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Beware the Thought Police

By William C. Walsh

In the novel1984, George Orwell presented an ominous future where a totalitarian state controls every aspect of life, even people's thoughts. Anyone with the temerity to think differently than the state was guilty of "Thought-crime" and therefore subject to arrest and imprisonment by the "Thought Police".

The most basic human right is the right to freedom of thought and conscience. The inner mind, known as the forum internum, is a protected sanctum that is inviolable and absolute under human rights law. Yet, this freedom to entertain any thoughts, moral convictions, or religious conscience is currently under assault in Europe by Private "Thought Police" who are intent upon stigmatizing and targeting individuals and groups that do not conform to the ideologies they wish to impose.

Case in Point: FECRIS, the European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism, with affiliated groups throughout Europe, has engaged in single-minded attacks on the doctrines and practices of new and minority faiths. At least one affiliate maintains a "Committee for the Study of Doctrines" and others assault doctrines and beliefs they stigmatize as "dangerous".

In France, 173 minority faiths have been arbitrarily and derogatorily designated as "sects", entangling the government into making impermissible value judgments denigrating these religions. In Belgium, a 1997 Parliamentary Commission report designated 189 minority groups as "sects" including Hasidic Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, Bahais, Zen Buddhists, Scientologists, Seventh-day Adventists, five Catholic groups and the YWCA. Le Soir reported on March 16, 2005 that the Belgium government's "Sect Observatory" had added 439 new groups to the Belgium blacklist of "sects," meaning that a mind boggling 533 groups are now stigmatized by this derogatory classification, with their religious beliefs and practices subject to question and suspicion. Emerging democracies in Eastern European have been influenced by this blatant display of intolerance.

FECRIS affiliates are the loudest and the shrillest in fueling the atmosphere of intolerance and extremism and creating "sect hysteria". Individuals associated with FECRIS and its groups have been convicted of defamation against targeted religions and their members.

Hundreds of thousands of members of these minority groups throughout Europe are stereo-typed and stigmatized simply due to their association with a targeted religion. These individuals are reduced to second class citizens who are to be feared, avoided, denied equal treatment, and "fought against".

The perpetrators of this dangerous nonsense who sit in self-appointed judgment of doctrines and beliefs infringe on key human rights principles at the heart of the Council of Europe. The European Court of Human Rights has made it crystal clear in a series of religious freedom cases that the State has a duty to remain neutral and impartial in exercising its regulatory power and in its relations with all religions, and that the preservation of pluralism and the proper functioning of democracy in Europe is at stake when religious autonomy and freedom is assaulted.

FECRIS is currently seeking consultative status with the Council of Europe. It would seriously undermine the human rights principles that form the foundation of the Council to place its imprimatur on a group that targets minority faiths it disagrees with.

There is simply no place for "Thought Police" in the Council's quest for religious plurality, tolerance and minority rights.

William C. Walsh is a Washington D.C.-based human rights attorney who specializes in religious freedom issues.

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