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Why Is the EU Backing Away from Freedom of Religion or Belief? by Sean Nelson

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Why Is the EU Backing Away from Freedom of Religion or Belief?

Something is rotten in Strasbourg. Today, August 22, is the United Nations International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. Over the past few years, the international movement for freedom of religion or belief (“FoRB”) has grown significantly, including within the European Union. Europe should be a beacon for the protection of human rights for people worldwide, and in many respects it still is. But over the last year, the EU has taken a sharp turn against Christians facing the worst kinds of persecution. That must change.

One harrowing case of religious persecution vividly illustrates the change over the past year of EU support for FoRB. 

Shagufta Kausar and her husband, Shafqat Emmanuel, are two Pakistani Christians. In 2013, they were arrested for allegations of blasphemy after a man told police that he had received a text message calling Mohammed a dog. The phone was linked to Shagufta. The couple was soon arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death.

Eight years later, an appellate court would find that the evidence for their conviction was so unreliable that the couple should not have been found guilty. But the truth didn’t matter much to the police and lower court at the time. Instead, after Shafqat and Shagufta were arrested, they were tortured and coerced into giving a confession in a language they didn’t even understand.

While in prison for eight long years awaiting their appeal, they befriended Asia Bibi, another woman convicted over allegations of blasphemy on equally shaky grounds. They were able to pray together over Christmas. 

Two of those who had publicly defended Bibi—politician Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab governor Salman Taseer—were assassinated for their advocacy. Enormous mobs protested day-after-day when Bibi was acquitted in late 2018. 

None of this was unusual for Pakistan. Blasphemy allegations and prosecutions—most of which have little basis in fact and are used to settle personal scores—have been a regular occurrence for decades. Statistically, Pakistan is one of the worst countries in the world for mob violence based on blasphemy accusations.

In April 2021, the EU took particular notice in Shafqat and Shagufta’s case. The European Parliament passed a resolution condemning Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and specifically condemned the actions taken against Shafqat and Shagufta. The Parliament found that the blasphemy laws “incite harassment, violence and murder against those being accused,” that the evidence against the couple was “deeply flawed,” and that Pakistan should “release Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar immediately and unconditionally and . . . overturn their death sentence.”

Roughly six weeks later, the Lahore High Court did just that and freed the couple. The European Parliament resolution is one of the highlights of the EU’s recent actions to protect Christians and other religious minorities worldwide. Zealous and particularized international advocacy worked.

But the couple was not out of danger yet. They remained in government custody because the threats against their lives were too numerous and credible. 

It wasn’t until the spring of 2022 that they were able to leave Pakistan on a secret flight and receive asylum in Europe. Once in Europe, the Gospel-filled couple went in May 2022 to the European Parliament to tell their story themselves and advocate for greater support of religious minorities facing persecution worldwide. It should have been a moment when the Parliament witnessed the important fruits of their efforts and re-committed to defending victims of religious persecution.

But something had changed at the EU regarding FoRB over the past year since the 2021 resolution. A significant portion of the European Parliament seemed to have become hostile to claims of religious persecution, especially coming from Christians. 

The EU’s FoRB Special Envoy position has unexplainably lain vacant for nearly a year. The EU created the position in 2016 to be the primary monitor and advocate for victims of religious persecution. The position became vacant in 2019 and wasn’t filled again until the summer of 2021. That appointment lasted only a few weeks before becoming vacant again. To this day, there is still no FoRB Special Envoy. 

In May 2022, the same month that Shafqat and Shagufta spoke at the Parliament the EU released a report on religious persecution that only mentioned Christians once. The report also criticized religious believers who hold and act on widely-held beliefs worldwide that many of the EU’s politicians disagree with, such as beliefs relating to protecting life in the womb and traditional views of marriage. 

Even on the very same day that Shafqat and Shagufta spoke so powerfully for the persecuted, the European Parliament voted down a resolution on another horrific case of persecution against Christians. Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu was a Nigerian college student who was stoned to death and whose remains were burnt by her radicalized Muslim classmates in Sokoto in the north of the country because she had thanked Jesus for helping her pass her exams. The lynching sparked both national and international outrage. But instead of defending Deborah’s religious freedom like they did Shafqat and Shagufta’s, the majority of the European Parliament’s politicians looked the other way. Some MEPs cried out “shame on you” when the resolution failed.

What is happening at the European Parliament, and it seems in Europe more generally, is that an increasing number of politicians refusing to stand up for persecuted Christians. Most Christians worldwide do not share the liberal views of Europe’s elites, which somehow makes them less worthy of protection. This kind of prejudice has deadly consequences for Christians who languish in prison cells or fear for their lives every day because of their faith. 

When Shagufta Kausar addressed the European Parliament, she thanked them for what they had done in her and her husband’s case. She then emphasized to them, “Remember that there are more.” 

On this UN FoRB Victims International Day, we must remember that there are more. Many more, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others, all being persecuted for nothing other than their faith. 

Ideological posturing should have no place in our international system when it comes to protecting the most fundamental human rights. We must remember these victims and do all we can to help them.

Sean Nelson is an international human rights lawyer serving as Legal Counsel for Global Religious Freedom with ADF International. Follow him on Twitter @Sean_ADFIntl.