the passage of a specific law “toreinforce the prevention and repression of sects which infringe human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
The most extensive “anti-cult” efforts have been in France. Since 1998, the French government has had a governmental entity specifically tasked with collecting and disseminating official information on groups deemed to be “cults” and coordinating government efforts to oppose such groups. The organization in its current form is called the “Interministerial Mission for Vigilance and to Combat Sectarian Aberrations,” or MIVILUDES (its acronym in French). Various French government reports on and lists of “cult” groups have included Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, the French Federation of Krishna Consciousness, a Baptist Bible college, several Evangelical Christian churches, and many more small, non-traditional, and/or new religious communities. Groups that are on these lists or that have been addressed in MIVILUDES’ or its predecessor’s work say that this system creates a climate of intolerance and has led to both official and private discrimination against them. 
In December 2012, French President Hollande announced the establishment of a new government agency, the National Observatory of Secularism, about which a number of religious groups have expressed concerns. The observatory’s mandate is to observe and promote secularism in the country, including by recommending how to promote secular values in French schools. According to press reports, the Minister of Education described the effort as seeking to counter religious extremism. When asked to provide examples of religious extremist groups, he cited creationists, radical Islamists, traditionalist Catholics, and ultra-Orthodox Jews, without making any reference to the use or advocacy of violence. 
Governmental restrictions on religious freedom both arise from and encourage a societal atmosphere of intolerance against the targeted religious groups. This increasingly hostile climate, in turn, can result in instances of private discrimination, and sometimes even violence, against members of these groups.

Full report here:

Rédigé par EIFRF le Wednesday, May 1st 2013 | Comments (0)

Extracts based on the work of Marco Ventura
Professor of Canon Law / Law and Religion, KU Leuven
See full presentation on the Conference of the 23 April 2013 at Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for more details

1. There is no State discretion in assessing the legitimacy of beliefs. Articles 9 ECHR and 10 EU Charter of Fundamental Rights establish the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The European Court of Human Rights has established and constantly held that ‘the right to freedom of religion as guaranteed under the Convention excludes any discretion on the part of the State to determine whether religious beliefs or the means used to express such beliefs are legitimate.(1)
2. Respect of religious diversity. European law respects and promotes diversity of religious as well as non religious worldviews (22 EU Charter of Fundamental Rights). Law should be enforceable without requiring anyone to embrace or identify with any ideological or religious worldview. The European Court of Human Rights has condemned Spain in the case of six Spanish who were forcibly transferred to a hotel by Catalan police officers and handed over to others to be ‘deprogrammed’ from their membership of a ‘sect’ of which they were alleged to be members, based on the denunciation by a Spanish anti-sect association.(2)
3. Strict scrutiny of admissible restrictions to the expression of beliefs. A religious or non-religious belief in the forum externum can only be restricted subject to very strict conditions set at article 9.2.(3)
4. State neutrality and impartiality. The State has an obligation of neutrality and impartiality towards all beliefs. The European Court of Human Rights has established that ‘the State’s role as the neutral and impartial organiser of the practising of the various religions, denominations and beliefs is conducive to religious harmony and tolerance in a democratic society.(4)
5. Specialty of religion recognized for the sake of its protection and enhancement only. The law can only single out religions and denominations or categories or religions and denominations for the purpose of enhancing their protection or in order to facilitate them.
6. No religion-based discrimination. European law does not allow for discrimination based on religion (5).The European Court of Human Rights has concluded recently that an applicant had been discriminated against on the basis of his religious convictions (as a member of a small faith community) in the exercise of his right to respect for family life, since he had been denied his access rights based on an expert opinion upheld by a domestic court according to which the applicant’s ‘irrational worldview made him incapable of bringing up his child.(6)
7. Religion-related crimes are better repressed through general criminal law. No exception has been accepted to the principle that crimes or violations committed with an alleged religious motivation or under the cloak of religion are adequately repressed through general criminal law.
8. Religious autonomy. European Law recognizes ‘religious autonomy (7), which can be defined as the ‘competence of religious communities to decide upon and administer their own affairs without governmental interference’.
9. Parental religious rights. Article 2 Protocol 1 to the ECHR stipulates that ‘in the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions’. This right can be restricted only if children suffer or are likely to suffer an actual harm. Actual harm has to be strictly defined. The mere transmission within the family of a worldview, which differs from the worldview of the majority does not per se legitimize the State’s interference in the interest of the children. As the European Court of Human Rights has made clear, a distinction between parents ‘based essentially on a difference in religion alone is not acceptable.(8)
10. Objective, critical and pluralistic public school. As established by the ECtHR since 1976 and repeatedly reiterated, ‘the State, in fulfilling the functions assumed by it in regard to education and teaching, must take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. The State is forbidden to pursue an aim of indoctrination that might be considered as not respecting parents’ religious and philosophical convictions. That is the limit that must not be exceeded.(9)

1 ECtHR, Manoussakis and ors v Greece, 29 August 1996, at para 47
2 ECtHR, Riera Blume and ors v Spain, 14 October 1999
3 ECtHR, Handyside v UK, 7 December 1976, at para 49
4 ECtHR, Refah Partisi v Turkey, 31 July 2001, at para 51
5 Article 14 ECHR, 21 EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and 10 TFEU
6 ECtHR, Vojnity v Hungary, 12 February 2013, at para 14
7 See ECtHR, Fernandez Martinez, 15 May 2012, at para 80
8 ECtHR, Hoffmann v Austria, 23 June 1993, at para 36
9 ECtHR, Kjeldsen, Busk Madsen and Pedersen v Denmark, 7 December 1976, at para 53

Rédigé par EIFRF le Wednesday, May 1st 2013 | Comments (0)

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