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Freedom

Commission Vows to Support Religious Freedom in Europe


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John Travolta, Chick Corea and Isaac Hayes each gave personal testimony of religious discrimination in Germany.

   M
embers of the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) have vowed to take action against European governments which fail to honour international human rights standards.

     Among countries more commonly reproached for human rights violations — such as Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey — Germany featured prominently in recent proceedings.

     The Commission heard emotionally charged testimony from representatives of several minority religions which have suffered politically generated discrimination in Europe. Prominent among those giving evidence was a panel of internationally known artists including John Travolta.

     A well-known member of the Church of Scientology, Travolta appeared before the Commission “to lend a voice to the many people in Germany whose rights as human beings and citizens are being trampled. Because they are members of minority religions, they are denied the rights of everyday people.”

     Commenting on failed efforts by the Young Union — a branch of Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s ruling Christian Democratic Union — to induce German film goers to stay away from the film “Phenomenon” because of his own religious beliefs, Travolta said, “Of course, we can chuckle about it because in the overall scheme of things these boycotts did no great harm. However, the mere attempt by politicians to censor art because of the artist’s religious affiliation sends chills down my spine.”

     Academy Award-winning composer Isaac Hayes and jazz great Chick Corea, also Scientologists, told the Commission members of discrimination they witnessed firsthand in Germany.

      “An unfettered iron fist looms over religious minorities in Germany,” said Hayes, “and they never know when or where it will strike next. This Commission can make a dramatic difference by demanding that Germany immediately stop the harassment of religious minorities and meet its international human rights obligations.”

      Describing pervasive discrimination by German governments at federal, state and local levels as “chilling,” Corea said, “What bothers me is the fact that this can happen on the threshold of the year 2000, in a country we think is a democracy.”

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Claudia Engel of Frankfurt told the Commission she was driven out of her job by German Labour Minister Norbert Bluem because of her private religious beliefs.

     Travolta, Hayes and Corea urged the Commission to send a fact-finding delegation to Germany to verify that nation’s violations of the rights guaranteed under the Helsinki Accords, signed in 1975 by all nations in Europe at that time (except Albania), plus the United States and Canada, to monitor and uphold agreements regarding human rights.

     U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato, who co-chaired the September 18 hearing with Congressman Christopher Smith, denounced discrimination against Scientologists in Germany and said he would raise the matter at the next meeting of the Organisation on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to be held in Warsaw in November 1997. “We will hold to account those governments that fail to live up to their promises,” he said.

     Other congressional leaders on the Commission said they would raise the issue directly with their German counterparts.

A Clear Pattern

     Others presenting testimony included Shimon Samuels, director of international liaison of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Paris, and representatives of many religious organisations, including Moslems, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and fundamentalist Christians.

     “Some of the most heinous acts in Germany include arson attacks on residences, some of which have resulted in the deaths of children and the elderly,” Laila Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Women’s League, told the Commission. “Similarly, arson and vandalism have been reported against mosques, cultural centres and businesses owned by immigrants or ethnic minorities.”

     “A clear pattern,” she said, “has emerged of ill treatment of foreigners and ethnic minorities.”

     James A. McCabe, associate general counsel of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, noted that even though Jehovah’s Witnesses have practiced their religion in Germany since 1897, 100 years later — in June 1997 — Germany’s Federal Administrative Court “denied Jehovah’s Witnesses the guarantee of the rights of a corporation under public law.” Put simply, as recognised religions go, they don’t exist.

Protecting a Monopoly

     Stephen Selthoffer, a German freelance journalist who is also director for legal and media affairs of the Evangelical and Charismatic Church of Cologne, testified about the severe discrimination experienced by members of independent Christian denominations in Germany.


The Helsinki Accords mandate that participating nations “will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.”
 
     Selthoffer condemned the so-called “sect commissioners” of the two government-recognised and government-financed German churches — the Catholic and Lutheran Churches. These individuals, he said, “coveting significance and political power” and “citing `potential’ problems, historical fears and worldwide worst-case scenarios,” endeavour to frighten politicians into enacting oppressive government controls to protect the established churches’ monopoly on state finances and support.

     The sect commissioners’ concerns stem at least in part from a massive exodus of members that has plagued Germany’s two major religions in recent years. During 1995, the most recent year for which figures are available, 168,000 Catholics and 296,000 Lutherans in Germany quit their churches.

     With approximately 900 small Christian churches in Germany today serving 300,000 citizens of all denominations, a significant number of German Christians have obviously chosen to worship outside the state churches. These citizens and their churches, according to Selthoffer, face “false accusations from `sect commissioners’ and federal officials coupled with money from the city coffers.” As a result, independent Christian churches are forced into the position of using collections from their Sunday offerings in expensive legal defenses to counter spurious charges mounted by government “experts.”

     Several speakers at the Capitol Hill hearing urged the Commission to support a congressional resolution requiring the White House to take action against the German government due to the severity and scope of the intolerance.

     The Helsinki Accords mandate that participating nations “will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” They also hold that “participating states will recognise and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.”

      The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, established to bring about international compliance to the Accords, today has 55 members. CSCE was established by the U.S. Congress to ensure America fulfils its obligations as a signatory.

      Obviously, the degree to which each member nation enforces such rights is an index of the quality of its democracy. Although Germany and other European nations under the spotlight signed the Helsinki Accords, the many witnesses at the hearing who described governmental disregard for those promises belie those countries’ commitment to such laudable ideals. Referring to such violations, Senator D’Amato put it succinctly: “Their conduct speaks louder than their words.”

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