Defending religious freedom

desecrated church

While the “Right to Freedom of Religion and Conscience” is framed as one single right in most human rights documents, it actually deals with two very different issues.

The freedom of conscience is essentially a faculty of the human person that allows it to act in a way that is morally relevant. Acting according to one’s conscience is not always a right, but it is always a moral obligation. Freedom of Religion by contrast is a clear-cut human right. It includes not only the right to adhere to, and to freely change, one’s religion, but also to freely and undisturbedly profess it in the public sphere, including through public acts of worship.

Freedom of Religion has been under threat throughout history, and our times are no exception. However, it appears that currently Europe is particularly forgetful about this right. If we want to be credible in our commitment to human rights, we must step up our efforts to defend the Freedom of Religion both outside and inside Europe.

Outside Europe

Violations of religious freedom are a sad reality in many countries of the world. In many cases those violations are so severe that it would be inappropriate to speak of mere “discriminations on the ground of religion”; rather, one might come closer to the truth by speaking of outright persecutions.

It should also be noted that those persecutions do not concern all religious communities to an equal extent. Christianity is by far the most persecuted religion in the world, with an estimated 100 million of Christians currently living under a direct threat of severe discrimination and, at times, lethal violence. This threat of persecution persists, with varying intensity, in nearly all countries with a Muslim majority, as well as in countries with “secularist” regimes (such China, North Korea, or Cuba).

Open Doors world map of religious persecution (click for further details)

Christianity being the religion that lies at the basis of European culture and identity, it is astounding to see how European politicians are turning a blind eye to the suffering of Christians in other parts of the world. The EU’s newly created European External Action Service (EEAS), despite its stated ambition to promote human rights world-wide, has so far failed to make religious freedom one of the priorities of its human rights policy; instead, that policy seems to mainly consist in the sponsoring and organization of exhibitionist “gay pride” events that are truly damaging to Europe’s image in the outside world. In the same vein, the European Parliament has found it difficult to find words that unambiguously and specifically condemn persecutions on the grounds of religion in third countries, and there appears to be a particular unwillingness among some politicians to condemn such persecutions when the victims happen to be Christians.

AGENDA EUROPE therefore urges the EU and its Member States to address the issue of religious freedom with all the attention it deserves, in particular by creating a special task force on religious freedom inside the EEAS.

An important first step in this direction is the EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief, adopted by the EU Foreign Affairs Council in June 2013. These guidelines set out a series of action items on which follow-up is needed. It is important for civil society to closely follow the implementation of these guidelines and, where necessary, remind the EU of the commitments it has taken.

Inside Europe

Even though the EU flatters itself to be a tolerant and pluralistic society, discrimination on grounds of religion and anti-religious hate crimes are unfortunately far from infrequent even in European countries. There are instances of Anti-Semitism (in the racial sense) and Anti-Judaism (in the religious/cultural sense), as well as of discrimination against Muslims. Quite surprisingly, however, the religious group that in absolute numbers nowadays appears to be most exposed to discrimination and hate are Christians.

Discrimination and hate against religious groups can be traced back either to strife between different religious groups (such as between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, or between different Muslim factions, or anti-Jewish sentiments among many Muslim immigrants), or to a generalized hatred against religion emanating from “secular”-minded groups. Among the latter one may further distinguish between a “primary” hatred against religion (i.e., directed against religion as such), and, on the other hand, a “secondary” hatered against religion, motivated by the view that a given religion sets an obstacle to certain political agendas (such as free access to abortion, the legal recognition of same-sex “marriages”, etc.).

In Europe, there currently are not many groups that openly and directly profess anti-religious sentiments, or that agitate – often in the name of a misguided concept of “equality” -)  in favour of rescinding the rights of religious believers. At the European level, the groups that are most overtly pursuing such an anti-religious agenda are organized as European Humanist Federation (EHF). The main characteristic of these groups, and at the same time their strategic weakness, is that they do not possess any positive values or attitudes that they could promote; instead, their whole activity is always directed against others. In this way, they unwittingly demonstrate that their so-called “Humanism” is in fact the only known world-view that by definition must be intolerant; the complete lack of any positive content means that expressing negative attitudes towards others is the only way in which it can express itself.

Taken as a whole, however, these groups are small and insignificant, and their influence is limited. Their great day came in 2010, when they managed to win the Lautsi case, a Chamber Judgment at the ECtHR that would have obliged all European Countries to remove all crucifixes (and, by extension, all religious symbols) from the classrooms of state-run schools. However, this manifestly ill-founded judgment provoked an outcry all across Europe, and upon appeal the Chamber judgment was finally overturned by a Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg Court.

Of far greater social importance is the anti-religious hostility coming from groups that view religion (or rather, religious people) as an obstacle for the full realization of their particular political agendas. Among these groups one must name the abortion and the gay-rights lobbies as well as the remnants of the international Communist movement.