Sectarian excesses, the rule of law and glossy paper

  • In NEWS
  • April 24, 2014
Brussels, 16 April — Mr Rudy Salles, a French centre-right politician, had made a vow upon his nomination at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to Europeanise an even worse version of the French ‘anti-sect’ policy. His draft report, entitled “The protection of minors against excesses of sects,” encouraged states to identify some  communities pejoratively as “sects” and to ensure that they are strictly monitored and restricted by the state. The European Evangelical Alliance brings together and represents more than 15 million Christians from all Protestant denominations, including evangelical Christians who belong to churches and denominations which only have a recent history in the country where they are. In the 1980s and 1990s, for the French anti-sect movement, ‘new religious movements’ very clearly included evangelical churches, despite the fact that some of them have been in France since the 18th century. The ripple effects of this logic continue to this day in France, Belgium and Luxembourg, who both have anti-sect instruments, albeit milder than the French ones, and many other regions of Europe where some non-traditional Christian communities are seen as suspicious ‘sects’ and ‘new religious movements.’ For 22 years, the Council of Europe had argued against the usage of the term “sect,” preferring the language of “groups of a religious, esoteric or spiritual nature.” Whilst it cannot be denied that illegal practices may and do happen in these communities, the Council of Europe’s common sense was that protecting religious freedom was paramount and that we do not need more than the normal procedures of criminal and civil law to fight against these practices. As for the protection of children in particular, clearly abuses may or do happen in all sorts of communities or contexts, public or private, religious or not, and states should ensure protection everywhere. Mr Salles’ proposal was mostly criticised for its danger for religious freedom, the rights of parents, the rights of associations, and principles of non-discrimination. It’s like using a bazooka to kill a mosquito. Many saw in this report “an attempt to restrict religious freedom,” and argued that the report even encouraged the state to go beyond its prerogative, such as philosopher Dr Daniel von Wachter, from Liechtenstein, who also claimed at a conference in Brussels on 15 April: “Even this distinction between sects and other religious communities is unfair and [amounts to] State intervention in religion.” So, three weeks before the vote took place on 10 April, EEA formed an alliance with several other organisations. We worked based on an important principle we value in religious freedom work: religious freedom is for all. Principles of state neutrality with regard to religion or belief, and religious freedom, mean that we should defend people’s freedom even when we have serious disagreement with them. After consultations and a careful analysis of the report and deciding on a strategy, I spent about one week working with colleagues to come up with a brief background analysis of the report, as well as amendments that we would promote. A side event was organised three days before the vote. The alliance we have built with other organisations proved to be the stronger lobby force to work against this report. Several prayer and action alerts were sent and we are so thankful that we could count on EEA members and partners to work alongside us. Interestingly, Mr Salles saw this mobilisation as “unacceptable, very strong pressure coming from sects.” He even complained that some organisations sent around a “full-colour, glossy brochure.”  One would have expected better counter-argumentation. All in all, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe decided to adopt Mr Salles’ resolution on 10 April with serious changes (9 amendments in 7 paragraphs). Gladly, we had seen this coming, which is why there were so many amendments. Most amendments that were adopted were amendments that EEA and our members and close partners had pushed. As a result, the final Salles Resolution is a report emphasising religious freedom, the freedoms of parents, and the protection of religious minorities in Europe, especially their children. The Recommendation, which instructs the Council of Ministers of the Council of Europe (and therefore has a direct impact on national policy) was rejected. Thank you all for your support, to our partners, and thank God for this victory. We hope Mr Salles will survive this democratic exercise… and the glossy brochure! You may also want to link to this article in a blog of The Economist, for further reading –Christel Lamère Ngnambi, Brussels Representative, European Evangelical Alliance Note: the Council of Europe is a bigger organisation than the European Union in terms of membership as it brings together 47 countries (including Norway, Switzerland, Turkey and Georgia) around the European Convention of Human Rights. It is based in Strasbourg. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe brings together nominated Members of Parliament from member countries. The texts that they vote have no direct legal binding, even though Recommendations to the Council of Ministers of the Council of Europe must be followed up by the 47 governments of the member states.

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