"Freedom of religion in the world, a worrying Situation". Interview with Amicarelli from FOB

Alessandro Amicarelli

We publish the interview done by Roberto Guidotti to the president of FOB, lawyer Alessandro Amicarelli and published today by La Notizia.net.

Freedom of religion in the world is a worrying situation

Even in the 21st century, individual rights and freedom of religion and belief are not as protected as one would have expected a few decades ago. Since January 2015, the European Federation for Freedom of Belief – FOB, a federation of associations set up as a secular platform, defends the rights of believers, non-believers and atheists by openly fighting against religious discrimination including arbitrary distinctions between "religion" and "cult”, often defamatory of religious minorities. We talked about the current situation with the president of FOB, the Italian Alessandro Amicarelli.

Doctor Amicarelli, what is the current situation regarding religious freedom in the world?

There is a large number of worrying situations, not only in countries where freedoms are present to a lesser extent than, for example, in the United States or in European countries, but also in some European countries. Recently the French government proposed an anti-separatism law designed against radical Islam and the so-called cults. For an in-depth study of this topic, I refer to the study we carried out with Massimo Introvigne of CESNUR and other well-known scholars, culminating in the White Paper “Separatism, Religions and Cults: Religious Liberty Issues – A White Paper” available in Italian on our website.

Even in Germany there are unpleasant situations, think for example of the anti-cult filter, denounced by Bitter Winter, according to which for some hiring or to fill some roles, it is necessary to declare that you are not a member of certain religious groups. In a positive light, there have been developments, albeit still in an embryonic stage, thanks to the initiative, wanted by the United States of America, of the Ministerial for the Advancement of Religious Freedom in the World, the first edition of which was held in Washington DC in July 2018, attracting representatives from several dozen of countries around the world and that it was such a success that it immediately became an annual event: even in 2020, despite the Covid restriction, it was still held, although only online.

Do you think that the Covid-19 pandemic may have played a further negative role?

No doubt, the restrictions due to Covid have aggravated the exercise of religious freedom, as well as numerous other freedoms, and some abuses by states have not been lacking. As networks of scholars at international level we have taken action to denounce abuses and at the same time to report positive initiatives during the toughest periods of restrictions.

The work behind the scenes hasn't stopped, and like FOB, CESNUR, Bitter Winter, Human Rights Without Frontiers, ORLIR (International Observatory of Religious Liberty of Refugees), Soteria International, CAP (Liberté de Conscience), All Faiths Network and other organizations, we have unceasingly carried out our work through numerous initiatives such as online conferences, published texts, sensible proposals and more. We supported an interesting and balanced Proposal elaborated by the DiReSom Research Group (Law, Religions, Multicultural Society), made up of professors and researchers from numerous Italian universities, from Messina to Trento, in which a reasonable set of guidelines for the cautious reopening of places of worship in Italy – closed by order of the government without exception during the first quarantine, – was put forward.

I report an initiative held on September 3, 2020 on the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, organized in concert with the University of Vilnius in Lithuania, which saw the participation of scholars from different continents and culminated in a Final Report of the Conference and, subsequently, in the publication of the White Paper “The New Gnomes of Zurich: The Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Spiess Case, and Its Manipulation by Anti-Cult and Russian Propaganda”, in which, with Massimo Introvigne, we deconstructed a fictional theorem developed by anti-cult groups against Jehovah's Witnesses. The anti-cult groups gathered in the organization called FECRIS, the European Federation of Research Centers on Sectarianism and their aggressive philosophy behind the anti-religious practice have been severely attacked and denounced by the bi-partisan Commission of the United States of America, USCIRF - US Commission for International Religious Freedom - which has asked governments to halt the violence of FECRIS against religious minorities, hastily accused of being cults, and of prohibiting their activities as contrary to universal fundamental human rights. It should be noted that FECRIS is 90% financed by the French government..

Which are the churches or movements that are suffering the most discrimination or real persecution?

In addition to the case of Jehovah's Witnesses I mentioned above, we have dealt with cases of violation of religious freedom in China, where The Church of Almighty God and ethnic Uyghur Muslims are in education camps through the work required by the Chinese government to be transformed into citizens re-educated in the doctrine of the Chinese government. These camps, which evoke Nazi camps in organization and practices, were brought to the attention of the general public by Bitter Winter, whose news was then picked up by international media.

We have dealt with the Shincheoji Church, treated in South Korea as a dangerous cult and pointed out, in a political-media campaign of witch hunts, as responsible for the spread of Covid-19, as well as with other groups.

Finally, temporally, we dealt with the case of the Taiwanese spiritual and Qi Gong group Tai Ji Men, which has had a problem with the Tax Office for years, despite the fact that the magistracy at all levels has canceled all requests for taxes against this spiritual group.

In recent months there have also been talks in Italy of the banning of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia in place since 2017. How do you motivate the brutal attacks on the individual freedoms of individuals belonging to this movement, traditionally known for their non-violent attitude?

Jehovah's Witnesses were among the victims of Nazi concentration camps, also with the contribution of the Italian government, and often victims of real persecution also in the democratic and republican Italy, arrested for proselytism and conscientious objection to military service or also for the refusal to perform the alternative service. As FOB, we have dealt at length with the theme of Jehovah's Witnesses and we recalled the hate campaigns in place in the 1990s and 2000s against Witnesses by anti-cult organizations operating in different areas of Italy, whose trail of intolerance is still present in the national territory. As organizations for human rights and religious freedom we have repeatedly denounced the Russian situation, it is in fact peculiar and largely caused by the presence in Russia of organizations linked to the aforementioned FECRIS, whose vice president Alexander Dvorkin is actually Russian and a campaigner of hatred against Witnesses, that culminated in the declaration of illegality of the organization of Witnesses in Russia as an extremist group.

It is worth recalling, as we did in the Final Report of the Conference on Witnesses of September 2020, that President Putin has repeatedly stated that he does not understand the reason for the persecution of Witnesses, and even in 2017, shortly after the ban as an extremist organization, he awarded a family of Witnesses as Family of the Year. Certainly, there is in Russia a slice of society that shows clear intolerance against minority groups, with particular fury towards Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Scientology, but also totally peaceful Islamic groups and other Christian minority groups; at the same time, there is part of Russian society that has openly sided against the ban in 2017, including President Putin, something that anti-cults and most of the Italian media forget to recall.

Many state organizations such as the OSCE, the EU, the UNHCR or individual states such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States have condemned the behavior of the Russian authorities. Do you think this could lead to an easing of the persecution?

States more inclined to respect religious freedom, first of all the United States and the United Kingdom, the country in which I have lived and have been active for several years, have always pressured for an end to the persecution of Witnesses and other groups in countries and territories less attentive to protection of freedom of belief, including Russia. The same type of intervention takes place by international organizations such as those you mentioned. Among the virtuous nations, in terms of protection of religious freedom, we would also like to include Italy, but the beautiful country still has to take some steps forward to be able to call itself a country fully respectful of religious minorities. The effort should first of all take place at the cultural level and be accompanied by a legislative intervention to update the constitutional principles, too often not implemented in practice.

Annually at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, organized by the OSCE, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to discuss issues related to human rights and fundamental freedoms, many countries including Italy, France, Russia and others, have been questioned with a request for clarification on the reason for the lack of protection of freedom of belief and often the answers given by government representatives are nothing short of disconcerting. For this reason, the role of international organizations of scholars, university professors and researchers remains of fundamental importance, in addition to denouncing violations, they positively position themselves as a source of enrichment for public opinion and as a consultancy tool for institutions that certainly need specialist support.

Coming back to Russia, things will only change if the country takes a serious step forward and until this happens all the pressures made by other States, by international organizations and certainly by humanitarian organizations and ethically irreproachable and alert about these issues journalists are welcome.

Back to Italy, what role do the media play in shaping public opinion as regards religious, ethnic or other minorities? And how do you assess the behavior of the media in recent times?

The attitude that I would call one of reverence towards the Catholic Church and the person of the Roman Sovereign Pontiff on the part of most of the Italian media, that devote ample space to the country's majority religion, is understandable. Less understandable is the total absence of space for minority religions and spiritualities within the media, especially if we think of the public service which should instead ensure a certain fairness that greatly delays in being assured.

Despite the fact that 37 years have passed since the new 1984 Agreement, despite numerous agreements with religious denominations have been stipulated, and despite Italy having precise international obligations, there are no particularly interesting and noteworthy changes when it comes to minority religions and spiritualities in the media. If we think that the Catholic religion receives daily attention on all public networks, with various dedicated broadcasts and also within the news, and that on the other hand, in the public service only Network 2 [N of T: of RAI state television] grants a small space to non-Catholic communities, broadcasting only two broadcasts, specifically, "Protestantism" and "Source of Life", which are broadcasted in the depths of the night and only every other week, thus ensuring very few hours in a year to the Jewish community and to the Protestant communities, and that other religious communities do not receive even the slightest attention. For example, if you think of the Islamic community which is numerically the second largest religious community in Italy, the difference in treatment is more than obvious.

The lack of positive attention to minority religious communities goes hand in hand with the presence of systematic stigmatization against Islam and other religious and spiritual communities considered as cults, with media campaigns within popular national broadcasts in which subjects are invited as experts who do nothing but carry on clichés and stereotypes against communities that enjoy respect in other countries. The same cliché is often seen applied to other minorities, such as ethnic minorities. And the same little attention is shown towards national linguistic minorities, for example, those of Ladin, Friulian, French and German languages or others.

What more do you think the international community can do to tackle the scourge of human rights violations and the exercise of religious freedom?

The international community has done and is doing a lot in this sector; the problem is represented by the national States which delay the implementation in practice of the provisions contained in the international instruments for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, which the States themselves have contributed to adopt. The education of young people is undoubtedly the first step to take, but until the legislator intervenes with concrete interventions, until the public schools of a state that calls itself secular will provide confessional religious teaching, until it will allow newspapers and radio and television broadcasts to carry on stereotypes and prejudices against religious and spiritual minorities labeled as cults, until the sacrosanct constitutional principles such as the equality of all individuals and religious freedom are soon realized, nothing or little will be achieved.

Concluding in a positive way our organization European Federation for Freedom of Belief – FOB – a secular organization independent of any denomination and which works for everyone, believers and non-believers, on the occasion of the FOB International Convention, "Freedom of Belief in Europe, a difficult journey", an enormously successful event held in Florence in January 2018, under the auspices of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, and honored with the Medal of the President of the Republic Mattarella, shows the attention on the part of the highest representative of the Italian Republic and gives good hope for the future of many religious and spiritual communities in Italy. On that occasion we launched an appeal to the European Nations for the implementation in European countries of the international legislation for human rights and religious freedom for all, also presented at the United Nations Palace in Geneva.

Roberto Guidotti

Source: La Notizia.net