WASHINGTON (September 19, 1997) -- While Central and Eastern Europeans enjoy much greater religious liberty today than before the democratic revolutions of 1989, religious tensions and discrimination persist, according to one official of the U.S. Catholic Conference who testified yesterday before Congress.
Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen told members of the Congressional Commission on Security and Commission in Europe (also known as the Helsinki Commission), that "religious liberty issues continue to be a source of considerable turmoil and tension" in parts of Europe and elsewhere.
Father Christiansen, the director of USCC's Office of International Justice and Peace, noted that there are several factors which continue to contribute to religious liberty problems in Europe:
- Intolerance associated with ethnic or nationalist conflicts. "The 'ethnic cleansing' ... in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina is a form of religious repression that was unmatched even in the darkest days of communism," Father Christiansen said. While the conflict in the former Yugoslavia is not a religious war, "it has a religious dimension because of the way religion and nationalism have interacted." He also pointed to situations in Romania, Ukraine, and Northern Ireland as examples of a lesser magnitude.
- Restrictions on "foreign" religious bodies and "sects." Father Christiansen mentioned Russian, Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and Bosnia as examples of countries which restrict "non-traditional" religions by imposing special regulations on so-called "foreign" religions, often at the behest of the majority religion. He mentioned recent legislation in Russia which would have established a registration process for so-called non-traditional religions to obtain legal status which he described as "impossibly labyrinthine." President Boris Yeltsin vetoed the legislation.
- Return of church property. The return of property confiscated under communism has been a contentious issue in most countries of the region, with Father Christiansen noting particular problems in the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania, and Greece.
- Bureaucratic obstacles. In many former communist countries, both minority and majority religious leaders complain that administrative agencies or local governments fail to comply with laws on religion or place burdens on religious believers.
Father Christiansen explained that the issue of church-state relations is also a factor in the religious liberty equation. He said that church-state relations in Central and Eastern Europe in the early part of this century have generally followed one of two models: the "state" church, which had a monopoly on religion in society, or the "atheist state," which was intolerant of all religion. While each has its own implications for limiting or prohibiting religious liberty, he also cautioned against trying to impose a strict Church-state separation based on a U.S. model because of differences in culture, history, and theological perspectives unique in each country.
Father Christiansen also recommended that Western religious groups "make a special effort to understand and show respect for the culture, history, and theology of these traditional churches. It is vital that we reach out to leaders of these churches, and even help them rebuild the life of their churches, rather than seeing their countries and their congregants as fertile grounds for new converts."