Doc. 9215

21 September 2001

Religion and democracy

Recommendation 1396 (1999)

Reply from the Committee of Ministers

adopted at the 765th meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies (19 September 2001)

The Committee of Ministers has carefully considered Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation 1396 (1999) on Religion and Democracy. It widely concurs with the basic premises of the recommendation.

Through practice, in particular the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, a number of general principles have been developed concerning freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as guaranteed by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. These principles must guide the public authorities of member states in the choice of any measures they may take with regard to this freedom. In the light of those principles, the Committee of Ministers believes that the following considerations are particularly relevant to the matters raised in the Assembly’s recommendation:

-       freedom of thought, conscience and religion is of vital importance for the identity of believers and their conception of life, but is also equally important for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned; it includes the right to hold or not to hold religious beliefs, to practise or not to practise a religion and to change one’s religion or belief;

-       religious pluralism is an inherent feature of the notion of a democratic society and thus a key reference for determining whether or not a restriction on religious freedom is acceptable under paragraph 2 of Article 9 of the Convention; states are entitled to take action within the law if it becomes clear that a movement or association carries on, ostensibly in pursuit of religious aims, activities which are harmful to the population and contrary to the law (cf. also, as regards abuse of rights, Article 17 of the Convention) but the fundamental principles must be religious freedom and, in criminal law, the presumption of innocence;

-       where religious pluralism gives rise to religious divisions, with attendant tensions, the public authorities’response should not be to eliminate religious pluralism, but to strive to ensure that the various groups respect each other.

With these considerations in mind, the Committee of Ministers believes that government authorities should not interfere with freedom of religion or put religious pluralism at risk. It further points out that the prohibition of discrimination contained in Article 14 of the Convention and Article 1 of Protocol No. 12 to the Convention is also relevant in this context - which means that distinctions based essentially on religion alone are not acceptable - and that the freedom enshrined in Article 9 of the Convention is guaranteed not only to citizens, but to all persons within the jurisdiction of the Contracting States.

On this basis, the Committee concurs with the Assembly that member states have a responsibility to ensure conditions conducive to the preservation of harmonious relations between religions and between the latter and other sectors of civil society. They must also ensure, respecting the principle of equality before the law, that different religions can coexist and develop peacefully (cf. the considerations underlying the proposals made in paragraph 13 i., iii. and iv. of the recommendation). This responsibility may entail taking certain measures to promote tolerance and encourage inter-religious dialogue via the media, associations or other means. It may also justify measures to protect the religious feelings of part of the population against virulent attacks by persons holding different convictions.

The Committee also concurs with the Assembly's views on the importance of education about religions (cf. paragraph 13 ii. of the recommendation). In this connection, it would underline that measures to promote such education must also respect the basic considerations set out above, including as regards the rights of non-believers.

As concerns paragraph 14 i. and ii., the Committee of Ministers informs the Assembly that it has transmitted the Recommendation to the Council for Cultural Co-operation, which is pursuing activities in the field of history teaching, and that activities involving representatives of different religions as a means of promoting tolerance will be on the agenda of the Colloquy “From cultural identities to a European political identity” which will be held in Strasbourg on 20 and 21 September 2001. Such activities also form part of the Council of Europe’s work under the Stability Pact for South-East Europe.