By Dominic Zoehrer, HRWF expert on FoRB in Vienna
Vienna, 14.12.2016 (HRWF) – The conference on “Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians” held under the German OSCE chairmanship on 14 December, 2016, in Vienna was a follow up to last year’s meeting on enhancing efforts to prevent discrimination against Christians. The security of Christian communities in the OSCE region and beyond is increasingly becoming a matter of great concern. The objectives of the three sessions of this conference were (1) to identify current patterns of intolerance and to discuss measures for ensuring the security of Christians and the protection of their places of worship, (2) to explore educational approaches aimed at promoting freedom of religion and belief (FoRB), and (3) to discuss governmental and legislative actions in line with principles of equality and non-discrimination in order to ensure that Christian communities can practice their belief without restriction or fear of violence.
Ambassador Eberhard Pohl, Permanent Representative of Germany to the OSCE and Chairperson of the OSCE Permanent Council, underlined in his opening remarks that the recent attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt remind us that it is our collective responsibility to combat religious intolerance. Having a longstanding tradition of assisting civil society, ODIHR is offering a platform to discuss the concerns of Christians in the OSCE region, the Middle East and North Africa. Under the German chairmanship, the OSCE will continue to encourage participating states to effectively counter hate crimes and develop sustainable strategies against discrimination.
Introducing the program of the conference, Ms. Cristina Finch, Head of the Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department of the OSCE/ODIHR, recalled that FoRB is a long-standing OSCE commitment dating back to the 1975 Helsinki Act. However, as the ODIHR’s annual hate crime report of 2015 has shown, arson attacks against places of worship or assaults on religious leaders increasingly cause concern. Twenty-two participating states have reported 120 violent attacks and 480 cases of hate crimes against Christians last year.
The keynote speech was delivered by Rev. Msgr. Dr. Antoine Camilleri, Under-Secretary for the Holy See’s Relations with States. He stressed the Holy See’s engagement for FoRB as its key priority to save the holy dignity of every man and every woman and referred to the guarantee of FoRB rights as “the litmus test for all other fundamental freedoms.” Apart from the barbarian and violent persecution of Christians in regions outside the OSCE participating states, new forms of discrimination have appeared in recent years that restrict the freedom of speech of religious people in the public sphere of Western nations. “Well intended anti-discrimination legislations that limit FoRB rights thus happen to be in stark contrast to OSCE commitments”, Rev. Camilleri said. By developing dialogue and partnership among and with religious communities, state actors can sustainably promote tolerance, respect and mutual understanding.
Session 1: Security of Christian communities across the OSCE region
Introducing the first session, Dr. Mattia Ferrero, Co-ordinator of the Giuseppe Dossetti Observatory for Religious Tolerance and Freedom, emphasized the structural link between human rights and FoRB on the one hand and security on the other hand. “Security and the protection of human rights are characteristic of the concerns of the OSCE,” Dr. Ferrero said. Being able to go to church or to synagogue cannot be considered an act of luxury since the freedom of worship is a basic right. And yet, some cathedrals in Italy or in France are being guarded 24 hours per day by the military. Dr. Ferrero underlined the role of data collection and warned that under-reporting undermines the effectiveness of combating hate crimes.
The second introducer to the first session, Ambassador Tetiana Izhevska, the Ambassador of Ukraine to the Holy See and former Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office on Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, reported some specific instances of recent hate crimes against Christians in the Mediterranean region: In Bologna, religious statues were besmeared with the words “Allahu Akbar”. In the Provence, statues of Virgin Mary were beheaded. In Cairo, 35 people were killed in the bombing of a Coptic cathedral. Among the victims were many women and children. Ms. Izhevska pointed out FoRB ongoing violence in the Donbas region in Ukraine where religion has become a pretext for the justification of attacks against churches that are not affiliated with the Russian-Orthodox Church under the patriarch of Moscow. Beside the role of state actors, she also highlighted the responsibility of religious leaders to oppose intolerance and discrimination. When she led a seminar on non-discrimination and tolerance within an OSCE program for students, one student asked her: “What should I do if the mufti calls to intolerance in his sermon?” Ms. Izhevska concluded that FoRB should be promoted especially among the youth.
An earnest appeal was made by Ms. Mona Walter, a Christian by choice and representative of the human rights organization Set My People Free (SMPF). She described the difficult situation of Christian converts of Somali background who suffer persecution by the Muslim Somali communities in UK, Sweden and other countries. Ms. Walter pointed out the lack of reporting of cases of violence against Christians in the media for fears of appearing as “Islamophobic”. She mentioned a case where a Somali ex-Muslim was threatened at gun point, forced to hold a Qur’an and renounce her Christian faith. Although this was filmed and the video posted on Youtube, the crime was not reported and went unpunished. As recent as 2014, Ms. Walter herself was forced to watch the beheading of a Somali Christian and threatened into renouncing her faith. Her offer to speak about religious freedom in Swedish was refused by the authorities who consider her an “Islamophobe”.
Dr. Daniel Ottenberg, persecution analyst of Open Doors, presented a survey on the lack of protection for Christians in German refugee shelters. In 2016, there have been 743 documented cases of religiously motivated attacks against Christian refugees of whom more than half stated that they are converts. Due to fears of reprisals only 20% of these attacks were reported to the German police.
The Chief Rabbi of Vienna, Arie Folger, expressed his sympathy for persecuted Christians on behalf of the Conference of European Rabbis. He underlined the necessity to increase public awareness about the discrimination of Christians in the Middle East and at the doorsteps to Europe.
Session II: Sharing best practices: Educational approaches and awareness-raising measures
The second session was introduced by Ms. Elena Agapova, Deputy Chairwoman of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society and the Head of IOPS Civic Center for the Protection of Christians of the Middle East and North Africa. Ms. Agapova stated that violent acts and hate crimes motivated by religious extremism at the borders of the OSCE increasingly pose a threat for FoRB within the region. In order to increase public awareness of this issue cases of hate crimes need to be monitored and reported. Furthermore, the international community is responsible to develop prevention strategies to stop the expansion of terrorist aggression. Ms. Agapova suggested three recommendations to the OSCE participating states in order to promote the social integration of religious minorities and the values shared by all faiths: (1) promote interstate measures aimed at interfaith harmony; (2) apply educational approaches that endow young people with critical thinking and intercultural knowledge, and improve teaching resources and school frameworks for this purpose; (3) integrate the experience and contributions of civil society representatives.
The second introduction was given by Ambassador Dimitris Moschopoulos, former EU Facilitator for the Protection of Religious and Cultural Heritage Sites of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo. Mr. Moschopoulos questioned the premise that the attacks against places of worship of the Serbian-Orthodox Church in Kosovo were religious in nature and pointed out that the conflict in Kosovo is essentially motivated by ethnical resentments. Although religion did play a role to aggravate the conflicts of the 20th century (i. e. between Serbian nationalists and the Ottoman Empire), religious sites are often regarded as national symbols instead of places of worship. A crucial challenge in today’s Kosovo is indeed the reconciliation of interreligious relations, specifically between the Serbian-Orthodox and Muslim authorities. However, the fundamental root of the ethnic conflicts is nationalism and to effectively face this challenge, Mr. Moschopoulos recommended to keep religion out of the conflict and to encourage the government of Kosovo to protect FoRB rights and church properties.
Alexander Verkhovskiy, director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis in Russia, stated that Russia’s new law banning proselytism was intended to ban Jehovah Witnesses, but actually affects all Protestant Christians throughout Russia. However, it cannot be the state’s task to decide which interpretation of the Bible is correct.
Ms. Mona Walter highlighted the importance of educating migrants with Muslim backgrounds in line with the Art. 1 and Art. 18 of the UDHR and reported about the difficulty of reporting hate crimes without being accused by local authorities of Islamophobia.
Session III: The way forward: Preventing and responding to intolerance and discrimination by building trust between communities
The first introducer of the third session, Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, President Emeritus and Senior Advisor of Interfaith Alliance Foundation, underlined the fact that more than 70% of religious believers worldwide face serious restrictions of their freedom to believe. In over 20 countries, Christians who practice their beliefs are threatened by violence and persecution. Rev. Gaddy referred to 7,000 Christians killed for their faith in 2015 alone as reported by Open Doors. “Although some Christians may view such persecution as a sign of religious devotion, but no Christian should tolerate the lack of respect for other religions,” Rev. Gaddy said.
The second introducer was Ms. Mag. Elizabeta Kitanovic, the Executive Secretary for Human Rights of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) in Belgium. The CEC was founded in 2009, has offices in Strasbourg and Brussels, and comprises a following of over one hundred Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches. Ms. Kitanovic reported that the CEC developed educational materials for its members that serve as a tool to learn about the relationship between human rights, human dignity and Christian values. She told of an experience she had during a recent training seminar in Serbia where Muslim, Christian and Jewish representatives were invited and participants encouraged to learn to understand more about each other. At this occasion, one imam commented that if such trainings were offered 20 years ago, many atrocities could have been avoided.
Recommendations by Civil Society Representatives to the OSCE Participating States
- Develop guidelines for staff and translators of refugee camps (Open Doors).
- Ensure documenting and reporting of religiously motivated hate crimes in refugee camps (Open Doors).
- Sensitize police officers about the religious background of anti-Christian discrimination (Open Doors).
- Give special attention to FoRB education in refugee programs (Open Doors)
- Offer training for security personnel and translators (Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe, OIDACE)
- Improve the balance of religious composition of refugees (OIDACE)
- Provide separate accommodation for Christians who are often already traumatized by discrimination (OIDACE)
- Better implementation of quality education material (OIDACE)
- Facilitate religious dialogue that includes all denominations present in a country (OIDACE)
- Stop arbitrary imposing of hate speech laws that narrow the debate on controversial issues, i. e. the definition of marriage. The freedom of thought, conscience and belief and the freedom of expression should be ensured in liberal democracies. (ADF International)
- Highlight the importance of educating migrants with Muslim backgrounds in line with the Art. 1 and Art. 18 of the UDHR (SMPF)
- Recognize the right to conscientious objection which essentially characterizes liberal societies. (The intolerance against Christian voices on moral issues, i. e. questions on euthanasia or same-sex marriage, is on the rise, thus significantly curtails the right to conscientious objection.)
- Encourage the reporting of hate crimes (SMPF)
- Develop guidelines and offer training for media representatives to promote fair reporting (OIDACE)
- Promote knowledge of Christian denominations through the media, give them a chance to express their views (OIDACE)
 See full report here: https://www.opendoors.de/downloads/Berichte/Open_Doors_survey_Lack_of_protection_for_religious_minorities_in_Germany_2016_10.pdf [accessed 15.12.2016]