Something for the weekend (28)

Are evangelical Christians and Scientologists set to become the latest high profile religious group members to be offended by the Parliamentary Assembly?

Let’s talk about sects

Readers will remember that Israeli President Simon Peres, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister and many others were outraged by an assembly resolution last year which they thought threatened the ancient practice of male circumcision.

The assembly deftly rebuffed the criticism and faint whispers of anti-semitism, claiming it only wished to start a dialogue.

Now, in a capital letter-headlined article published by World Religion News, the assembly has been warned that the new debate it has opened on ‘sect observatories’ has stoked the ire of yet more religious groups.

Author Donald Westbrook urges readers to share his fears about a report by assembly rapporteur Rudy Salles entitled ‘The Protection of Minors Against Excesses of Sects’ which is due to be discussed at next month’s session.

According to Westbrook, this report “calls for more information to be collected on the alleged “excesses” (psychological and physical crimes) of minority religious groups against children, even going so far to call for the establishment of a “sect observatory” in each of the 47 countries represented at the Council of Europe.

“The Council’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights has already adopted the recommendations to create a sect observatory in every country of the Council as well as one at the European-wide level.

“A plenary session will put the matter to a vote beginning April 7. The move is perplexing given that the Council of Europe primarily exists to advocate for “freedom of expression and of the media, freedom of assembly, equality, and the protection of minorities.”

Westbrook adds that: “Evangelical Christian groups are considered dangerous “cults” in parts of the world, such as Russia and Bulgaria, even though over 25% of Americans belong to such churches according to the 2007 Pew Research Survey. Another example is the Church of Scientology, which is recognized as a religion in many European countries (Spain, Sweden, and most recently the United Kingdom) but has been persecuted as a “cult” in France along with a variety of others groups including Seventh-Day Adventists, Catholics, Evangelical Christians, and Baptists.

“The proposed legislation is attempting to impose a biased French-based solution on a European level where it seems neither needed or wanted by other countries which have more progressive viewpoints on the status of new and minority religious groups.

“Another way of putting the point is that the Francocentric anti-cult worldview represented by Rudy Salles’ report does not reflect the Council of Europe’s broader commitments to multiculturalism, diversity, separation of church and state, and—most importantly—freedom of religious expression as a human right.

Court … are you listening?

The European Court is the guardian of these rights of course and events this week, signalled that its short spell out of the media glare, is well and truly over.

According to Armenpress, the President of Armenia is taking a close interest in Switzerland’s request for a Grand Chamber hearing into the court’s ‘genocide’ ruling.

The news outlet’s article, headlined ‘ Armenia’s President expects from ECHR a decision that won’t insult genocide-survived nations, left little to the imagination and required no further reading to understand its central thesis. But in a ‘belt and braces’ approach beloved of media professionals everywhere, the author hammered home the point, courtesy of a presidential quote or two.

“It is encouraging,” the president is reported to have said regarding the Swiss decision to contest last December’s ruling. “We should express our positive attitude towards Switzerland’s decision.

“Everybody knows that Switzerland has always been an active defender of human rights in the international arena, having one of the most active governments in the fight against racial discrimination and we expect that in this issue as well, Switzerland will make a right and positive decision, the witness of which, we all have become.”

Greenpeace confirmed that its ‘Arctic 30’ have “applied to the European Court of Human Rights requesting damages from the Russian Federation, as well as a declaration that their apprehension and detention were unlawful.”

And from the ink-stained pages of the United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, court officials learned that they could expect more petitions from Albion too.

“A Christian couple who were told it was illegal to turn unmarried couples away from their guesthouse have launched a landmark legal case at the European Court of Human Rights,” the newspaper revealed excitedly.
“Sue and Jeff Green, who run a 13 bed B&B in mid Wales, advertised that only married couples were allowed to take double rooms.

“But at the end of last year they received a letter from the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s “legal enforcement team” informing them they could be guilty of discriminating against gay couples.

“Now Mr and Mrs Green have secured the backing of the Christian Legal Centre to take their case direct to Strasbourg in a bid to establish whether Christians’ beliefs and human rights are superseded by equality laws.”

With rather fewer column inches, the Telegraph also let newspaper readers know that Barry George “the man wrongly accused of murdering TV presenter Jill Dando, is taking his £1 million compensation claim to the European Court of Human Rights.”

Online and offline .. it’s all Ukraine

The court’s relatively low profile in recent weeks is probably linked to events in Ukraine. International interest is now Himalayan in the aftermath of the Crimea referendum result.

Anne Brasseur, President of the Parliamentary Assembly left no-one in any doubt as to her assessment of the poll verdict.

“I condemn, in the strongest possible terms, Russia’s decision to recognise the independence of Crimea and annex it into the Russian Federation, which is in violation of the statute and basic principles of the Council of Europe, as well as with Russia’s commitments to the Organisation,” she announced.

“All member states of the Council of Europe must respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states.”

Ms Brasseur leads a delegation of Assembly notables who will travel to Ukraine tomorrow for urgent talks with key officials in Kyiv, Donetsk and Lviv.

Their paths may well cross those of representatives of the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM), who are visiting the country at the behest of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers.

Shaping opinion

Curiously, the organisation’s twittersphere has become a microcosm of the information battle being waged offline over Ukraine, with several twitter accounts linked to ambassadors, tweeting from meetings and publishing the position points and photos of their respective foreign ministries.

Such activity provided followers with real time information on the diplomatic response to the crisis in Ukraine and the actions of the Council of Europe, giving an invaluable social media dimension to the shaping of public opinion.

It must be said that opponents of the annexation have made most of the running in English language channels on Twitter. That is until this week when a viral rumour forced the hand of the local Russian Twitter desk.

It was claimed that a “representative of the Russian Federation in the Council of Europe” revealed via Facebook that Russia would attempt to “regain Alaska, Baltic countries, Finland and Poland.”

The tweet set Twitter ablaze.

The Russians remained silent for three days until this morning when the Russian Mission (@CoE_Russia) tweeted dryly: “Just to allay fears of our partners – Facebook “hero” R.Kokarev has never been a diplomat or a staffer of the Mission or the MFA of Russia :) .”

Also entering the public domain, was the alleged response of former Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer to American sanctions against top Russian officials.

Turkey Twitter block

A link to the article was published on Twitter but Turkey-based users of the social media network would not have been able to read it, thanks to the government’s country-wide ban.

Daniel Holtgen, the Council of Europe’s Director of Communications (@CoESpokesperson), used Twitter to announce to everyone not living in Turkey that the organisation was looking into the blocking of the network, to see whether it breached human rights law on free expression.

Fight racism

Today is International Day on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The sentiment of the occasion remains important, especially in the light of recent reports from the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance.

It is worth repeating, until we are finally moved to take action, that Roma people live in the poorest, worst educated and most marginalised communities in Europe. Worse, they are held responsible for this terrible inheritance, despite eight centuries of repression, stigmatisation and contempt.

And added to this poisonous cocktail is racist violence from aggressors across the continent, a point made with customary eloquence by Nils Muižnieks , the Commissioner for Human Rights, when publishing his correspondence with the Czech Republic’s Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.

Muižnieks wrote to Sobotka, in a bid to draw his attention to the extremism that threatens the country’s Roma people. He accomplished his task at the price of a sobering read.

And so to next week

The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities meets next week, with proceedings likely to be dominated by Ukraine and Crimea. Their Royal Highnesses Grand Duke Henri and Grand Duchess Maria Teresa of Luxembourg will pay an official visit to the Council of Europe and to the European Court of Human Rights.

Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland will take part in the “Growing with Children’s Rights” Conference in Croatia, whilst back in Strasbourg, much attention will be focused on a Turkish media freedom of expression ruling from the court.

Click here for more information on the organisation’s activities over the next seven days.

Bon weekend

Something for the weekend (27)

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