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Religious Liberty in Europe (1)

Report Published by Aid to the Church in Need

ROME, AUGUST 06, 2006 (Zenit) - Here is an adapted excerpt from a report by the charity Aid to the Church in Need on religious freedom.

This installment deals with Europe. Part 2 will appear early next week.

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Armenia

The right to freedom of worship was fully respected in 2005 in Armenia.

The ecumenical dialogue between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Catholic Church is very lively, as also confirmed by the telegram sent by the Catholicos Karekin II for the death of Pope John Paul II.

There are still problems concerning military service. On this subject, more than 20 Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested in 2005 for having refused to do their military service for religious reasons. They all later also abandoned community service, objecting to the fact that it was not really an alternative to military service since it comes under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense.

On the basis of the commitments undertaken with the Council of Europe, Armenia was meant to have implemented community service as of Jan. 1, 2004.

Azerbaijan

Problems linked to military service were apparent in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-majority enclave of Azerbaijan, where compulsory military service is justified, and where conscientious objectors for religious reasons are often imprisoned.

Belgium

On March 20, 2005, after the formulation of a detailed electoral law, elections were held in Belgium for electing the 68 members of the Belgian Council of Islamic Communities, which then appointed an executive committee of 17 people to act as interlocutors with the government authorities.

Numerous observers remarked that the administration's hyperactive secular attitude follows almost to the letter the French one. That attitude caused serious controversies and restrictive provisions against the new religious movements, both on the subject of "brainwashing" and against Muslims, especially as far as the women's Islamic veils are concerned.

Belarus

On Nov. 12, 2002, a new law on freedom of worship came into force in Belarus, attributing the role of the country's official religion to Orthodoxy, and acknowledging the "Catholic Church's spiritual, cultural and historical role in the territory of Belarus," as well as the "inalienability of the Lutheran Church from the history of this nation."

Orthodox Judaism and Sunni Islam are also recognized.

The state says it has a duty to defend the Orthodox Church from sects, which are considered dangerous and severely punished. The authorities therefore control all religious activities very strictly.

As a consequence of this law, all religious communities must re-register. Most have managed to comply with all that is requested, but a certain number (22 of the 2,783 organizations existing in 2002) have not managed to obtain new registration due to problems linked to the absence of a legally valid address, or because their statutes or number of members did not satisfy legal requirements.

In particular, the Orthodox Churches operating independently from the Moscow Patriarchate encountered problems.

The government has declared illegal the religious activities of all non-registered communities and has adopted strict measures to enforce the restrictions.

In 2005 the Charismatic Church of the New Life, the New Generation Church and Hare Krishna were the object of persecution.

Cyprus

During a visit to Moscow in January 2006, President Tassos Papandopoulos of Cyprus accused Turkey of destroying Christian churches in the northern part of the island, controlled by the government in Ankara.

According to the president, quoted by the Interfax news agency, "the criminal Turkish occupation" over the past 30 years has led to the "organized looting of holy places and the systematic plundering" of the Orthodox cultural heritage in northern Cyprus.

On that same morning, Papandopoulos also met the Moscow Patriarch Alexy II, and during this meeting reported that 350 churches have been destroyed or used for entertainment, and even as stables for cattle.

France

France's interventionist attitude on the subject of new religions led to the establishment of the Interministerial Monitoring Mission Against Sectarian Abuses (Miviludes) and the drafting of a "black list" of groups apparently belonging to sects. This attitude was corrected with a circular letter from the prime minister to replace this list with assessment criteria drawn from the Miviludes' conclusions.

The Conseil fran├žais du culte musulman (CFCM) is recognized as the state's interlocutor for relations with Muslims.

The council has reported of initiatives for integrating through language courses the imams coming from abroad who will preach religious instruction in French mosques, adding Muslim "chaplains" to the army and building more places of worship.

There appears to be tension within the CFCM between the various Muslims schools of thought, and this may be why elections for the Board of Directors was postponed from April to June 2005.

Georgia

Policies implemented by President Mikheil Saakashvili, in power since January 2004, appear to have improved the juridical situation for religious communities in Georgia, although it remains unstable.

The Orthodox Church benefits from a number of privileges guaranteed by a concordat signed in 2002. The pact provides the Orthodox Church with authority over all religious issues, in particular the importation of religious literature and the building of places of worship for all religions which must be authorized by the patriarchate.

The Catholic Church is seen as a foreign and antagonist entity by the Orthodox Church and is accused of proselytism and expansionism.

The absence of an agreement between the Holy See and the government -- the signing of which was suspended at the last minute in 2003 following the unrest and massive protests orchestrated by the Orthodox Church -- has for the moment prevented the acknowledgment of the Catholic Church as a juridical body.

Nevertheless, a number of religious communities in the country are dissatisfied with this solution. In particular Catholics, Muslims and followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church oppose registration that puts them on the same level as nongovernmental organizations, and instead request the introduction in the Civil Code of new amendments allowing them to obtain registration as public religious organizations.

There also been the adoption of a new law on education separating state schools from religious instruction.

Greece

In spite of the well-known lack of openness to ecumenical dialogue, during May 2005 the Orthodox Church in Greece hosted in Athens an international conference of the World Council of Churches, entitled "World Mission and Evangelism."

During this conference, as reported by Fides, one of the main papers entitled "Reconciliation: Postmodernity's Greatest Conflict" was presented by the Orthodox theologian Athanasios Papathanasiou.

The same source reports that the Patriarch Christodoulos, in his welcoming address to the more than 700 participants, spoke appreciative words about ecumenical efforts and the call to recuperate missionary good will within the context of prevailing globalization.

Macedonia

There are reports of persecutions, including dismissal from the workplace and searches, perpetrated by the Autocephalous Orthodox Church in Macedonia.

The Serb Orthodox Church, led by the Metropolitan Bishop Vranisskovski and based in Ohrid, did not in fact obtain compulsory registration form the government. Deprived of this recognition, this church cannot own property, nor can it carry out pastoral activities and can be prosecuted as an illegal organization.

Moldova

The only European country alongside France that has forbidden religious instruction in state schools is Moldova. And there may be further restriction on issues concerning freedom of worship after the Communist party's victory in the March 2005 general election.

The government has decidedly sided with Moldavian Orthodox Church linked to the Patriarchate of Moscow and rules for the compulsory registration of new cults -- introduced by Parliament in 2002 as amendments to the law on religions promulgated in 1992 -- requiring the presentation of finalities and a statute, as well as enrollment in a public register within a month of requesting recognition.

The court can reject a request if the organization carries out political activities or endangers the republic's independence, sovereignty, integrity or security as well as public order.

For the moment, 21 organizations have been recognized, but the state is still denying recognition to many religious movements, such as the Mormons, a number of Muslim groups and the Moldavian True Orthodox Church.

United Kingdom

The terrorist attacks on July 7, 2005, in the London underground resulted in public opinion in the United Kingdom reacting in a hostile manner to the manner in which local Muslim communities are treated and judged as excessively lenient.

Although many in the Islamic world condemned the massacre, and a delegation of Muslims was received by the Prime Minister Tony Blair, the government approved a law against inciting religious hatred. The law, which integrated the existing one that addresses racial hatred, divided public opinion.

The ban against the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, preventing both him and the Church of Unification from entering the country, was revoked after 10 years, since they are no longer considered a threat to public order. The church has few members in the United Kingdom.

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