The EU and Religious Freedom, a lost battle?

  • In NEWS
  • December 6, 2022
The EU and Religious Freedom, a lost battle?

Since May 2016, the European Union has had a Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief outside the EU. However, at least on paper as since the European Elections in 2019, this position has been vacant. The reluctance to renew the mandate and the delay in appointing a new Special Envoy sends the wrong signal to both perpetrators and victims. Europe needs to rediscover the importance of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) for all human beings, and act now!


The European Union started with economic cooperation, assuming that a joint market for coal and steel would make war much more unlikely. And the founding fathers were right. However, time and again, European leaders and institutions have stressed that the European Union is more than just an economic project. The European Union is a union of values as well.


European Values play an important role internally, but also in relations with third countries. The European External Action Service (EEAS) has had a permanent Special Representative for Human Rights since 2012. Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), however, never appeared to be high on his agenda. That’s why the European Parliament in a resolution called for a Special Envoy on FoRB. In May 2016, the European Commission appointed Slovak politican Ján Figel’ to this position.


The mandate of Ján Figel’ was renewed until the European elections of 2019. And then the battle started. Initially, the new European Commission, led by German Christian Democrat Ursula von der Leijen, refused to renew the mandate. After much pressure from civil society but also from Christian Democrats in the European Parliament, the Commission reluctantly gave in. There would be another Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief outside the EU. The Commission appeared to be in no hurry however, to find a suitable candidate for the post.


In May 2021, about two years after the European Elections and about a year and a half since the European Commission took office, Christos Stylianides was appointed. Civil society and others who had worked hard to keep the pressure on, sighed a breath of relief. But that joy was short-lived. In September 2021, Mr Stylianides was appointed minister in the Greek government and so left the position vacant again. Fast forward another year and a half, the position still only exists on paper.


It is no secret that the EEAS was no big supporter of the Special Envoy position. They already had a Special Representative for all human rights. That mandate included FoRB. In addition to this institutional resistance, there is opposition from the European Parliament as well.


Freedom of thought, conscience and religion, often abbreviated as FoRB, is an important human right. It ensures that each individual, free from coercion from either the ruling powers or society, can choose a confessional or non-confessional worldview. United Nations’ experts on the matter made it very clear that FoRB is not just a privilege for major global faiths, it is a protection for all human beings.


Regretfully, it seems like many living in Western democracies, are now so used to our Freedom of Religion or Belief that we lose sight of its importance. If we no longer cherish this important right ourselves, why would we make it a priority when dealing with countries outside the European Union? Why do we need a Special Envoy on the topic?


For most European citizens, FoRB might be a given indeed. But for many outside the European Union, FoRB is far from a reality. Just take a look at the World Watch List or the Freedom of Thought report and examples abound. Not reappointing a Special Envoy sends a very poor signal to all these victims of grave FoRB violations. Perpetrators could easily conclude that the EU does not really care.


Several times now, the European Commission has declared that appointing a new Special Envoy is just a matter of weeks. But the weeks have become months or even years and the position is still vacant. Of course, appointing a special envoy won’t solve all problems but it will send a signal to the culprits.


And we pray that the new envoy will be a beacon of hope to those suffering as well.

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