Tuesday 19. October 2021
#135 - february 2011


OSCE Commitments to Freedom of Religion or Belief


Issues related to religion or belief are hitting the headlines of newspapers, are debated on radio and television programmes and are setting the agenda for social networks across the OSCE area.


Religion seems to have an even more public dimension.  In addition, fast dissemination of information and the world’s increasing religious diversity have the potential to amplify discussions and debates and have repercussions throughout the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) area.


An OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on ‘Freedom of Religion or Belief’ was held in Vienna on 9-10 December.  The objective was to highlight the OSCE Commitments to Freedom of Religion or Belief.


Emerging Issues and Challenges

Two decades after the adoption of the Vienna Concluding Document, it is important to devote attention to emerging issues and questions related to freedom of religion or belief.  The emerging issues include the following examples: the relationship between equality and non-discrimination and freedom of religion or belief; questions regarding the autonomy of religious or belief organisations; challenging issues such as the relationship between freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief; and the implications of security requirements on the exercise of freedom of religion or belief.


The aforementioned OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting, offered the opportunity for a broad exchange of views on the status of freedom of religion or belief in the OSCE region.  Speakers and participants were asked to engage in a review of commitments, with particular attention to emerging issues and challenges facing States, civil society, religious or belief communities and individuals in the OSCE area.


Education and Religion or Belief

Moreover, the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting was planned to focus on education and on freedom of religion or belief.  This is a fundamental human right which includes the freedom of individuals to manifest their religion or belief through worship, teaching, practice and observance, both alone and in community with others.  Teaching is one of the most sensitive areas in the sphere of freedom of religion or belief for those concerned about the transmission of values to future generations.


OSCE commitments call on participating States to “respect the liberty of parents to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions” (Vienna Concluding Document, Principles, para 16.7).  Linked to this, are the rights of persons belonging to national minorities to “conduct religious educational activities in their mother tongue” (Document of the Copenhagen Meeting, para 32.2), and the rights of “individual believers and communities of believers to acquire, possess, and use sacred books” (Vienna Concluding Document, Principles, para 16.9).


It has been argued that, in matters related to education and religion or belief, the rights of the parents, the child, and the teacher, as well as the interests of religious and minority communities and of society as a whole, are in danger.  There is a wide variety of practices regarding the implementation of OSCE commitments in this field in the OSCE area, in both private and public schools.  One practice is the teaching of particular religious doctrines by teachers who are selected from within that religious community.  The United Nations Human Rights Committee has acknowledged that public schools can be involved in the teaching of religion or belief, and has affirmed that freedom of religion or belief permits public school instruction in subjects such as the general history of religions and ethics if it is given in a neutral and objective way.  The liberty of parents or legal guardians to ensure that their children receive a religious and moral education in conformity with their own convictions, set forth in article 18.4, is related to the guarantees of the freedom to teach a religion or belief stated in article 18.1.  The Committee notes that public education that includes instruction in a particular religion or belief is inconsistent with article 18.4 unless provision is made for non-discriminatory exemptions or alternatives that would accommodate the wishes of parents and guardians” (UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 22).   This is concomitant to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, wherein it is stated that, “The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents ... to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”  Furthermore, it is has been stated in the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Protocol 1, Article 2, that “No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.


Religious Symbols and Expression

Particular attention was directed to religious symbols and expression.  The implementation of OSCE commitments in the area of freedom of religion or belief concerns mainly the area of the manifestation of a religion or belief, both in private and public.  The display of religious symbols falls within the scope of the manifestation of a religion or belief.  According to the UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 22, “worship extends to ritual and ceremonial acts giving direct expression to belief, as well as various practices integral to such acts, including… the display of symbols…  observance and practice of religion or belief may include… the wearing of distinctive clothing or headcoverings”.


As a manifestation of freedom of religion or belief, the display of religious symbols may be subject to “limitations” on the part of the State for reasons of public safety, order, health, or morals or with regard to the fundamental rights and freedom of others.  This justification by the State is not easily understood and could undoubtedly cause difficulties and hardships to the faithful concerned, and even unjustified restrictions of their rights.  Such an attitude is most often considered as an infringement of their fundamental rights and freedoms.  The acceptance of religious symbols in the public sphere varies greatly from State to State.  The OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting explored the different legislation and policies adopted by participating States; it also analysed the possible reasonable accommodations that have been put forward, as well as the principles of equality and non-discrimination.



Although 35 years have passed since the Helsinki Final Act, freedom of religion or belief still remains a solid pillar of OSCE human dimension commitments.  Indeed, the OSCE participating States have consistently reaffirmed Principle VII of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which commits them to “recognizes and respect the right of the individual to profess and practice, alone and in community with others, religion or belief in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience”.  It should be said that subsequent documents have strengthened this right.


The OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting has offered another opportunity for an exchange of views and experiences on local and national policies and practices. Recollections of these past experiences, together with views that have been expressed throughout, still overshadow the prevailing issue of religious freedom and belief, such as for instance: “freedom of religion or freedom from religion”; whether “religion is a threat or an essential instrument for community building”; whether “censorship does or does not violate freedom of religion”; “the concept of the public sphere”; “freedom not to be intimidated by neighbourhood reaction or pressure”; “the right not to reveal”; “registration of a religious group”; that “they already identified the religious centre of the brain”; and “the normative core: internal freedom and external freedom”.  It was interesting to learn that “there is no definition of religion or belief in the issued declarations” – indeed, according to W. Richard Comstock, “If not asked, we know what it is; if asked, we do not know!” – in itself an approach towards an open definition of religions.


It is no wonder that all these aspects and practices are very much related to the implementation of OSCE commitments in the OSCE area.  It also explains why religious freedom is in everyone’s interest; why it should be inserted in the foreign policy priorities of each member state; why the EU should prioritise religious freedom; and how the OSCE member states, individually and collectively, could move further from words to actions.


Joe Vella Gauci

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