RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AND WORSHIP1
A. General Considerations
1. The Argentine Constitution provides in Article 14, the right of every inhabitant of the country “to freely profess his religion.” Article 20 reiterates that right and states that foreigners enjoy, in the territory of the country, all of the civil rights of citizens, including “the free exercise of religion.” In addition, and without prejudice to the freedom of worship, the Constitution states “that the federal government supports the Roman Catholic Apostolic religion.”
2. During its on-site observation, the Commission ascertained that, in general, there is freedom of religion and worship in Argentina, but that nonetheless, the Government has taken a number of steps which, while they are aimed at the activities of a particular religious faith and at other events relating to the subject, it can be said that they constitute limitations on the free exercise of this right.
Such limitations refer particularly to the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious sect. In addition, certain actions undertaken against Jews, which are described by the Commission in this chapter, have been cited as evidence of restrictions on religious freedom.
B. The Case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses
1. On September 9, 1976, the Commission received a complaint from some Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is registered as Case 2137, specifically denouncing Decree Nº 1867, issued by the Argentine Government on August 31 of that year, which “prohibits in all the territory of the nation, the activities of the religious association known as the ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses,’ ‘the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society,’ and the groups, agencies or associations directly or indirectly connected with that Association.”2 The Commission took up the case at its 46th session, and adopted resolution 02/79 of March 5, 1979.
2. During its on-site observation, the Commission received information and additional testimony about the case from representatives of the sect, who indicated the following:
September 7, 1979, was exactly three years after the Executive branch of the Government prohibited the public exercise of that religion. It did so through Decree 1867/76, which, among other things, accused us of “upholding principles contrary to the nationality, the basic institutions of the State and the fundamental precepts of its laws.” In addition, the preamble of the Decree states that we “offend the public order, national security, morals and good customs.” The day the Decree was issued—and in some cases several weeks before—the Army, with a large deployment of arms and troops, closed the official offices and print shops of the Jehovah’s Witnesses central headquarters in Argentina and about six hundred meeting rooms of the organization throughout the nation, thus preventing over 60,000 persons from freely assembling in their places of worship. From that time forward hundreds of arrests, detentions, imprisonments (ranging from one day to several months) occurred, sometimes accompanied by mistreatment and beatings, raids on private homes, expulsion of children from primary and secondary schools, firing of teachers and public employees (ENTEL cases) and confiscation and destruction of large quantities of private and personal Biblical reading materials. During those three years, in which hundreds of men and women and children were arrested while they were peacefully reading the Bible in their homes, not one single case could be proven of offenses against the public order, national security, morals and good customs. The same was true of the hundreds of expulsions from schools, five 5-year old children, twenty 6-year olds, sixty 7-year olds, fifty-one 8-year olds, and sixty-one 9-year olds (this is only a partial list, which does not include children up to 14 years old.) In the case of the almost one thousand children expelled—of which several hundred have not been able to return to school—the only thing they are accused of is that they refused to salute the national emblems and to sign the national anthem, but in no case was lack of respect proved, as confirmed in the Supreme Court decision of March 6, 1979. We also have over 250 young persons serving prison terms ranging from 2 to 5 years, in various military prisons as conscientious objectors to. Because we are not recognized as a religion, these young men, who are not deserters, because they report when their class is called up, cannot be granted the exception the law provides for members of the clergy or seminarians. For more than 30 years, we have endeavored to explain our Christian position to the Supreme Authorities of the Nation, but we have always encountered an insurmountable barrier. The image the Executive branch of the Government has of us is based on the reports supplied by the military and educational agencies, but it has never heard our position. In these more than 30 years, it has always accused and attacked us, but never, we repeat, never, has it given us the opportunity to defend ourselves or to speak. We have always been sentenced before being tried. An arbitrary measure such as Decree 1867/76, which was issued without holding a single prior trial, has deprived over 60.000 inhabitants of the Republic (including men, women and children) of their freedom of worship, conscience, assembly, expression and press. Over 300,000 of our books have been confiscated (on one occasion alone, they confiscated 225,709 books, according to the inventory), which includes hundreds of Bibles and manuals for teaching reading and writing. Currently, our central headquarters remains closed, as are many of our meetings rooms. Our literature continues to be confiscated and prohibited, and despite the favorable decision of the Supreme Court, children continue to be expelled from school, and attempts are made to expel foreigners from the country for the sole reason of being Jehovah’s Witnesses.
3. Resolution 02/79 adopted by the Commission provides as follows in its operative part:
1. To declare that the Government of Argentina violated the right to life, liberty and personal security (Art. I), the right to freedom of religion (Art. V), the right to education (Art. XXIII), the right of association (Art. XXI), and the right to protection against arbitrary arrest (Art. XXV) of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.
2. To recommend to the Government of Argentina: a. that it reestablish the observance of religious freedom; b. that it repeal Decree Nº 1867 of August 31, 1976, because it violates the fundamental rights listed above; c. that it adopt the necessary measures to put an end to the persecution of the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses; d. that it inform the Commission within 60 days as to the measures taken to put into practice the recommendations contained in the present Resolution.
3. To communicate this Resolution to the Government of Argentina and to the person filing the denunciation.
4. To include this Resolution in the Annual Report to the General Assembly of the Organization of American States, pursuant to Art. 9(bis), paragraph c. iii of the Statute of the Commission, without prejudice to the Commission’s being able to reconsider the case at its next session in the light of such measures as the Government may have adopted.
The Government of Argentina forwarded its reply to this Resolution on October 26, 1979 and invoking the provisions of the Constitution and of the legislation in force, explained why it had never acknowledged the religious nature of the sect. It also told the Commission that the right to practice one’s religion should not involve committing acts that the law punishes as crimes, and particularly, acts that undermine the very principles of nationality.
4. The General Assembly of the Organization of American States, at its ninth regular session, in La Paz, Bolivia, October 22-31, 1979, when considering the Annual Report submitted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, adopted, with respect to the status of the religious group known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a resolution on Freedom of Worship.3
C. The case of the Jews
1. Prior to its on-site observation, the Commission received and transmitted individual and group denunciations on alleged acts of human rights violations of members of the Argentine Jewish community.
During its on-site observation, the Commission received information on the reports mentioned, and determined that there was no systematic, overall policy of anti-Semitism by the Argentine Government, but that nonetheless, events had occurred that showed a certain trend that might be understood as intended to affect Jews.
The Commission interviewed leaders of the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations, and the appraisals submitted to it clearly showed the following: a) there has been no defined persecution against the Jews; b) in recent years no attacks have taken place against the Jewish community; c) despite the above, Jews arrested by the authorities receive more severe treatment than do others; d) the DAIA has denounced that fact to the authorities; e) that delegation has recorded 204 members of the Jewish community as missing and 16 as detained, but there is no coincident element to infer that such actions have taken place against them because of their Jewish origin; f) the Jews have complete freedom of worship.
2. As stated, a number of events have occurred against the Jews in Argentina such as the operation of Nazi publishing houses and the publication of Nazi books, which advocate the elimination of an the struggle against Zionism. In June 1976, the Milicia publishing house was established, which was closed by the Government some time later; but it was replaced by the Odal publishing house, which announced its intention to continue the work of the firm that had been shut down. There has also been a proliferation of publication and sale of works by leaders of Adolph Hitler’s nazi regime and by other authors advocating this totalitarian philosophy. The magazine Cabildo, published in Buenos Aires, openly attacks the Jews, and persons connected with the military regime have collaborated with it.
It should be noted that, according to documents and testimony in the Commission’s possession, Jews are constantly reminded that they are Jews, in interrogations of detained persons accused by the authorities of various crimes connected with subversion. Mr. Jacobo Timerman told the Commission that, when he was interrogated and tortured, he was constantly urged to reveal the Zionist plot that was trying to take over Argentina, and was even shown an organizational chart of that conspiracy.
3. In addition, after the military takeover of March 24, 1976, events of notorious injustice have occurred, which were covered up by the indiscriminate repressive action of the first months. In that connection, there is the case registered by the Commission under Nº 3682, of Jaime Lokman, a Jewish merchant of Córdoba, who was taken prisoner in that city on the day of the military takeover, and since that time has remained in detention without trial, on orders of the PEN. The Commission spoke with him during its visit to Rawson prison. Lokman has been continuously imprisoned in various prisons, twice in Córdoba, where he was held incommunicado for a number of months; in Sierra Chica, in Villa Devoto, and then in Rawson. His health was weakened by cardio-vascular deficiencies, a fact recognized by the International Red Cross. Lokman had never been previously arrested nor had he participated in political or union activities. Information in the Commission’s possession indicates that on the day of the military uprising in 1976, Lokman was included on an arrest list by a personal decision of General Luciano Benjamín Menéndez, Chief of the Third Army Corps, headquartered in Córdoba.
According to information provided by the Argentine Government in a note of December 4, 1979, he was granted the “right of option”, under Decree 2846 of November 9, 1979. At the end of November, he left Argentina.
4. The Commission feels that the anti-Semitism that has broken out on a number of occasions in Argentina comes from fanatical groups that are outside the Government’s responsibility; however, the Government has the duty to implement a policy in accordance with international juridical instruments on this subject.4
1 The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man provides in its Part III that “Every person has the right freely to profess a religious faith, and to manifest and practice it both in public and in private.”
2 The Decree also prohibits: a) newspapers, magazines and any publications that openly or covertly contribute to disseminating the doctrine involved (acts of proselytism and indoctrination). It adds that all places where meetings of the association are held, as well as places where the material referred to is printed, distributed or sold, will be closed.
3 The operative part of that Resolution states the following: “To appeal to the member states not to present any impediment to the exercise of the right to freedom of religion and of worship within their respective juridical provisions and in accordance with the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. Concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses and its associated agencies, to urge the re-establishment of their right to freedom of religion and worship based on the aforementioned Declaration.”
4 On October 2, 1968, the Argentine Government ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, adopted March 7, 1966, in New York.