EASTERN EUROPE: Freedom of religion or belief still under serious threat

25.09.2013, 15:22

Concern centres on fears that governments in some Central and Eastern European countries are increasingly restricting their citizens’ ability to practice their religion.

It is an issue particularly important – and topical – given the time pressures being brought to bear in signing association agreements with six Eastern Neighbourhood countries at the Vilnius summit in Lithuania in November.

The threat to religious freedoms was the subject of a recent high-profile debate in the European Parliament in Brussels.

Hosted by Slovenian MEP Jelko Kacin alongside the EU Ukraine Business Council and Human Rights Without Frontiers, the seminar aimed to review the “increasingly worrying” situation regarding the status of religious freedom and beliefs in the Eastern Neighbourhood countries (ENP).

The seminar highlighted “worrying” instances where governments of countries such as Hungary, Romania, Ukraine and Moldova are restricting their citizens’ ability to practice their religion.

Opening the seminar was Willy Fautre, Director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, a leading Brussels-based NGO, who said there was particular concern about Ukraine where he said social hostility against newer religious movements is a “huge problem” and where an increasing number of incidents of vandalism have been reported in regards to religious minorities.

Fautre said that, “Governments in a number of ENP countries impose legislation which denies the registration and carrying out religious activities. Education should be the primary solution.”

In Ukraine, he said that Jehovah’s Witnesses had reported “continued harassment, physical attacks, and disruption of religious services.”

As a result of the “inaction” of law enforcement officials, vandalism and arson of Kingdom Halls increased between 2010 and 2013. In 2010 there were five reported incidents of vandalism and arson and 15 in 2011.

In 2012 and the first five months of 2013, the Witnesses experienced 73 acts of vandalism against their houses of worship. In the same period, there were 20 physical assaults against them. Law enforcement authorities, he said, classify these attacks as hooliganism or property crime-”not recognizing they are actually hate crimes.”

In a number of cases, authorities have identified the ones responsible but have not brought them to justice.

But the situation is not confined to Ukraine.

In Moldova, Fautre says that even the burial of deceased members of religious minorities in rural areas is occasionally met with the resistance of certain Orthodox groups who want the local cemetery (owned by the municipality) to remain free of graves of other denominations, such as Baptists, Methodists or Pentecostals.

“As a result of such aggressive opposition, in some cases, funerals had to be postponed and the bereaved faced difficulties in burying their loved ones in a dignified way, which is obviously an appalling situation,” he says.

Elsewhere, a young Catholic layman in Belarus who turned his home in a western Belarus village into a shelter for homeless people, with its own prayer room, is now being accused of leading an unregistered religious organisation, the seminar was told.

One area of concern in Georgia, he said, was that minority religious groups are viewed by some as a threat to the national church and the country’s cultural values.

Some religious groups reported that Georgian Orthodox Church priests warned leaders of local minority congregations that after the October 1 parliamentary elections they would no longer be allowed to hold services in their respective villages.

Azerbaijan is the only secular Muslim country in the world - a “positive heritage” from the Soviet regime - but Fautre added, “However, several negative points, especially concerning freedom of association and worship, need to be highlighted and are under discussion with the Council of Europe Venice Commission.”

Other speakers at the event on 18 September also shared his concern about the current situation in Ukraine.

They included Svitlana Kutsenko, a member of the Embassy of God Protestant Church in Kyiv, who accused the Ukrainian government of discriminating against the right to freedom of conscience and religion in the country.

Part of the panel focused on the anti-Semitism present in Europe, which  over the years has been steadily increasing, with governments accused of failing to address the issue.

Rotyslav Ishchenko, Director of the Systematic Analysis and Forecasting Centre, expressed concern about the Svoboda Party in Ukraine which is gaining popularity “despite being a party with neo-Nazi ideologies.”

Ishchenko claimed that the current government in Ukraine is “hailing Fascists as heroes.”

“The EU needs to put pressure on the Ukrainian government to criminalise any fascist, nationalist or anti-Semitism activities.”

David Attar, who is the Mayor of Gilboa municipality in Israel, said that in regards to joining the European Union, “all EU member states should emphasise common standards and benchmarks for each of the six ENP countries, especially as Europe is seeing an increase in attacks on Jewish communities.”

He added, “The situation is very grave in countries such as Hungary and Romania and there are also concerns regarding the rise of radical anti-Semitic campaigning in Ukraine, where UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army has been celebrated despite their ties to fascism.

“There is a need for states attempting to sign association agreements with the EU to reconsider their stance on human rights and religious freedom.”

The underlying message of the event in Brussels was the need to manage the level of anti-Semitism via channels of education, media and training programmes. The speakers appealed to Members of the European Parliament to help tackle these issue, a plea strongly supported by former Knesset member Leon Litinetsky.

In summary, James Wilson, Director of EU Ukraine Business Council, maintained that there is a need to address these issues in a wider context by communicating to the EU institutions that there is “still much to be done” in the ENP countries ahead of Vilnius summit.

He recommends that a joint statement be sent to MEPs and the European Parliament to convey some of the ideas generated by the seminar, notably that it was now time for the European Commission to consider appointing a Commissioner for Human Rights, and that funding be made available for human rights training in the ENP to promote greater understanding and tolerance of different religious beliefs.

Martin Banks

23 September 2013