Europe fears for liberty of religious sects

Terrorism will complicate Europe's effort to protect the religious freedom of small religious sects as well as Islam, Helsinki Commission panelists said yesterday at a Capitol Hill hearing.

"Religious liberty should not be dependent on prior government clearance," said Dutch law professor Sophie van Bijsterveld, co-chairman of the commission's religious liberty panel.

But as governments and the public respond to threats of terrorism, he said, it will become even more important to distinguish criminal acts from mere beliefs or group affiliation.

"It is better to target particular action through criminal law than to put restraints on religion in general," she said. "It cannot be done on the basis of suspicion."

European and former Soviet Union countries have in recent years set up anti-sect laws and lists to monitor or restrict small or unpopular religious groups. They say the measures are necessary to deal with foreign sects and suicide-murder cases such as the one in France involving the Solar Temple cult.

Religious liberty advocates advising the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe — or Helsinki Commission — say the restrictions have gone overboard. The commission was formed in 1975 as a human rights forum for its now 55 member countries.

Terrorism by so-called Islamic believers has added a new complication to this debate, according to hearing participants. "I think you need to discriminate in order to preserve freedom," said Vassilios Tsirbas, a lawyer in Greece who otherwise defends religious groups censured by the Greek Orthodox Church.

In a statement for the hearing, Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican, said the U.S. war on terrorism will not reverse the cause of human rights.

"This administration will not stray from supporting religious freedom during this challenging time," he said.

Last week, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom urged Mr. Bush to avoid a diplomatic policy against terrorism that forgives rogue nations of human rights violations.

"We oppose such policy trade-offs," said Michael K. Young, dean of George Washington University Law School.

He said Washington has "sought cooperation from several governments that are among the world's most egregious violators of religious freedom," such as Sudan. "Cooperation in the fight against terrorism does not grant them license to continue to abuse the rights of their own people."

At the Helsinki hearing, German law professor Gerhard Robbers said that international standards of religious liberty don't work in Muslim countries that ban changing one's religion.

Still, he said, nations are "honorable" in registering religious groups in ways that "need not be a roadblock to religious freedom."

But he warned against arbitrary abuses, such as penalizing groups for their small size or few years of existence.

He said the concerns in France, Belgium, Germany and Austria, that prompted anti-sect lists and laws, have subsided, and that even the French statute — the only one adopted — won't be enforced.

>"It is more a law of atmosphere," he said.

But such political calmness is not being shown toward the Salvation Army in Moscow, where it has been denied legal status for three years, said Col. Kenneth Baillie, who leads the church there.

Russian bureaucrats oppose the church by saying it "might break the law," he said. "How do you defend yourself against the charge that you might do something?"