by Merudevi Dasi
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This is guaranteed in several legal documents, most importantly in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (UDHR) and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). These articles allow us to hold any beliefs we desire, whether they are theistic, non-theistic or atheistic. The right to manifest these freedoms is only restricted in order to protect the fundamental rights of others.
The emergence of ‘new religious movements’ (NRMs) in the West since the 1960s has put these articles to the test. Are all expressions of faith acceptable in our society, and how should we react to them? European countries have chosen to interpret freedom of religion and belief in diverse ways, and have adopted different strategies on how to deal with these NRMs. In this article we look at some of the developments in Europe in this regard, particularly in France. France is by no means unique in its approach towards NRMs, but it is well ahead in introducing restrictive legislation against them.
According to Abdelfattah Amor, the Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance at the UN Commission on Human Rights, while Western Europe has previously been exemplary in the development of international and regional norms and mechanisms to protect religious freedom, its present practice is unsatisfactory. This was Amor’s opening message at a UNESCO meeting in Paris earlier this year. He spoke at the conference ‘Human Rights and Freedom of Religion: Practices in Western Europe’, which was attended by many experts in the field. Amor commented that many religious and spiritual communities ‘have been labelled as cults by parliamentary reports or inter-ministerial commissions’, and that ‘this generalisation and amalgamation’ has led to a situation where ‘movements that are perfectly respectable and sometimes very ancient’ are finding themselves in the same category as ‘cheaters and criminals’. It is a common argument among those who oppose ‘new religions’ that these are not de facto religions but mundane movements hiding behind a religious label. That may be true about some groups, but it becomes problematic when a large number of religious and spiritual groups are put into that category without thorough research on the matter.