Freedom of Religion or Belief is a long-standing priority for the EEA Brussels office, and rightly so. In this newsletter, you can read about a new law that will seriously limit religious freedom in Bulgaria. In France, the government is considering a vetting system for religions and religious groups. Although the first focus might be to limit religious extremism, it can easily backfire on other religious groups, including evangelicals. We are definitely fundamentalists if not extremists in the eyes of many.
To promote Freedom of Religion or Belief, the EEA is working together with like-minded organisations. Just before the summer, we were invited for a joint meeting with Mr Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. He is the highest UN official dealing with religious freedom. He shared about his priorities for the months ahead, asked for contacts and input, and gave us an opportunity to ask questions and to share concerns. That was really helpful!
In his latest report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the UN Special rapporteur for the first time referred to Freedom from Religion. As this could be interpreted in various ways, we asked for an explanation of the Special Rapporteur. Our question about the term immediately led to a lively discussion about the topic. Can we claim a space that is devoid of any reference to any religion or belief? This whole idea of a ‘neutral’ or ‘secular’ civil public square runs counter to the Global Charter of Conscience (www.charterofconscience.org) that is calling for a civil public square with a space for all faiths and beliefs, a space where we can meet and discuss our differences in a respectful manner. Suppressing such an open exchange of ideas on our deepest convictions is a threat to our societies. Therefore, it is high time to dust off the Global Charter and to engage in a candid discussion on Freedom of Religion or Belief in an increasingly diverse world.
The debate above also clearly illustrates the close connection between Freedom of Religion or Belief and Freedom of Expression. A recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights discussed whether we are allowed to criticise a religion, a religious symbol, or a prophet regardless of possible consequences. Quite a few defenders of free speech and/or religious freedom took to Twitter to vent their frustration about this verdict. Even though this was not a criticism of the Christian faith, still an interesting case to analyse.