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Invitation to Our Upcoming Conference

Freedom of Expression and Religious Rights: Struggles and Challenges


Soteria International & ENAR Denmark Invite you to our upcoming conference:

Freedom of Expression and Religious Rights: Struggles and Challenges

Date & Time: Wednesday, September 13 @ 8pm

Venue: VerdensKulturCentret

Address: Nørre Allé 7, Copenhagen N

This conference will be a series of short presentations and debate where human rights activists and guests will openly discuss the issues related to Freedom of Expression in a religious context in Denmark and Europe, and will focus on questions such as: 

1. What role can education play in raising awareness regarding how to maintain freedom of expression, while ensuring the respect of one another’s reputation?

2. How can education help raise awareness with regards to the thin line between the Freedom of Religion and Belief and the Freedom of Expression?

3. How can an open society engage and work towards ensuring the Freedom of Expression, while respecting the moral and ethical code?

4. Should there be ‘checks and balances’ in relation to Freedom of Expression in a religious context?

5. How can we resolve these issues together?

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Interpreting Freedom of Religion or Belief in Different Legal Sources

Since the United Nations established the Declaration of Human Rights in 1954, people have been attempting to incorporate the rights of others into their actions. One of the current challenges concerns the freedom of religion and belief and the discrimination that often appears when certain religious groups are not understood in society. With regards to this issue, the Directorate General for Internal Affairs Policy Department on Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs of the EU, along with the experts Chiara Favilli and Nicole Lazzerini from the University of Florence, produced a study on “Discrimination(s) as emerging from petitions received.” These are guidelines and interpretations, which can be found in their entirety here.

Here we provide a reproduction of the section on Religion or Belief:

2.8 Religion or Belief

Art. 19 TFEU, Art. 21(1) CFR and Directive 2000/78/EC mention religion amongst the prohibited grounds of discrimination. The word religion is associated with the term belief. The prohibited ground of discrimination must therefore be interpreted by considering both concepts which equally appear in international conventions aimed to recognise freedom of religion (notably Art. 9 ECHR and Art. 18 ICCPR). Based on the case law of the ECtHR, which must be considered under Article 52(3) CFR, the terms should be interpreted broadly, notably as encompassing also the discrimination of churches or, in general, groups around which a religious activity is organised. These terms must be understood as providing protection in relation to any belief, not only those connected in any way to a deity, but also non-religious belief systems, i.e. sets of ideas and opinions on life and lifestyle. The concept of non - violence and pacifism offers an example because it goes beyond the conceptualisation of peaceful relations between states and rather involves various aspects of human relations. By contrast, mere opinions do not fall within the protected scope of the ground concerned.

It is doubtful whether sects may also be granted protection under the rules on freedom of religion as well as under the rules concerning discrimination on grounds of religion. Generally speaking, the term ‘sect’ refers to a group which, under the mantle of religion, carries out activities which are illegal or even harmful to its followers, sometimes violating their dignity. In its 1996 resolution on cults in Europe the European Parliament affirmed that freedom of religion can be limited when an organisation commits acts of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment or involves serious forms of psychological subjugation, thus urging countries to be cautious in granting the status of religious confession to sects whose methods are seriously questionable.

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Challenges for Freedom of Belief & Freedom of Expression

Struggles in the Search for Peaceful and Harmonious Solutions

Freedom of expression is a human right, a universal requirement and freedom that all individuals should enjoy. As a requirement for membership in the European Union (EU) a country must respect human rights, as outlined in the Copenhagen Criteria (Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights). The same is true for non-EU countries who want to enter into trade agreements with EU countries.

In addition to human rights, the European Union also considers the rule of law to be of the utmost importance. In fact, it is one of the founding principles and fundamental values upon which the EU is based. The rule of law was implemented in order to established agreements and bring coherence into the European and national communities in order to protect citizens and create harmony in society.

Through our research, we have encountered many instances in which one or more European Union member states have distorted the rule of law in order to reach political interests. One of the most simple trends is the use of labeling, such as has been done in the examples used in the conference when the individuals were accused of being “terrorists.” Such labeling can discredit an individual or group instantly in our social media society where access to information is immediate and where anyone can express anything they want and disseminate it to millions. Therefore, when a state labels an individual or group as something dangerous or undesirable, it quickly becomes accepted and can permanently devastate the reputation and future of a person or group.

Our organization has observed this phenomenon in the use of, in particular, two words which immediately discredit new spiritual movements. The first is the use of the word ‘sect,’ which leads the general public to instantaneously disregard anything being said or done by the group which has been labeled as such. The second is the labeling of volunteer work as ‘human trafficking.’ This term has obvious legal consequences, if indeed true. However, due to the recurrent misinterpretation of volunteer work, which in fact is an integral part of a spiritual practice in many spiritual paths, including Christianity, it has become apparent that this is extensively damaging to the reputation of those accused. It is doubtful that members of the general public will do their research to understand whether or not these allegations are true, whether a person or group is labeled a terrorist, a sect, or perpetrators of human trafficking. The impact on the lives of those individuals suffering from such labels are far reaching, including, impacts on their mental health, financial stability, family relationships, etc.

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OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting in Vienna

Freedom of Belief, Tolerance, and Non-Discrimination

On June 22 & 23, 2017, the OSCE hosted a Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDM) in Vienna, Austria focusing on "Freedom of Religion or Belief: Issues, Opportunities, and the Specific Challenges of Combatting Anti-Semitism and Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians, Muslims, and Members of Other Religions," bringing together representatives of governments and civil society. 

Academics and experts presented their findings and opinions in the beginning of the event. The following article, published on OSCE's website, highlights a point brought up in the meeting that social cohesion and peace are currently being threatened by social forces hostile towards certain religious or belief communities and the importance of addressing these challenges. 


Ensuring freedom of religion or belief and tolerance and non-discrimination for all is vital to security, say participants at OSCE meeting in Vienna

VIENNA, 22 June 2017 – Freedom of religion or belief, and tolerance and non-discrimination are essential to ensuring peace and security in the OSCE region, participants said today at the opening of a two-day OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting in Vienna.

The Meeting, organized by the OSCE’s 2017 Austrian Chairmanship and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), brought together representatives of governments and of civil society organizations working on issues related to the freedom of religion or belief from the Organization’s 57 participating States.

Michael Georg Link, Director of ODIHR, highlighted to Meeting participants current challenges to efforts to build flourishing, open, tolerant and inclusive societies, telling the meeting that hostile social forces, which are intolerant of and foster dangerous environments for particular religious or belief communities, endanger social peace and cohesion. Also, the practice in some OSCE participating States of limiting the free exercise of the universal human right to freedom of religion or belief to a list of religious and belief communities pre-defined and approved by the state is also of particular concern.

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Freedom of Expression: What is acceptable and what is restricted?

The Correlation Between the Freedom of Expression and the Freedom of Belief

At the level of the European Union, freedom of belief and freedom of expression are given a great deal of attention and respect. Denmark prides itself on being an open society, characterized by a flexible structure, the freedom to believe what one chooses, and the widespread dissemination of information. The Danish Constitution states: "Everyone is entitled to publicly express his/her thoughts, in writing and speech." It is a society which encourages critical debate and respects diverse opinions.

The Danish Institute for Human Rights recently published their 2016-2017 Status Report which deemed Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Religion as two points of concern in Denmark. The complex interaction between these two freedoms is becoming more apparent in our diverse society, where cultural norms are being challenged by increased globalization. Denmark is facing a crossroads in maintaining a peaceful society, which upholds the values upon which the country is built, while also integrating diversity in a congruent way.

Most expression is completely harmless and, therefore, protected under the right to freedom of expression without interference by the state. However, in recognition that expression does indeed have the capacity to harm, Freedom of Expression is not an absolute right. One may freely express one’s self, but in doing so, one should not damage the rights or reputation of others, by making false and misleading statements. Unfortunately, this recommendation is largely ignored, and, thus, often not respected across all levels, whether in governmental institutions, the mass media, or on the individual level. 

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Conference in the EU Parliament

Are Women's Rights in Islam Compatible with Modern Society: Misconceptions in Islam regarding Women's Rights

Women’s rights in Islam is a growing topic of conversation in Western societies, and it is perceived, by both Muslims and non-Muslims, that Muslim women are less equal than their male counterparts. Why do we often hear of violence against women in an Islamic context? Why is that many Muslim women are required to cover their faces? Are there justifiable grounds for these practices?

Soteria International believes in the promotion of spiritual human rights, of freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and that everyone has right to enjoy these freedoms, regardless of their gender. Suppression of women within a religious group does not align with the organisation’s ideas of equality in spiritual and human rights.

On Wednesday 3rd May 2017, the European Parliament in Brussels hosted the event, “Are Women's Rights in Islam Compatible with Modern Society: Misconceptions in Islam regarding Women's Rights.” The conference was organised by the International Organisation to Preserve Human Rights (IOPHR). Gerry Campbell, Dr Azmayesh and Mattie Heaven were invited to speak about the topic, and the event was sponsored by four MEPs, representing different political parties. After two hours of thought-provoking debate, the speakers concluded that the root of abuses of women’s human rights within Islam lies within misinterpretation of holy texts. The general consensus was that Islam is indeed compatible with modern society, as least as much so as any other religion is.

MEP Esteban González Pons began by acknowledging the importance of women's voices being heard. He argued that it is common sense that women should be at the forefront of the debate when it comes to women's rights issues, yet this is so often not the case. He acknowledged the vital role of education in teaching values of equality between men and women, and in the balanced (as opposed to extremist) interpretation of religious texts.

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Hearing on Secularization Held in the Danish Parliament

"How Afraid are We of Religion?"

The Danish Institute for Human Rights has called Freedom of Religion one of the human rights brought into question in Denmark in their 2016 Status Report. A hearing was held at the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen on May 10, 2017 in order to discuss whether or not a Danish model for secularization (separation of the state and church) could be found. Considering the current atmosphere towards disregarding the freedoms of certain religious groups in Europe, Soteria International finds this topic to be of particular relevance to the safeguarding of one of our fundamental human rights, the Freedom of Conscience, Thought, and Belief. Representatives of Soteria International attended the event and our organization feels optimistic that conversations such as this one will help create a more understanding and open society, which can embrace diversity and find solutions which respect the human rights of all individuals involved.

The event, titled “How afraid are we of religion?”, was organized by Grundtvigsk Forum and hosted by Daniel Toft Jakobsen, a Member of Parliament with the Social Democrats. Three questions/issues were suggested prior to the event, including: 1) Should public funding be provided to religious organizations? 2) Should priests/imams/other religious leaders have the right to be judges? And 3) Should there be more or less room for religion in asylum centers? Among other issues, these questions were addressed by a wide panel of experts, including academics, politicians, and professionals.


Daniel Toft Jakobsen opened the hearing by discussion the word ‘religion’ and our modern conceptualization of it. He stated that although it is often associated with “terror, war, and fear” in the media, it can indeed add a very positive aspect to our society. He stated that undemocratic religious opinions must be brought to light rather than being hid away and must not be afraid of the publics ability to discern between peaceful religion and fanaticism. We must therefore continue to uphold the freedom of spirituality.

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