Freedom of religion and belief was discussed at length at a meeting organised on 9-10 December by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). OSCE member states, missions and institutions were represented at the meeting plus a few international organisations and more than 100 non-governmental organisations(NGOs).
The discussions took place in three sessions devoted to the following three topics:
I OSCE Commitments on Freedom of Religion and Belief: Emerging Issues and Challenges.
II Education and Religion or Belief.
III Religious Symbols and Expression.
Here are some brief and personal impressions from the meeting:
Although the list of participants included a fairly large number of human rights and other not typically religious NGOs, the debate in the plenary was overwhelmingly dominated by the religious ones, mainly pursuing their own individual interests rather than defending the freedom of religion and belief as a matter of principle.
The same pattern was followed in session II where focus was on the rights of parents to have their children educated in the religion of their choice. The possibility of opting out from religious instruction was generally recognised but there was little or no discussion on the negative consequences of this kind of discrimination of children who opt out. The fact that they may get a feeling of being somehow different and not belonging to the majority and also that they would not get any real education about their own or any other religions did not attract much attention. The humanist opinion that all children - irrespective of the life stance of their parents - should receive an unbiased education about religions was not supported by any of the other NGOs.
Concerning religious symbols the emphasis centered on the need to facilitate rather than to limit the display of such symbols and the Holy See condemned the removal of crucifixes from public buildings as an expression of “false secularism”.
The European Humanist Federation submitted the following written statements, one for each of the three sessions:
Pluralism, relativism and the rule-of-law
Education about religions but not religious indoctrination
Display of crucifixes in public buildings