Freedom of belief is the key to freedom

Eric Roux

Vice-President of the European Office of the Church of Scientology for Public Affairs and Human Rights

President of the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom

The creation of the EU guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief (2013) marked a turning point in the Union’s attitude toward this crucial fundamental right. However, while the guidelines specifically state that “the EU and its member States are committed to respecting, protecting and promoting freedom of religion or belief within their borders,” they are neither binding on the EU member states nor applicable to the internal affairs of the European Union. These are guidelines for external relations with non-EU states.

Working directly in the field of Freedom of religion or belief for more than a decade now, I have witnessed a strong reluctance from EU institutions and its agents, when it comes to tackling freedom of religion or belief within the EU. Many justifications are used, the more common being that it would not be within the competence of the Union, which is basically false.

Freedom of religion or belief is a crucial right, and its respect reveals a great deal about the attitude of a country toward freedom in general. This is because what people believe is their most ultimate freedom. Their link to God, or to the ultimate sense of life, and the expression of these inner beliefs are the most profound richness of a human being. This is what gives a sense to our life, whether we are religious or non-religious, and what allows us to deal with all other freedoms in the frame of what we choose to believe, or not to believe. When a State attempts to restrict the freedom of religion or belief of its citizens, by discriminating against certain religions, inhibiting the right to choose or change one’s own faith, that State demonstrates it does not want man to be free, in all its aspects. In such a State, we can also witness a degradation of all other freedoms as a consequence of the degree to which the freedom of belief of its citizens is inhibited.

In our world, I do not know one state that is perfect as regards this right. Some are better than others. However, there is progress needed everywhere, including in the European Union. Being a member of the clergy of the Church of Scientology for more than 25 years, I can definitely say that Scientology has had its share of unwarranted discrimination and infringements against the freedom of religion of its members. Nevertheless, I would never advocate solely for my fellow parishioners, as this would be contrary to what freedom of religion or belief really is. Freedom of religion has no religion. If one is advocating freedom of religion and belief, one has to understand that this is a fight that must be fought for all, always. This includes majority religions, minority religions, atheists, as well as “religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility on the part of a predominant religious community”, as stated in the General Comment 22 of the UN Human Rights Committee.

Islam nowadays has become the target of hate speech in European Union member states. Hate speech is one thing, but there is also real discrimination against Muslims in their daily life. In some countries, Sikhs face strong restrictions, as in France regarding their dress codes. Christians also may face discrimination, even where they could be considered as a majority religion. Jewish religious traditions are also in danger of being forbidden in some EU countries. In fact, the European Union is far from perfection as regards freedom of religion, and some EU countries are even quite bad on the subject. Our future depends on whether will we allow the situation to worsen, or will we assume responsibility for it, and effectively include it into the agenda of the European Union institutions, keeping in mind that that EU is legally bound to respect and enforce freedom of religion, by its core treaties, by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and by its commitment to respect the European Convention on Human Rights.

This is not a question of political orientation. So far as I am concerned, I would never link this freedom to the left or the right, as it would be not only detrimental but also opposed to what we see in real life. Religious freedom defenders and advocates belong to the whole political spectrum. Furthermore, Scientology is apolitical, and purposefully so. It considers its mission to be for the sake of all, no matter the political choice of one. But when it comes to defending the right to freedom or belief, all sides should be together, as whatever political choice we make, whatever belief we choose to embrace, we must stand for those who are suffering for their core beliefs, suffering discrimination based on religious affiliation, restrictions on their churches, disparaging statements against their religion from authorities, as well as all other forms of violation of the foresaid fundamental right to believe and practice one’s own faith.

If the European Union has accepted the challenge of being a strong promoter and protector of freedom of religion or belief outside its borders, it goes without saying that we must put our own house in order. This is a question of credibility, and then a question of efficiency, in addition to being questions of legality, morality and human dignity, as it should be regardless of reference to our external mission.

These are words, and these words need to be put into reality. That means concrete changes. One of them should be to create ways to increase the “religious literacy” of politicians and EU stakeholders. Ignorance is often the real source of discrepancies between international standards and real life. Ignorance about religions and what they are might be the first guilty ignorance. But also ignorance about what is freedom of religion or belief, what it encompasses, what should be good practices, and what it means in terms of the duty of a state and its representatives. I expect that real knowledge of these concepts would bring about a great deal of change, and programmes should be developed to increase them at EU level as well as state level.

There are many other initiatives that could be taken to improve the reality of religious freedom in the EU. They are to be discussed and created. They should be one of the priorities of the Union. As if we do not tackle it now, it is likely to be much more difficult in the future within a Union where freedoms are degrading, which will for sure be the case as a consequence of not taking responsibility for protecting the most inner freedom of our human fellows. That is the reason for the Faith and Freedom Summit: Practicing what we Preach, which is not only an event, but a campaign that must lead to concrete and significant results in the future.