Social Hostility and Religious Restrictions in Europe

Is there a link between rising social hostility towards religion and rising governmental restrictions on religion? The new Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study, "Rising Restrictions on Religion" released on 9 August (see below), not only shows a recent increase in governmental and other restrictions on religion in 23 countries (including some very populous ones), it also indicates increased social hostilities towards some or all religions in many parts of the world, including Europe. Five of the ten countries cited for "substantial" increases in social hostilities are members of the Council of Europe (Bulgaria, Denmark, Russia, Sweden and the United Kingdom). Fortunately for Europeans, COE members are not yet included among top countries for either existing government restrictions or social hostilities, but the trends are not so promising.

Pew attributes some of the rising restrictions to increased hostilities. "Much of the tension in Europe focused on the region’s rapidly growing Muslim population, but in some cases it also reflected rising anti-Semitism and antagonism toward Christian minorities, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses." Hostilities and restrictions often feed on each other. Minarets are restricted in Switzerland, religious clothing is regulated in France or Belgium, and anger arises among those affected who see their fundamental rights and values as having been compromised. Even the extreme case of Norway's horrific terrorist shootings cannot be viewed as outside the perimeter of this problem.

The solution to increased hostility and extremist actions however is likely not to be found in ratcheting up the restrictions on religious belief and behavior. Severe governmental responses too often threaten what believers hold most dear. Solutions are more likely to be found in fostering an atmosphere of tolerance and respect which provides security in the rights of believers and nonbelievers alike.

To evoke Voltaire's wise observation of many years ago: "If there were only one religion in England there would be danger of despotism, if there were two, they would cut each other's throats, but there are thirty, and they live in peace and happiness." Thus the paradox of religious freedom: the greater diversity of religion in any society, the greater peace, tolerance and respect prevail. This edition of the Strasbourg Newsletter casts an eye once more on the health of the religious freedom paradox within Europe's borders. We look at, among other things, the Swiss minaret decisions, Jehovah's Witnesses cases in Armenia and France, and newly communicated cases in Romania and Turkey. We also offer a glimpse at recent and upcoming publications and conferences.  We invite readers to submit information on their own publications and scholarly events for possible circulation to the many European Court and religious freedom followers who receive the Strasbourg Newsletter.