European Interreligious Forum For Religious Freedom


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Rev. Petar Gramatikov, Vice President of EIFRF, is interviewed here by the World Forum of Religions

Interview of Vice-President of EIFRF by the World Forum of Religions
In this timely interview, Bulgarian Orthodox priest and prominent interfaith leader Petar Gramatikov recalls the oppression of religion during Communism, singles out migration as a key challenge, warns against secularization and anti-clericalism but praises the togetherness of religions on this challenge, and criticizes the position of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church on the Pan-Orthodox Council.

Interview conducted by Mário Nicolini, Executive Director, Forum of the World’s Religions – Slovakia

Could you please tell us something about yourself: who and what inspired you to become a religious leader, what were the formative moments in your life and what keeps you motivated these days?

Frankly speaking, it all began in the 1980’s as a sort of dissident reaction to the totalitarian moral grammar and to the atheistic state indoctrination and ideology. Most formative in my life were certain people – firstly, the extraordinary international leaders who changed the world for the better, president Ronald Reagan and pope John-Paul II; secondly, a Western-Orthodox (of the Uniate Church in my native city of Plovdiv) archimandrite Velik, who did not fear the authorities and gave the first catechetical lessons to schoolchildren. This opened the door of the Christ’s Church for me as well.

Very important for my personal involvement in ecumenical spirituality and interfaith movement were my post-graduate specializations and studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, at the Swiss Ecumenical Institute Bossey of the World Council of Churches, and at the Orthodox Theological Institute of the Ecumenical Patriarchate – Chambesy/Geneva, which is a joint-venture program with the Protestant Theological Faculty of Geneva University and the Catholic Theological Faculty of Fribourg University.

What book would you recommend to every practitioner of interreligious dialogue?

I would like to recommend a small pocket-size book on the personality and deeds of a great contemporary leader of the Ecumenical Orthodoxy, His All Holiness Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, who had a great impact on theory and practice of interreligious dialogue. He is my inspiration as an Orthodox clergyman and theologian. This is the bilingual, Greek-English, edition: Chryssavgis Fr. John, Konstantinos Delikostantis, The Patriarch of Solidarity, 2nd ed., Istanbul, Dec. 2014, 179 p.

What role did religion play during Communism in your country?

Religion in communist Bulgaria was reduced by the totalitarian authorities to a kind of folklore and cultural tradition. The Orthodox faith developed into a sort of neo-pagan practice. There is a popular saying from those times that our faithful flock became religious practitioners “on four wheels” – the first time they entered the church was for baptism, the second time for marriage and the third time for their burial and final departure from this world. It is a valid depiction also for the believers of the second largest traditional religion in Bulgaria, Islam. On the other hand, during this period of both open and hidden, both physical and psychological persecution of religion, all true believers of different ethnic and religious backgrounds were united in their suffering and struggle for human rights and religious freedom. Interfaith dialogue was natural and sincere, because in this combat for civil and religious liberties everybody – all Christian denominations, Muslim and Judaic believers – were on the same side together.

Unfortunately, during the Soviet-dominated era, no religious body protested the invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan, nor was there ever any public protest by religious leaders against actions taken to persecute believers. Bishops and their counterparts in other religions often praised the state for its attitude toward believers. This being said, a number of courageous individuals spoke out at the cost of arrest and imprisonment.

Religious associations had only the most limited possibilities for publishing. On the rare occasions when the Bible was published, the number of printed copies was  pitifully small. Neither were religious associations permitted to import religious books from abroad. Bibles, Korans and prayer books brought to the country by visitors were confiscated at the border during grueling. Only a few institutions of religious education were permitted.

What has – and has not – changed with the Annus Mirabilis 1989?

I like this question of yours very much. Using capitalization for Annus Mirabilis points directly to the title of the poem written by John Dryden published in 1667. It commemorated the London “year of miracles”, 1665–1666, a series of tragedies that included the Great Fire of London, the Great Plague of London and some decisive battles. For Central and Eastern Europe, the year 1989 was the time of our Redemption. It was the “year of miracles” indeed, and with this term we suggest that events could have been worse. In Dryden’s view, God saved Europe from destruction. In our context, God performed miracles in Europe, liberating us from the grasp of Communist ideology and oppression. After these political changes in our part of the European continent and the elimination of fear of public expression of religious beliefs, the space opened for legal interfaith work and mutually beneficial co-operation.

What positive and negative trends  do you see in today’s Europe and how can people of faith help to reinforce the former and mitigate the latter?

Today all religious practitioners are facing secularization and anti-clerical ideologies. They are obliged to stand all together again in defense of the place of religious ethics and moral standards within the framework of Euro-Atlantic values of a United Europe. Today’s togetherness of all religions, at least on a grassroots level, is one of the positive trends.

The most negative trend in today’s Europe is the rise of nationalism and other “-isms”. Nationalism teaches you to be proud of things that you have not achieved, to hate people who you do not know.

How has the migration crisis affected the political, social and interreligious dynamics in Bulgaria and South East Europe? What should be done by civic and religious groups?

The migration crisis affects Bulgaria like the rest of Europe. But it is poverty, an everyday challenge for Bulgarians, which discourages many refugees from seeking shelter in Europe’s poorest nation. “Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction: we need war on it”, said Reverend Jesse Jackson, an iconic American civil rights activist in 2014. Nowadays, much like the US, we are freer — but less equal. The civic and and religious groups are obliged to influence the political milieu and decision-makers in our respective countries to implement the right instruments and standards for the most humane solutions possible regarding resettlement, socialization and integration of refugees in Europe.

What is to be expected of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in Crete? Would it have effect on developments in Bulgaria?

The Russian Orthodox Church is using the stance of the Bulgarian Church as an excuse for not participating in the Synod. The Russian Church will not participate in the Council due to the “non-participation of some of the local Orthodox Churches” and the “breach of the principle of consensus” adopted by the Rules of the Assembly. According to the media, three days before the Bulgarian decision, Russian Patriarch Kiril sent nearly an ultimatum to Patriarch Bartholomew, stating that in case of non-compliance, the Russian Church will not attend the council. Indeed, the letter of the Bulgarian Synod copies parts 4, 5 and 6 of Kiril’s letter.

This is the second time the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) is “taking a position” on the demands of the Russian Church. In January the BOC surprised the world just ten days before the meeting of the primates of the Orthodox sister-churches by conditioning its participation on the settlement of the status of the Czech-Slovak Metropolitan, His Eminence Rostislav. Rostislav had been elected and recognized as Metropolitan by the Moscow Patriarchate, but not by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and other local Orthodox churches. As a result of this Bulgarian ultimatum, which threatened to jeopardize the meeting of the primates, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew acknowledged Rostislav as the Czech-Slovak Metropolitan.

Now the Bulgarian Church is doing the same thing, presenting Russian claims as its own, which reinforces suspicions about its autonomy in making such important decisions on the life of the church. Orthodoxy is not in danger. We are in danger of finding ourselves outside of Orthodoxy!

How are interfaith efforts regarded by the dominant church in your country today? Do you find resonance with the minority churches, religions, spiritual groups?

Today, there are opinions that the problem with the pan-Orthodox Council is due to the fact that now the situation is different than before, when the Ecumenical Councils were controlled by the emperors. Expectations and hopes that the Church and the State still cooperate closely are still present in Orthodoxy. The Catholics and the Protestants have already realized their separation from the State. Many churches will have to realize it for themselves. There is some internal resentment to this dynamic in many Churches due to the fact that they are not accustomed to make decisions on their own. They are closely connected with the state and the church leadership remains too far from the people.

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Rédigé par EIFRF le Tuesday, June 28th 2016 | Comments (0)

French administration recognizes the Philanthropic General Interest character of EIFRF
French administration recognizes the Philanthropic General Interest character of EIFRF.

Last year, EIFRF requested the French fiscal administration to grant EIFRF the status of "pursuing an aim of philanthropic general interest". This status in France allows the donators to deduct 66% of the amount of their donations from their annual taxes. The criteria are very strict, but we were adamant on the fact that EIFRF meets them.

The French fiscal administration refused to grant this status in December. 

So EIFRF appealed that decision before a special college of the French fiscal administration. EIFRF President has been heard by the college in April, in plenary session, to explain the reasons why EIFRF was challenging the first decision.

EIFRF received the final decision of the college today*, and it won! 

French administration granted EIFRF the requested status, so EIFRF is now recognized as pursuing an aim of philanthropic general interest, tax exempted as well as able to have its donators deducting their donations from their annual taxes.

Here is an excerpt of the decision:

"Acting in particular to enhance tolerance between believers of different religions and between believers and atheists, and in favor of peace, non-violence, dialogue of cultures and the meeting between religions, the philanthropic character of EIFRF can be recognized." 

* The decision is dated June 6, 2016

Rédigé par EIFRF le Wednesday, June 8th 2016 | Comments (2)

On April 2, several organizations and individuals, participation to the International Religious Freedom Roundtable either in Europe or in US, wrote to the Knesset in Israel about the Law Proposal for the Handling of Harmful Cults 2015. Here is the letter with the signatories.

Several organisations write to the Knesset, including EIFRF
Dear Members of the Knesset,

We write as an informal group of organizations and individuals who are scholars, religious leaders, human rights advocates and practitioners to express our deep concern about the Law Proposal for the Handling of Harmful Cults 2015. We understand this Law Proposal has already passed its Preliminary Vote and was referred to the Committee on Law, Constitution and Justice to be processed in preparation for submission to the Knesset for a First Vote.

We are a truly multi-faith group, representing a high degree of diversity. While there is very little we agree on theologically, or politically, we all agree on the importance of religious freedom for all faiths and none. It strengthens cultures and provides the foundation for stable democracies and their components, including civil society, economic growth, and social harmony. As such, it is also the ultimate counter-terrorism weapon, pre-emptively undermining religious extremism.

We are aware of the difficulties Israel faces regarding such religious issues, and it deserves our empathy as such. Yet, we respectfully urge members of the Knesset to reject this Law Proposal for the Handling of Harmful Cults because of threats it poses to the fundamental human rights and freedoms that are formally recognized in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel and protected by the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, decisions of the Supreme Court of Israel, international human rights covenants—especially the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)—and customary international law.

When evaluated within these legal frameworks, the Law Proposal raises a number of serious problems. Distinguished academic scholars and legal experts from Israel, Europe and the United States have made valid points in voicing great concerns “in view of the manifest violations of the rights of religious organizations, the generalities inherent in the proposed law’s language, and the abuses it would perpetuate in Israeli society.”

Specifically, the issues of concern articulated by these scholars and legal experts are detailed in the bullet points below.
From the Position Paper of the MEIDA Center at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute:

 The definition (of “Harmful Cult”) relies on the theory of “Mind Control,” which is not accepted in academic research and was rejected by legislative bodies and the supreme courts in Israel and abroad. Moreover, this concept negates the belief in the personal autonomy and responsibility of individuals and their accountability for their actions (the Israeli Supreme Court dealt extensively in the case of the followers of Elior Hen).

 Appointing a custodian to a legal adult who has chosen freely to join a group, even if a harmful one, is a disproportionate violation of individual autonomy, without any proper academic and psychological backing.

 Our position is that the existing laws in the Israeli legal corpus are sufficient, and the new law is unnecessary. The State of Israel has no difficulty in indicting and convicting cult leaders under existing criminal offenses. See, e.g., the convictions of Goel Ratzon (sentenced to thirty years in prison) and D.A. (sentenced to twenty-six years in prison).

From Tel Aviv University Professor Asa Kasher:

 The law proposal is incompatible with the moral and judicial fundamental principles of the State of Israel, both as a Democratic State and as a Jewish State, the Nation-State of the Jewish people.

 Preventing criminal offenses in a religious denomination is not a proper purpose for imposing legal restrictions on the general operation of a religious denomination.

From Patricia Duval, an international human rights attorney in France:

 The European Court of Human Rights, in Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow v. Russia on 10 June 2010, found that “there is no generally accepted and scientific definition of what constitutes ‘mind control’” (§129). The Court noted that, “as long as self-dedication to religious matters is the product of the believer’s independent and free decision and however unhappy his or her family members may be about that decision,” the believers’ rights has to be protected.

 Classifying religious groups into “religions” and “cults” is a violation of international human rights standards, especially the ICCPR. It is impermissible and arbitrary for the government to confer protection on “religions” while denying protection and enacting oppressive measures against “cults.”

 The UN Human Rights Committee elaborated a General Comment 22 to detail what the construction and application of the Article 18 of the ICCPR should be. General Comment 22 finds that freedom of religion is not limited in its application to traditional religions and that any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reason, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility by a predominant religious community, contravenes Article 18 of the ICCPR.

From an open letter to members of the Knesset by a group of distinguished academic scholars from the United States and many other countries:

 Viewed from abroad, what is going on in Israel appears as a curious remake of the “cult wars” that we witnessed decades ago in the United States and Europe. As it happened during the “cult wars” a small number of apostates, who were not typical of the majority of members who left the new religious movements harboring no particular grievance against them, were promoted by the moral entrepreneurs of the anti-cult movement. They were mistaken for typical ex-members and received a disproportionate attention by certain media.

 Those who support the law rely on the experiences of a few disgruntled ex-members. In some cases, less than ten ex-members are regarded as the only reliable sources about groups including thousands of followers.

 Militant anti-cultists have a very limited and partial experience of the groups they criticize based on the anecdotal stories of a few former members, unlike professional scholars who use broader quantitative and qualitative methods and whose works, before being published, are thoroughly reviewed by their peers.

From Dr. H. Newton Maloney, a retired senior professor from the Fuller Theological Seminary in the United States:

 The supporters of this law promote the same theories used by anti-religious deprogrammers to justify kidnapping members of various faiths in the United States (including Jews and Christians as well as new religious movements) and beating them into renouncing their faiths, a criminal practice that has resulted in criminal convictions and multi-million dollar judgments against individuals in the former United States anti-religious movement. By 1987, the American Psychological Association had rejected these theories as unscientific. And even in recent years, two United States Courts (including a Federal Appeals Court) have rejected this spurious theory.

 Thus, in the United States, the “debate” in which the Knesset is now engaged about whether any religion “brainwashes” its adherents, was concluded and relegated to historical commentary as an incident of prejudicial hysteria brought on by a quack psychologist.

If Israel adopts this Law Proposal, it will have taken a major step backwards in terms of religious freedom, tolerance and the rights of religious minorities. The Law Proposal should be rejected. Thank you for your consideration.













Sheikh Hussain Labib Abu-Rukun
Druze Council for the Preservation of the Druze Heritage, Ussafia

Father Aethelwine
Orthodox Chaplain
York St John University (UK)

Raffaella Di Marzio
Psychologist of Religion
Member of the Managing Board, Italian Society of Psychology of Religion (SIPR) Member of the Editorial Board, Psychology of Religion e-Journal (PRej)

Danny Diskin
Interfaith Alliance, UK

Patricia Duval
Human Rights Attorney, Paris, France

Dan Fefferman
International Coalition for Religious Freedom

Professor Urbano Alonso Galan
Doctor in Philosophy and a Licenciate in Theology (cum Laude) Gregorian University and the Saint Bonaventure Pontifical Faculty, Rome

Dr. Joel C. Hunter
Senior Pastor
Northland - A Church Distributed

Professor (Emeritus) Rimon Kasher
Bar-Ilan University

Adnan Ul Haq Khan
Ambassador at Large
Council of Pakistan American Affairs

Greg Mitchell
President, The Mitchell Firm
Co-Chair, International Religious Freedom Roundtable

Geoffrey Morris
Elmbridge Multifaith Forum

Revd Dr Kevin Snyman
Synod Mission Enabler,
West Midlands Synod, United Reformed Church, UK

William C. Walsh
Human Rights Attorney
Bisceglie & Walsh

Rédigé par EIFRF le Tuesday, April 5th 2016 | Comments (0)

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