Introduction to the Conference

Crises in many parts of the world have, amongst other pressing issues, brought up serious concerns about protecting the freedom of religion or belief of people and communities in both zones of conflict and, also, when they are forced to migrate to safer territories. In Eastern Ukraine, various religious communities and believers on both sides allegedly have suffered from multiple discriminations and abuses of their fundamental freedoms. Crimea is another example where Muslim and other ‘non-mainstream’ communities reportedly have faced restrictions upon their rights under international law. In much of Europe, right-wing elements and others are demanding that borders be closed to refugees from Syria and other conflict zones outside of Europe, voicing concerns about infiltration of Islamic terrorists and the inclusion of (more) people with different religions and cultural/racial backgrounds in their countries. Religious communities in many European countries have suggested that their States only should admit Christian refugees. Larger populations are living in fear of catastrophe to their identity, social cohesion, peace and welfare. These new developments have refueled resentment towards minority religions in Europe (even in those countries that are not currently dealing with a massive influx of migrants) generally and brought new life to cultural relativistic arguments in the human rights debate in particular.

A number of different issues have been conflated in the minds of many. This perhaps, soon, will give rise to a need for deconstruction and reconstruction of these issues for the sake of a better understanding of the scope and limits of freedom of religion or belief in crisis situations in both theory and in practice. From an international human-rights law perspective, freedom to have and change one’s religion or belief is an absolute right. However, freedom to manifest these beliefs can be restricted to protect legitimate interests such as public safety, public order, health or morals, or rights and freedoms of others. Not all kinds of manifestations of religion or belief can be accepted; but, any restrictions have to be necessary in a democratic society, proportionate and must serve legitimate aims. One should keep in mind that the way freedom of religion or belief is protected is indicative of the health of democracy and other fundamental rights in a State.

This venue in Tallinn was chosen because Eastern and Central European post-communist countries – with their relatively short history of democracy and pluralism of ideas – potentially face greater challenges in ensuring the protection of freedom of religion and belief in the context of the current theme than elsewhere in the European Legal Space.