OSCE Meeting Discusses Challenges Related to Freedom of Religion or Belief

December 2010 – Vienna

The OSCE/ODIHR Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Religion or Belief took place at the Hofburg Conference Center in Vienna on 9-10 December 2010. Representatives from the 56 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), from civil society, and from international organizations gathered to review the current status of religious freedom in the OSCE area and to discuss how to promote freedom of religion or belief and to respond to emerging challenges. Special sessions were devoted to sensitive topics such as education and religious symbols and expression.  

“Since the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, freedom of religion or belief has been one of the main pillars of the OSCE’s human dimension commitments. Participating States have committed themselves to respect the right to change one’s religion or belief and to manifest religion or belief, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private, through worship, teaching, practice and observance. They also emphasized the importance of strengthening interfaith and intercultural dialogue to promote greater tolerance, respect and mutual understanding.”

This meeting was organized jointly by Kazakhstan’s OSCE Chairmanship and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).

Report from ODIHR:  At the opening of the conference on 9 December, ODIHR Director Ambassador Janez Lenarčič and Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief called on states to remove undue restrictions on the fundamental freedom of religion or belief. Ambassador Lenarčič noted that there were still countries in the OSCE region where individuals and groups could not freely study religion, assemble to worship, disseminate religious literature or establish charitable organizations. Mr. Bielefeldt stressed that everyone was entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, without any discrimination based on religion or belief: “Freedom of thought, conscience and religion includes freedom to change one’s religion or belief and freedom to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Prior to start of the conference, staff from ODIHR and members of ODIHR’s Advisory Council on Freedom of Religion or Belief provided a one-day training session on 8 December for 23 participants from non-governmental organizations and religious or belief communities from all parts of the OSCE region. The training focused on international standards in the field and practical application of the standards, “especially in relation to issues such as the registration of religious associations and access to places of worship, as well as religious symbols, education, and discrimination.”