A hearing on women and religions in Europe has been held in Paris by PACE's Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men. The hearing, organised at the initiative of Manuela Aguiar (Portugal, EPP/CD), who is preparing a report on this subject for the Parliamentary Assembly, took place on Friday 10 September 2004.
The four specialists present at the hearing - one representative each from the German Council of Evangelical Churches, the Moscow Orthodox Patriarchate, the Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF), and the Catholic NGO "Catholics for a free choice" - agreed that European religions could still do much more to promote women's rights.
Abortion, contraception and divorce are all subjects where women's freedom comes up against religious doctrines, of varying degrees of strictness. Where abortion is concerned, the Jewish faith considers that the mother's life takes precedence over that of the foetus, according to Dina Azoulay, from CRIF. The Orthodox line is clearly against abortion, but there seems to be a will to allow some flexibility in practice. In the Catholic Church (which unfortunately announced the day before that it would not be taking part in the hearing), abortion is prohibited, and this is a constant subject for discussion. According to Elfriede Harth of "Catholics for a free choice", it has never been claimed that the Catholic doctrine on abortion, although it is an extremely strict one, is infallible. Unfortunately Dalil Boubakeur, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, had to withdraw from the hearing at the last minute because of his involvement in the French hostage crisis.
On the subject of contraception, attitudes are changing in many cases because of HIV/AIDS, but doctrines of course move more slowly. The use of condoms is advocated within the Jewish faith in order to protect the health of the community. As Ms Azoulay emphasised, endangering oneself is regarded as a sin more severely punished than the breaking of a religious rule. Without offering encouragement, the Orthodox faith is increasingly clearly accepting the use of condoms, a subject on which the Catholic Church is riven by internal debate. Ms Harth said that the Church was beginning to become aware of the pandemic.
She quoted Pope John Paul II, who had said that the authority of the Church did not undermine its members' freedom of conscience. Might certain fundamental changes be under way? The debate has begun.