Europe, sects and freedom

Yesterday was a big day in the annals of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), a body of legislators which is supposed to act as an important guardian of the continent's democratic freedoms. Not just because of the story that grabbed a few headlines: as a protest against the annexation of Crimea, Russia's delegation was deprived of its voting rights until the end of the year, and they angrily threatened to withdraw from the 47-nation Council altogether. Yesterday also saw a victory in PACE for purist advocates of religious liberty, as a long-planned move to curb the activities of "sects" was unexpectedly knocked off course.

At stake was a resolution which in its original form would have denounced "new religious movements" (to use an alternative, and less loaded description of the groups sometimes described as "sects") and urged European governments to monitor such bodies and restrict their influence on youngsters. To critics, this seemed like a move to extend the policy of France—which takes a relatively harsh view of small religious groups and has an agency dedicated to countering them—across the whole of Europe. The initiative's prime mover was a French politician, Rudy Salles, and it found support in some east European countries which have one prevailing religion and regard new players in the field as unwelcome foreign imports. For example, Naira Zohrabyan, a fiery Armenian politician, declared that "we are simply obliged to halt the dangerous, devastating 'sect parade' in our countries, as they very often lead families and minors to guaranteed destruction, taking advantage of the extreme social conditions people face."

But libertarians, including those with little sympathy for any religion in any form, took a different view. They argued that if the influence of religion on people below the age of 18 poses a problem, then that problem applies no less to large, well-established religions than it does to new-fangled ones. (After all, the worst allegations of child abuse have emerged in the largest and best established of Christian churches.) So any approach that singles out new faiths amounts to state discrimination in favour of traditional ones: so the libertarian argument goes. They also argue that the French policy can lead to a different sort of abuse: for example, they cite the case of a couple in France whose daughter was removed from their care for many years, in part because of reports that they belonged to a sect.

Aaron Rhodes of the Freedom Rights Project, an international human-rights campaign, said he was delighted to see the original resolution had been amended to the point where, albeit not perfect, it was far more acceptable to advocates of liberty. For example, the new resolution "calls on member states to ensure distinction is made between traditional religions and non-traditional religious movements...and that each measure which is taken towards non-traditional movements, new religious movements or 'sects' is aligned with..the European Convention on Human Rights." Mr Rhodes said it would have been better if the word "sects" had been avoided altogether, but the new language was a vast improvement on the old text. A set of recommendations from PACE's Legal Affairs Committee, reflecting Mr Salles' thinking, was rejected.

It's not often that Jehovah's Witnesses, secularists and humanists find themselves on the same side, and rejoicing for the same reason, but this seems to be one such moment.