USCIRF reports and Western Europe

Katrina Lantos Swett

According to the 2013 Annual Report on the State of International Religious Freedom by The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF):

«The state of international religious freedom is increasingly dire due to the presence of forces that fuel instability. These forces include the rise of violent religious extremism coupled with the actions and inactions of governments.» said Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett [*], USCIRF’s Chair.

Regarding Western Europe, USCIFR’s commissioners wrote that «Since the 1990s, the governments of several European countries—particularly France, but also Austria, Belgium, and Germany—have taken measures against religious groups pejoratively characterized as “cults” or “sects.” These efforts have included the publication of official reports or lists identifying certain groups as harmful or dangerous “cults” or “sects;” the use or creation of government agencies to monitor these groups; the application of registration, immigration, tax or other generally-applicable laws in ways that restrict these groups’ rights; and in the case of France, the passage of a specific law “to reinforce the prevention and repression of sects which infringe human rights and fundamental freedoms.»


According to USCIRF, France is the leading anti-religious European nation:

«The most extensive “anti-cult” efforts have been in France. Since 1998, the French government has had a governmental entity specifically tasked with collecting and disseminating official information on groups deemed to be “cults” and coordinating government efforts to oppose such groups. The organization in its current form is called the “Inter-ministerial Mission for Vigilance and to Combat Sectarian Aberrations,” or MIVILUDES (its acronym in French). Various French government reports on and lists of “cult” groups have included Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, the French Federation of Krishna Consciousness, a Baptist Bible college, several Evangelical Christian churches, and many more small, non-traditional, and/or new religious communities. Groups that are on these lists or that have been addressed in MIVILUDES’ or its predecessor’s work say that this system creates a climate of intolerance and has led to both official and private discrimination against them.»

«In December 2012, French President Hollande announced the establishment of a new government agency, the National Observatory of Secularism, about which a number of religious groups have expressed concerns. The observatory’s mandate is to observe and promote secularism in the country, including by recommending how to promote secular values in French schools. According to press reports, the Minister of Education described the effort as seeking to counter religious extremism. When asked to provide examples of religious extremist groups, he cited creationists, radical Islamists, traditionalist Catholics, and ultra-Orthodox Jews, without making any reference to the use or advocacy of violence”.»

Later in this 2013 report the Commissioners wrote that «In recent years, the atmosphere of religious intolerance across Europe appears to be rising. In its 2012 report Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found an overall rise in the median level of social hostilities based on religion throughout Europe, and significant increases in a number of individual countries, including Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, and the United Kingdom.»

Western Europe scene in terms of freedom of religion and belief shows no relevant change in 2014. Here is USCIRF account about this first half of this year.

«USCIRF continues to monitor the religious freedom related issues in Western Europe highlighted in last year’s Annual Report. These include restrictions on, and efforts to restrict, certain forms of religious expression (particularly dress and visible symbols, ritual slaughter, and religious circumcision); governmental monitoring of disfavored groups pejoratively labeled “cults” or “sects;” lack of accommodation of religious objections; and the potential use of hate speech laws against peaceful expressions of belief. USCIRF is concerned that these restrictions are creating a hostile atmosphere against certain forms of religious activity in Western Europe, as well as limiting social integration and educational and employment opportunities for the affected individuals. Governmental restrictions on religious freedom both arise from and encourage a societal atmosphere of intolerance against the targeted religious groups.»

«The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other international documents guarantee to every individual not only the right to believe, but also the right to manifest one’s beliefs, individually or in community with others, in public or in private, through worship, observance, practice and teaching.1 This encompasses a broad range of acts, including building places of worship, displaying symbols, observing dietary restrictions, wearing distinctive clothing or head coverings, and participating in rituals associated with certain stages of life.»

Governmental Monitoring of Disfavored Religious Groups

«Since the 1990s, the governments of France, Austria, Belgium, and Germany have, to varying degrees, taken measures against religious groups they view as “cults” or “sects,” including through monitoring and investigations. Targeted groups have included Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, Hare Krishnas, Evangelical Protestants, and other small, non-traditional, and/or new religious communities.»

Download pdf: 2013 USCIRF Annual Report

Download pdf: Western Europe 2014

[*] Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett established the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice in 2008 and serves as its President and Chief Executive Officer. This human rights organization is proudly carrying on the unique legacy of the late Congressman Tom Lantos who, as the only survivor of the Holocaust ever elected to Congress, was one of our nation’s most eloquent and forceful leaders on behalf of human rights and justice. In addition to managing the Lantos Foundation, Dr. Lantos Swett teaches human rights and American foreign policy at Tufts University. She also taught at the University of Southern Denmark while her husband, former Congressman Richard Swett, was serving as the U.S. Ambassador in Copenhagen. Dr. Lantos Swett graduated from Yale University in 1974 at the age of 18 and earned her Juris Doctor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in 1976. She received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Southern Denmark in 2001. Dr. Lantos Swett has been married for 31 years to former Congressman and Ambassador Richard Swett and they are parents of 7 children and 2 grandchildren. She resides in Bow, New Hampshire. Dr. Lantos Swett was appointed to the Commission on March 26, 2012 by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).