Religious Freedom in Europe

Excerpts From a 2004 Report

ROME, JULY 3, 2004 ( Here is an excerpt from a summary of the recently released “Report 2004 on Religious Freedom” published by Aid to the Church in Need. This excerpt focuses on Europe.

* * *


After decades of oppressive Communist atheism, freedom of worship in Albania is basically respected by those in power, thanks to the new constitution. But secularization remains widespread.

Recent data provided by the state Committee for Cults counts 28 active Muslim groups, some foreign, while there are 42 Christian or Christian-related associations, including a number of Mormon missions, to which one must add the Jehovah’s Witnesses and followers of Baha’i.

Relations between the various communities are excellent and no religious denomination has special status. However, the three large religious groups — Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic — are recognized as having legal status.


The authoritarian regime led by President Alexander Lukashenko has introduced a series of legislative and bureaucratic obstacles rendering religious activity legitimate, but effectively impossible to put into practice for many minority religious communities.

The problems induced a delegation of the American Commission for International Freedom of Worship to visit the country to assess the situation.

In a report published in May 2003, members of the delegation said that “freedom of worship is extremely restricted in Belarus.” They cited the prohibition against non-registered communities meeting in the same home, and the refusal of government permission to build, buy or rent locations for religious activities.

In spite of the strongly secular character of state institutions, the Orthodox Church enjoys a privileged status compared to other religious groups. Government officials consider such a status fundamental for achieving its aims of closer relations with Russia.

Access to various state sectors is currently barred for other religions, including those acknowledged as traditional religions by a 2002 bill, such as Catholicism, Islamism, Judaism and Lutheranism. The country is still greatly influenced by the atheist ideology of the Soviet period.


A December 2002 law on religions acknowledged a number of privileges for the Orthodox Church, whose followers represent the majority of the almost 8 million inhabitants.

According to a new law, all religious communities, with the exception of the Orthodox, are legally obliged to register with the Municipal Court in Sofia to be recognized by the state and be permitted to publicly profess their faith.

This law prompted protests from various religious communities, in particular, the Muslims. In 2003, relations between the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church seem to have improved.


A proposal to introduce yoga lessons in schools fell through, after a strong reaction from the Catholic Church. The Church warned that yoga would have been the first step in introducing young people to Hindu religious elements.


The prohibition against use of religious symbols in schools arose within a cultural context to defend secularism, a constitutive principle of the Republic after 1789.

The Catholic Church opposed the prohibition. The archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, warned the Stasi Commission against touching the fragile balance maintained by France since the 1905 laws on church-state separation.


The Catholic bishops’ conference published a 278-page document concerning freedom of worship and, in particular, relations between Christians and Muslims.

The document intends to encourage in Catholics a greater awareness of their own identity, and to bear witness to their own faith. More than 3 million Muslims now live in Germany; of these, 800,000 are under age 18.

The document lists the problems deriving from coexistence, especially vis-à-vis state law and Islamic law. Problems related to the opening of mosques are discussed, as well as those concerning food, the family, burials and the role of the woman within the family.


Procedures for the approval of a measure on freedom of worship are still pending, in part because of opposition from the Northern League. This political party fears that the bill, by giving state recognition to Islam, might encourage the spread of terrorist movements inspired by radical Islam, a concern shared by much of the population.

Last October, in Ofena, in the province of Aquila, a Muslim Italian citizen, Adel Smith, requested the removal of the crucifix from the primary school attended by his children. A judge from the court in the Abruzzo capital ordered that this should be done. Later, this injunction was suspended. The case inflamed public opinion and gave rise to demonstrations in defense of the Italian Catholic identity.

The case came to nothing. Yet, the problem remains of how to cope with a continuously changing social and cultural scene following the immigration of people from a culture and religion very different from that of most Italians.


Politically influenced ethnic tension is still present, a legacy of the civil war. The Macedonian Orthodox Church has declared it is autonomous from the Serbian church and for years has been requesting recognition as a community that is autonomous from the other Orthodox Churches.

Czech Republic

Last May 21 the Parliament failed to ratify the agreement between the country and the Holy See signed in July 2002. The 110 representatives out of 177 who voted against the agreement were members of the Communist Party, re-formed after the fall of the regime.


Through 2003 and early 2004, there has been a reasonable improvement in respecting freedom of worship. A superficial observer might think that the patriarch’s strong influence on the state’s highest authorities could cause problems for minority religious groups. In fact, it is the presidential administration that tries to use the religious instrument.

Many observers hold that, under Vladimir Putin’s administration, systematic changes have appeared in the attitude to Orthodoxy. One sees the attempt to involve the Orthodox Church in important political projects, such as the outreach to Russian Orthodox who have emigrated to the United States, and the process of rapprochement with Ukraine.

In the promotion of dialogue between the Holy See and the Moscow Patriarchate, progress is slim. Yet during the past year a number of visits — including one in February by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for the Unity of Christians — have helped to re-establish dialogue.

The cardinal’s visit was the first made by a high representative of the Catholic Church in four years. During his visit, an agreement was reached for exchanges between theological academies and other Orthodox and Catholic cultural and educational institutions.

None of the five Catholic priests expelled from Russia in 2002 have been allowed to return to the country. Yet, a number of other priests have been permitted to enter the country to meet the needs of the Catholic community present in Russia.

<br> Current legislation is based on the Concordat between the Holy See and the state dated December 2000, and an agreement signed in April 2002 between the state and the minority churches, establishing the independence and freedom of expression for the communities and state financial support for their activities.

The agreement signed by President Rudolf Schuster and Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda has been defined by the Lutheran Slovakian theologian Igor Kiss as a historic event that encourages a better “ecumenical coexistence” among churches.


The teaching of the Catholic religion in state schools was expected to change following the decree passed in June 2003 by the Aznar government. Students would have been able to choose between lessons on the Catholic religion and “non-confessional” courses on the history of religions taught by history and philosophy professors chosen by the state. This reform resulted in fierce protests from the left-wing opposition. After the recent electoral results, the new Rodríguez Zapatero government has blocked the educational reform.


The Stockholm Diocese celebrated its 50th anniversary last October. The king of Sweden attended Mass celebrated by the papal delegate, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster. This event indicates greater acceptance of the presence of the Catholic Church in a country whose Constitution still requires that the king be a Lutheran. Since January 2000 a new law has moderated the link between the Lutheran church and the state.


In 2003 the government approved a series of changes addressed at strengthening the respect of human rights and personal freedom.

These changes envisage greater freedom for religious bodies and foreign associations, especially from non-Muslims. One consequence of this lessened tension is the formal authorization to reopen the Greek-Orthodox seminary in Halki, near Istanbul. The seminary had been closed in 1971.

The government must still grapple with numerous and complicated steps, however. The secular Constitution, inherited from the 1920s, requires institutions to maintain detached from religion. Meanwhile, moderate Muslims are aiming for more clout for the majority Islamic community, which was long excluded from the management of power.

The Catholic Church suffers restrictions in her evangelization activities. Italian Capuchin Father Roberto Ferrari, a longtime missionary in Turkey, was investigated by the authorities. They confiscated his passport and prevented him from returning home after having baptized a 26-year-old man.


The Ukrainian Catholic Church has told Moscow Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II that it has no intention of trying “to conquer” the eastern part of Ukraine. Church spokesman Father Ihor Yatsiv said: “The return of Byzantine Catholicism to the eastern part of Ukraine is not at all the Vatican’s idea, but a process that began many generations ago and arising from the Ukrainian Greek-Catholics’ desire to reach Kiev, the centre of the country.” The ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, asked John Paul II not to proceed in setting up a Greek-Catholic patriarchate in Kiev, on pain of disrupting ecumenical relations.

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a micro-donation

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a micro-donation