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Freedom

Essex Report on Freedom of Religion: GERMANY UNDER FIRE


W
hen the subject of human rights abuses abroad is broached, the types of abuses fall roughly into two categories — outright killing and violence, and non-violent acts calculated to deny fundamental rights such as freedom of religion or access to justice.

     In the first category, countries such as Bosnia, Rwanda and China are “usual” offenders. When these countries are criticized for their violations of human rights, it should come as little surprise to anyone.

     But in category two, there is some cause for surprise and alarm. In recent years, the German government has had the dubious distinction of being declared a human rights violator by numerous human rights watchdogs and organisations — most notably including the U.S. State Department, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the Rutherford Institute, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

     This year’s U.S. State Department Human Rights report contained that agency’s most stinging and extensive reproach of Germany since the Second World War. “We have criticized the German government’s treatment of Scientologists and we will continue to do so,” said John Shattuck, Assistant Secretary of State. State’s criticisms have been echoed by the White House and numerous senators and congressmen from both sides of the political spectrum.

     Yet the situation faced by Scientologists remains a profoundly disturbing one. Teachers, students, executives, athletes, artisans — indeed, people in almost any walk of life in Germany — know that they risk losing their job, their business or other rights solely because of their religion. Hundreds already have. Popular American movies like “Mission: Impossible” and “Phenomenon” have been subject to officially sanctioned boycotts in Germany because Scientologists starred in them. Political parties and activists have disseminated booklets which portray religious minorities as “insects” to be exterminated and specially packaged condoms for the stated purpose of preventing the conception of “new Scientologists.” Letters, bearing the Nazi eagle, swastika and “SS” logo have been sent anonymously warning that “Your Association is under observation by the SS; You are requested to cease your activities and retreat overseas!”

     And Scientologists aren’t alone. An estimated 100 million DM is spent annually to fund attacks on minority groups in the media and through the government. That money supports, among other things, a vast network of “anti-sect commissioners” — government officials paid with state funds and select priests and pastors who are their church counterparts.

     The most recent condemnation of Germany’s policy of discrimination comes from one of the most prestigious human rights bodies in the world.

     Freedom of Religion and Belief: A World Report was co-authored by Kevin Boyle and Juliet Sheen of the Human Rights Centre of the University of Essex. Detailing conditions in more than 50 countries, the report was released at a conference at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London earlier this year.

     In conservative language belying the severity of the criticism, the authors note that “In Germany, democracy is used as an ideology to impose conformity. It has been dismaying to discover that the state, and some of its politicians and people, are using what we know from the past to be well-worn paths of discrimination and of intolerance and of inciting intolerance towards a new religious minority, the Scientologists.”

     “The German authorities condone and actively support discrimination against Scientologists in the private sector, with the aim of excluding Scientologists from economic life and reducing the social and financial support for members and their families which comes from earning income or engaging in business ... self-declarations and dissociations are part of the intolerance,” the report states.

     The Centre also criticised the German authorities for making “vituperative” literature about Scientology compulsory in schools under the guise of “enlightenment.”

     Douwe Korff, a leading European human rights lawyer who has successfully sued the British and Spanish governments for human rights abuses, and who contributed to the report, condemned the “illegal German persecution of Scientologists.” In his view, the German government is “turning a liberal constitution into an ideological weapon of intolerance.”

     The new report is expected to become the definitive contemporary work on international freedom of religion. The Centre’s reports are relied upon by the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which published a pre-release summary of the Centre’s report last month.

     “Although the objection to new religious movements is often expressed as criticism of their methods, it is at bottom a rejection of their freedom of thought which stimulates hostility and restrictions on their organisations and activities,” it states. The encroachment upon freedom of thought — one of the most fundamental of all freedoms — is precisely what must be resolved for the good of all people of Germany and Europe.

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