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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
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Commentaries on freedom of religion or belief issues are guest contributions and do not necessarily represent the views of Forum 18.

COMMENTARY: Assessing Europe's 'headscarf law' debates

French politicians are wrong to believe that the acquiescence shown by most schoolchildren to the law banning the wearing of prominent religious symbols signals their acceptance of the law, argues Julia Doxat-Purser, Religious Liberty Coordinator of the European Evangelical Alliance http://www.europeanea.org, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. Many fear that limiting people's ability to express their religious faith and cultural identity is going to push some towards extremism. French religious communities have pointed out that France, the supposed home of human rights, now infringes people's free religious practice. In Germany too, the decision of some Federal States to pass "headscarf laws" is controversial, former Federal President Johannes Rau condemning these moves as "the first step toward the creation of a secular state that bans religious signs and symbols from public life." One factor in debates about religious belief in society is that some politicians mistakenly assume that religious belief involves the imposition of views on others – an assumption that many religious believers would strongly dispute.

COMMENTARY: Kosovo - What now?

The KFOR peace-keeping force needs to defend the Serbian population and its Orthodox churches more effectively, a military chaplain, who prefers not to be identified, argues from personal experience of the violence in Kosovo in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. The chaplain believes that international organisations naively did not understand the minds of the people of the region – and so did not understand what was necessary to provide religious freedom. The international community needs to state clearly that independence will not be granted until minorities have full rights and security. The big challenge is changing people's mentality before independence can be considered – and this requires a long-term commitment to genuine peace and genuine justice from both Albanian politicians and the international community.

COMMENTARY: Away with legal discrimination - Serbia shouldn't follow Austria

The Serbian draft law on religion follows Austria's hastily passed 1998 law in dividing religious communities into different categories with differing legal rights, thus institutionalising religious discrimination, comments Dr. Reinhard Kohlhofer, an Austrian lawyer specialising in religious freedom, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. The Austrian law is a bad example for Serbia to follow, Dr. Kohlhofer argues, having been severely criticised by international lawyers, and also being the subject of a European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) case, with a decision expected in the next few months. In a 1993 case involving Greece, the ECtHR ruled that "freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a democratic society" and that "the pluralism indissociable from a democratic society .. depends on it." Dr. Kohlhofer goes on to state that there is no justification for states to legally discriminate between or against religious communities, and that democracy demands nothing less than the elimination of all forms of legal discrimination.

COMMENTARY: Religious freedom, the best counter to religious extremism

Islamic religious extremism in Uzbekistan – which threatens to spread in Central Asia and elsewhere - is largely the result of government repression and lack of democracy, Azerbaijani scholar and translator of the Koran Nariman Gasimoglu, head of the Center for Religion and Democracy http://addm.az.iatp.net/ana.html in Baku and a former Georgetown University (USA) visiting scholar, argues in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. Extremist Islamist groups, like the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir party, which do not yet enjoy widespread support, have been strengthened by repression while moderate Muslims, Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses have suffered. The best, if not the only way to counter religious extremism, Gasimoglu maintains, is to open up society to religious freedom for all, democracy, and free discussion – even including Islamist groups. This is the only way, he argues, of depriving Islamic extremism of support by revealing the reality of what extremism in power would mean.

COMMENTARY: Headscarves, religion & the state: the reality of European commitment to human rights for all

In this personal commentary contributed to Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org, Kristine Rødstøl, a postgraduate political science student on a Fritt Ord scholarship in the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, looks at the reality of European commitment to human rights for all, as illuminated by the debates over the Muslim headscarf (hijab) in France, Germany and Sweden. She asks whether, after the Madrid bombings, European countries will give equal benefits to all religious communities like Sweden, or discriminate against all religious communities like France.

COMMENTARY: Religious freedom under Islam

In this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org, Henrik Ertner Rasmussen, former General Secretary of the Danish European Mission, draws on his experience of living and studying in the Muslim world to examine how Islam understands religious freedom. He believes Muslims' attitudes to religious freedom have been shaped by the concept of Dhimmitude, under which proselytism by non-Muslims was banned, and Jews and Christians have become second-class citizens with only limited rights. He notes that a "religious supermarket" with a free choice of different products and brands has not been introduced in the Muslim world, but sees signs of hope that intellectuals and religious officials in the Muslim world are discussing new ideas openly and are suggesting reforms which could lead to greater religious liberty.

COMMENTARY: What about religious freedom?

In this personal commentary contributed to Forum 18 News Service www.forum18.org , Arie de Pater, director of Jubilee Campaign NL, argues that the European Union (EU) should pay greater attention to restrictions on religious freedom in many of the ten states which will join the EU in May 2004 (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia & Slovenia) and in states that hope to join any further expansion (Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania & Turkey potentially due from 2007). Drawing on a report on religious freedom in the candidate countries, compiled by Jubilee Campaign NL with the assistance of Forum 18 and others, published today (2 December 2003), he notes that even in the first batch of accession countries, criticism of religious law and practice can be levelled at the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia. He questions why the European Commission's 2003 Comprehensive Regular Report makes no criticism of Bulgaria's new denominations act, which has been sharply criticised in Bulgaria and abroad.

COMMENTARY: Freedom of religion – a forgotten human right?

Norwegian politician and religious freedom activist Johannes Østtveit recounts in this personal commentary for Forum 18 http://www.forum18.org how his experience meeting people who had been imprisoned in communist-ruled countries awakened him to the impact of freedom of religion and belief violations. He argues that, as Forum 18's research indicates, "it is in the cases of unpopular beliefs that the real position of the right is tested, as is also the case with freedom of expression". There is, he writes, "a challenge to each one of us. A challenge to get to know the human rights and freedoms ourselves and all our neighbours have, to get to know the situation of all our neighbours and to protest against all breaches of their freedom".