Throughout the years, Soteria International have encountered several situations where volunteer work is prosecuted as human trafficking and labour exploitation, when undertaken by spiritual seekers. We will present here briefly cases from Italy, Germany and Romania.
The idea of this common letter surfaced during discussions at the latest roundtable at the IRF (International Religious Freedom), where amongst many other matters we discussed the difficult situation of voluntary work in our society, when performed as part of a spiritual or religious path.
We will address the European authorities to solve this principle violation of fundamental rights.
This common letter will be signed by a large number of NGOs from the IRF and elsewhere, and sent to the European Commission.
If you want to support this project, please send us an email before Friday next week (30 January 2015), in which you mention your organization, or if you individually, will be amongst those signing this joint letter.
To the President of the European Commission,
Dear Mr President Jean-Claude Juncker,
To All members of the European Commission,
Dear members of the European Commission,
General Secretariat of the European Commission
Rue de la Loi / Wetstraat 200
In the name of our NGOs and individuals who are scholars, religious leaders, human rights advocates and practitioners, we write to you because the growing number of people adapting a spiritual perspective on life often meets a resistant misunderstanding in a society of newly emerging values and principles and in some cases leads to governmental and institutional intolerance and misunderstanding towards new spiritual and religious movements. We aim at re-establishing a constructive dialogue between state and social actors together with spiritual practitioners, in order to decrease the gap of misunderstanding and to stop the abuses of human rights that resulted from it.
The cases we would like to bring to your attention now pertain to an accepted form of work for the benefit of a community: volunteer work.
The volunteer work is being prosecuted as human trafficking and labour exploitation in some European countries, when undertaken by spiritual seekers belonging to other spiritual traditions. We will present here briefly cases from Italy, Germany and Romania.
Challenges for the freedom of religion and believes in the EU
Fully committed to its cultural values and multi-cultural vocation, for about half a century Europe has grown into a welcoming ground for a wide range of cultural and religious practices. Western civilization has brought human rights and freedoms to the rest of the world, and it is the Western society who still plays the leading role in its endeavor to implement and observe those rights throughout the world.
Some of those cultural and religious practices are deeply rooted in European civilization. Others originate in various parts of the globe and only later were they adopted by the Old Continent, thus presenting specificities which might seem rather peculiar to those less knowledgeable. Although quite different from Western medical thought, Chinese Acupuncture is largely accepted in the realm of Hippocrates, for example. The same applies in the case of several Buddhist practices (i.e. Zen meditation is studied in some catholic monasteries.) and such Yoga disciplines as Hatha Yoga, which are very popular in the West nowadays.
Nevertheless, there are practices or movements that run the risk of being discriminated against, since they do not fit into the framework set by the dominant European culture (acc. to common education, social, medical and legal judgmental patterns).
The above-mentioned trend is a matter of concern, since we have recently witnessed the emergence of a growing number of cases that share the same worrying feature: discrimination.
The cases we would like to bring to your attention now pertain to an accepted form of work for the benefit of a community: volunteer work.
Volunteer work has a long-standing tradition in Christendom, according to the customs and regulations of both Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Church. Monks do volunteer work on a daily basis in all Christian monasteries and missionary stations around the world.
But the same volunteer work is being prosecuted as human trafficking and labor exploitation in some European countries, when undertaken by spiritual seekers belonging to other spiritual traditions.
Where a Christian priest is seen assigning actions of repentance to the members of his congregation, if he does exactly the same, a spiritual guide of a different kind comes under judicial inquiry following accusations of inducing people into mental slavery.
I. Ananda Assisi is a Yoga organization which over 2002 - 2009 was the subject of such a judicial inquiry, facing accusations of being a sect which “enslaved” [people] by forcing them to work without being paid, and other accusations including the premise that Ananda was a “pseudo-religion”. People were harassed and came under social pressure, were taken to court and eventually imprisoned. After more years of investigation, the judge dismiss the case. In his written judgment, he underlined two very important issues:
1. According to the Italian Constitution, which grants freedom of speech and freedom of religion, the Ananda Assisi community conformed to the guidelines of a religious organization. It therefore must be recognized as such, and granted the protections of the Constitution for its practices and activities.
2. As he was assigned by the Church’s Office of Investigation of Sects, the priest who inquired the case delivered a testimony biased a priori and thus it carried no relevance in court.
In fact, the entire Ananda Assisi case was built around the issue of volunteer work, which was misinterpreted and misunderstood.
Far from being mental slavery and labor exploitation, volunteer work itself makes a distinct branch of Yoga, traditionally known as Karma Yoga (the Yoga of activity or the Yoga of action). As any other branch of Yoga, Karma Yoga is a holistic system with its own discipline, principles and code of practice: just like in a monastery, work is performed under the spiritual leader’s direct instruction and guidance, and an ethic of selflessness is applied.
II. In 2009, Ananda Assisi case reached its conclusion, but similar cases are still open: in Romania, 21 people affiliated with “MISA” Yoga School are now on trial under the same accusation of human trafficking, while they were just acting according to the Karma Yoga spiritual path. The case in Romania started in 2004 and after 10 years the yoga practitioners are still in trial and under a biased media campaign.
In parallel, the European Court of Human Rights recently convicted Romania for the persecutions of yogis. MISA yoga student Dana C. was abducted and kept against her will in a psychiatric facility where she was force-fed heavy medicines prescribed against schizophrenia. After several months of abuse, Dana C. managed to escape from captivity. The verdict of ECHR against Romania and the fact that human right organizations made her story public highlight the gravity of human rights violations in the case of MISA and its founder.
The case won by Dana C. in Strasbourg confirms the long-lasting accusations concerning the judiciary abuses perpetrated by Romanian authorities against practitioners affiliated with MISA Yoga School. (Case of Atudorei V Romania - Aplication no' 50131/08)
III. In Germany in 2003, members of the Deutsche Akademie für Traditionelles Yoga e.V. started maintenance work for a building to be used as a venue for their classes, under the guidance of a paid architect and a paid foreman.
Karma Yoga practitioners from different countries (Denmark, South Africa, Romania) came to help. On September 4, 2003, 5 non-EU members (Karma Yogis) were taken into custody for 24 hours for not having a working permit. In these five identical situations, the court took different decisions: one person was found guilty (the karma-yogi girl acting as cook), one person was acquitted, and for three of them the case was closed. However, all of them had to leave Germany immediately. Three years later in 2006, another case was raised - this time against the donator of the building - for violation of the economic law, and he was fined € 50.400
. After one hour of explanations about the spiritual system of Karma Yoga, the honorable judge Mrs. Wolf (Amtsgericht, Tiergarten Berlin) closed the case (case no: 336 OWi 1067/06). She asked the prosecutor not to bring any case like that in front of her again.
Concerning the volunteering, several documents refer to the lack of a clear legal framework and clear regulations in some EU countries: Report on voluntary work by Cecile Mathou (2010), Report compiled by European Volunteer Centre’s Manifesto for Volunteering in Europe etc.
Considering the above-mentioned cases of discrimination in the field of voluntary work seen as spiritual practice, we found it appropriate to raise the matter to your attention and to call for your support.
The EC might kindly consider to make the necessary recommendations for the member states in order to identify and eliminate any obstacles that exist in their laws which directly or indirectly induce pressure on voluntary action.
Please find below a list with some suggestions that may assist you in promoting and facilitating the respect for volunteer work:
►First, it is absolutely necessary to recognize that volunteering can take many different forms, depending on the field where applicable and that laws with specific purposes should not prohibit the existence of any form of volunteering.
►Second, the legal framework should facilitate the volunteering and not discourage it by inducing pressure on volunteer activity.
At least two forms of pressure on volunteer activity are induced in the member states – from the point of view of criminal law (when one can even be in the position of considering any work performed for the benefit of individuals or communities as being a material element of the offense of human trafficking) and from the point of view of taxes (when the beneficiary of volunteer activity can be in the position of considering that they used workforce without concluding the legal forms and be subject to taxation or even worse criminal offense).
►Third, it is necessary for EU member states to equally comply with the legal framework for all kinds of volunteering and to ensure that the regulation of the volunteering does not exclude or prohibit the existence of different forms of volunteering, based on social, cultural, economics, religious, spiritual beliefs.
As shown above, due to the lack of a clearly-stated terminology on an international level regarding human trafficking, there are several issues that emerge in establishing the thin line between human trafficking and volunteer work undertaken by people who choose to live and to practice spirituality in a still unconventional form for Europe.
That same lack of terminology allows member states (or, at least, this is the case in Romania) to consider volunteering as being a material element of the human trafficking offense, disregarding the right to freedom of thought, consciousness and religion, man’s freedom to express or act according to his spiritual belief – The Charter of ECHR, Article 9. Specifically, at this point we include two major aspects that the right mentioned above and recognized at EU level discloses:
The freedom of thought, consciousness and religion imposes the obligation of the state to refrain from placing any constraint on individual consciousness and is meant to protect what we call the interior forum of the individual.
The question that arises is – how can one person pursue inner conviction knowing that the legal framework that should protect him can be interpreted in many ways and that his actions can be misunderstood, making him a subject of criminal law?
As mentioned above, this Romania's case, where activities such as cleaning, repair work in one’s dwelling space, etc. when performed as Karma Yoga volunteer work, they became elements of the offence of human trafficking.
►Fourth, to ensure the necessary means to assist member states in removing the obstacles that inhibit volunteering, in any form provided, in order to respect the basic principle established at European level.
►Fifth, to ensure the necessary means to monitor and watch if member states abide by and implement the regulations and recommendations established at European level and to establish a system of constraints applicable if the parties involved fail to comply with the regulations in the field.
ANANDA ASSISI – ITALY
ANANDA YOGACENTRUM - BELGIUM
ANGEL ASSOCIATION - ROMANIA
ASSOCIATION FOR SUPPORT OF GIVING – GERMANY
ASSOCIATION FOR WOMAN ELEVATION – ROMANIA
ASSOCIAZIONE ATMAN – GENOVA - ITALY
ASSOCIAZIONE ATMAN - FIRENZE – ITALY
ATMAN JOGA EGYESULET – HUNGARY
ATMAN INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF YOGA AND MEDITATION – ENGLAND
ATMAN – SOUTH AFRICAN AND MEDITATION CENTRE – SOUTH AFRICA
CAPLC (European Coordination for Freedom of Conscience) - FRANCE
DEUTSCHE AKAEDMIEFUR TRADITIONELLES YOGA – GERMANY
DUCHOVNI SHOLA REZONANCE – CZECH REPUBLIC
EUROPEAN INTERRELIGIOUS FORUM FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM (EIFRF)
EUROPEAN FEDERATION FOR FREEDOM OF BELIEF - ITALY
HELSINKI COMMITTEE OF ARMENIA - ARMENIA
JOGAS UN GARIGUMA BIEDRIBA „SUNDARI” – LATVIA
KOSOSI CSOMA JOGA EGYESULET - HUNGARY
LAYMS – ROMANIA
MAHA VIDYA YOGA – AUSTRIA
MISA – ROMANIA
NATHA YOGA CENTER – DENMARK
NATHA JOOGA AND TANTRA SCHOOL – FINLAND
NATHAT YOGA CENTER - SWEDEN
PAGAN FEDERATION INTERNATIONAL, STICHTING
SANDHEDSSEMINAR (TRUTH SEMINAR) – DENMARK
SOTERIA INTERNATIONAL - DENMARK
STIFTUNG ZUR FORDERUNG DES TRADITIONELLEN YOGA – GERMANY
TARA YOGA CENTRE – ENGLAND
TERRANIA – ALLIANCE FREE EARTH – GERMANY
US YOGA ACADEMY – USA
Attorney at Law, Director of Cultures-et-Croyances.com Secretary General EIFRF France
Ph.D. Philosophy, Denmark
Director – All Faith Network, United Kingdom