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IIRF Reports, International Institute for Religious Freedom Vol. 2, No. 10, August 2013, pp. 6-7



Prof. Dr. phil. Dr. theol. Thomas Schirrmacher, “Freedom of Religion and European Identity”, Collective list of questions for the public  hearing by the German Parliament’s Commission for Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid, on October 27, 2010 on the topic of October 22, 2010 (corrected on November 29, 2010), pp. 6-7. 


3) Although in Europe the right to religious freedom is largely ensured, national governments differ greatly as far as, for example, the equal treatment of religions and the question of religious symbols are concerned. In what way does this inconsistency influence the idea of a European identity on the basis of religious freedom? (Cfr. Willy Fautre. “European Trends.“ pp. 28–32 in Paul A. Marshall. Religious Freedom in the World. Lanham (MD): Rowman & Littlefield, 2008; additional articles on Europe pp. 33–41.)

The freedom of religion as a universal right can apparently be implemented in a variety of ways from culture to culture, and one should not prematurely conclude that there is a lack of religious freedom on the basis of certain factors. Thus Norway has a state church anchored in the constitution, and that includes the major part of its population. Yet it is one of the European countries with the least impairment of religious freedom vis-à-vis religious minorities. In Ireland the constitution names the Christian, triune God as the point of all reference. The Catholic convictions of the majority of the population exercise great influence upon legislation, and the blasphemy law sounds dramatic. Despite this, the degree of freedom granted to religious minorities is very high.

A vivid example of how a situation that has grown up in history in Europe can be determinative is France, which with its laïcité maintains a very strict separation between religions and the state. Freedom of religion is at most at risk in the way religion is pushed out of the public sphere and is threatened by the battle against ‘sects’ and ‘cults.’ At the same time, the Départements Moselle, Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin (the prior Alsace-Moselle, that is, Alsace-Lothringen) comprise a region in France where the clergy of the acknowledged religious community are all paid by the state and from everyone’s tax money. Religion is also very present in the public sphere there. This is the only place where ironically the former state church of Germany survived.

Another example: There are 375 mosques in Thrace in Greece, which thanks to the 1923 Lausanne Peace Treaty enjoy a comparatively high degree of freedom. Their imams are partly financed by the state. Outside of Thrace, Muslims are very strongly restricted and exclusively the Orthodox clergy is paid by everyone’s tax money. Here again is an example where historical roots account for contrasts within the same country. Admittedly the diversity found in Europe also leads to a situation where there are predominantly certain violations of religious freedom in certain countries.   

France and Belgium lead both chronologically and as regards content with prohibitions against religious clothing in public. Whether this could be enforceable  in such intensity in other European countries is doubtful. Also, the state classification of religious communities as dangerous cults is not known in most European countries, or attempts in this direction are thwarted by their courts. In individual countries such as Belgium and France, and in a weaker form in Austria or outside of the European Union in Russian and Turkey, one finds that this sort of action belongs to everyday political life, with all the problems that derive from it.

In Belgium, to name just one example, the battle against sects and cults rather indiscriminately affects Sikh temples, African Pentecostal churches, communities that practice yoga, or the Anthroposophic Society.The court of appeals in Brussels has repeatedly rejected the work of the Belgian Parliamentary Commission on Cults in Brussels, as it has also done with the description of the Anthroposophic Society as a ‘dangerous sect’ by state officials. 

The diversity of Europe can thus also have a negative side, which one quickly recognizes when one investigates the unequal treatment of certain minorities across all of Europe – and as is generally known, religious freedom has to stand the test precisely when dealing with minorities that have joined the culture. If for instance one chooses the perspective of the Bahá’í, a religion that has the identical alignment in all European countries and itself propagates religious freedom and acts peacefully, the range in European countries spans from complete freedom to difficult situations all the way up to registration refusal in Romania and acts of violence involving temples in Armenia. 

This leads to a situation where the same religious association can in one country be monitored by state authorities or may not be able to be registered, while in the next country it is welcome and enjoys full rights. Thus in Germany the Anthroposophic Society enjoys enormous breadth in its opportunities to develop and has won rulings that have for instance gained immense rights for its Waldorf schools. In neighboring Belgium, on the other hand, it is largely restricted by the state as a ‘dangerous sect.’ Jehovah’s Witnesses have of all places in Turkey a better legal status than in Austria, even if the European Court of Human Rights recently gave Austria a lecture in this connection.


 IIRF Reports, International Institute for Religious Freedom Vol. 2, No. 10, August 2013, pp. 6-7