In promoting Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), the European Parliament seeks to defend a right that is universal, indivisible and inalienable. It is a right which is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and of course our own EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. It includes the right to hold any religious belief or none.
Some 79% of the world’s population today live in countries that have either restriction on the right to religion or belief or a high level of social hostility involving religion or belief. Faced with such threats to this most basic of rights, the EU over the past five years has increased its efforts to promote FoRB for all.
The European Parliament – in particular through our Human Rights Committee, and our Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief – has been at the forefront of these efforts. With the creation of the EEAS, we pushed for FoRB to be mainstreamed into EU diplomatic efforts; we also urged the creation of the post of Special Envoy for FoRB in order to underline the importance of the issue and give it some focus.
Five years ago, the Foreign Affairs Council responded by adopting Guidelines for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief. These ensure that EU Delegations around the world monitor the situation on the ground, including by outreach to faith-based and humanist organisations, and are ready to intervene with national authorities to raise breaches.
Three years ago, the President of the European Commission appointed the EU’s first ever Special Envoy for FoRB. The current holder of that position, Jan Figel, has done an outstanding job in a short period of time, including raising awareness among national diplomacies of the scale of the problem and seeking to coordinate responses. Currently, seventeen Member States have created similar posts and I recently had an opportunity to meet with them in Brussels when the Commission brought us all together to stocktake our joint efforts on FoRB.
Within the European Parliament, I am responsible for our institution’s official dialogue with churches, religious and philosophical organisations, a function provided for by Article 17 of the Treaties. Article 17 TFEU covers a wider range of policy issues than FoRB. But naturally, this freedom is very dear to each of the stakeholders in our dialogue. Without full respect for this core freedom in all its dimensions, churches, religious communities and philosophical organisations would not be able to play a meaningful role in society.
In our work to defend FoRB, we do not consider the merits of different religions or beliefs, or align ourselves with any specific religion or worldview. The EU is dedicated to ensuring respect for the beliefs of each person and every community.
The question is sometimes asked why the EU pays particular attention to FoRB among human rights. It is true that FoRB is not a stand-alone right but closely connected with a number of others: freedom of expression, of association, of assembly. At the same time, FoRB is often the “canary in the coal mine”. In places where FoRB starts to be curtailed, we can be sure that other rights are also, or will soon be violated too. We only have to look at the list of the worst offenders for evidence of this: North Korea, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia.
If we are going to preach the FoRB message outside the EU, we need to ensure that our own house is in order. These countries will be the first to point the finger if there is any slip on the European side.
The Parliament campaigned for the release of the young Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, imprisoned and sentenced to death under that country’s blasphemy laws. In the course of our efforts, the issue of blasphemy laws on the books of a number of EU Member States was sometimes raised. In the past couple of years, Denmark and Ireland removed the blasphemy provisions from their statues; I hope that others will follow.
Earlier this month, on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, a terrible attack was carried out on that community in Halle, Germany.
It is shocking to realise that 75 years after the liberation of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp, that we still have anti-Semitic attacks being carried out in our cities.
FoRB includes the right “alone or in community, in public or private, to manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” And yet we know that here in Europe people can fall victim to hate crimes because of their religious clothing or symbols.
We have a lot to do both inside and outside the EU, and those policies need to be joined-up and coherent. The EU’s recently-launched Global Platform on Religion in Society is an important contribution.
As with Article 17, the new platform reaches out to both religious and non-confessional voices. Both in foreign and domestic policy, the EU has come to recognise that the issue of religion, or lack of it, is crucial to understanding many societies.