Synthesis - Conference of Spiritual Human Rights – December 2015, Copenhagen

Human Rights and Spiritual Practice

This year, Soteria International’s conference focused to bring the human rights in our daily life. The open dialogue with the participants started analyzing one by one different subjects as: What are human rights? ; Freedom of religion, conscience and belief – article 9; The term “sect” and marginalization of unfamiliar spiritual practice; The free conscience as spiritual practice and concluded with the practical approach of What can we do to support human rights in our society?

In the first topic, What are human rights? we raised the attention on the fact that the human rights are based on the morality. Morality is humanities attempt to formulate guiding principles, discerning right action from wrong action.

We briefly spoke about the history of the Human Rights, how they appeared and why. Human Rights were originally formulated after studying the common morality of different cultures in order not to be arbitrary and any claims that they make, attack the very foundation of human nature.

We noticed that there are formally listed some matters of which the individual is entitled – but no arguments are given to support these statements, no connecting thread, no moral principle from which these rights are derived. In fact, in this way the discussion of Human Rights is transformed into a subject of formal juridical law – just like the state laws that exist in any country. However, there is a question mark regarding the treatment of human rights as being of equal importance with national laws.

The aim of human rights was never to guide the individual towards finding the meaning or happiness in life, but only to remove any state interference or hindering of the individual pursuing the desired goals and happiness, according to basic human dignity. This is not enough to ensure the rights of people. The very word ‘rights’ points to a possibility, not to something endorsed.

The moral aspect of human rights was formulated in this manner, in order to allow people the freedom to pursue whatever goals they may have and not to impose on them some pre-decided so-called good.

What human rights aim for is a system that is, and not just appears to be, respectful and equal to all, at the same time taking into consideration the question of free choice, which should be an inalienable right and which very much influence the individual. Therefore unanimous equality is something that can be argued and human rights should endorse universal, not specific values.

As an example of this, we spoke about the right to freely and actively aspire for happiness – which we all can intuit is indeed a basic human right. Indeed, the state has a certain role in facilitating the individual in his/her quest for happiness, yet we cannot place all responsibility on the state. The state can assume the responsibility for the fulfillment of certain values in human life, according to the specific mandate of governance. Human Rights act in the other direction, ensuring that the state does not impose specific values onto the individual. Here play a great role, elements which are interior to the individual in question, as well as elements relating to his/her interactions with others – such as emotional relationships, intellectual development, professional fulfillment and many more. All these elements are not properly covered by the current approach to human rights, yet they are of utmost relevance to the matter.

Another example discussed was the freedom of belief, promised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is providing the legal framework for granting each person the right of choosing his or her own belief or religion. An approach to the subject of human rights which is based on moral principles will provide guidelines for each individual in his/her life and will thus cover all the rights that we all have, as well as our responsibilities. And guidelines for morality and dignity are good, but not at all the responsibility of the state or intrastate power. They just provide guidelines on how to lead a happy life within tradition and texts that were at the individual disposal.

We the end of this first topic we agreed that in order to understand and respect profoundly the human rights, it is needed to first identify and formulate a universal system of morality.

We continued our conference by mentioning and discussing about the Freedom of thought, conscience and religion - Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Right and the fact that this Article 9 guarantees not only freedom of thought, conscience and religion, but also the active manifestation of such.

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with

others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

2. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Even if this Article 9 is so clear, Soteria International noticed that often appear misunderstandings and the use of the term “sect” to bring marginalization of unfamiliar spiritual practice.

From our research, we noticed that the society believes that there is a threat posed from “sects”. This belief is propagated through media and “anti-sect” authorities. This belief is unfounded and there is much less criminal or subversive behavior within spiritual groups than, for example, some sports. The belief is based only on ignorance and fear of the unknown. The spiritual groups become “the other” that may threaten us. Thus we are dealing with a structural discrimination against individuals who practice their fundamental right of religious freedom. Society has previously acted ardently to stop discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation etc. and it is now time to act, in response, in order to counter act the ongoing discrimination against spiritual groups.

The public hostility towards “sects” forms the basis of the persecution even if no-one has ever defined what a sect is. The term is used arbitrarily, so that any group that is not well established in society risks to be considered as a sect. 

Due to the unfounded and arbitrary stigma of “sects”, it takes very little to create a campaign against spiritual groups. Behind the media campaigns, we most often find just one or two testimonies against the group, while thousands are still in favor.  Most often these accusations come from apostates as part of personal vendettas within the groups. (For the role of apostates and media in these judicial campaigns please see our report “The Impact of Apostates’ Activities

on the Suppression Associations of Conscience or Belief”, 2012

The police are rightfully obliged to look into any criminal accusations. In the case of spiritual groups, media campaigns as well as police investigations often turn against the whole group, also because the accusations usually are vague.

We further find an international network of anti-sect NGOs (FECRIS), who often work in close collaboration with media and police. These groups share a reactionary and many times dogmatic Christian view on society and spirituality. As the report FECRIS (the HRWF report) shows, these groups are often personally motivated, small in number and give an undemocratic position as experts within some European judicial systems. In other countries, such as Scandinavia, FECRIS are themselves considered extremists by society. Where these anti-sect groups still have influence, they must be reconsidered, based on the fundamental rights of those who live in that area.

Our conference continued with several examples of spiritual organizations which faced problems in the society. Cases as Ogyen Kunzang Chöling – Belgium, Church of Scientology – Belgium, Poetrie & Guru Jara – Czechia, Natha Yoga Centre – Denmark, Ananda Assisi – Italy, Arkeon – Italy, Damanhur – Italy, Raffaella Di Marzio – Italy, Lalita Mohan – Poland, Shamanism – Sweden & Denmark, MISA – Romania.

Also, we briefly mentioned that an invisible abuse which is emerging in nowadays context is the “sexual abuse” denunciation of almost all the spiritual leaders of the past forty years. This denunciation is largely due to the use of the campaign of stigmatizing spiritual minorities which allowed and still allows many people to settle personal scores through this sensitive subject. We are all generously informed of the charges but we do not realize the huge amount of fabrication, exaggeration and slander, which are more or less intentional regarding these subjects.

In the end of our conference, we spoke about solutions, or ways to counter- balance the situation when the freedom of belief is not respected. We proposed some steps for the groups targeted and we created some working groups in order to research more on this subject.