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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On May 8, at the United Nations (Geneva), a side event was hosted by Human Rights Without Frontiers International (HRWF), the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe (FOREF), and Freedom of Conscience (CAP) regarding the case of two Czech yoga teachers – Jaroslav Dobes and Barbora Plaskova, case which Soteria International has represented and advocated for at the EU and national levels since 2015.
HRWF (09.05.2017) – On the margin of the Universal Periodic Review of the Philippines at the United Nations in Geneva, three human rights NGOs – Human Rights Without Frontiers (Brussels), FOREF-Europe (Vienna) and CAP (France) – organized a side event on 08 May 2017 about the situation of two Czech yoga teachers – Jaroslav Dobes and Barbora Plaskova – who have been detained for two years in the Immigration Detention Center of Bagong Diwa in Manila.
The facts in brief
On 7 October 2014, Jaroslav Dobes and Barbora Plaskova were sentenced by the court of first instance in Brno (Czech Republic) to 10 and 9 ½ years in prison for rapes that were allegedly committed in their country of origin more than ten years earlier.
Barbora Plaskova, the mother of a three-year old son, was arrested on 14 April 2015 and Jaroslav Dobes, the father of a five-year old child, on 15 May 2015. Both were deprived of their passport and were hereby left undocumented.
However, on 21 May 2015 (one week after Dobes’ arrest), the High Court of Olomouc ruled on appeal that the judgment of the Court in Brno was “annulled and revoked” and that the case was to be returned “to the court of first instance to make a new decision.”
Two years later, a new trail has yet to be initiated and there is no sign that there will be another one in the near future.
Despite their status of presumption of innocence, the Czech authorities have not given up the idea of deporting them and persistently urge the Filipino authorities to keep them in detention.
Human Rights Without Frontiers International (HRWF) and the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe (FOREF) are making an appeal to the Russian Supreme Court and Presidential Administration regarding the ban of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. Soteria International supports their action and is publishing their appeal.
FOREF - Europe/HRWF (05.05.2017) - BRUSSELS/VIENNA - The Forum for Religious Freedom - Europe (FOREF) and Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) urge the Supreme Court of Russia to overturn its 20 April 2017 decision to ban the Jehovah's Witnesses from the country and seize their assets. FOREF and HRWF also call on President Putin and his administration to resort to a "transparent and frank" dialogue to promote better understanding of the nature of the Jehovah's Witnesses, as proposed by the religious group
"The allegation that the Jehovah's Witnesses are an extremist group is transparently false, and the ban should be overturned," argues Dr. Aaron Rhodes, President of FOREF. "The decision not only violates basic human rights obligations, but also puts all Russian citizens at further risk of arbitrary legal judgments. It makes a mockery of their legal system and humiliates Russia on the world stage" he added.
United Nations monitors and other experts agree that neither the doctrines nor the conduct of the Jehovah's Witnesses can be called "extremist" with any credibility whatsoever. On the contrary, the group advocates respect for political and governmental authorities, and keeping clear of political matters.
On May 4th, a public hearing on “Fighting against discrimination of EU citizens in the EU Member States and
protection of minorities” was held in the Committee on Petitions, in which the representatives of Soteria International participated in order to remain up to date with latest findings on discrimination and minority rights. The hearing addressed numerous petitioner allegations of discrimination in the EU, and fundamental rights violations, particularly of Article 21 of the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights. The debated topics included equality and non-discrimination, as defined under EU law and jurisprudence, the protection of minorities (in particular in the field of education), the recognition of LGBT family rights, loss of EU citizenship, and discrimination based on minority languages.
The President of the Committee on Petitions (PETI), Ms. Cecilie Wikström, opened the event by stating that the committee receives many petitions every year on alleged abuses of citizen’s rights to equality and non-discrimination, as stated in the charter. Ms. Wikström emphasized that Article 21 states the principle of equality before the law, and there within is the principle of non-discrimination. She stated that discrimination occurs due to historical and political factors dating back to World War II and that the protection of national minorities is particularly interesting as it is one of the values of the EU, the reason for which these rights exist. Although, the EU has little competence in the actual matter, as the EU regularly points out to petitions on these issues, Ms. Wikström was optimistic that we could find new solutions to fighting discrimination.
The text has been extracted from an article published by CICNS, which can be accessed in it's original language (French) here.
The case of the “presumed guru" Robert Lé Dinh, as the media have called him, is indicative of how judicial affairs treat “sects" in France.
For more than twenty years, Robert Lé Dinh led a community of roughly 20 people, first in the Lot-et-Garonne, then in Ariège, before becoming the subject of a complaint and being placed in custody on September 5, 2007 and, two days later, put under review and placed in pre-trial detention. The case started in April 2007, when two of his former disciples—followers—a couple who were civil servants and who had joined the group from its inception in 1984, denounced his actions and filed a complaint with the GIRONS (Ariège) police. Born in 1959 in Villeneuve (Lot-et-Garonne), the son of a Buddhist worker of Vietnamese origin and a French Catholic mother, is said to have received a divine message from Christ in 1982 making him a "servant" or "the third Messiah" (NouvelObs).
Following this denunciation, Robert Lé Dinh was accused of "rape," "sexual assault," including on minors, "mental hypnosis" (NouvelObs), of "manipulation and influence" (La Dépêche). One of the main complainants, Isabelle Lorenzato (along with her husband), claimed to have been raped for 22 years by Robert Lé Dinh.
The misunderstanding of new religious movements becomes especially dangerous when it occurs on an institutional level. Although the law should protect or condemn an individual based on objective facts, popular opinion and the portrayal of a story in the media can have a devastating impact on the outcome of a person’s future. CICNS argues that the outcome of the following case was greatly affected by the “sectarian” rhetoric in France, which is one of fear.
The text has been extracted from an article published by CICNS, which can be accessed in it's original language (French).
It took no more than three hours for the jurors in the Assize Court of Ariège, on September 18, 2010, to condemn 'the guru' Robert Lé Dinh to 15 years (more than what the Advocate-General had suggested, which was 'ten to twelve years' imprisonment). The accusations were heavy. What are the facts? According to several witnesses in the trial, the accused was not very convincing, he seemed to suit the profile of a 'cult guru' and there was even a form of automatic repulsion from the early days of media coverage of his case. We can't yet say that the evidence is overwhelming. It was all about emotional and "intimate conviction" (the general council stated that "the will of the victims was annihilated". On what basis, the debate on mental manipulation, a pseudo-scientific concept, that has never been decided upon?), elements which do not mix when we really seek justice. Everything leads to the belief that this 51-year-old man sexually abused his followers. Already convicted in 1984 for extortion, this time he was accused of abusing adult women and minor girls. He denied this. Even at the end of the trial, everybody reached this conclusion. Doubt was permitted. The conclusions were provided in the personal opinion of the jurors.
On Thursday, March 23, an “Exchange of Views with Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief Outside the EU” was held in the European Parliament. Mr. Ján Figel was invited to share how he interprets his mandate and to share the issues that he has been focusing on.
A current issue outside of the EU is the growing number of atheists and their lack of freedom to choose not to believe in spiritual concepts or to neglect to follow a religion. The Member of European Paliament hosting the event, Sofie in t’ Veld, shared her sense of “internal rebellion” in the discussion of Freedom of Belief because she feels as though the beliefs of atheists are excluded. She, therefore, emphasized the importance of remembering the concept of Freedom of Conscience due to the rising number of atheists worldwide. The Special Envoy agreed that Freedom of Conscience is essential, because human dignity is impossible without it, and this is the value that should unite all people, regardless of their belief. Freedom of Conscience is necessary for the achievement of basic human dignity, and Freedom of Religion and Belief can only truly occur as a result of the achievement of the Freedom of Conscience.
The position of Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief Outside the EU was created as a response to the genocide and mass atrocities occurring currently in Syria and the Middle East, as well as, the implications this is having in Europe with respect to the refugee crisis and migration. The current Special Envoy stated that, “either we do something or we’re commentators” and, therefore, his role is to bring constructive change with respect to Freedom of Religion and Belief in countries not currently displaying this. His work is based around territorial and thematic problems. Territorial focuses include, among others, the Central African Republic, Egypt, Pakistan, Morrocco; and thematic focuses include, the issue of persecution prior to conviction as seen in North Korea and non-state operates, such as, ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al Qaeda, the elimination of ‘liquidation’ due to blasphemy, or anti-conversion laws forbidding people from leaving their religion under punishment. Many of these issues revolve around the lack of freedom to choose to not ascribe to the predominant faith in a culture or geographic area.
The first conference of our 2017 Spiritual Human Rights series, hosted by Soteria International and ENAR Denmark, was attended by a variety of representatives from multiple fields, including spiritual practitioners, academics, law, students, and human rights activists.
This round table event focused on the topic of whether diversity of religion and belief in Denmark and Europe is tolerated, accepted, and/or understood. During the introduction, the moderator from Soteria International, showed a short clip in order to illustrate a current point of discussion in Danish society, which is the question of what is and isn’t attributable to Danish identity. The clip was produced by Gorilla Media, a Danish production group, which powerfully illustrated the implications of discussions recently held in the Danish parliament with regards to acceptance of diversity. The video depicts interviews with four children, who speak perfect Danish, identify themselves with Denmark and feel Danish, but are not blond haired and blue-eyed. The interviewer proceeds to tell the children that they are not Danish and the audience experiences their defeated reactions to this information. You can see this video here.
This is Part III of the case of the Aumist Religious community in Mandarom, France.
The text has been extracted from an article published by CICNS and can be accessed in it's original language (French).
(...) The Mandarom is in essence a monastery with monks and nuns. Those who wish to dedicate a part of their life to spirituality, in this context, take vows of chastity and poverty, but do not pronounce this for eternity... "this is no longer suited to modern society," said SHM.
(…) Aumiste vegetarianism is explained by the concern of taking as little as possible from Nature, because any disturbance disrupts a process of reincarnation... The more is consumed from the higher levels of the hierarchy of the plant or animal Kingdom, i.e. the closer it is to humanity, and the more one must pray.
(…) We are under the impression that, for the aumistes, nothing is common place. Cooking, eating, doing the dishes, etc., although seemingly profane, for many, become acts associated with spirituality.
This is Part II of the case of the Aumist Religious community in Mandarom, France.
The text has been extracted from an article published by CICNS, which can be accessed in it's original language (French).
Continuation of Part I:
(...) The story of this research cannot be silent about the pressures that I suffered throughout this work.
(…) In 1998, I received a letter from the president of section 38 (CNRS) - dealing with ethnology. She said, among other things: ' your projects have emerged as insufficiently (...) observed; where the fear... that your voluntarily relativistic approach is used for thetrivialization of movements such as the one you are studying.”… She (Editor's Note: the commission) judged before even knowing, and for a commissioner of science this is disturbing... This story highlights a serious phenomenon: there were subjects which were taboo for the majority of ethnologists who sat, at that time, in the commission of the CNRS.
(…) The president of the University of Provence refused for me to organized a symposium on the theme of "sects" in this University, although he had agreed as a first step, stating that we would be closely monitored. I proposed for my lab to set up a centre for research and documentation on new religious movements. My lab, in agreement at first, then changed its mind. Public institutions say they are interested in observing sects, yet how is one to understand these contradictory messages, if not as a deliberate attempt not refuse knowledge?
Throughout history, smaller groups have often been misunderstood by society. In this way, the new approach that some spiritual groups have undertaken, different from the old dogmatic religious style has, therefore, entered into conflict. This situation has been raised several times in multiple forums. Although this concept is understood and has been raised by officials, the situation has not been solved and Soteria International considers it important to continue to raise the topic for debate. As an example of a case in which a small group was poorly understood, we are publishing the story of the Aumist community in Mandarom, France, through excerpts from a book written by the ethnologist, Maurice Duval who spent intimate time in the group conducting participant observation. The original article can be found on CICNS' website.
Maurice Duval’s book has two aims: the first is to highlight the difficulty in discussing or studying, in peace, everything related to what is called—in a biased and stigmatizing way—a "sect" in France. The second, is the ethnological study, itself, of the Mandarom.
Due to the purpose of the Information Center of the Council of New Spiritualities (CICNS), the extracts that follow, strive, particularly, to give an overview of the pressures and difficulties that Maurice Duval encountered during his study. The reader is, however, encouraged to read the book for the two aspects that strike his/her interest.
The Story of a Study
(...) This book reflects a single ethnological research...From the inside of the sect Mandarom, located atroughly 1200 m altitude in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (France)... The director of the laboratory to which I was then attached suggested to start a study of this group... Frightened by the idea of studying a sect, I initially declined... Upon learning that a Catholic nun in Montpellier was a "sect" specialist, I made an appointment with her. The nun... explained her way of dealing with these groups in order to "bring their members on the right path", meaning her path... The fact that she could get there without trouble, led me to believe that I should be able to go.
Soteria International is hosting a series of events in order to foster a positive social environment for practitioners of different religions and members of minority cultures. This is the first of the 2017 series of Spiritual Human Rights Conferences!
During Soteria International's Spiritual Human Rights Conference in December, the effect of Globalization on the Freedom of Religion and Belief in Denmark and Europe was explored. Many questions and problems related to how tolerance, acceptance, and understanding of others' freedom of conscience, thought, and belief affects the application of fundamental human rights, on both a societal and institutional level were raised. We have therefore chosen to host another conference on this topic.
This will be a round table event where human rights activists and guests will openly discuss the topic of tolerance, acceptance, and understanding of religion and belief in Denmark and Europe.
The European Arrest Warrant (EAW), an instrument of collaboration between the police services of all European Union member states, has uncovered various angles regarding the abuse of fundamental human rights. Although Soteria International has raised the issue of the faults within the EAW in multiple forums, the problem has yet to be solved. Many other human rights organizations, and our collaborators, are concerned with this issue.
On February 7, Finnish MEP Hannu Takkula, in collaboration with Human Rights Without Frontiers, organized an event at the European Parliament, titled “European Arrest Warrant in Question: Cases in Romania and Other Countries.” The aim of the event was to revive the discussion of the flaws of the European Arrest Warrant, which although an important tool for combatting crime, can also be seen as undermining the basic principles of fairness and justice.
On January 26, the President of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Guido Raimondi, presented the activities of the ECHR in 2016 and the state of affairs in Europe (Press Conference Speech by President Guido Raimondi (in French) and Press Release). In his introduction, he highlighted the non-refoulement as a principle of international law and the role of the courts in its implementation. This is particularly relevant to a case monitored by Soteria International, which involves the refugee Gregorian Bivolaru, who was extradited to Romania in 2016 by France, although having been granted refugee status by Sweden and, at the time, residing there.
On January 25 in Brussels, a panel of experts, was invited to discuss the “European Union, United Kingdom, and Commonwealth: Cooperation in the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief”. Professor Neville Roshow from the European Union Office of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints quoted Martin Niemoller to emphasize the importance and urgency of taking a stand for the rights of others:
Therefore, on the importance of the subject of work and advancement within the Freedom of Religion and Belief, Rochow stated, that an infringement on the rights of any one person is an infringement on our own rights, as we all risk being tomorrow’s victim.
For many years, Soteria International has had a successful collaboration with Human Rights Without Frontiers International. Our organizations have worked on many cases together, and more recently, over the past year have been studying the Framework Decision of the European Arrest Warrant and the Lisbon Treaty in order to understand the different angles and levels of applicability of the European Arrest Warrant. Considering the flaws in the law that are observed when applying the European Arrest Warrant for petty crimes or in unusual conditions as, for example, in the case of a refugee, it became an apparent necessity to establish a round table in the European parliament. Thus, on TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 7 from 12pm-2pm, Soteria International will be participating in an event titled: “The European Arrest Warrant in Question: Cases in Romania and other Countries” hosted by MEP Hannu Takkula, in collaboration with Human Rights Without Frontiers.
The practice of Freedom of Religion and Belief in Russia has recently taken a turn towards a lack of respect of practitioners of a spiritual faith. The recent Yarovaya Law (2016) in Russia has greatly increased the regulation of the dissemination of information pertaining to a religious belief by a religious association, or private practitioner, to non-members for the purpose of recruitment. A component of this law pertains to the limiting of the expression of religious belief and freedom of speech and is proving to be implemented in a highly subjective manner.