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Religious freedom in Europe is becoming more of an issue

drapeau européen

©  artjazz - shutterstock

John Burger - published on 01/29/21 - updated on 01/29/21

Cardinal Hollerich outlines concerns about proposed law, while Eastern Europe sees persecution of minorities.

Is religious freedom threatened in Europe? 

Europe is not the first place most people think of when they hear talk about threats to religious liberty. But Church leaders there have recently been cautioning about trends in that direction.

The latest warning came from Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, president of the Brussels-based Commission of EU Bishops Conferences, COMECE.

In a January 22 statement, Cardinal Hollerich voiced concerns about a draft law soon to be discussed in Denmark, aimed at reducing the threat of Islamist terrorism. The law would require sermons and homilies to be provided in the national language, but Hollerich said it could impose undue hindrance on the fundamental right to freedom of religion.

Other threats have come from restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Religious leaders have cautioned against permanent restrictions such as church closures and limits on faith activities.

In addition, some governments might be taking advantage of pandemic lockdowns to push through controversial secularizing reforms, several bishops conferences have warned, including those of Spain and Portugal.

And, last October, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed a new law against religious “separatism” aimed at freeing Islam in France from “foreign influences,” according to the Guardian.

The measure is meant to combat “radical Islamism.” But Catholic leaders have criticized the measure, warning it could disrupt inter-faith relations, the Tablet said.

Former Soviet Union

Meanwhile, parts of Eastern Europe that were formerly part of the Soviet Union are having their own religious freedom issues. In Belarus, for example, a Roman Catholic bishop was recently expelled in the midst of widespread protests of the reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko. 

“Despite constitutional guarantees of religious equality, government decrees and registration requirements maintained some restrictions on religious activity,” reported Freedom House last year. “Legal amendments in 2002 provided for government censorship of religious publications and barred foreigners from leading religious groups. The amendments also placed strict limitations on religious groups active in Belarus for less than 20 years. In 2003, the government signed a concordat with the Belarusian Orthodox Church, which is controlled by the Russian Orthodox Church, giving it a privileged position.”

In Russia, religious freedom conditions continue to deteriorate, in the estimation of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. “The government targets ‘nontraditional’ religious minorities with fines, detentions and criminal charges under the pretext of combating extremism,” the commission said. “Russian legislation criminalizes ‘extremism’ without adequately defining the term, enabling the state to prosecute a vast range of nonviolent religious activity.”

In particular, authorities in Russia have been leading a campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 2017, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the group violated laws against extremism. Raids on Jehovah’s Witness homes and subsequent prosecutions for alleged extremism-related offenses are showing no signs of stopping, said Forum18.

And in Ukraine, smaller religious groups continue to report some discrimination, said Freedom House. There was continued vandalism of Jewish structures and cemeteries, for example. 

In one part of Ukraine, Crimea, which has been occupied by Russia since 2014, authorities forced religious organizations to re-register under new rules, sharply reducing the number of registered groups, Freedom House reported. All 22 Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations were deregistered.

Mosques associated with the Crimean Tatars have been denied permission to register, and Muslims have faced legal discrimination, said Freedom House. In March 2019, 20 people were arrested on suspicion of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir and of spreading terrorist ideology. The June OHCHR report said 67 men suspected of membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir or in Tablighi Jamaat, and another Islamic group banned in Russia but legal Ukraine, were facing terrorism charges.

Freedom House continue:

Occupation authorities have confiscated numerous properties in Crimea from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine; most recently, in June 2019, a de facto court nullified a prominent Simferopol cathedral’s lease with Ukrainian authorities; it was the last cathedral in Crimea to have maintained an affiliation with the Ukrainian church authorities. In November, another Russian-controlled court ordered the Orthodox Church of Ukraine to tear down a chapel in Yevpatoria. Earlier, in March, police detained Ukrainian Archbishop Clement in Simferopol, but he was released a few hours later in the face of international pressure. The archbishop said he was detained because authorities sought to prevent him from visiting a Ukrainian political prisoner held in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

EuropeReligious Freedom
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