The protection of minors against excesses of anti-religious policies
Comment on the report "The protection of minors against excesses of sects" of Mr Rudy Salles (MP EPP/CD' France), no. AS/Jur (2014) 07 of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights.
As a human rights lawyer with a specific interest for religious freedom and religious minorities I was not happy to read this draft report as it poses a real threat to religious freedom in Europe.
Basically, as declared in the explanatory memorandum (page 4), this report is the result of:
1. a meeting the Committee had the 6th of September 2012 with one scholar, prof. Sophie van Bijsterveld MP from the Netherlands, one lawyer and representative of Family and Personality Protection Society, Mr Maksym Yurchenko from Ukraine and the renowned French politician and former president of MIVILUDES, Mr Georges Fenech from France;
2. a questionnaire sent to members states' parliamentary delegations;
3. two one-day fact-finding visits of Mr Salles with representatives of anti-cultic associations in Stockholm and in Berlin.
As a matter of fact, it must be noticed that Mr Salles is a French politician and only met with representatives of anti-cultic groups and it has to be reminded also that France is renowned for fighting against new religious movements and I would say, as explained below, minority religions generally speaking; consequently this report is the natural result of at least two decades of anti-religious activities and policies enforced and implemented in France and that the French authorities are trying to spread all around Europe through their emissaries.
There are many reasons to be shocked reading this report.
After reading the first lines concerning the protection of minors, it is clear that the actual aim of the report is to stygmatise religious minorities, roughly called sects, and to favour the adoption of national legislations aimed at preventing and fighting their activities in the Council Of Europe's member States.
It seems that with this recommendation the Council of Europe deny its own words, particularly the recommendations no. 1178/92 and 1412/99, and the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights concerning religious freedom and religious minorities too.
In the subsequent explanatory report some judgments of the Court are recalled as well as excerpts of the previous recommendations, however, the main points are not mentioned at all.
For instance it deserves to recall that in case Church of Scientology of Moscow v. Russia the Court found a violation of the Convention (ECHR) as the authorities tried to justify in any possible ways the refusal to grant the registration of the Church because this religion was considered as a cult.
Austria had employed 10 years to grant the legal status to the religion of the Jehovah's witnesses and the Court found this unacceptable for this religion which is well known at national and international level too (Religionsgemeinschaft v. Austria). A representative of the Unification Church was stopped at an airport in Russia and detained and not allowed to re-enter the country as the religion he belonged to was considered as dangerous, the Court found several violations of the Convention also because a minor was involved along with his father (Nolan and K. v. Russia).
All of these three religious minorities are usually referred to as sects or cults by the anti-cultic associations and were enlisted in two lists of dangerous cults created in France and Belgium were secto-phobic groups are particularly active also thanks to the funding and support they receive from the governments; in some cases actually they are State bodies themselves, e.g. the French MIVILUDES, whose former president Mr Fenech has been consulted by Mr Rudy Salles to draft this report.
It must be said that:
- no distinction between cults or sects and mainstream religions is allowed (recomm. no. 1412/99 par. 6)
- no lists, actually blacklists, are allowed; in case lists of religions are created they must include all groups, also 'sects' (recomm. no. 1412/99 par. 8 and 9)
- no need for a specific legislation for, actually against, cults as both the civil and criminal law have enough provisions to cover also cases concerning people involved in religious groups (recomm. no. 1412/99 par. 10 sub .iii)
- understanding, tolerance, dialogue and resolution of conflicts have to be encouraged (recomm. no. 1412/99 par. 10 sub .vi)
- States must ensure a firm commitment against any discriminatory and marginalising actions and behaviour against religious and spiritual minorities (recomm. no. 1412/99 par. 10 sub .vii). This is more than just prevention of discriminatory actions, it implies a positive action by States to fight against discrmination that affect minority groups. The approval of the proposed Salles report would have the opposite result, namely to allow member States to discriminate such groups and to legitimate the behavior of anti-cultic movements and their secto-phobic and religio-phobic campaigns.
In the very case of this report, should the proposed recommendation be passed, there is the likely risk for religious minorities throughout Europe to be threatened particularly in those States that welcome with favour the French style of oppression of minorities.
It must be recalled that in the last decades France has adopted the most illiberal legislation against religious groups and that at several occasions the European and International jurisdictions have found violations of the human rights standards.
We can indeed mention law no. 228/2004 prohibiting religious symbols in public places that has caused hundreds of cases of discrimination against pupils belonging to religious minorities, both Sikh and Muslims too, expelled from French public schools as intended as extremists that may threaten other pupils and because the republican principle of laicite' (i.e. secularism) had to be protected and ensured in the country, public schools included.
This principle is considered so important by some in France that the former president Chirac even proposed a code de la laicite' - a code of secularism - that would also create a police department to enforce secularism throughout the country.
Also the principle of egalite' (i.e. equality) is often recalled to justify such discriminations, particularly such measures in the view of those who apply such restrictions, are aimed at making all the students equal, which means they all have to look the same, no difference being tolerated. Of course this view is unacceptable as incompatible with the democratic societies and in fact the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations in cases concerning students belonging to the Sikh religion who had been expelled from French public schools for wearing the turban or people that had been forced to remove the turban prior to taking the passport photo, found violations of the International Covenant of 1966 and particularly art. 18 about freedom of thought,conscience and religion (see inter alia UN Committee S. Singh v. France 2013).
The European Court found also violations of the Convention in several cases concerning the tax matter as France had adopted a piece of legislation imposing a rough 60% tax on income of religious groups which had been discriminatorily enforced only on the income of groups considered as sects (See inter alia Association of Jehovah's witnesses of France v. France).
As I stated above the content of the drafted recommendation, while non adding any further protection to either minors or children, proves in no way and gives no evidence that the phenomenon is so wide-spread to justify any special legislation.
In respect of the numbers of people involved with 'sects', as acknowledged also by Mr Salles, there are no official figures; nonetheless in the case of my native country, Italy, it has been reported by a Catholic priest, Mr Don Aldo Bonaiuto, that in 2010 some 8000 people have been involved in different ways with sathanism, vampirism, spiritualism and witchcraft and of them some 36% are aged between 15 and 24, which means the phenomenon is not as big as the anti-cultic associations state since years.
If passed this recommendation would indeed invert the long-lasting tradition of the Council of Europe of the last 60 years, inspired to the philosophy of tolerance and social inclusion and to the culture of "living together".
In addition it would mean to justify the discriminatory activities carried out by State bodies, private and semi-public anti-cultic associations and it is a fact that discriminatory measures not only affect new religious movements but indeed also traditional religions that are a minority in the given country, for instance Islam in France.
It has been reported that in the recent era, the first official case of discrimination involving minors belonging to a religious minority in France is dated 1989. It concerned three young Muslim girls who were expelled from a public schools on the ground they wore the hijab, a simple veil covering the head and that they refused to remove for religious reasons (See Joan W. Scott, Symptomatic Politics. The Banning of Islamic Head Scarves in French Public Schools, in French Politics, Culture & Society, Vol. 23, No. 3, Winter 2005).
This behavior of the authorities has continued for years so far and recently in 2010 the French parliament has also banned the wearing of niqab, a veil that covers also face, usually wore by women from Saudia Arabia and few other countries.
Since then cases occurred in France and somewhere else have been thousands and the content of the Salles report risks to validate the spirit at the basis of such discriminatory acts, sanctioned several times at international level.
Among other provisions, the Salles report, calls on member States:
- to set up centres on sect-like religious and spiritual movements (6.3); the aims of such centres are not specified, it could be to study, to provide information, to organise fight campaigns
- to provide teaching in the history of religions and the main philosophies in schools (6.4)
- to ensure schooling is enforced and monitoring of private education and home schooling too (6.5)
- to provides judges and policemen and ombudsmen and the welfare services with information about the phenomenon of sects (6.6)
- to support, including in financials terms, the action of private bodies (6.8)
All of the above points contrast with human rights standards and the basic principles of State neutrality and impartiality and indeed non interference with the internal affairs of religions that includes the prohibition to States from taking into consideration religious beliefs (see inter alia Church of Scientology of Moscow v. Russia and Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria).
Furthermore teaching the history of religions would indeed include only some traditional groups and non others and certainly none of the groups labelled as sects. And the meaning of the expression 'main philosophies' is obviously non-inclusive and aimed at excluding those philosophies considered as linked to sects.
Who will decide which philosophy or religion has to be included in the teaching and who will teach these classes?
Monitoring on schooling, both private and public, has to be ensured by States regardless pupils belong to religious minorities or not.
Providing judges and other officers with manuals and training about sects and cultic groups will imply State authorities make lists of good and bad religions, religions and sects and as explained this is not in line with Sates' obligations.
To support and to fund bodies and associations that fight the 'excesses of sects' would mean again that the State makes an evaluation and disctinction between religions and sects and becomes partisan while discriminating against some people and favouring others.
Freedom, democracy and human rights are the main goals of the Council of Europe's daily activities.
The proposed recommendation would legitimate legislations aimed at discrimination, violation of basic human rights and social exclusion of all those who belong to minorities, primarily - but non exclusively - the minors and this is in contradiction with the stated aim of protecting minors.
Crimes against members belonging to minorities and buildings owned by religious groups are growing, for instance several times Kingdom Halls of Jehovah's witnesses have been burnt, as well as cases of Islamo-phobia and particularly actions against hijabed (veiled) women and bearded men; other cases of physical and verbal aggression have involved members of the Sikh religion who wear the turban and other people too, including young pupils expelled from public schools.
Members of the population deserve respect and not to be discriminated against on the ground of their religious affiliation and they have to be protected against the excesses of the anti-religious policies implemented and enforced in some countries.
For all the above reasons I strongly hope the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe would reject this Trojan horse firmly and completely for sake of religious freedom and equality!
All minors deserve respect and dignity and protection from any kind of abuses, regardless they belong to a minority or not and have to be protected from all forms of discrimination too.
Alessandro A. Amicarelli PhD