Monthly Archives: December 2011

EU: Freedom of belief includes freedom not to reveal belief

Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos was formally sworn in, taking an oath according to the Greek Orthodox faith.

Panayote Dimitras (founder of the Humanist Union of Greece) and some of his colleagues in the Greek Helsinki Monitor (affiliated to the International Helsinki Federation) have won a case against Greece at the European Court of Human Rights.

In their work under the Helsinki process, they frequently have to make depositions or give evidence in court.  Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion or belief, Greek law requires that as a default they have to take an oath according to the Greek Orthodox faith or else to justify their wish to take a different oath or to affirm by revealing their adherence to another belief or their lack of belief.

The Strasbourg Court has again in this case underlined that freedom of religion or belief includes “the right of the individual not to be obliged to manifest his religion or his religious beliefs and not be obliged to act in such a way that such convictions or their lack can be deduced. In the eyes of the Court, state authorities have no right to intervene in the field of freedom of conscience of the individual and to seek his religious beliefs, or to force him to express his beliefs about the divinity” (judgement, para. 28).

The Court therefore found against Greece and ordered the government to pay costs.

European Humanist Federation | 30th December 2011

 

Hungary’s Constitutional Revolution backed by the Vatican

Pope Benedict XVI poses for a photo with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, third from right, his wife Aniko Levai, fourth from left, and their five children during a private audience at the Vatican, Monday, Dec. 6, 2010. (AP Photo/Alberto Pizzoli, POOL)

Last week I devoted a column to the unsettling political developments in Hungary. To expand on all this, I’ve asked my Princeton colleague Kim Lane Scheppele, who has been working extensively on the situation, to contribute a post. It’s below the fold.

Hungary’s Constitutional Revolution
Kim Lane Scheppele

Last week, Paul Krugman’s column “Depression and Democracy” called attention to Hungary’s “authoritarian slide.” Since I was one of the sources for Paul’s column, I’d like to explain why I have been alarmed at the state of both constitutionalism and democracy in Hungary.

In a free and fair election last spring in Hungary, the center-right political party, Fidesz, got 53% of the vote. This translated into 68% of the seats in the parliament under Hungary’s current disproportionate election law. With this supermajority, Fidesz won the power to change the constitution. They have used this power in the most extreme way at every turn, amending the constitution ten times in their first year in office and then enacting a wholly new constitution that will take effect on January 1, 2012.

This constitutional activity has transformed the legal landscape to remove checks on the power of the government and put virtually all power into the hands of the current governing party for the foreseeable future.

The new constitution has attracted a great deal of criticism from the Venice Commission for Democracy through Law of the Council of Europe, theEuropean Parliament and the United States. But the Fidesz government has paid no attention.

Under the new constitutional order, the judiciary has taken the largest hit. The Constitutional Court, which once had the responsibility to review nearly all laws for constitutionality, has been killed off in three ways. First, the government expanded the number of judges on the bench and filled the new positions with their own political allies (think: Roosevelt’s court-packing plan). Then, the government restricted the jurisdiction of the court so that it can no longer review any law that has an impact on the budget, like laws pertaining to taxes and austerity programs, unless the law infringes particular listed rights. Finally, the government changed the rules of access to the court so that it will no longer be easily able to review laws in the abstract for their compliance with the constitution. Moreover, individuals can no longer challenge the constitutionality of laws without first going through a lengthy process in the ordinary courts. The old Constitutional Court, which has served as the major check on governmental power in a unicameral parliamentary system, is now functionally dead.

The ordinary judiciary has suffered a similar fate. The government lowered the retirement age for judges from 70 to 62, giving judges only a few months to adjust to their new futures. More than 200 judges will be forced to retire from the bench starting on January 1, including most of the court presidents who assign cases and manage the daily workings of courts. The new law on the judiciary requires that the Supreme Court president have at least five years of Hungarian judicial experience. The current president of the Supreme Court is disqualified because his 17 years of experience as a judge on the European Court of Human Rights do not count. Therefore, he must leave office on January 1 also.

The law on the judiciary also creates a new National Judicial Office with asingle person at the helm who has the power to replace the retiring judges and to name future judges. This person also has the power to move any sitting judge to a different court. A new constitutional amendment – to the new constitution! – will permit both the public prosecutor and the head of this new National Judicial Office to choose which judge will hear each case.

The independence of the judiciary is over when a government puts its own judges onto the bench, moves them around at will, and then selects which ones get particular cases to decide.

The Vice President of the European Commission for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, Viviane Reding, issued a strongly worded request for information about the new law last week and demanded immediate replies from the Hungarian government. She also strongly urged the government “to ensure . . . that no measure is implemented until doubts about its compliance with EU law are removed.” The government responded by saying all of these changes are improvements and it seems to be going ahead with implementing the new constitutional framework despite the strong caution from Brussels.

In the new constitutional system, the legal supervision of elections has also been changed. Before the last election, the norm was for the five-member Election Commission to be politically diverse and for the government of the day to consult the opposition before nominating candidates. But the rules were changed last year so that each new national election is now accompanied by a new choice of election commissioners. As a result, the existing commissioners were removed from their offices without allowing them to finish their terms and now the Election Commission consists of five members of the governing party.

The new election law specifies the precise boundaries of the new electoral districts that will send representatives to the parliament. But the new districts are drawn in such a way that no other party on the political horizon besides Fidesz is likely to win elections. A respected Hungarian think tank ran the numbers from the last three elections using the new district boundaries. Fidesz would have won all three elections, including the two they actually lost.

Virtually every independent political institution has taken a hit. The human rights, data protection and minority affairs ombudsmen have been collapsed into one lesser post. The public prosecutor, the state audit office and, most recently, the Central Bank are all slated for more overtly political management in the new legal order.

And all of this has happened while the press operates under day-to-day intimidation. A draconian set of media laws created a new media board – staffed only by Fidesz party loyalists with a chair who is appointed by the Prime Minister to a nine-year term. This board can review all public and private media for their compliance with a nebulous standard of political “balance” and has the power to bankrupt any news organization with large fines. It is not surprising that the media have become self-censoring. This new media regime has been severely criticized by the European Commissioner for Communications, among others.

The new constitution also accepts conservative Christian social doctrine as state policy, in a country where only 21% of the population attends any religious services at all. The fetus is protected from the moment of conception. Marriage is only legal if between a man and a woman. The constitution “recognize(s) the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood” and holds that “the family and the nation constitute the principal framework of our coexistence.” While these religious beliefs are hard-wired into the constitution, a new law on the status of religion cut the number of state-recognized churches to only fourteen, deregistering 348 other churches.

In a democracy, the population can “throw the bums out” and replace the government with a different one that can change the policies that do not have public support. But that will be nearly impossible under this constitution. In addition to compromising institutions that are necessary for a free and fair election – like a free press and a neutral election apparatus – the new constitution embeds Fidesz control even if another political party defies the odds and wins an election.

The new constitution makes huge swaths of public policy changeable only by a two-thirds vote of any subsequent parliament. From here on, all tax and fiscal policy must be decided by a two-thirds supermajority. Even the precise boundaries of electoral districts cannot be changed by simple majority vote, but only by a two-third supermajority. If a new government gets a mere majority, policies instituted during the Fidesz government cannot be changed.

That’s not all. The long arm of the current Fidesz government can grab and shake any foreseeable future government through the officials they are now putting into place. The new constitutional order extends the terms of office for the public prosecutor (9 years), the head of the state audit office (12 years), the head of the national judicial office (9 years), the head of the media board (9 years), the head of the budget council (6 years) and more. Each of these positions has been filled with Fidesz party loyalists who will be able to conduct public investigations, intimidate the media, press criminal charges and continue to pack the courts long after the government’s current term is over. Moreover, unless there is a two-thirds vote to replace these new office holders, they can stay in office until such a two-thirds vote can be achieved, which could extend these long terms of office even further.

How do all of these pieces work together? One example will illustrate. The constitution creates a national budget council with the power to veto any future budget that adds to the national debt, which any foreseeable budget will do. The members of the budget council have been chosen by this government for terms of 6 or 12 years and can only be replaced if two-thirds of the parliament can agree on new candidates when their terms are over. Another part of the constitution requires the parliament to pass a budget by March 31 of each year. If the parliament fails to do so, the president of the country can dissolve the parliament and call new elections. When these pieces are put together, the constraints on any future government are clear. A new government will pass a budget – but that budget can be vetoed by Fidesz loyalists so that the budget deadline is missed, and then the president (also named by Fidesz) will call new elections. And this can be repeated until an acceptable government is voted back into power.

The only parties that might replace Fidesz in the current Hungarian landscape are the Socialist Party or, in a real nightmare scenario, the far-right Jobbik. Under laws that preceded Fidesz’s election last year, political parties that are anti-constitutional may be banned. Some have suggested that Fidesz could eliminate Jobbik in this way. In fact, Europe probably would not mind if Jobbik were excluded from public life because other European countries can ban extremist parties also. But what about Fidesz’s primary competition – the Socialists?

According to a proposed constitutional amendment, the crimes of the former communist party will be listed in the constitution and the statute of limitations for prosecuting crimes committed during the communist period will be lifted. The former communist party is branded a criminal organization and the current opposition Socialist Party is designated as their legal successor. It is still unclear, legally speaking, what this amendment means. But it is probably not good for the major opposition party.

The Fidesz government has accomplished this constitutional revolution by legal means after a democratic election. But though Fidesz was democratically elected and has accomplished this program through constitutional change, Hungary is not a constitutional democracy. Instead Hungary is, as Paul Krugman said, sliding into authoritarianism.

The New York Times | Paul Krugman & Kim Lane Scheppele | 19th December 2011

Italy: the Vatican lies on its commercial businesses

Mario Staderini, secretary of the Italian Radicali Party, has denounced the lies of the Vatican regarding its commercial businesses in properties for which they avoid paying taxes.

Watch this video investigation in which Mario Staderini personally finds out that the “House of the Clergy” in the centre of Milan avoids paying taxes but is really a Church-run hotel.

House of the Clergy in 2 San Tomaso street in the centre of Milan is open for business but avoids paying taxes.

A Church-run hotel in the centre of Milan avoids paying taxes, watch the video investigation by Italian Radicali Party.

Radicali Italiani | 16th December 2011

Spain: the new government is sworn in with a religious oath

Mariano Rajoy is sworn in as Spain's new prime minister in Madrid, Spain, Dec. 21, 2011

The Spanish association “Europa Laica” (i.e. Secular Europe) complains that the new government have taken an oath on the Bible and in front of a catholic crucifix.

The organization points out that Article 16 of the Constitution states that “no religion shall have character of State religion”.

“The State of a truly democratic Country has to ensure the full exercise of the rights and freedoms in full freedom and equality of conditions, without discrimination or privilege to any sector of citizens”

Europa Laica believes that the State and its Institutions “need to unconditionally show that their field of competence and action is only the public sphere, common to all citizens, and they must refrain from invading or contaminating the public with acts, beliefs, symbols and rituals of a religious character “, which is also a violation of the constitutional principle of equality of all citizens before the law, described in Article 14 of the Constitution.

Europa Laica | 23 December 2011

EU: Labour MEPs praised for supporting Equal Love campaign

(from Left to Right) MEPs Linda McAvan, Brian Simpson, Derek Vaughan, David Martin, Glenis Willmott, Michael Cashman, Arlene McCarthy, Mary Honeyball and Richard Howitt. Copyright European Union

Brussels – 19 December 2011

“Huge appreciation to the 13 Labour MEPs for unanimously supporting the Equal Love campaign.

“I hope Labour MPs at Westminster will follow the positive example of Labour MEPs in Europe by also opposing sexual orientation discrimination in marriage and partnership law,” said Peter Tatchell, coordinator of the Equal Love campaign and Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation.

All 13 Labour MEPs have expressed their support for the Equal Love campaign, which seeks to end the twin legal bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships.

Photos of Labour MEPs with Equal Love signs. Free use (no charge): 
http://www.lgbt-ep.eu/transfer/Print%20quality/ 
But please use this photo credit: Copyright European Union

Leader of the Labour MEPs, Glenis Willmott said: “I am very proud that all thirteen Labour MEPs unanimously supported this campaign.

“The Labour government brought forward civil partnership legislation and a future government should take this legislation to the next stage.

“Same-sex relationships should be on the same legal basis as opposite-sex relationships across the EU.”

Former East Enders star Michael Cashman MEP combines the roles of the Chair of Labour’s National Executive Committee with jointly co-ordinating the European Parliament’s LGBT Intergroup. He added:

“Many MEPs from all political groups support equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. In the UK, this includes ending the ban on same-sex marriage and different-sex partnerships.

“I am proud of my Labour MEP colleagues. It’s now up to Labour’s Westminster MPs to follow suit,” Michael said.

Responding to the Labour MEPs’ support for the Equal Love campaign, Peter Tatchell said:

“It’s great to have all 13 Labour MEPs backing the campaign for equality. In the European Parliament, they have been steadfast allies and pioneers for LGBT human rights. Political support for our legal case in the European Court of Human Rights is very important and helpful,” he added.

In February 2011, eight British couples – four gay and four straight – filed an application in the European Court of Human Rights, in a bid to secure the right of same-sex couples to have a civil marriage and the right of opposite-sex couples to have a civil partnership.

The Green, Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru party conferences have previously voted to end the ban on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships. The Labour Party conference has, so far, not voted on the issue.

Peter Tatchell | 19 December 2011

More information:

www.eurolabour.org.uk
www.equallove.org.uk

For contact with Labour MEPs: David Poyser on +32 479 790 053

Russia: Atheists, rationalists oppose ban on Bhagwat Gita

Krishna and Arjun on the chariot, Mahabharata, 18th-19th century, India.

The Atheists and Rationalists society of India, who in the past have publicly denounced Bhagwat Gita for being a racist text, have opposed its proposed ban in Russia. In June this year, a town named Tomsk in Siberia moved to court seeking a ban of the Russian translation of Bhagwat Gita, on the grounds that the Hindu religious text propagated extremism. The ban has been directed specifically towards the Gita written by ISKON founder A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

The Russian court has directed the University of Kemerovo to read the text and come up with their findings. The suit filed by Tomsk Prosecutor Viktor Fedotov has also asked for the ban of religious group of International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKON.

“Bhagwat Gita promotes kin and kith violence, it promotes exploitation and ignorance, but still I will uphold the right of it being read,” said Sanal Edamaruku President of Indian Rationalist Association. “Banning any form of literature is against the freedom of expression, even Gita which legitimises the caste system should be allowed to be read”, feels Sanal.

“Gita is against the principles of Indian constitution, however banning is not the way to fight the reactionary, undemocratic message of Gita,” feels Dr Jayagopal, founder of the Atheist Society of India. He suspects that the Russian Orthodox Christian Church is behind this proposed ban.

There are close to 15 thousand followers of the ISKON cult in Russia, the ban has been opposed by the expatriate followers of ISKON. The Bhagwat Gita ban created a furore in Indian Parliament as parties like BJP demanded the Indian government to take up the issue with Russian leaders. Foreign Minister SM Krishna had even asked his Russian counterpart to intervene in the matter.

Raj Mitter founders of the Tarksheel Society of India, also condemned the ban on the grounds that it is against freedom of expression. “Ambedkar had said religious books are against constitution, however no books should be banned”, says Mitter. But he also thinks that if the people of Russia are offended by the text, than India should respect their sentiments.

But Dalit Marxist scholar ChittiBabu Padavala welcomed Russia’s decision. “Gita is such a religious texts, unlike Bible or Quran where god mandates inequalities by birth, if Mein Kamph, burkha and female circumcision is banned in Europe, why not Gita which is worse than any of them”, asks Padavala.

“The ban is not about freedom of expression or religion; it is about punishing fascist propaganda. “Hindu groups in the west are misusing multicultural space to spread fascism, and it is shameful that atheists and rationalists are succumbing to the Hindutva propaganda”, Padavala says

However advocates of Bhagwat Gita rebut the charges that the text promotes violence and caste systems allege that the ban is proposed by people who have no knowledge of the book’s wisdom. “Every word of Gita spreads peace”, says Y Krishnamurthi of Gita Prachara Samiti. “Arjuna kills because as a Kshatriya it is his duty to kill”, he explains. “Everyone must follow the duties given to their respective caste, one cannot expect the teacher to go and till the land,” concludes Krishnamurti.

The Russian court on December 28th will announce its decision on ban’s plea; meanwhile Indian foreign ministry is reportedly lobbying for preventing the ban in Russia.

The Economic Times | 23 December 2011

EU: Extraordinary scenes at Article 17 meeting in Parliament

President Buzek invited the non-confessional organisations to a meeting in the European Parliament on 30 November 2011 to discuss its implementation of the Article 17 dialogue. This took place after the Article 17 “summit” with the three EU Presidents, reported here.

Unfortunately the President was unable to attend until the last minute or two (he had to preside at a plenary session of the Parliament which also drew away for much of the time the three MEPs who came to parts of the meeting). The result was that the chair was taken by Vice-President Tokés, nominated by Buzek to be responsible for the Article 17 dialogue. Now, László Tokés is an admirable man – he was the Presbyterian priest who led the revolt in Hungarian-speaking Romania against the Ceauçescu regime. Later he was elected a bishop, then an national MP, then a European MEP, and then a vice-president of the Parliament. But he is, it seems, both blind to the appearance of potential bias in a bishop presiding over the Article 17 dialogue and strongly inclined to see personal insults where none exists.

He introduced the meeting with largely anodyne remarks (but see below) but before he could introduce the first speaker he was interrupted by Sophie in’t Veld MEP who said she had some questions about the way the meeting was organised.

Tokés: Please wait until President Buzek arrives because he organised the meeting and I have no answers.

Sophie in’t Veld

in’t Veld: President Buzek is detained presiding over the plenary session. I have been asking for answers to these questions for three weeks or more. I think the way the meeting has been organised is very questionable.

Tokés: I am in the chair and I ask you to wait.

in’t Veld:This is a democracy and it is right that questions about the organisation of a meeting should be asked before it starts. I insist on putting my questions on record. What were the criteria for deciding who should be invited? Why did some people get their invitations extremely late? How was the panel chosen and in what sense is it representative of the non-religious voices all across Europe? Why have my letters about Article 17 to President Buzek from the Platform for Secularism in Politics of 13 December 2010 and 12 July 2011 never been answered? And by the way, I object to your referring in your opening remarks to the Communist dictatorship of Romania and an “atheist dictatorship”.

Tokés: I know nothing about the organisation of this meeting and nothing of your letters.

in’t Veld: You were sent copies of them.

Tokés: No I had no copies. Do not be so aggressive!

in’t Veld: Why were my letters unanswered?

Tokés: Let us start the meeting.

in’t Veld: For the record, I see no validity in the meeting.

Sophie in’t Veld then left the meeting.  Afterwards she wrote to President Buzek: see her letterhere and the attachment to it (an earlier, unanswered letter of 12 July) here.

Laszlo Tokes

Mr Tokés proceeded with the meeting. There were four invited speakers. Three were freemasons, the fourth David Pollock, President of the EHF. Two of the freemasons said that they had only been invited to speak in the past 24 hours!First to speak was Joseph Asselbergh, President of the Grand Orient of Belgium. He said that freemasonry was neither a religion nor a substitute for one nor a gathering of atheists – some freemasons were religious. They had an eclectic philosophy but saw the influence of religion on political power as a cause for concern. So they saw the Article 17 dialogue as questionable because it introduced dialogue of politicians with religion that did not exist in many EU states. The EU guarantee under Article 17(1) that it would not interfere in religious matters – so what was the dialogue about? It had to be about politics, economic and social issues.

He referred to the EU’s advisory board on bioethics which included many religious members. But religion – which was no more than opinions, albeit valuable ones – had no monopoly on ethics and was indeed often a disguise for ancient ethical systems. Religion interfered with women’s reproductive rights and saw religious freedom as the freedom for religion to interfere with the rights and freedoms of others. The dialogue should be only with those who would claim freedom for all, not just for themselves.

Denise Oberlin, the Grand Mistress of the Grand Feminine Lodge of France, spoke second, covering the virtues of secularism. She said that the non-religious majority in Europe was little heard. The European Parliament, as the only democratic body in the EU, had to pay attention to their views. She also expressed concern about the EU’s bioethics advisory board and talked of the inequality of women, closing with praise for the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics.

David Pollock of the EHF then spoke. He said he shared the concerns expressed by Sophie in’t Veld and found it very odd that Mr Tokés, as vice-president in charge of the dialogue, was unable to answer them. He expressed concern about the origins and nature of the dialogue and examined in detail the nature it should have, criticising both the EU institutions for not publishing minutes of the meetings and the churches for the way they wished to insinuate themselves into every aspect of the EU’s affairs. He said that, as had been said at a recent EPPSP meeting at which Mr Tokés had been present, the fact that the person in charge of the dialogue was a bishop would inevitably be seen as a sign of inherent imbalance however carefully Mr Tokés conducted himself in that role. His full speech is here.

The last speaker was Rüdiger Templin, president of the United Grand Lodges of Germany. He stressed that he did not represent his organisation: freemasonry was about self-development in humanist values but its organisations took no stands on policy. He deplored the present state of society, mentioning the violence he saw as prevalent among young people and the corruption and greed for power of top managers in finance and industry.

Mr Tokés then said he would address his critics. He said that he had not refused the floor to Sophie in’t Veld, only asked her to wait for President Buzek. As vice-president he had no executive function concerning his mandate, and so he had no role in selecting the speakers or the people to be invited: that had been done by people in the office of the President. He apologised for the lateness of the invitations. He said he was surprised at the intolerance shown by David Pollock in criticising him for being a bishop. David Pollock interrupted to say that his criticism had not been of Mr Tokés personally but of his appointment. If Sophie in’t Veld had been placed in charge of the dialogue with the churches, they might well have had a similar objection. Mr Tokés demurred. He then denied knowing anything of the reported demands of the churches.

Michael Cashman MEP had joined the meeting and said that Mr Tokés by his attempts to explain himself had only created greater concern about his lack of objectivity in his role, in which he was meant to represent the whole Parliament. If one had a vested interest, one should decline a related portfolio, or at least be absolutely certain that you showed absolute impartiality and objectivity. He called for the dialogue to be conducted with the utmost transparency, with full publication of all documents, calling on all present to tell his office of any refusal to reveal relevant documents, and said that without such openness concerns would grow and the dialogue would fall into disrepute.

Keith Porteous Wood, echoing his own remarks at the “summit” meeting earlier in the day, said that there was a fundamental flaw in the Article 17 dialogue, namely, that the topics on which the churches lobbied hardest were those opposite to the views of the people in the pews. When the Pope visited the UK, a poll showed that only 4% of Catholics agreed with their church’s doctrine on contraception, only 11% on abortion, and only 11% on homosexuality. It was totally wrong that EU policies could be influenced by church lobbying against such a background. The EU should use Eurobarometer to show the true views of the people of Europe on bioethical issues and issues concerning the start and end of life.

Pierre Arnaud Perrouty of the Centre d’Action Laique asked two questions of vice-president Tokés: would he continue in charge of the Article 17 dialogue if asked under the new President of the Parliament (President Buzek’s term is expiring), and if so, would he object to a second vice-president of opposite beliefs being appointed so as to re-establish balance?

Zsolt Szilágyi, head of Mr Tokés’s cabinet, said that they were only beginning the Article 17 process. He was sure that Messrs Buzek and Tokés were both open-minded – they had, after all, both visited the EPPSP when invited. The meeting had been arranged to parallel the meeting earlier in the year with religious organisations. It was open to everyone to attend, and invitations had been issued to all MEPs and their assistants – maybe 3-4,000 emails – almost a month ago. He agreed that the panellists were not representative but hoped that a European spirit would prevail despite disagreements. He repeated that it was the President who had made the relevant decisions.

Michael Cashman said that appearances mattered as well as reality. There were areas of work he would not undertake in the Parliament because he did not want to be accused of indulging a vested interest.

Pierre Arnaud Perrouty asked for an answer to his questions: Mr Tokés said ‘later’. David Pollock asked if minutes of the present meeting would be officially produced, as he had asked in his speech.

When Mr Tokés referred to Mr Cashman’s absence for much of the meeting, Véronique de Keyser MEP said that this was an improper remark given the call of the simultaneous plenary session.

Mr Tokés then replied to various points. He said he had been entirely objective in his opening remarks but had been attacked for being a bishop – a discrimination by profession. He refused such a pejorative, anticlerical qualification of his profession. Tolerance was required even of bishops. His church had risked everything in rebelling against Ceauçescu! He had, however, noted the proposals put forward by members of the panel, including the idea of minutes, to which he could see no objection. He regretted that the speeches made at the meeting with religious leaders had not been published. He even apologised for being in charge of the dialogue: he had not chosen the position but had inherited it from the vice-president he had replaced.

Véronique de Keyser MEP said that there was not a single person at the meeting who did not hold Mr Tokés’s office in high esteem and did not respect his dignity – but there were problems over his presiding over the Article 17 dialogue. She would not consider herself fitted to conduct a dialogue with the churches: equally, the non-confessionals wanted someone who could understand their language which she thought he did not. This was not discrimination against him or an attack on him personally.

Mr Tokés replied that Ms de Keyser had not been present when Mr Cashman had spoken and should not seek to mitigate his language, but he thanked her for her remarks on the dialogue.

The meeting was drifting to a conclusion when President Buzek finally appeared. He made some remarks about the need for a serious dialogue, and for it to be properly structured. He said he would circulate the speech he had intended to make (it will be posted here when received).

Keith Porteous Wood referred to the need, if a manifestly religious person was to preside over the dialogue, for someone of a balancing persuasion to be appointed alongside. There were desultory further remarks and Véronique de Keyser said that people should send their proposals for the dialogue to President Buzek. He said that he would pass on these to his successor (shortly to be elected by MEPs) but he was sure that Mr Tokés would give him a fair report of the meeting.

The Centre d’Action Laique made a short video of the meeting which may be seen here.

European Humanist Federation | 22 December 2011

Czech Republic: census shows a sharp decline in religious affiliation

Filed under the “religion” section, 15,070 Czechs wrote the choice: Jedi Knight.

The results of the Czech census revealed that when asked about their religion, 15,000 people defined themselves as Jedi knights. The 2011 survey also confirmed the status of the Czech Republic as one of the world’s most atheistic countries. Only 1.1 million people declared themselves as Roman Catholic, down from 2.7 million 10 years ago, while nearly half of the whole population is not affiliated with any religion. Nearly half the population declined to answer the religion question, which was optional.

National Secular Society | Newsline | 23rd December 2011

See also “Czech Republic Sees Rise of ‘Jedi Knights’ as Religious Movement“.

Wales: Is Britain really a Christian country?

WE ARE a Christian country,” proclaims bandwagon-boarder Dave Cameron, accidental PM.

To which the only reply, in true panto fashion, is: “Oh no we’re not!”

But first, Dave’s attitude towards a real Christian, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is on a par with Henry II’s towards Rowan’s illustrious predecessor Thomas Becket.

Henry moaned: “Oh who will free me from this turbulent priest?” – and we’ve all seen the movie with Burton and O’Toole, so we know what happened next. Into Canterbury Cathedral clattered the cavalry, four armoured knights brandishing broadswords, and Thomas got the chop.

I’ll bet Dave feels the same way about the turbulent priest who had the temerity to criticise government policies bringing misery to millions. But as he can hardly send a couple of backbench bruisers round to rough up Rowan, he does it the politician’s way: a bit of snide bad-mouthing.

Back to Dave’s Christmas message: “We are a Christian country.” Very pertinent at a time of year when we celebrate the birth of the founder of the entire multi-billion-pound industry, which is what religion is these days. But does our PM actually know what he’s talking about?

“The Bible,” he says, “has given Britain a set of values and morals which makes Britain what it is today. Values and morals we should actively stand up and defend.”

Does he mean the values and morals of the Old Testament, a catalogue of horror and brutality with a vengeful and appalling deity ordering massacres, genocide, child sacrifice and slavery, while visiting plagues, floods, fire and brimstone on those dissing his authority?

Or the New Testament, which begins with the Nativity? Or at least begins with the Nativity in two of the four Gospels that got past the priestly censors long ago.

Only Matthew tells us of the virgin birth, three wise men, the star and Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. Luke does shepherds and manger but no star or wise men. Nothing at all in Mark and John, which is odd since this birth is considered the most earth-shaking event in history.

If, of course, there was such a birth.

But you can’t say that, can you? This time last year the Rev John Davies, of the Brecon and Swansea diocese, announced that “one of the great fallacies perpetrated by aggressive atheists is that our faith is without foundation, that it’s all made up”. No, he said, “Christianity is rooted in the experience of real people, living witnesses whose words were distilled and detailed into the stories we possess and treasure.”

What living witnesses? The Nativity story was written by men born long after Christ’s death and was “distilled” from numerous earlier myths.

A dozen gods from Horus and Hermes to Mithras were born of virgins in stables or caves and all showed miraculous powers from babyhood – Hercules strangled a giant snake invading his cradle, and he was only a demi-god.

So the Christmas we’re looking forward to is simply a steal from the pagans’ winter solstice, celebrating the birth of the sun god a thousand years before Christ was born.

The Nativity – fact or fiction? No writer of the relevant period comments on the odd behaviour of the Gospel’s stop-start star, surely of worldwide interest.

No Roman writer mentions the census that allegedly took Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Herod died four years before the miraculous birth, so where does that leave the massacre of the innocents?

Christianity is based on four contradictory gospels, meaning that faith, not facts, is essential for the survival of belief in what is impossible.

Impossible? Only 60 years ago Pope Pius XII made an infallible pronouncement that the Virgin Mary had risen bodily into heaven. Faith trumps facts.

Consider the history of Christianity, then ask Cameron exactly which values and morals we should defend. Has he forgotten past persecutions, burnings, massacres of Jews and Muslims, the torture and executions all in the name of Christ?

How moral were the genocides in the Americas, the Crusades or, in later years, the exhortation “kill a Commie for Christ”?

Christian values brought 300 years of killings in Northern Ireland.

Christian morality meant death for uncountable numbers in Aids-stricken Africa because of a Vatican fatwah against contraception.

In America, zealots who murder abortion clinic doctors are applauded for their Christian morality.

If there ever was a baby Jesus, and if he could see how the religion based on his birth has become perverted to justify all kinds of evil, he’d wonder whether the whole pantomime – the only word – has been worth it.

Meanwhile, Happy Christmas.
Wales Online | Dan O’Neill | 21st December 2011

Italy: Government to remove tax exemptions adopting the Radical Party’s motion

Maurizio Turco, Radical Party MP, President of the association "Anticlericale.net"

On the 16th of December the Italian Government has adopted a document on the exemption of the tax on properties presented to the Parliament by Maurizio Turco MP, of the Radical Party, and also signed by the deputies Beltrandi, Bernardini, Farina Coscioni, also Radicals; Mecacci, De Pasquale and Zamparutti of the Democratic Party; Nucara of the Republicans.

The document “commits the Government to take appropriate regulatory initiatives aimed at repealing any rule providing for exemptions or tax reductions in favor of any entity engaged in commercial activity, even if this activity is not the main aim of the legal person receiving the same exemption or reduction. The document asks the Government in particular “to repeal the law that allows the exemption of the tax on property, the reduction of  the taxes called IRES, IRAP, and any tax benefit.”

Maurizio Turco MP has complained that the adoption of this document has gone completely unnoticed by the Italian media.

UAAR | 20th December 2011

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