Commentaries on freedom of religion or belief issues are guest contributions and do not necessarily represent the views of Forum 18.

6 November 2012

RUSSIA: Religious freedom "the only viable option for consolidating Russia's extraordinary diversity"

By Geraldine Fagan, Russia Correspondent, Forum 18

This is the second of two abridged extracts from a book by Geraldine Fagan, Forum 18's Russia and Belarus Correspondent, "Believing in Russia - Religious Policy after Communism" (Routledge, 2013). The book presents a comprehensive overview of religious policy in Russia since the end of the communist regime, exposing many of the ambiguities and uncertainties about the position of religion in Russian life and revealing how religious freedom in Russia has, contrary to the widely held view, a long tradition. The book argues that continuing failure to resolve the question of whether Russia is to be an Orthodox country with religious minorities or a multi-confessional state is destabilising the nation. More details on the book are available from http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415490023/.

1 November 2012

RUSSIA: "The Kremlin's failure to uphold its own constitutional commitment to religious freedom"

By Geraldine Fagan, Russia Correspondent, Forum 18

This is the first of two abridged extracts from a book by Geraldine Fagan, Forum 18's Russia and Belarus Correspondent, "Believing in Russia - Religious Policy after Communism" (Routledge, 2013). The book presents a comprehensive overview of religious policy in Russia since the end of the communist regime, exposing many of the ambiguities and uncertainties about the position of religion in Russian life and revealing how religious freedom in Russia has, contrary to the widely held view, a long tradition. The book argues that continuing failure to resolve the question of whether Russia is to be an Orthodox country with religious minorities or a multi-confessional state is destabilising the nation. More details on the book are available from http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415490023/.

26 July 2011

COMMENTARY: Bayatyan – a European Court judgment with an impact far beyond Armenia

By Derek Brett, Conscience and Peace Tax International <http://www.cpti.ws>

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has unequivocally declared that conscientious objection to military service is protected under Article 9 ("Freedom of thought, conscience and religion") of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws/ argues, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service, that the ECtHR judgment in favour of Vahan Bayatyan, an Armenian Jehovah's Witness jailed for conscientious objection to compulsory military service has implications far beyond Armenia. He notes that the judgment also has implications for Azerbaijan and Turkey within the Council of Europe, and for states outside the organisation such as Belarus. He suggests that the ECtHR may develop its thinking to directly address the problem of coercion to change a belief such as conscientious objection, as well as to follow the UN Human Rights Committee in strengthening the protection of conscientious objection.

14 June 2011

COMMENTARY: Advancing Freedom of Religion or Belief: Agendas for Change

By Malcolm Evans, Professor of Public International Law, University of Bristol

"Rather than being a celebration of a thing of worth, the approach currently adopted by the international political community to religious freedom is dominated by the language of special pleading, disadvantage, hostility, and hate. This must change", argued Professor Malcolm Evans in a lecture hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and published in abbreviated form by Forum 18 News Service. Agendas such as "defamation of religions, incitement to religious hatred, combating anti-semitism, Islamophobia, Christianophobia, Discrimination against Christians, etc." risk, Evans notes, being "self-defeating by being self-serving". "The predominant interest which faith communities show in the rights of their own" forms a barrier. "Unless and until that barrier is overcome, the ability of the international community to engage effectively with the protection of the freedom of religion or belief as a human right will be diminished".
Calling for work to re-start on a UN Convention, Evans observes of some approaches that: "The question which continually gets lost in these twists and turns is simple, but important: 'Why not start with the idea of the freedom of religion or belief for everyone?'" For, states are the source "in reality, [of] most of the restrictions placed on the freedom of religion or belief - and, therefore, much of the hostility and violence which believers face".
Professor Evans identifies in the lecture the need to "roll back the essentially negative approaches of recent years and champion a more positive vision of what religious freedom has to offer". He ends by noting signs of positive change, and calling on Christians and those of other faiths and none to "champion the freedoms of others as well as of ourselves".

19 July 2010

COMMENTARY: RUSSIA: Art curators' verdict not isolated instance – this is a system

By Alexander Verkhovsky, SOVA Center for Information and Analysis <www.sova-center.ru>

The conviction of art curators Yury Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeev is the most high-profile symptom of the problems flowing from Russian anti-extremism legislation, notes Alexander Verkhovsky, Director of the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis http://www.sova-center.ru, in a commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. This legislation has been used to target religious groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim readers of the works of Said Nursi, suggesting that these uses of anti-extremism law are not isolated instances – this is a system. Only indifference to religion prevents people worried by restrictions on freedom of speech from noticing the growing proportion of anti-extremism cases relating to religion. Particularly disturbing is the precedence given to the catch-all legal concept of 'religioznaya rozn' (religious discord) over the narrower 'religioznaya vrazhda' (religious enmity), as this allows criminalisation of legitimate criticism of others' worldviews. There must be, Verkhovsky argues, a re-examination of anti-extremism legislation, or at least a clear Supreme Court explanation conforming to international human rights standards.

19 November 2009

COMMENTARY: The European Court of Human Rights - Out of step on conscientious objection

By Derek Brett, Conscience and Peace Tax International <http://www.cpti.ws>

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECtHR) has recently made a very dangerous judgement for freedom of religion or belief in the Bayatyan v. Armenia case which puts it out of step with the international standards on conscientious objection to military service and with the Council of Europe's own human rights agenda, notes Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws in a commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. The Court, apparently unaware of the recent parallel jurisprudence under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, found no violation of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the imprisonment of a Jehovah's Witness for his refusal on grounds of conscientious objection to perform military service, or the subsequent increase in the sentence, which had been partly justified by his reasons for refusal. Brett argues that it is vital that the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR agrees to hear the appeal in the Bayatyan case, as it alone can overturn the precedent which this will otherwise set for future ECtHR cases.

22 May 2008

BELARUS: "We are reclaiming our history as a land of religious freedom"

By Antoni Bokun, Pastor of John the Baptist Pentecostal Church in Minsk, Belarus

Concern is growing across Europe about the deterioration of freedom of conscience in Belarus. Few are aware, however, that Belarus was once a haven of religious freedom for people fleeing persecution in Western Europe. In this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org, Antoni Bokun, pastor of Minsk's John the Baptist Pentecostal Church, describes how Belarusians' historical experience has taught them that "religious freedom elevates our nation, whereas religious un-freedom leads to the darkest and most tragic consequences." In 1573 - almost 400 years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - Belarusians adopted one of Europe's first legal declarations upholding religious freedom for all, when many other European states executed people for their faith. Pastor Antoni maintains that it is this deep-rooted experience which lies behind today's campaign against religious freedom restrictions. "Inspired by our long history of freedom of conscience, Belarusians continue to work and hope for the day that our country will reclaim its heritage as a land of religious freedom." In 2007 Pastor Bokun spent three days in prison and was heavily fined for leading worship services.

13 May 2008

COMMENTARY: Why can't all religious communities have places of worship?

By a Turkmen Protestant

One of the biggest problems faced by religious believers in Turkmenistan is not being able to freely maintain public places of worship, a Turkmen Protestant from a region far from the capital argues in a personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. "You cannot build, buy, or securely rent such property, let alone put up a notice outside saying 'This is a place of worship'," the Protestant comments. "All kinds of obstructions are imposed, whether through rules or just in practice," the commentary continues, noting that "whenever officials raid our meetings the first thing they ask is: 'Where's your registration certificate?' The government likes to be able to say to outsiders 'We have registration' and show them communities in Ashgabad. But people don't look at what we experience in places away from the capital, where we have no hope of registration." The Turkmen concludes that "without freedom to meet for worship it is impossible to claim that we have freedom of religion or belief."

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