REP. BENJAMIN GILMAN (R-NY):
The committee will come to order. The Committee on International Relations meets in open session today to take testimony on a topic of the treatment of religious minorities in Western Europe. We do so as part of the full committee's geographic responsibility for Europe. Today's hearing allows us to turn our attention to a problem that has troubled many Americans who respect and value the nations of Western Europe -- countries who are now friends with the United States and places where, in general, freedom flourishes.
The blind spot that some of those countries seek to have is their attitude towards religious minorities. As Ambassador Felix Rohatyn has written, with respect to France, and I quote, "Recent actions by its government raise questions about its tolerance towards religious minorities. It contravenes France's international human rights commitments, although it's a country with a long tradition of religious freedom and the rule of law." That was an April 12, 1999 letter to Congressman Smith of New Jersey.
I'd like to point out that the purpose of this hearing is not to support the religious doctrines or other activities of religious minorities active in Western Europe. But we're called on not only to protect the rights of those we like, but of those with whom we may disagree with as well. I've put on the record repeatedly, for example, my concern over the use of Nazi imagery by supporters of Scientology in their effort to make their points about German policy.
But I'm also here to say that I must defend their human rights. Of course, holding or expressing a religious belief or worshipping in public and private as one may please is not, as such, forbidden by law in Western Europe. In practice however, expressing a minority religious belief often leads to discrimination. The loss of a job, of educational opportunities, of the right to gain custody of one's own child, or to be a foster parent, which seriously burdens one's exercise of freedom of religion.
Some European governments discriminate among religions, giving some favors, such as financial aid, or simply the right of the clergy of that religion to visit sick parishioners, while withholding those privileges from others. Moreover, religious discrimination by private parties is far from universally discouraged. It's encouraged in some cases, for example, by the compilation of publications, by governments, of lists of sects, although encouraging religious tolerance in an international human rights obligation.
Such problems are complained of especially, and frequently, and vociferously with respect to Austria, Belgium, France, and Germany. It's frankly difficult to understand how our friends in those countries can say that they have freedom of religion, given the burdens on the free exercise of religion I've mentioned, which will be described a little later on today. The committee's attention has been drawn to this issue for several reasons: the practices to be discussed appear to be in contravention of internationally accepted human rights standards, and seem to be leading to an atmosphere of religious intolerance.
Secondly, Americans abroad who wish to evangelize or merely to practice their religion, professions or businesses face discriminatory treatment on the basis of their religions. Emerging democracies in Eastern Europe may copy the bad examples of these set by some Western European countries. And China uses Western Europe to justify its brutal crackdown on the Falun Gong. And lastly, the growth of political extremism on the left and on the right, in some of the nations where religious discrimination appears to be on the rise, questions whether there are links between such discrimination and those political trends.
Today our committee will first take testimony from our Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, Robert Seiple. In a second panel, we will hear from an experienced writer and observer of religious freedom issues who has worked in government, Mr. Jeremy Gunn; from a Methodist minister in Queens, New York who has been active in the religious liberties committee of the National Council of Churches and from members of religious minorities who work in Europe or who are involved in helping co-religionists there: Philip Brumley, General Council of Jehovah's Witnesses and Reverend Robert A. Hunt of the English Speaking Methodist Congregation in Vienna, Austria.
From an American businessman who is a Scientologist, who will testify that his business is being threatened by religiously based boycotts. And Ms. Catherine Bell, star of the television show Jag, also a Scientologist who will discuss the special problems faced by members of her church in Europe, particularly in Germany. I regret to announce that Mr. Chick Corea, who was invited to testify, is unable to be with us today due to a prior engagement.
This is not a hearing about the merit or lack of merit of one or another religious group; it's about the practices of certain nations, with respect to some of those groups. Accordingly, the ambassadors of Austria, Germany, and France have been invited to appear as well. The German ambassador and the Austrian ambassador have each submitted a useful and interesting statement. I've asked that my colleagues pay close attention to those statements. I regret that the French Embassy has chosen not to participate in this hearing in any manner.
Without objection, the submissions of the German and Austrian ambassadors, along with the prepared remarks of today's witnesses, as well as those of Mr. Chorea, at the discretion of the chair, will be entered into the record without objection. I now call on the ranking minority member, the gentleman from Connecticut, Mr. Gejdenson.
REP. SAM GEJDENSON (DD-CT):
Thank you Mr. Chairman. You know, one thing comes to mind as I look at the years that we've had hearings on this issue, is that maybe part of the solution would be if our European colleagues followed our model of separation of church and state.
Because what seems to be, if not explicitly discussed, it seems to have, at least, a strong undercurrent that the populace of these countries are uneasy about subsidizing, providing economic support and other benefits to religions that they're simply not accustomed to or that don't represent a large portion of their population. And that may be an important lesson for people in this country who have consistently tried to gray and remove the separation of church and state -- that we would find ourselves in a similar position. Populations there often find it difficult to accept new philosophies and new religions, and it becomes particularly problematic when the general taxpayers then have to subsidize the new religions by funding religious schools, by funding other activities that direct payments to these new religions.
So, maybe our European brethren could remove some of their problems with the various religions that they seem to have a difficulty with if they look to our model more of establishing a separation between the elected government and the beliefs that people choose. I think it's important that we don't simply confuse newer religions and newer philosophies and thereby put them in a separate category. It should be the standards of behavior that we judge, not the newness of the religion. And obviously, governments that take newer religions and newer beliefs and label them as sects and cults, I think, undermines an attempt to have a society that respects daring beliefs.
I believe these countries ought to open up a fair dialogue; they need to announce and enunciate principles of tolerance for their society. And they could go a long way to do away with some of the problems that they are faced with; and some of the finest democracies of the world, then, are our closest allies. For me, it is important to give every belief an opportunity to express itself, and to make sure that a dominant religion doesn't in some way try to prevent other religions from competing for parishioners. Thank you Mr. Chairman.
Any other members seeking recognition? Mr. Salmon.
REP. MATT SALMON (R-AZ):
Thank you very much Mr. Chairman. It's interesting, just a couple of weeks ago we had a debate on the House floor about NCR for China. And numerous members arose to denounce the practices in China of the impingement on religious freedom. But yet, a lot of their same members express hesitance about denouncing the suppressing of religious freedom in some of the allied countries that we've worked closely with since World War II.
I find that quite interesting; I have a different belief. I think that we ought to be able to be even more candid with those who are considered to be our allies. And I, frankly, am very, very concerned, because I see a pattern. I have been working on the Helsinki Commission for the last six years that I've been in Congress, that I have been able to go to those annual OFCE meeting. And every year these issues come up. And I find the response, particularly from the European union, very, very troubling when we bring these issues up.
Last year we brought up a resolution to denounce some of the practices in Europe towards religious minorities. And the creation of these sect-monitoring offices in several countries in Europe -- we basically got poured in a bottle. I think that we need to be a little bit more vocal. I think that the Congress needs to take definitive action to declare that here in this country we value the right to be able to believe according to the dictates of one's own conscience.
It is a problem; it's been a problem in Russia. You might recall, just a couple of years ago, the Duma had a vote honoring and sustaining only certain religions. I want to remind everybody here on this committee that every religion started out as a religious minority, even the Christian religion to which I belong. You might recall, when they started out they had their bumps in the road. A few of them got fed to lions -- (laughter) -- and they had problems as well, and problems being understood by those who believed in a different way.
But this religious intolerance in Europe is very, very troubling. In some of the countries that are really the worst actors, Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, we need to take, I think, a definitive stance here in these halls to tell them that that is not acceptable.And to have a good and solid relationship with the United States they need to value the same things that we value, and that is the freedom of religious expression, the freedom of belief. I'd like to site some examples because this isn't just a lot of empty rhetoric. The most recent international Helsinki Federation report mentions that religious minorities in Belgium have been subjected to various forms of harassment and other human rights violations such as slander, anonymous threats, loss of jobs, bomb threats, and denial of room rental for religious ceremonies.
Patrick Valtin (ph), a business man in France, runs a company that offers training and management advice. When government officials learned that he was a scientologist, they accused him of transmitting client files to his church. Consequently, he lost several contracts, with an estimated loss of several million French francs. In 1999, the U.S. Department of State's annual report on international religious freedom stated that the conservative Austrian People's Party formally accepted the decision that party membership is incompatible with membership in a sect. And they decide what's a sect and what's a religion.
This policy led to the resignation of a local party official. I really believe that this hearing is timely. I thank the Chairman for inviting the various people to testify before us. But after all is said and done and we hear the testimony, what are we prepared to do? Are we going to just sit and listen or are we going to stand up and be counted. I think we have an opportunity to make a difference, and to stand for the most basic value that we hold dearly in America, and really, the fundamental that began this country over 200 years ago, and that's the right to believe according to the dictates of one's conscience without interference from government. Thank you very much. I yield back the balance of my time.
Thank you. I'd like to note to the audience that we don't permit demonstrations during the hearings. Thank you Mr. Salmon. Judge Hastings.
REP. ALCEE HASTINGS (R-FL):
Thank you very much Mr. Chairman. Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing, and my apologies to you, our colleagues, and to the witnesses for the fact that I, as I'm sure other members do, have very serious conflicts and will not be able to stay for the entirety of the proceedings. Toward that end Mr. Chairman, I would like to associate myself with your remarks, the remarks of Mr. Gejdenson, and my dear friend and colleague who I will miss when he leaves Congress and goes back to his religious freedom in Arizona, Mr. Salmon.
Mr. Salmon serves on the Helsinki Commission, and he and I, along with other members, have traveled to Europe frequently. And I, Mr. Chairman, am an officer in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. My point is, what Matt just got through saying, I think, is the proper segue for me at this point to suggest to the committee that today's hearing, particularly, is placed in a manner whereby it can be spread widely among our European colleagues.
And I will take it upon myself to take these proceedings to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe at its July meeting. And Mr. Salmon and I can attest to the fact that the subject of religious freedom arises frequently. I'll end by saying, Mr. Chairman, there is a spiritual that says "a charge to keep have I." All of us come from different faiths in this great country of ours. To promote our religion and religious freedoms, or to promote religious freedoms, is the charge that all of us should keep.
And the sooner that our European allies recognize this, the more likely we are to be able to influence others in the world. Thank you Mr. Chairman.
Thank you Judge Hastings. Any other members seeking recognition? Mr. Sherman.
REP. BRAD SHERMAN (D-CA):
Just briefly Mr. Chairman. I know that we've had testimony in prior hearings about the treatment of those who practice Scientology in Germany. I would hope that Germany would show respect for that religious minority and others. And it was with great regret that I noticed Germany pressing for a world bank loan to the government of Iran at a time when that country has 13 Jews being charged on trumped up charges.
And so, respect for religious minorities includes not only religious minorities within a country's borders, but also respect for the importance of human rights and religious minorities in foreign policy decisions. And I know that there was one German citizen who was released from Iranian jails, and I appreciate that decision. But I would have been far more impressed if the German government had respected the importance of religious liberty in Iran..
Thank you Mr. Sherman. Any other members seeking recognition? If not, we'll now proceed with our first witness who's Ambassador Robert Seiple. Ambassador Seiple's position as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which originated in our committee. Ambassador Seiple is a highly decorated veteran of the Marine Corps, having flown 300 combat missions in Vietnam. He has served in administrative and development positions at his alma mater, Brown - as president of Eastern College and Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He took up his present position in May of 1999. We welcome Ambassador Seiple. Your statement had been made part of the record; you may summarize as you see fit. Please proceed.
AMBASSADOR ROBERT SEIPLE:
Thank you very much Mr. Chairman, members of the committee. I'm honored to appear before you today to testify on the treatment of religious minorities in Western Europe. Let me begin by thanking the Chairman and the committee for their strong and continuing contributions toward our goal of promoting religious freedom.
Each of us here today shares a commitment to protecting the dignity of all human beings. We hold in common the belief that at the heart of human dignity lies the right to pursue the truth about the mystery of faith, the truth about our place in the universe, about how we ought to order our lives. Together, we seek to speed the day when every human being is free to pursue that truth as he or she sees fit, not only unhindered by others, but protected by the state itself.
Freedom of religion and conscience is also foundational for democracy, as recognized in the international covenants. A government which fails to honor religious freedom and freedom of conscience is a government which does not recognize the priority of the individual over the state, and that the state exists to serve society, not vice versa. By the same token, a government which nurtures religious freedom may be more likely to honor other fundamental human rights.
So Mr. Chairman, the promotion of religious freedom and freedom of conscience makes sense from the standpoint of freedom in general, but also from the standpoint of all human rights, and from the standpoint of promoting healthy, vibrant democracies. Against that background Mr. Chairman, let me turn to our subject this morning, the treatment of religious minorities in Western Europe.
Overall, it must be said that religious minorities are treated better there than in most other regions of the world. Indeed, in relative terms, the citizens of Western Europe enjoy a measure of freedom that is the envy of aspiring democracies around the globe. Persecution on the basis of religion, in the form of brutal activities by governments, such as prolonged detentions without charge, torture, slavery, simply does not exist there as it so tragically does elsewhere in the world.
But it also must be said that discrimination on the basis of religion does exist in the four countries on which we are focusing this morning: Germany, France, Austria, and Belgium. Let me give you a brief overview of the problems that we see in each. Before I do however, I want to emphasize that the standard applied to these countries by the United States is a standard that they have accepted. All of them embrace the international instruments that protect freedom of religion and conscience, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In applying these standards, we see ourselves as citizens of the world community putting our national shoulder to the international wheel. But our willingness to speak of discrimination elsewhere should not be taken to imply that we are free of it ourselves. When it comes to religious minorities, the United States falls far short of a perfect record. One need only recall discrimination against the Catholic minority or the Mormons in the 19th Century.
However, we believe that one sign of a mature democracy is the willingness to accept criticism, so long as it is based on international standards of human rights. Let me begin with Germany, where our primary disagreement involves the treatment of the countries, roughly, 8,000 Scientologists. The problem is that many in the German government believe that Scientology is more a money making scheme than a religion. This view is shared by officials in certain states where responsibility for religious questions are usually handled.
At the same time, German officials say they are concerned that Scientology has, "anti-democratic tendencies." The Offices for the Protection of the Constitution at both the state and federal level have been monitoring Scientology since 1997 for evidence of activities that would constitute a threat against the state. Although initial reports concluded that it did not, the monitoring continues to this day.
In 1998, a commission on so-called sects and psycho groups presented a report to the parliament that criticized Scientology for, "misinformation and intimidation," of its critics. Accusing it of being a political extremist group with, "totalitarian tendencies." Following this, the states of Bavaria and Hamburg published brochures warning the public of the purported dangers Scientology poses. For their part, many of the country's Scientologists have reported both governmental and societal discrimination in their daily lives.
Some employers, for example, use the so-called sect filter, screening applicants for Scientology membership. The federal government also screens companies bidding on some consulting and training contracts for Scientologists, as do some state governments. That these and other forms of discrimination are occurring was documented in a 1998 UN report. Although it rejected the outrageous claim that Scientologists treatment was similar to that suffered by the Jews during the Nazi era.
Scientologists continue to take their grievances to the German court system. Some who have charged their employers with unfair dismissal, for example, have won out of court settlements. Mr. Chairman, we have discussed these issues at some length with German officials, both in Germany and in the United States. We have stressed in particular the risk associated with governments deciding what does and does not constitute a religion. We have made clear our concerns with sect filters.
To prevent an individual from practicing a profession solely on account of his or her religious beliefs is an abuse of religious freedom, as well as a discriminatory business practice. We have expressed our concern that the continued official observation of Scientology by the German government, without any legal action being initiated as a result, creates an environment that encourages discrimination. We have urged our German colleagues to begin a dialogue with the scientologists, and we have raised our concerns multilaterally at meetings of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Let me now turn to France. There have been recent reports by the National Assembly which cast Scientology in a negative light, expressing concern that they may use excessive or dishonest means to obtain donations. However, the government has taken no action against them. Indeed, Interior Minister Chevin Monte (sp) and others, including Foreign Minister Ladrine (sp), have assumed a very positive and public posture in support of freedom of conscience and religion, a fact which has helped diffuse tensions considerably.
But it is also true that France has been at the vanguard of the troubling practice of creating so-called sect lists. These lists are created by government agencies. In France, the list was part of a parliamentary report. It typically contained the names of scores of religious groups which may not be recognized by the government. Some of the groups are clearly dangerous, such as the Solar Temple, which led to suicides in France and Switzerland. But others are merely unfamiliar or unpopular.
By grouping them together under the negative word sect, governments encourage societal discrimination. Some groups that appear on France's list continue to report acts of discrimination. One of those groups is the Institute of Theology in Neimes, a private bible college founded in 1989 by Louis Demeau (sp) who is head pastor at an associated church there.
Others have been subjected to long audits of their finances. For example, tax claims against the Church of Scientology forced several churches into bankruptcy in the mid 1990s.
The Jehovah's Witnesses have also been heavily audited. According to the International Helsinki Federation, this audit, which began in January of '96, continues to this day, has been done in a manner which suggests harassment. In France too, the U.S. has been engaged actively in promoting a dialogue with French authorities. U.S. Embassy representatives have met several times with the inter- ministerial mission to battle against sects. President Clinton, Secretary of State Albright, the assistant secretary of state, and myself have each raised these issues of religious discrimination with French officials during the past year. And we will continue to do so.
Our goal is to develop a common understanding with the French government on what actions are and are not in accord with international agreements on religious freedom.
Mr. Chairman, the pattern in Austria is not unlike that in France. The government has long waged an information campaign against religious groups that it considers harmful to the interests of individuals in society. A brochure issued last September by the Ministry for Social Security and Generations describes several non- recognized religious groups, including the Jehovah's Witnesses, in decidedly negative terms that many found offensive. With the recent arrival of a new minister from the Freedom Party, it appears that the government may intensify its campaign against religions that lack official recognition. We have raised these issues with the Austrian government and will continue to press our view that such practices contravene Austria's commitments to religious freedom.
Let me conclude with Belgium. In 1998, the Belgium parliament adopted several recommendations from the Commission Report on Government Policy towards sects, including the creation of a center for information advice on harmful sectarian organizations. The commission had also appended a list of sects in Belgium, divided into those considered harmful and all others, and recommended a special police unit to deal with the harmful groups. The government has not yet taken any action on this proposal.
Our concern here, Mr. Chairman, is not when the government attempts to deal with illegal activities on the part of any religious groups, whether recognized or unrecognized, new or old. Our fear is that Belgium, like France and Austria, is painting with too broad a brush. In its very use of the pejorative term sect to characterize unrecognized religious groups, it casts dispersions on those groups, creating, even inadvertently, the suspicion that there is something wrong with them.
But every religion began as something new and unpopular. We have discussed these issues with Belgian officials and we will continue to urge all of our European friends to recognize that the religious quest must be nurtured not discouraged for true religious freedom to exist. Before concluding, I want to note that Muslims continue to experience some discrimination in Western Europe, even though Islam is the second largest religion in France and Belgium, and the third in Austria and Germany.
In some cases, this discrimination has more to do with race culture and immigrant status than religious beliefs. Indeed, Muslims are free to worship and form cultural organizations in each of these countries. Islam is recognized as an established organized religion, thus enabling it to claim certain tax exemptions, and receive some subsidies from the state.
The most persistent and controversial religious issue facing Muslims in Western Europe is the question of head scarves and whether girls should be permitted to wear them in public schools. The question has caused considerable debate. But Muslim society is well established in these countries and many organizations have defended the rights of Muslims. If some jurisdictions remain opposed to students wearing religious clothing, others are becoming more accepting of the practice.
Our review is that the international covenants are quite clear. Freedom of religion includes the right to manifest religious beliefs. Surely, democracies can find the flexibility to tolerate such an expression of piety as the religious head scarf.
Let me conclude where I began Mr. Chairman. We share a great deal in common with our allies and friends in Europe, including common religious traditions. Together we have done much to make the world a safer, more humane place, a place where human rights like democracy might take root and flourish. We offer these thoughts about religious freedom to our friends out of a sense of shared responsibility for what we have done and what we might do together.
We will continue to discuss these matters with them. Our plea is that they consider our argument that freedom of religion, while sometimes tragically exploited by those who would manipulate faith for their own ends, is inherently good because it supports the dignity of the human person as well as democracy itself. Thank you again Mr. Chairman for you leadership and that of this committee on the matter of promoting religious freedom abroad, and I'd be happy to take any or all of your questions.