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World: Soul-Searching -- Nations Often Differ On How To Regulate Religions, If At All (Part 4)

By Don Hill/Robert McMahon

The nations of the world are in consensus that religious persecution and suppression are violations of human rights. In the final part of our series on religious freedom in the former communist nations of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, RFE/RL correspondents Don Hill and Robert McMahon report that the application of this principle varies immensely.

Prague, 3 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Article 18 was intended to represent an international consensus on religious freedom. But it turned out that, as the modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said around the same time, "God is in the details."

Article 18 reads: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

In practice, many nations contend that their citizens enjoy freedom of religion, but few entirely fulfill the details of Article 18. Some protect their citizens from what they call cults; others grant special status to one or a few established religions; and still others prohibit outside religions from seeking converts.

Even among Western democracies with settled traditions of freedom of religion, problems of defining what is a religion, what is a cult, and what -- for that matter -- is freedom of religion continue to be debated.

The Reverend Richard John Neuhaus is a Roman Catholic priest and editor in the United States who specializes in religion and public life. He says one person's cult may be another's salvation: "To many people, of course, any religion other than that to which they are familiar or are sympathetic is viewed as a cult, so 'cult' becomes a term strongly pejorative in nature and with all kinds of sinister connotations."

"Cult" and "sect" have developed meanings defined by usage, however. Theologically, a sect is an offshoot of an established religion. Early Christianity, for example, was a sect of Judaism.

Theologically, a cult is any worship community, but general usage has scarred the word. To most listeners, a cult is at best a small religious group in a state of tension with predominant religions. At worst, it is a group that fervently employs or promotes dangerous, destructive, or illegal practices.

Turkmenistan's government appears to have adopted the latter belief in its crackdown against religious groups outside the two officially accepted faiths -- Orthodox Christianity and Islam. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a monitoring group set up by the U.S. Congress, calls Turkmenistan one of the world's most serious violators of religious freedom.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov disagrees. He says people in his country are free to practice any religion they wish. Turkmenistan's laws controlling religion, he said in March, are aimed at foreigners trying to spread what he calls "alien" faiths: "Everyone can follow whatever faith he wants, but a foreigner has no right to spread an alien faith in our country. This is not freedom. Rather, this is inflicting harm upon our nation's religion."

Neuhaus says the United States bends as far as it can in the other direction: "In the United States, the law has moved progressively toward stretching as far as is civilly possible the degree of freedom that is acknowledged under the free exercise provision of the [U.S.] Constitution."

Even in the United States, though, religious groups initially perceived as being outside the mainstream have been challenged by governments to defend their legitimacy. The Jehovah's Witnesses denomination has been involved in 45 cases brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, more than any other religious group. In 80 percent of the cases, its views have been upheld.

In Western Europe, the Church of Scientology is under legal assault. In Germany, France, Belgium, Britain, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, and Spain, it is not legally considered a church. In those countries where taxes are collected on behalf of recognized churches, Scientology is excluded.

The French government and judiciary have been moving against the French Church of Scientology for the past 15 years or so. In France, Scientology is considered a sect, and therefore illegal, and is often charged with fraud and other criminal activities.

A governmental commission created in 1998 to combat sects in France recently recommended in its annual report to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin that authorities order the Church of Scientology in France dissolved.

A nongovernmental organization, the Union of Associations for the Defense of Families and the Individual (UNADFI) has fought the Church of Scientology throughout its 25 years of existence. Lucia Stolazare deals with legal affairs for UNADFI: "What we have noted is that certain people [in Scientology] use a religious or pseudo-religious doctrine for purely financial and commercial purposes in order to deceive others. A church can easily hide a financial enterprise and employ fraudulent methods to deceive its members, which is a very serious matter."

The German government has not legislated against Scientology, but some German states have taken action to protect their citizens against what they consider "brainwashing." A police station in Munich in Bavaria recently offered pamphlets about the dangers of communism, Islamic extremism -- and Scientology.

The U.S. constitutional mandate forbidding governmental interference with, or even assistance for, any religious activity seems extreme to many Europeans. But people accustomed to the U.S. tradition of maintaining a wall between church and state often are convinced that laws regulating religion simply are unnecessary.

Michael Young is chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: "It is certainly true that there are organizations, some faith-based and many not, that do things that are illegal, that are inappropriate. Most countries -- the United States, for example -- have figured out that there are plenty of laws to deal with that. If they raise money under fraudulent pretenses, if they in any way assault people or spirit people off to some center to brainwash them, I mean, all of that is perfectly covered by the range of criminal laws available."

And that leads full circle back to the original riddle, the details that confound easy answers. That is, how to determine when to classify a religion as a legitimate faith, as a sect, as a cult, or as a fraud, and deciding when regulation is needed and when such regulation would be an assault on freedom of worship.

Advocates for religious freedom suggest educational campaigns to counter some of the discrimination and misinformation confronting minority religious groups. They say the basic educational curriculum should provide impartial information on established religions, their major variants, on the principles of comparative religion and on ethics and personal and social rights.

(RFE/RL correspondents Joel Blocker and Roland Eggleston contributed to this report.)