By Ellen Kryger Fantini, J.D.

The countries which are members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) are often divided into those countries “East of Vienna” and those “West of Vienna”. It has also been described as an organisation that stretches “from Vancouver to Vladivostok”, a phrase which denotes not only the geographic spread of the participating states, but also the wide range of ethnicities, religions, and political structures.

The OSCE is comprised of 57 countries and more than a billion people, from the USA, Canada, Europe, Russia, to the Baltics, the Balkans, former Soviet Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. The participating states include some of the world’s most powerful or influential countries: the USA, Russia, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Turkey. Other countries in the region are among the poorest or least powerful, including Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

While all of the countries have some form of constitutional protection for religious freedom, the actual application of – and societal respect for – these protections varies widely.


COVID-19 pandemic

In 2020, a remarkable phenomenon was observed relating to the COVID-19 pandemic regulations and their impact on religious freedom across the OSCE region. Many countries in Europe, as well as the USA and Canada, imposed measures to prohibit or severely restrict public worship including during Holy Week, Yom Kippur, and Ramadan. In the USA, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito stated that the pandemic had led to “previously unimaginable” limits on liberty, particularly religious freedom: “we have never before seen restrictions as severe, extensive, and prolonged as those experienced for most of 2020.”[1]

In some countries, these restrictions on religious practice were perceived as unequal and thus discriminatory. Despite increased regulations on worship activities, other gatherings were permitted including political rallies, public demonstrations and the re-opening of retail businesses. An example was Nevada Governor Sisolak’s directive capping religious services attendance to a maximum of 50 persons, regardless of the size of the church and its social distancing measures, while retail establishments, restaurants and casinos were allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity.[2]

Of more profound concern, however, was the fact that that many Western governments appeared to be ranking the practice of religion as lower in a “hierarchy of rights” than freedom of expression. In the USA, the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell noted that lawmakers in several states and large cities prohibited or severely limited religious services while permitting public protests. He stated: “freedom of speech, assembly and religion ‘have the same constitutional pedigree,’ and thus should be treated the same.”[3] Numerous lawsuits were filed in the USA on behalf of faith communities who claimed health restrictions imposed “unjust burdens on religion not felt by secular entities”.[4]

In early June 2020, while Madrid and Barcelona were still under COVID-19 restrictions which limited places of worship to 30 percent capacity and indoor funerals to a maximum of ten people, thousands were allowed to gather in authorised anti-racism marches.[5]

In the Canadian province of Quebec, Catholic bishops requested that restrictions set on occupancy in churches be at least equal to those set for other indoor spaces such as theatres and concert halls. The Archbishop of Quebec and Primate of Canada also expressed his frustration over the lack of equitable treatment of faith communities (see the country report).

In many countries across the OSCE region, edicts restricting public worship were imposed despite the objections of religious communities. In November 2020, England’s most senior faith leaders issued a joint letter to the government in which they “strongly disagree[d] with the decision to suspend public worship.”[6] The Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said he had “not yet seen any evidence” to justify the ban on services.[7] The chair of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, said the ban on communal prayer in places of worship was “disheartening” and that the Muslim community was seeking “limited communal prayer in mosques which is effectively individuals praying in unison following social distancing measures.”[8] He noted that the “fundamental difference between mosques and some other places of worship is that mosques are first and foremost used for communal prayer.”[9]

In Greece, in January 2021, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church said it “does not accept” a one-week restriction on in-person services and directed priests to ignore the government’s lockdown orders, to allow worshipers to attend services for the Feast of the Epiphany.[10] And in Cyprus, the Bishop of Morphou Neophytos held a public Mass to celebrate Palm Sunday in violation of government regulations (see the country report).


Religious freedom across the region

Across the remainder of the OSCE countries, the country reports revealed a broad spectrum of religious freedom violations, from serious human rights and religious freedom abuses to discrimination against specific religious groups.

In Central Asia, Turkmenistan remained among the world’s worst violators of religious freedom and, over the reporting period, showed no signs of improvement. During the same period, however, the U.S. State Department upgraded Uzbekistan from a “Country of Particular Concern” to a country on its “Special Watch List”, due to the many steps the country had taken towards greater protection of religious freedom.[11] The Economist named Uzbekistan its 2019 “Country of the Year” because “no other country travelled as far” in terms of reforms.[12] Other countries in this region, while still classified as having medium to very serious levels of religious freedom violations, showed some signs of hope for improvement in the future.

In the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, concerns remained amongst the authorities over what they perceive as a growth in “non-traditional Islam”. As the country reports from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan indicate, this resulted in stricter regulations aimed at preventing the expansion of more extreme forms of Islam and consequent jihadism. Some civil rights groups, however, expressed the concern that jihadism was a pretext for the state to further control non-mainstream forms of Islam.

In the Caucasus, the re-ignition of the historic conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia at the end of 2020 diminished the region’s general stability and prompted new alliances. Azerbaijan counted on, and received, the support of Turkey in the war[13], and only a Russia-brokered ceasefire was able to stop the escalation of the conflict.

Turkey straddles south-eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia, and the country report revealed ominous signs for religious freedom. Over the two-year period, evidence of growing societal and political-religious tensions were observed including: the political decision to re-convert the Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Church in Chora into mosques[14]; anti-Christian attacks and rhetoric; and a lack of rights or recognition for religious minorities, or atheists and agnostics. Turkey’s influence was observed in the diminution of religious freedom in neighbouring regions. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Azerbaijan, not to mention the northern part of the island of Cyprus, bore the weight of Turkey’s expansionist interests (see the country reports).

Religious freedom in Russia is still under pressure from overly broad laws and policies that target “non-traditional” religious minorities in the name of combatting “extremism”. As the country report shows, in the application of those laws violations of religious freedom occurred, including the criminalisation of missionary activities and collective prayer (even in private homes), widespread surveillance of groups and individuals, and punishments including fines or imprisonment. Some religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses are still considered “extremist organizations” and subjected to judicial processes which are closed to scrutiny. There was discrimination against Protestants (including Baptists, Lutherans and Pentecostals), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Ukrainian Reformed Orthodox Church, and certain Muslim communities.

In Ukraine, specifically in the Russian occupied territory of Crimea, as well as the Luhansk and Donetsk territories, religious groups including the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to experience very serious human rights and religious freedom abuses. Violations included detention and imprisonment, confiscation of property, physical violence, as well as the prohibition of gatherings, services and the possession or dissemination of religious literature (see the country report).

In the Balkan Peninsula of south-eastern Europe, the country reports showed that, while some states remained stable or saw improvements, in others, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, fundamental rights including religious freedom remained precarious, due to deep societal fractures, ethnic and religious tensions, and political instability. In Kosovo, a growing trend of fundamentalist political and religious influence, as well as financial support from foreign Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey[15], combined with the country’s self-proclaimed status as a “protector of Islam in the Balkans”, threatens to convert the European-oriented, tolerant Muslim society into a haven for extremism.

While most nations remained stable overall, resurgent or increasing anti-Semitism is a troubling trend in some western European states, as well as in the USA and Canada. Additionally, many of these countries suffered high profile attacks on and vandalism of places of worship, including churches, synagogues, and mosques. Several governments have enacted, or considered enacting, legislation directly to address “religious extremism” or “separatism” (see the country reports).

In his address to the OSCE in December 2020, Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher expressed the Holy See’s “grave concern for the rising number of terrorist attacks, hate crimes and other manifestations of intolerance targeting persons, places of worship, cemeteries and religious sites across the OSCE area and beyond.”[16] “The fact that many of these acts of violence have been perpetrated against believers when they gather to pray in their places of worship make them particularly heinous: havens of peace and serenity quickly become execution chambers, as defenceless children, women and men lose their lives simply for gathering to practice their religion”,[17] Gallagher said.

As recorded in a number of reports, in many countries of the European Union, and in Canada, the obligation to comply with new cultural norms enshrined as law – such as hate speech laws, the removal of public religious symbols or signs, and equality legislation – is coming into profound conflict with the right to freedom of conscience and religion.


[1] “U.S. Justice Alito says pandemic has led to ‘unimaginable’ curbs on liberty”, Reuters, 13th November 2020;

[2] “Nevada to Loosen Cap on Conventions, Concerts and Churches”, Associated Press, 29th September 2020;

[3] “McConnell blasts Bowser for restricting church services but allowing protests”, by Niels Lesniewski, Roll Call, 9th June 2020;

[4] “Covid-19 and Religious Liberty”, Becket Law;

[5] “Spain: Authorities ease COVID-19 restrictions in Madrid and Barcelona from June 8 /update 29”, GardaWorld, 6th June 2020;; “Coronavirus deescalation plan: Everything you need to know about the changes in Spain on Monday”, by Pablo Linde,  El Pais, 17th May 2020;

[6] “Archbishops join interfaith call to PM to allow public worship”, The Church of England, 3rd November 2020;

[7] “Catholic bishops fight for public Masses as England prepares for second lockdown”, Catholic News Agency, 2nd November 2020;

[8] “Catholic church leader criticises Covid worship restrictions in England”, The Guardian, 1st November 2020;

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Greek Orthodox Church Tells Priests to Defy Lockdown Measures”, by Jesse O’Neill, New York Post, 4th January 2021;

[11] “Uzbekistan”, 2020 Annual Report, United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF);

[12]  “Which nation improved the most in 2019?” The Economist, 21st December 2019;

[13] “Turkey to send soldiers to Azerbaijan”, Atalayar, 17th November 2020;

[14] “After Hagia Sophia, Turkey converts historic Chora church into mosque”, The Jerusalem Post, 24th August 2020;

[15] “The influence of external actors in the Western Balkans”, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, 2018;

[16] “Statement of the Holy See at the 27th Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe”, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, 3rd December 2020;

[17] Ibid.