States and Religions in Post-Communist Europe

Chapter 9
States and Religions in Post-Communist Europe

Giovanni Barberini

It is necessary to devote a special consideration, for reasons that will be explained, to those States of Central and Eastern Europe that have recently become members of the European Union. The philosophical and ethical debate concerning religious freedom is not as rich in all the states of the region, mainly because of the recent political past of this vast European area. Furthermore the philosophical ratio of fundamental rights is still evolving, even if most of the States that are here taken in account recall the human rights international instruments in their recent constitutions. Last but not least the States considered in the chapter represent a very different social, political and religious point of view from the one of Russia, the nation that led and controlled the whole region for more than 40 years.

I had the fortune to closely research the above-mentioned countries since the 1960s, studying them from within thanks to prolonged periods of residence. Having witnessed the collapse of the totalitarian regimes, and the following transition from ‘real socialism’ to democracy, it is with great satisfaction that I now write of how freedom of religion is spreading as a normative foundation throughout these countries, after a long period of persecution.

The Central and Eastern European countries are undergoing a transitional process which is not yet completed. A complex transition due to the need for democratization: the establishment, and functioning, of complex structures that guarantee and safeguard that the work of a democratically elected government acts in respect of human and fundamental rights and in favour of those political goals which correspond to the values and principles of its society. Democratization is a cultural and political issue, but the only one that can grant the necessary stability for the rule of law.

It is useful to recall past and recent events of local history, events which are not directly linked to the law–religion issue, but nonetheless necessary to understand the society in which the religious phenomenon today occurs, and where it has difficulties to assert itself or is not entirely free.

The States and populations of Central and Eastern Europe, after having lost their cultural background, their ‘Mittleeuropa’ legacy, due to the division of the continent, were even denied self-determination (the Baltic region was invaded and annexed to the Soviet Union). Even though the desire for freedom was never uprooted from these populations, the 40-year dominance of Marxism-Leninism managed to penetrate, in different ways and different periods, the society and populations of the area. Thus rebirth and democratization will follow with different speeds, which will clearly depend on the intensity of the Marxist penetration.

One other important aspect that has to be taken into consideration, that emerged during the Communist regime, is the deep contrast, if not open hostility, between the different populations of the area. Even with the COMECON and the Warsaw Treaty, and even if the various Communist parties called themselves ‘brothers’, the respective populations did not have the same feelings.

Before the establishment of the Communist regimes, each country was at different stages of its cultural and political evolution. This is an important element that has to be taken into consideration, because the road to rebirth and democratization will be influenced by the social and cultural legacy of the pre-Communist period.

Concentrating on the subject of the chapter, history shows very different instances: we cannot nullify the diversities and the specificity of the States and of the organized societies present in each. The specificity can be determined from the existing relation between religion and State; from the involvement of religion in the local political and cultural events; from the presence, or absence, of nationalistic trends – some of which seem to have risen again, or are rising again – and the support a religion gives, has given, or wants to give, to these trends; from the faith of the population; from the presence, or lack, of atheistic trends; from an existing and substantial, even if informal, confessional structure of the State. This specificity simply means that there are as many realities as there are States.

Throughout European history national minorities have been a present and relevant issue. Minorities which, in many cases, profess the same religion and, therefore, broaden the issue from that of national minorities to that of religious minorities. Legal provisions that limit, if not persecute, national minorities are, in most cases, violating their freedom of religion, thus giving rise to conflict. The geographical and political situation, as resulting after the Second World War and the most recent political events, varies greatly, even if the States belonging to this area are nowadays members of European Union. In general terms, the Communist regimes, especially some of them (i.e., Romania), did not take into due consideration national minorities, which were considered elements of instability and potentially subversive of the Marxist-Leninist ‘reason of State’. In recent years a number of laws safeguarding the freedom of national minorities has come in effect and, within the Stability Pact framework, some bilateral agreements have been signed to favour a general reciprocity. In other words it can be said that there is a need to avoid national minorities, and religious minorities, becoming a factor of instability, and instead that these should contribute to stability.

Within the transitional process, which will still be long and diverse not only from a socio-economic point of view, the acknowledgment given by the States to those Churches that played a role in the opposition to Communism has to be taken in account. This acknowledgement can explain a number of laws and normative provisions that were introduced after 1989. Even within this context there are a number of different scenarios: there were Churches that were openly against the Communist regime, like the Catholic Church; there were Churches which were not openly against the regime; and Churches that worked and helped the regime. There are many reasons for this diversity, but it is without doubt that the Churches that were against the regime have played, and still play, a role within the democratization of the society. As an example we can recall the different agreements and concordats that the Catholic Church has signed with many States of the ex-Communist area.

Churches and religious communities now rely on the consolidation of democratic institutions, that is the institutional and constitutional framework within which they can act. This is considered suitable for defending all the rights and the rights of all, i.e., a constitutional State able to guarantee a real status libertatis defending freedom and openness within democratic and civil society.

It might be useful to recall what has been said during an international symposium in Budapest in 1997, organized by the Hungarian government, whose title was Le rôle des Églises dans les sociétés nouvelles. Twelve States belonging to the Central and Eastern European area and which had shortly before got rid of the Marxist-Leninist ideology (Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Macedonia, Moldavia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Ukraine and Serbia-Montenegro) took part in this initiative. A passage of the adopted Final Declaration affirms:

prenant conscience du fait que les Églises et autres communautés religieuses de leur pays sont des éléments importants et précieux de la société et des facteurs de cohésion sociale pour la communauté, sachant que les Églises et autres communautés religieuses sont actives en matière de vie spirituelle et se livrent aussi à d’autres activités dans les domaines de la culture, de l’éducation, de l’assistance sociale et de la santé, renforçant ainsi la conscience nationale et jouant un rôle important dans la vie de leur pays.1

We can say that the need to acknowledge the function of religious institutions in the new democratic societies was strongly felt.

I think we should avoid the tendency (and sometimes the temptation) to consider religious freedom (even as far as it concerns some confessional institutions) as a sort of privileged freedom. In this phase of transition and of construction of a democratic State, a clear consideration of what status libertatis means is still needed. This status