5 October 2006 – Russian Federation
The European Court of Human Rights has handed down a ruling on the “CASE OF THE MOSCOW BRANCH OF THE SALVATION ARMY v. RUSSIA.” The court found in favor of the Moscow Branch and awarded 10,000 Euros in damages.
3 November 2006 – Istanbul
The Summit for Religious Leaders of Muslim Countries and Communities of Africa, hosted by the Directorate of Religious Affairs of Turkey, began with a ceremony on Wednesday at the Dolmabahce Palace on the shores of the Bosphorus in Istanbul.
15 May 2007 – Brussels
Leading representatives of the three monotheistic religions met on 15 May 2007 in the Berlaymont building on the initiative of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. Together with German Chancellor and European Council President Angela Merkel and European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pattering, President Barroso co-hosted the discussions, which were attended by 20 leading representatives of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths in Europe. He had hosted similar meetings in 2005 and 2006, but this is the first time such a gathering had taken place under the auspices of Commission, European Parliament and Council Presidencies. The topic chosen for this year’s discussion was “Building a Europe based on human dignity.” European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pattering said: “Tolerance, one of the European Union’s core values, is the basis for a dialogue between cultures that has as its goals cooperation, partnership and mutual respect between cultures and religions. Mutual respect based on human dignity is a shared European value. The different religious traditions in Europe can all make a positive contribution to the public debate and the shaping of a European Union of values. This is why we need to have an ongoing dialogue between the European Union’s institutions and the churches and religious communities.”
22 August 2007 – Norway
Two important Christian and Muslim groups signed a joint declaration Wednesday supporting the right to convert between religions without fear of harassment as a basic religious freedom. The Church of Norway Council on Ecumenical and International Relation and the Islamic Council of Norway, which have met regularly since 1993, said they believe this is the world’s first such joint declaration by national religious organizations. “We reject and want to work against violence, discrimination and harassment due to a person wanting to convert or having converted from one religion to another,” said the declaration, signed by Tveit and Shoaib M. Sutlan, secretary general of the Islamic Council. Sultan said conversion between Islam and Christianity was uncommon in Norway, “but it is still important to establish this important principle.”
27 August 2007 – Serbia & Montenegro
A Serbian court in the municipality of Velika Plana has awarded custody of an 8-month-old baby girl to her father because the baby’s mother was believed to be a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The mother, who says she is not a member of the religious group, is now taking legal action against the judge responsible for the custody ruling. Observers say the case reveals disturbing details about Serbia’s judicial procedures as well as its attitudes toward religious minorities. The judge made his ruling in the course of divorce proceedings, and awarded primary custody rights to the father despite the fact that the baby was still breastfeeding.
28 August 2007 – Belgium
By Lucia Kubosova
The European Commission is considering whether to launch an investigation into tax exemptions provided by the Italian state to the Catholic Church in Italy. “There is no investigation for the moment. We have addressed the Italian authorities and asked them for information about this,” the commission’s spokesman for competition told journalists on Tuesday (28 August). He added that the EU executive is looking into “certain tax concessions” enjoyed by the Italian church, such as an exemption from communal tax, real estate tax or company tax. A similar query has been launched into the activities and tax provisions for the Catholic church in Spain and Belgium, the spokesman added.
29 August 2007 – Russian Federation
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexiy II, told an Italian paper that a first meeting with Pope Benedict would only make sense if the Vatican gave up any missionary ambition to spread Catholicism in his country.
4 September 2007 – Belgium
A US Department of State spokesman commented on the recommendation of a Belgian prosecutor that the Church of Scientology stand trial for fraud and extortion, following a ten-year investigation, which concluded the group should be labeled a criminal organization. The spokesman said that if authorities have evidence that Belgian law was violated, appropriate legal steps should be taken, consistent with Belgium’s obligations to protect freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. He reiterated, however, that the US would oppose any effort to stigmatize a group based on its religious beliefs, and would be concerned about any infringement of individual rights based on religious affiliation.
December 2008 – Brussels
“Europeana,” Europe’s single-source multilingual online portal, has opened the door to free digital access to books stored by national libraries all over Europe. Also included are other digital works from cultural institutions including, paintings, music, maps, manuscripts, newspapers, and even ancient vessels.
October 2008 – Florence
A seminar held 30-31 October 2008 at the University of Florence and organized by the Academy of European Law (ERA) in cooperation with the Fondazione per la formazione forense at the Florence Bar Association and the Giovanni Fabbrini University Center for studies in Civil Justice at the University of Florence, revealed that collective legal action is clearly developing in Europe. Areas of application include equal treatment and discrimination litigation. European jurisdictions have either implemented or are preparing legislation…
October 2008 – Venice
The European Commission for Democracy through Law, better known as the Venice Commission, is the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters. Established in 1990, the commission has played a leading role in the adoption of constitutions that conform to the standards of Europe’s constitutional heritage. On 17-18 October 2008, the Venice Commission adopted a report titled “The relationship between freedom of expression and freedom of religion: the issue of regulation and prosecution of blasphemy, religious insult…
October 2008 – Paris, Collège des Bernardins
On 10 October 2008, the President of European Parliament spoke to members of French Parliament in Paris, urging tolerance and religious pluralism. In a speech entitled “Christians in Politics – European Prospects,” Mr. Hans Gert Pöttering called on Christians to “Dare to do politics,” later reflecting that “[a]t times it can be difficult for committed Christians to publicly assert their beliefs in places where there is a strong current of militant secularism.” Speaking of Europe, he said, “The purpose of today’s conference is to throw some light on the role that committed Christians can play in politics in Europe. In this context, it is worth recalling that many of the founding fathers of the European Union—Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman—held deep Christian convictions and their faith contributed to their vision of constructing a peaceful Europe founded on the cornerstone of respect for the fundamental dignity of every human being. “In the European Union our underlying principles have prevailed and continue to form the basis of our Union, as outlined in its latest revision of its primary law—In the shape of the Lisbon Reform Treaty. Democracy, rule of law, human rights, freedom of expression—all these are part of our values.” He referred to the European Union as “[a] Union of States and of peoples, based on shared values,” and continued, “In fact, I believe that it is not possible to understand the ethos of the European Union without reference to these roots…. The European Union is a credible community of values only when the dignity of the individual is the yardstick for every one of our initiatives and decisions…. The European Union must never rest from fighting for the dignity of human beings in all phases of their lives and under every one of the world’s political systems. That is the most important political contribution we can make to the credibility of Europe in a world that looks to us for moral guidance.́”
Speaking of the persecution of religious minorities, Mr. Pöttering said, “As politicians we have a duty to condemn such persecution and seek to exert pressure on the authorities in the countries concerned, to protect minorities and create a climate of tolerance. “But closer to home, we can also witness examples of intolerance. Religious freedom in Europe must mean more than just freedom to go to one’s house of worship. The special contribution of believers extends to such areas of public life as education, health care and social work—all elements of seeking to respond to the dignity of each human person and helping them to live a full and decent life. “Against this background, it is important to assert the right of Christians who are engaged in public life to act in a way that is compatible with their faith convictions. This is not to say that they are simply following instructions given by their church. No, what they are doing is to take decisions based on sound ethical considerations. “We need people of conviction to play their part in all areas of public life, and in politics in particular; this applies at the local, national and European levels.”
To view the website of the President of the European Parliament, click the link below.
October 2008 – Strasbourg
The European Court of Human Rights was created in Strasbourg by the Council of Europe Member States in 1959 to treat alleged violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. In 1998 the Court began to operate on a full-time basis to guarantee a right of individual petition to over 800 million Europeans. The scope of the Court’s activity is significant. The President of the Court, Jean-Paul Costa, speaking in Strasbourg, said: “…the last ten years, … have seen over 9,000 judgments delivered. Human rights jurisprudence has evolved into a common language understood and used by legal professionals and others throughout Europe and beyond.” Citing the fact that 200 applications are received every day by the court, President Costa called for additional adaptation and reform in order for the Court to fully fulfill its role as a guarantor of democracy and the rule of law in the 47 States of its jurisdiction. Calling attention to the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he called upon all Council of Europe member Governments “to reaffirm their commitment to effective international human rights protection, while ensuring that their domestic systems offer citizens the possibility to seek redress for human rights breaches at home.” To mark the 10th anniversary, the Court has launched a dramatically improved web portal, which significantly improves access to the workings of the Court and of the Council of Europe and all its affiliated organizations. A useful overview of the situation and outlook of the Court can be read on the link to its seminar held on 13 October 2008.
October 2008 – Brussels
In exercise of its oversight role, the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights held an exchange of views with a representative of the Council who participates in the human rights dialogue with Russia. The subject of the exchange of views was the most recent dialogue, which took place on October 21, 2008. A report of the meeting and its sequel follows. The Council representative began by reviewing the context of the meeting, including the flawed conduct of Russia’s May presidential elections, subsequent internal repressions, and military actions in Georgia. In August and September there had been angry exchanges with EU leaders, a flaunted ceasefire agreement, and a tumultuous exchange of views with Russian diplomats who brought screaming South Ossetian ‘victims’ to the European Parliament. The dialogue group had questioned whether the Russians might fail to appear for their scheduled day-long Human Rights Bilateral Dialogue meeting. But on the appointed day the Russians appeared. Their head negotiator was uncharacteristically solicitous of understanding, saying that he had been ordered to read a statement, but they were willing to talk after reading the statement. Content of the statement was not revealed. As earlier agreed, the EU began the dialogue with a detailed report on racism and xenophobia within its member states, including EU-level research and actions relative to the problem. This presentation was made in response to a challenge from Russia at the prior dialogue session. “We welcomed the Russian challenge because it provides a chance to be open and frank about something Europe must continue to improve. Responding gives us leverage to expect more openness on their part. The Russians have a gross internal problem with racism and xenophobia; they have no ability to study it objectively and no history of responding to it constructively. Talking openly about the issue can help both parties improve themselves.”
Subjects raised by the EU Representatives during the EU-Russia Human Rights Dialogue: The arbitrary closure of large numbers of NGOs and voluntary associations across Russia: “We also raised the topic of freedom of expression and hate speech related to the language they have been using internally with regard to Georgians and other of their own minorities.” The continued militarization of the North Caucasus situation: “Russian behavior there is based on seeing it as a terrorist threat rather than evidence of a need to increase dialogue, invite participation, build trust, develop cooperation toward commonly agreed goals and in the hope of an integrated future.” Violence against women and children: “The Russians have serious problems in this area. We can also improve on this dimension.” The implementation of rulings from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg: “The Russians have a long list of rulings which they have not fully acted upon and they admit to an increasing backlog of cases before the Court. They said they have placed a special diplomat in Strasbourg to work with the Court.” [A number of these rulings involve religious persecution, including mistreatment of foreign missionaries.]
Questions raised by the Russian side: The financial crisis: What is the impact of the financial crisis on the well being of our populations, particularly the most poor? (The cost of a consumer’s shopping basket has risen by 25% in Moscow over the last six weeks, while staying stable in Brussels.) Western media independence: Why are European media so negative toward Russia and so positive toward Georgia? “The Russians are vexed that we make no attempt to control the press, and do not understand that we depend on journalists to be independent and informative.” The whole notion of holding a dialogue with the EU on human rights issues: “The Russians asked ‘Why does the EU insist on these dialogues? They are redundant. We prefer to treat human rights issues at Strasbourg,’.” We take that as an opportunity to increase our pressure on them in Strasbourg. Our behavior should be coherent everywhere. Internal coherence is as important to us as we want it to be for the Russians. We can admit to needing to live more in line with our external commitments.”
Continuing with this question, the Council representative said: “With regard to these bilateral human rights dialogues, a difference between us and the Russians is that we see a ‘before’ and we work persistently toward an ‘after.’ They are putting up with the inconvenience of sitting with us. We have learned persistence through finding out how to live alongside ourselves. We will pursue a greater coherence between our actions in these dialogues and our actions in Geneva and Strasbourg regarding the Russians. We will also remind ourselves that we have internal improvements to make on every one of these dimensions.” Reactions from invited expert and from Members of the European Parliament University expert, Professor Merlin, returned from Siberia over the weekend. The essence of her remarks is as follows:
Final comments from the Council representative:
November 2008 – The Hague
On 12-13 November 2008 in The Hague (Netherlands) a conference titled “Human Rights in Culturally Diverse Societies: Challenges and Perspectives” was held to discuss how respect for human rights can enable highly diverse societies to remain cohesive. The aim of the discussions was to contribute to the development of human rights policy approaches to better manage Europe’s cultural diversity. Questions discussed include: Is freedom of speech unlimited? What should be the relation between state and religion? How can full…
November 2008 – Rome
Muslims and Catholics meeting in Rome on 6 November 2008 issued a joint call for religious freedom following historic inter-faith talks at the Vatican. Two years earlier Pope Benedict XVI sparked Muslim outrage over a speech seen as linking Islam with violence. At the end of last year 138 Muslim scholars issued a declaration of non-violence and an invitation to dialogue. Representatives of these scholars met with Roman Catholic leadership to draft the 15-point final declaration issued this month. It urges non-violence, an equitable global financial system and respect for human life “in all its stages.”
December 2008 – Brussels
The Handbook on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Armed Forces Personnel is the product of a research project initiated in January 2005 and conducted by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) in cooperation with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The manual presents an overview of legislation, policies and mechanisms within the OSCE region, outlining models or ‘best practices’ of how military structures can successfully integrate human rights and fundamental freedoms. The project recommends to participating States measures that should be taken in order to ensure that policies and practices are in full compliance with international human rights standards and OSCE human dimension commitments. One full chapter gives guidelines on respect for religion and belief. The handbook is aimed at all individuals who play a role in promoting, protecting, and enforcing human rights, such as parliamentarians, government officials, policy makers, military personnel, judges, professional military associations, and non-governmental organizations. To download a copy of the manual, click the link below.
December 2008 – Brussels
Created by researchers, university professors, and experts on the study of religion, the website Religions and Convictions offers six hundred videos and two hundred balanced and authoritative texts on religious and spiritual issues. This initiative was organized by the Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Religion and Secularity (CIERL) at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.
September 2008 – Paris
The European Institute for Religious Sciences (IESR) hosted fifty professional religion teachers and administrators from the German K-12 school system and an equal number from France, at a conference in Paris, France, on September 26, 2008. Opening speeches pointed out that as Europe moves towards broader acceptance of religious plurality the question of the teaching of religion in schools must be reconsidered. Wolfram Weisse, professor at the University of Hamburg, heads REDCO, a four-year EU-funded research project on the impact of religious education in state schools in European countries. Europe’s goal is to pursue affirmative and respectful support for religious pluralism. From his introductory speech to the end of the event, the central question, not always explicitly mentioned, was how to teach Germany’s constitutionally mandated confessional religion classes when Muslims and “other irreducible religious minorities” make up a sizable proportion of the student body. Germany’s old division of territory between dominant strains of Christianity is no longer helpful in finding the answer for today’s situation. In each German Land the same challenge has to be confronted, whether the state itself or a confession was charged with developing the curriculum, providing teacher training, or finally supplying teachers to stand in the classroom.
The conclusion was that the reality of today’s Europe means that affirmative and respectful pluralism has to be taught and practiced in the state schools. The question is how to do it. French presenters saw themselves as ahead of the curve in recognizing and acting on the reality of religious plurality. Régis Debray identified September 11, 2001, as the alarm bell awakening France to the urgency of facing the religious plurality of its population. This shock marked the end of France’s bi-polar (Catholic v. anti-Catholic) identity. Debray, who led the French educational response in 2002, outlined the rationale for introducing religion into the national curriculum without adding a religion class. Rather, knowledge of relevant religious facts is to be included in each subject matter. Teacher initiative and flexibility to deal with classroom realities have become a part of the new approach. The point was not to teach less history and more religion, but to teach more accurate and complete history; not to teach less geography or less language, but to teach these and all other subjects better by including relevant religious realities. Jean-Paul Willaime explained how the European Institute for Religious Sciences (IESR), formed as part of the 2002 changes, was charged with concentrating pertinent religious knowledge in its European Religious Observatory. The IESR uses this knowledge to provide in-service training for teachers and support to curriculum developers in every discipline. The IESR also manages French participation in the REDCO research project.
The second half of the conference program provided vivid demonstrations of what teachers in France are now doing to include plural religious realities in foreign language, geography and history instruction. Particularly striking were presentations by two young secondary school teachers who showed how they had personally designed and carried out teaching segments centered on Islam in history and geography classes. These young teachers were visibly excited about what they were doing, and felt reinforced by student reactions and changes they saw take place in student culture as a consequence of their courses. Their evident enthusiasm about promoting respect and understanding for religious diversity was contagious. French persons in attendance, particularly those who worked in or close to the classroom, were clearly very much caught up the same spirit.
Post-conference discussion with an official of the highly secular Ligue d’enseignement and a high official of the Ministry of Education revealed their positive attitude toward including religious information and a pluralistic religious reference system into the nations schools. For historically excluded religious groups an opportunity is developing to engage in the processes made evident in this meeting in order to include accurate and respectful information in new school curricula under development. For additional information, please click the links below.
December 2008 – Brussels
The Council of Europe recently appointed Norwegian Ambassador Torbjorn Froysnes as Special Representative to the European Union in Brussels. He explained that “the Council of Europe and the European Union are two different but complementary organizations and their partnership is essential for the common pan-European project. Following the Memorandum of Understanding with the EU, we will try to develop and strengthen our cooperation in order to promote human rights, democratic stability and the rule of law throughout the European continent.”