Religious Liberty in Europe (2)

Report Published by Aid to the Church in Need

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ROME, JULY 29, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Here is an adapted excerpt from a report by the charity Aid to the Church in Need on religious freedom.



This is the second installment dealing with Europe. Part 1 appears elsewhere in today's service.

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Russia

Russia's position regarding religious communities has generally been loyal and neutral, and can be described as improved compared to the past.

Nevertheless, secular and anti-clerical attitudes increasingly similar to the widespread mentality in Western Europe are slowly appearing, alongside the formal respect of the values of Orthodoxy, identified as a fundamental element in the nation's spiritual and cultural identity.

In Russian society's difficult process toward the overcoming of the problems inherited from the communist period, there seem to be encouraging steps forward in relations between the Christian churches, while there are also a number of problems within the framework of interreligious dialogue.

There has been much debate on the draft law which introduces severe control over the 7,000 nongovernmental organizations present in the country, and in particular, on financing received from abroad.

During 2005, problems concerning education, and more specifically the problems concerning religious instruction in state schools, played a leading role in relations between church and state.

The Orthodox Church has for years been fighting for the introduction in schools of the optional course: "Foundations of Orthodox Culture."

The state on the other hand seems to prefer a more secular solution of the problem. The minister for education, Andrei Fursenko, has for some time chosen the middle way, thinking of introducing a course on history of religions held by secular teachers with a degree in history.

One important event, for its impact on public opinion, was the death of Pope John Paul II, as well as the election of Benedict XVI. The global dimension of this event was immediately visible both on television channels, in the main daily newspapers and on Web sites.

Meanwhile, with the registration of the Diocese of the Transfiguration in Novosibirsk, in 2005 the registration process was completed for the four Catholic dioceses in Russia.

Problems have also subsided regarding visas for foreign priests and religious personnel.

The death of John Paul II marked a sort of watershed in positions assumed by the Russian Orthodox Church with regard to the Holy See.

While his death was followed by expressions of respect and condolences from the main personalities in the political, cultural and religious worlds, the Orthodox patriarch of Moscow -- although carefully weighing his words according to the context -- remained within a strictly political and ideological framework.

The election of Benedict XVI was greeted with great interest by the Russian Orthodox Church, which in addition to having always appreciated the doctrinal positions assumed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and his loyalty to tradition, as well as his profound spirituality, probably saw in the figure of the new Pontiff the possibility of "turning over a new page" and more easily establishing cooperative relations.

In relations at various levels between representatives of the Orthodox and the Catholic Church, the awareness has gradually appeared that it is necessary to discover "non-conflictual areas of cooperation," identifiable in cultural, social and educational sectors, from which to broaden mutual knowledge and trust.

The Orthodox Church is increasingly pressed to contribute to solving the serious moral crisis tormenting Russia at many levels: low birthrate, crime, alcohol and drug addiction, corruption and violence within the army.

Anti-Semitism is still strong in Russian society, and reached unprecedented levels in the serious attack on the synagogue in Moscow last Jan. 11.

Islam is progressively strengthening its positions. Moscow is now the European city with the highest number of Muslims, and according to some estimates, the traditionally Muslim ethnic groups will form the majority of the young population by 2015.

The difference with other Western European countries is that Russian Muslims are indigenous populations, present in the federation's territory well before the appearance of Christianity.

Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia

During 2005 in Serbia and Montenegro there was a profound rift in relations between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the homologous Church in Macedonia, whose hierarchy is openly accused of schism.

Freedom of worship for Serbs in Kosovo is still at risk. It is above all risky for the clergy and for members of the Churches to travel on the territory for pastoral duties or ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. The better-known religious leaders are obliged to move around escorted by international troops.

In Montenegro there have been reports of discrimination against the Montenegro autocephalous Orthodox Church -- led by Archbishop Mihailo Dedeic of Cettigne -- which the civil authorities do not acknowledge as an autonomous derivation of the Serb Orthodox Church.

Slovakia

Freedom of worship is widely guaranteed in Slovakia. Worrying episodes consist in interference by international bodies that tend to promote abortion.

Sweden

Sweden returned to the front pages with the case concerning Aake Green, the Pentecostal minister first found guilty and then acquitted in 2004 for having expressed opinions in line with the Christian doctrine on the subject of homosexuality.

Claiming that Green violated the law on hate crimes dated 2003, the head prosecutor for the government appealed to the Supreme Court against the decision taken by the appeal court which had acquitted the accused. The request was accepted in May 2005.

A district court in Stenungsund had sentenced a man to two months in prison for having criticized homosexuals on a Web site. The man appealed the sentence claiming that the statements were only the result of his Christian beliefs.

Turkey

Turkey has progressed a great deal toward recognizing the more important rights of Christian religious communities.

Parliament approved a series of reforms reasserting the respect of freedom of worship, approving a law that protects the freedom of religious expression.

Nonetheless, Turkey's president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, blocked a law that was promoted and approved by Parliament after it was introduced by the AKP majority party, which would expanded the areas in which preaching the Koran is allowed.

This last restriction -- in addition to the one forbidding women from wearing the Islamic veil in public places -- appears to prove that not even Muslims enjoy full rights.

Churches still do not have juridical status, and for years Parliament has been discussing a legislation acknowledging the right of religious communities to own property, considered necessary for Ankara's admission to the European Union.

In Turkey only a few non-Islamic minorities are allowed to own property through the so-called community foundations.

The European Commission, in the proposal for admitting Turkey as a member state, has specified that Ankara must recognize full "freedom of worship," a concept that includes the "adoption of a law" removing the obstacles that currently affect "non-Muslim religious minorities and their associations, in line with high European standards"; and "suspending the confiscation and sale of possessions" belonging to non-Islamic religious institutions while waiting for a new law on this subject.

Turkey must also recognize and implement all that is necessary for allowing "real freedom of thought, conscience and religion both for individuals and communities," and consider the recommendations made by the Council of the European Commission against racism and intolerance, establishing the conditions to allow these communities legal and judicial protection of their members, the clergy and property.

It is necessary to recognize the real right of these communities to organize themselves in various forms from their founding and to choose their own leaders, free of all interference from the state that has often removed them, especially for the founding of the Armenian Apostolic and the Greek Orthodox communities.

On Sept. 15, Sezer invited Benedict XVI to visit Turkey in 2006, so that "he may personally become aware of the climate of cultural tolerance" that exists in this country.

This visit, stated the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Namika Tan, "will encourage your efforts addressed at intensifying dialogue between religions and reciprocal understanding at a global level among civilizations."

Actually, the first invitation addressed to the Pontiff has come from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I, according to a well-established tradition -- which started with Pope Paul VI and continued by John Paul II -- between the ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch and the highest authority in the Catholic world.

It was precisely this initiative, passing over the civil authorities, that is said to have caused irritation in Turkish diplomatic circles that -- even before considering the Pope as a religious leader -- consider him the head of the Vatican City State.

Another point hanging over Turkey is with the local Christian minorities who fall victim to persecution and sometimes acts of violence, such as seen in the martyrdom of the missionary Father Andrea Santoro.

Ukraine

The policies of the new president of Ukraine, Victor Yushchenko, elected on Dec. 26, 2004, after a close battle that involved the whole of society in the so-called Orange Revolution, show regard for all Christian confessions.

Meeting with the pontifical representative shortly after his election, Yushchenko expressed great respect for the Catholic Church, in particular for the Greek-Catholic Church, describing Cardinal Lubomyr Husar as a man with a great patriotic spirit.

From the start of his mandate, Yushchenko has stated that the state commission for religious affairs would be deprived of its authority, so that the authorities would be able to work "directly" with all confessions.

The leaders of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, of the Kiev Patriarchate, of the autocephalous Ukrainian Church and the Greek-Catholic Church have written a letter to the president and to the government requesting the formation of a mixed committee for drafting a Manual of Christian Ethics to be adopted in primary schools for these courses.

Moving the residence of the most important Ukrainian Greek-Catholic archbishopric from Leopoli to Kiev on Aug. 21 has been at the center of controversy.

There were harsh reactions from the Russian Orthodox Church, which accused the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church of having expansionist and proselytism intentions, refuting the document published by the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Orthodox Church's press office on July 24, providing the reasons for the move.

Since the beginning of 2005, the age-old controversy on the local Orthodox community's jurisdiction deteriorated once again.

In the course of a meeting with President Yushchenko on March 24 in Kiev, Archbishop Vsevolod, the representative of the Ukrainian Orthodox parishes belonging to the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the United States, declared that "The Mother Church, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, believes that her daughter, hence the patriarchate of Moscow, still today has the same canonical territory it had before 1686, the year that marked eastern Ukraine's 1686 coming under the domination of the Russian empire. Within this context the Churches were reunified in spite of protests expressed by Constantinople."

The age-old controversy between the Jewish community and local authorities continues in Leopoli on the subject of the ancient Jewish cemetery on which the Market Square was built during the Soviet period.

This initiative began in 1996 and was supported by important personalities from the worlds of culture and religion, among them Cardinal Husar. The authorities instead justify their attitude stating that the cemetery no longer exists, and that it was never part of urban planning.