Robert A. Seiple
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom
Testimony before the Committee on International Relations
U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC, June 14, 2000
The Treatment of Religious Minorities in Western Europe
Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, I am honored to appear before you today to testify on the treatment of religious minorities in western Europe. Let me begin by thanking the Chairman and the Committee for their strong and continuing contributions toward our goal of promoting religious freedom.
Each of us here today shares a commitment to protecting the dignity of all human beings. We hold in common the belief that at the heart of human dignity lies the right to pursue the truth about the mystery of faith, the truth about our place in the universe, about how we ought to order our lives. Together we seek to speed the day when every human being is free to pursue that truth as he or she sees fit -- not only unhindered by others, but protected by the state itself.
Freedom of religion and conscience is also foundational for democracy, as recognized in the international covenants. The government which fails to honor religious freedom and freedom of conscience is a government which does not recognize the priority of the individual over the state, and that the state exists to serve society, not vice versa. By the same token, the government, which nurtures religious freedom, may be more likely to honor other fundamental human rights. So, Mr. Chairman, the promotion of religious freedom and freedom of conscience makes sense from the standpoint of freedom in general but also from the standpoint of all human rights and from the standpoint of promoting healthy, vibrant democracies.
Against that background, Mr. Chairman, let me turn to our subject this morning: the treatment of religious minorities in western Europe. Overall, it must be said that religious minorities are treated better there than in most other regions of the world. Indeed, in relative terms, the citizens of western Europe enjoy a measure of freedom that is the envy of aspiring democracies around the globe. Persecution on the basis of religion -- in the form of brutal activities by governments, such as prolonged detentions without charge, torture, and slavery -- simply does not exist there as it so tragically does elsewhere in the world.
But it also must be said that discrimination on the basis of religion does exist in the four countries on which we are focusing this morning -- Germany, France, Austria, and Belgium. Let me give you a brief overview of the problems that we see in each. Before I do, however, I want to emphasize that the standard applied to these countries by the United States is a standard that they have accepted. All of them embrace the international instruments that protect freedom of religion and conscience, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In applying these standards, we see ourselves as citizens of the world community, putting our national shoulder to the international wheel.
But our willingness to speak of discrimination elsewhere should not be taken to imply that we are free of it ourselves. When it comes to religious minorities, the United States falls far short of a perfect record. One need only recall discrimination against the Catholic minority, or the Mormons, in the 19th century. However, we believe that one sign of a mature democracy is the willingness to accept criticism, so long as it is based on international standards of human rights.
Let me begin with Germany, where our primary disagreement involves the treatment of the country's roughly 8,000 Scientologists. The nub of the problem is that many in the German Government believe that Scientology is more a money-making scheme than a religion. This view is shared by officials in certain Laender (states), where responsibility for religious questions are usually handled.
At the same time, German officials say they are concerned that Scientology has "anti-democratic tendencies." The Offices for the Protection of the Constitution at both the state and federal level have been monitoring Scientology since 1997 for evidence of activities that would constitute a "threat" against the state. Although initial reports concluded that it did not, the monitoring continues to this day.
In 1998 a commission on "so-called sects and psychogroups" presented a report to the Parliament that criticized Scientology for "misinformation and intimidation" of its critics, accusing it of being a political extremist group with "totalitarian tendencies." Following this, the states of Bavaria, Hamburg, and Schleswig-Holstein published brochures warning the public of the purported dangers Scientology poses.
For their part, many of the country's Scientologists have reported both governmental and societal discrimination in their daily lives. Some employers, for example, use the so-called "sect filter" -- screening applicants for Scientology membership. The federal government also screens companies bidding on some consulting and training contracts for Scientologists, as do some state governments. That these and other forms of discrimination are occurring was documented in a 1998 UN report, although it rejected the outrageous claim that Scientologists' treatment was similar to that suffered by the Jews during the Nazi era.
Scientologists continue to take their grievances to the German court system. Some who have charged their employers with "unfair dismissal," for example, have won out of court settlements.
Mr. Chairman, we have discussed these issues at some length with German officials, both in Germany and in the United States. We have stressed in particular the risks associated with governments deciding what does and does not constitute a religion. We have made clear our concern with "sect filters." To prevent an individual from practicing a profession solely on account of his or her religious beliefs is an abuse of religious freedom, as well as a discriminatory business practice. We have expressed our concern that the continued official "observation" of Scientology by the German Government without any legal action being initiated as a result creates an environment that encourages discrimination. We have urged our German colleagues to begin a dialogue with the Scientologists, and we have raised our concerns multilaterally at meetings of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Let me now turn to France. There have been recent reports by the National Assembly which cast Scientology in a negative light, expressing concern that they may use excessive or dishonest means to obtain donations. However, the government has taken no action against them. Indeed, Interior Minister Chevenement and others, including Foreign Minister Vedrine, have assumed a very positive and public position in support of freedom of conscience and religion, a fact which has helped diffuse tensions considerably.
But it is also true that France has been at the vanguard of the troubling practice of creating so-called "sect lists." These lists are created by government agencies -- in France the list was part of a parliamentary report -- and typically contain the names of scores of religious groups which may not be recognized by the government. Some of the groups are clearly dangerous -- such as the Solar Temple, which led to suicides in France and Switzerland. But others are merely unfamiliar or unpopular. By grouping them together under the negative word "sect," governments encourage societal discrimination.
Some groups that appear on France's list continue to report acts of discrimination. One of them is the Institut Theologique de Nimes, a private Bible college founded in 1989 by Louis Demeo, who is head pastor at an associated church there. Others have been subjected to long audits of their finances. For example, tax claims against the Church of Scientology forced several churches into bankruptcy in the mid 1990s. The Jehovah's Witnesses have also been heavily audited. According to the International Helsinki Federation, this audit, which began in January 1996 and continues to this day has been done in a manner that "suggests harassment."
In France, too, the U.S. has been engaged actively in promoting a dialogue with French authorities. U.S. Embassy representatives have met several times with the Interministerial Mission to Battle Against Sects. President Clinton, Secretary of State Albright, Assistant Secretary of State Harold Koh, and I have each raised these issues of religious discrimination with French officials during the past year, and we will continue to do so. Our goal is to develop a common understanding with the French Government on what actions are -- and are not -- in accord with international agreements on religious freedom.
Mr. Chairman, the pattern in Austria is not unlike that in France. The government has long waged an information campaign against religious groups that it considers harmful to the interests of individuals and society. A brochure issued last September by the Ministry for Social Security and Generations described several nonrecognized religious groups, including the Jehovah's Witnesses, in decidedly negative terms that many found offensive. With the recent appointment of a new minister from Jorg Haider's Freedom Party, there are fears that the government may intensify its campaign against religions that lack official recognition. We have raised these issues with the Austrian Government and will continue to press our view that such practices contravene Austria's commitments to religious freedom.
Let me conclude with Belgium. In 1998 the Belgian Parliament adopted several recommendations from a commission report on government policy toward "sects," including the creation of a "Center for Information and Advice on Harmful Sectarian Organizations." The commission had also appended a list of "sects" in Belgium divided into those considered harmful, and all others, and recommended a special police unit to deal with the harmful groups. The government has not yet taken any action on this proposal.
Our concern here, Mr. Chairman, is not with the government's attempts to deal with illegal activities on the part of any religious group, whether recognized or unrecognized, new or old. Our fear is that Belgium, like France, and Austria, is painting with too broad a brush. In its very use of the pejorative term "sect" to characterize unrecognized religious groups, it casts aspersions on those groups, creating (even if inadvertently) the suspicion that there is something wrong with them. But every religion began as something new and unpopular. We have discussed these issues with Belgian officials, and we will continue to urge all our European friends to recognize that the religious quest must be nurtured, not discouraged, for true religious freedom to exist.
Before concluding, I want to note that Muslims continue to experience some discrimination in western Europe, even though Islam is the second-largest religion in France and Belgium and the third in Austria and Germany. In some cases, this discrimination has more to do with race, culture, and immigrant status than religious beliefs. Indeed, Muslims are free to worship and form cultural organizations in each of these countries. Islam is recognized as an established, organized religion, thus enabling it to claim certain tax exemptions and receive subsidies from the state. The most persistent and controversial religious issue facing Muslims in western Europe is the question of headscarves and whether girls should be permitted to wear them in public schools. The question has caused considerable debate, some of it quite charged with overtones of intolerance. But civil society is well-established in these countries, and many organizations have defended the rights of Muslims. If some jurisdictions remain opposed to students wearing religious clothing, others are becoming more accepting of the practice. Our view is that the international covenants are quite clear -- freedom of religion includes the right to manifest religious belief. Surely democracies can find the flexibility to tolerate such an expression of piety as the religious headscarf.
Let me conclude where I began, Mr. Chairman. We share a great deal with our allies and friends in Europe, including common religious traditions. Together we have done much to make the world a safer, more humane place: a place where human rights like democracy might take root and flourish. We offer these thoughts about religious freedom to our friends out of a sense of shared responsibility for what we have done, and what we might do, together. We will continue to discuss these matters with them. Our plea is that they consider our argument that freedom of religion -- while sometimes tragically exploited by those who would manipulate faith for their own ends -- is inherently good because it supports the dignity of the human person, as well as democracy itself.
Thank you again, Mr. Chairman, for your leadership and that of this Committee on the matter of promoting religious freedom abroad.