It’s fair to say that the European Union is facing a crisis of faith.
This week, the European Parliament in Strasbourg voted to adopt the “Report on the persecution of minorities on the grounds of belief or religion.” As the title suggests, the report is intended to speak out on the issue of minorities being persecuted for reasons of the belief or religion they hold. The report also lays out the ground rules regarding the protection of these groups and individuals within the European Union. It clearly states that “any persecution on the basis of religion or belief deserves the utmost condemnation and swift reactions from national governments and international actors.”
The decision from Strasbourg would have been a welcome opportunity for the European Union to restate and affirm its commitment to the right to freedom of religion or belief. It could not have come at a better time: today the average worldwide human rights score for this right has dropped by 20% in recent years.
There is a fair amount of evidence that the right to freedom of belief is in global peril. Rohingya Muslims are facing genocide in Myanmar; missionaries are being banned from re-entering their homes in Turkey; teenagers, like fourteen-year-old Maira, are being kidnapped and forcibly married for the sake of forced “conversion” in South Asia. In Pakistan, Christians such as Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel—parents to four children—sit for many years on death row, violently beaten, falsely accused of “blasphemy” because of their faith. Many more Christians are famously falling victim to persecution every day in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Syria. These are only a few of the most dangerous areas.
The report provided an opportune moment for the EU to recommit to the protection of the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief by reinforcing and celebrating the existing EU instruments aimed at doing so and highlighting cases concerning minorities where this right has been violated.
Yet, it did the exact opposite.
Although the initial report was geared in this direction, the final amended version is in fact overtly hostile to religion by stating that religion is often used as a barrier to sexual and reproductive health rights and a driver of conflict—matters completely out of scope of the aims of the report.
It became a Trojan Horse, introducing anti-religious rhetoric into the European Union—the very subject matter that it is supposed to protect.
Rather than protecting religious minorities from being killed, maimed, or imprisoned for their beliefs, the document points an accusatory finger at minorities for holding convictions that uphold the dignity of the human person. The Christian view on unborn life has been attacked. This aggressive foray into which religious views a person may or may not uphold is completely out of its scope.
There are further signs that the EU is dragging its feet in protecting religious freedom. The position of the “EU Special Envoy for the promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief outside of the European Union” has been left vacant for most of two years under the current European Commission. Additionally, the amended report adopted in Strasbourg questions the very mandate meant to protect “religious and belief minorities.” It demands that “a transparent and comprehensive assessment of the effectiveness and added value of the position of the Special Envoy” be carried out.
Moreover, where the original report mentioned specific religious minorities and provided examples of the types of persecution they’ve undergone—particularly regarding Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist minorities—these references and cases were significantly diminished in the amended version. The word “Christian” now appears once. On the contrary, atheist and humanist belief groups appear double the number of times, displaying an unequal or biased representation of those minority groups affected by persecution on grounds of religion or belief.
This bias is shocking, in light of the fact that the EU previously recognized that Christians are the most “harassed” and “intimidated” religious groups in the world.
We may be tempted to conclude that the European Union is gradually neglecting the right to freedom of religion. In 2021, Members of the European Parliament posed a parliamentary question regarding the absence of EU action taken against Pakistan, which was sentencing Christians to death as a consequence of the country’s blasphemy laws. When asked about the EU’s reluctance to act, the answer given by the European Commission, was disappointing. In the words of the former EU Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Jan Figel, “[o]bviously, FoRB (freedom of religion or belief) is not a priority today as it was under Juncker’s Commission.”
For those who fear losing their lives because of their faith, this human rights matter simply cannot wait.
Georgia du Plessis is a legal officer for ADF International, a human rights group with a focus on freedom of religion.