Religious Freedom

by Dr Philip Walters, 11 October 2002

A talk on the BBC World Service's 'World Update' programme, broadcast on Friday 11 October. You may listen to the programme via the internet at any time until 10.00 on Monday 14 October at http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/programmes/world_update.shtml

Three Baptists are fined 200,000 roubles each for singing religious songs in the open air. Police break up a Hindu meditation ceremony in a public park. Troops in camouflage uniforms surround a village, block off the roads and bulldoze the church. Scenes from the Soviet Union in communist times, with its ideology of militant atheism? No, scenes from a European country, the former Soviet republic of Belarus in the summer of this year, 2002.

Religious freedom and religious repression are lively issues today in the heart of a Europe in the process of enlargement.

When communism collapsed in the Soviet Union in 1991 there was complete religious liberty. Into what had been an ideological fortress streamed dozens and dozens of well-financed western evangelical organisations and new religious movements. The nationalists and communists protested: they saw this as aggressive American-backed cultural imperialism, with MacDonalds and Moonies alike part of the same strategy. They were joined in their protest by the self-styled 'traditional' religions which had been allowed a limited existence under communism: chiefly the Russian Orthodox Church, claiming to be the natural faith of the Russian people.

In 1997 a new law in Russia placed a whole range of restrictions on so-called 'non-traditional' faiths. The authorities got the green light to take measures against any religious group they chose. Over the last year the main target has been the Roman Catholic Church in Russia. Six priests and one bishop have been denied entry visas. Protestant missionaries, mostly American, have also been increasingly targeted, the grounds for keeping them out said to be considerations of 'national security'.

'National security' is an instinctive preoccupation of President Putin, a former employee of the Soviet secret police. Since 11 September last year governments worldwide have taken up the theme too. In this climate repressive regimes such as those of several of the traditionally Islamic republics of former Soviet Central Asia have been able to clamp down on all kinds of dissent within their countries, in the name of combating terrorism. 'Today there are 1600 so-called Islamic extremists held in Uzbekistan's prisons,' says an Uzbek human rights worker. 'Their only fault is that they are devout Muslims and observe all the religious rituals'.

The US State Department's annual report on international religious freedom, published this week, criticises Russia and five other former Soviet states, noting persecution of Muslims in Central Asia and favouritism shown elsewhere for the Russian Orthodox Church. Just last week a new law on religion was passed in Belarus. If it is signed by the president, which seems inevitable, it will be the most repressive in Europe: unregistered religious activity will be illegal, all religious literature will be subject to censorship, foreign citizens will be banned from leading religious organisations, and religious meetings in private homes will be severely restricted.

Religious freedom problems are particularly acute in some of the former communist countries; but they should be set in the context of increasing constraints on religious liberty in some Western European countries too. The State Department report criticises Belgium, France and Germany for restrictions on groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses. Since the early 1990s Western governments have been increasingly concerned at the activities of what they call 'cults' or 'sects'. In May 2001 the French government adopted the 'About-Picard' law which not only allows the authorities to shut down a religious group if two of its members are convicted of various named offences but also bans that religious group from re-forming itself under a different name.

It is known that several governments worldwide, including the government of China with its repressive religious policy, are taking a lively interest in the French law. China is also criticised in the State Department's report, and has just condemned the report as 'a rude interference in China's internal affairs'. The preservation of religious liberty in the world today, including Europe, is increasingly a matter for concern and vigilance. (END)

Dr Philip Walters philip.walters@keston.org is editor of the quarterly academic journal 'Religion, State & Society' and Head of Research at the Keston Institute in Oxford.

© BBC World Service 2002. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.