"There is a lack of understanding on the part of some governments and even civil society that requiring faith communities to register is almost impossible to reconcile with international and OSCE human-rights standards," says Malcolm Evans, a law professor from the United Kingdom. "Unless it is for the purposes of tax benefits or to obtain charitable status, there should be no need for compulsory registration."
Evans is part of the 58-strong Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion and Belief set up by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to protect the rights of individuals and religious groups. Its members, nominated by OSCE participating States, represent a broad spectrum of religious faiths from across the region and include a number of legal experts on freedom-of-religion issues.
The panel serves as a consultative body which can be used by states that are introducing new or amended legislation affecting freedom of religion. It also provides expert opinions on individual cases.
Dealing with individual incidents
A recent example of this is the panel's opinion on the situation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow. "As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, registration requirements are being used to control faith groups. Jehovah's Witness communities in Moscow had their registrations revoked in 2004, which in effect deprived them of their right to religious freedom," says the ODIHR's Thomas Krapf, who co-ordinates the work of the panel.
The panel has also presented an opinion on the Bishop Jovan case in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Bishop Jovan is currently serving an 18-month prison sentence after being charged and convicted of inciting religious and ethnic hatred. In the panel's opinion, this conviction is incompatible with OSCE freedom-of-religion commitments, as it relies on highly problematic accusations. Since the conviction was upheld on appeal, it is now being reviewed by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Advising on emerging legislation
The panel reviews legislation in accordance with guidelines developed by the ODIHR in co-operation with the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and based on international conventions and OSCE commitments. It is currently advising the governments of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Romania, and Serbia.
"Some of the most effective work of the panel has been done in the area of emerging legislation," says Cole Durham, a US law professor and member of the panel. "This can take the form of formal reviews of proposed legislation, and there have also been a number of less formal consultations between panel personnel and those working on legislation in various countries."
"The work of the panel has headed off problematic legislation in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia, and efforts to work on improved legislation are going on in various OSCE countries," Durham explains. "In many cases, we have found it very effective to conduct confidential discussions with governments so that politicization of the issues involved can be avoided."
Preventing breaches of religious freedom
Issues related to freedom of religion are not limited to questions of faith; they often involve other rights, such as the freedoms of movement, expression, assembly, and association. More recently, freedom of religion has also become a major issue in relation to the prevention of terrorism.
This year the ODIHR will begin to organize training sessions and workshops on freedom-of-religion issues. "We are planning to offer training to NGOs and faith communities in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and South-Eastern Europe, which constantly have to confront these sorts of issues. We will also provide similar training to government officials," says Krapf.
"Pre-emptive work - whether training, awareness-raising, or early consultation with governments - is the most effective way of defusing potential freedom-of-religion infringements, and is an area where the panel can add much value."