How much should there be on Religious Freedom in Europe?

Hans Noodt

Director of the Gerard Noot Foundation

FoRB history

For millennia religions in Europe were at the heart of policy making. But now we have grown out of that; so we assume. The Reformation was not the only cause of questioning the validity of the power of the church in society. Napoleon with his ideas of Laïcité and separation between Church and State was also very influential. And not to forget the upcoming trend towards democracy in Europe. The power of definition has shifted from church to the populace. Now that is done, is religious freedom still necessary in Europe? Does society need churches?

The above arguments assume that religious freedom is the same as power for religions. But this is not what FoRB (Freedom of Religion or Belief) is all about. It is about the opinion of each citizen. It is not just about freedom for religions, but freedom for believers and non-believers alike. Freedom of religions is akin to a person following the dictates of his / her conscience; within the bounds of law, of course. It includes the freedom to express oneself and the freedom to join or leave a religious movement without any form of retaliation or punishment. It should include respect, or at least tolerance from his/her neighbors, as well as legal protection and protection by the magistrates.

            And, really, it is an old idea. It is mentioned in the New Testament, and believe it or not, it used to be an important element in Iranian history under Cyrus the Great in the 6th century B.C. He was to have said: Whenever you can, act as a liberator. Freedom, dignity, wealth–these three together constitute the greatest happiness of humanity. If you bequeath all three to your people, their love for you will never die. And word has it that Emperor Constantin the Great of Rome introduced religious freedom for all Christians and others. In Europe, too, we lived by Ius Naturale (Natural Law) for centuries. This Roman law not only gave humans the natural right to decide, but gave them responsibility for their actions, and thus make them accountable to incur punishment for misbehavior. Moreover, these so called freedoms, even for us, Modern Europeans, is at the heart of all laws, and the root of the rule of law on our continent. Take these freedoms away, and humans change into animals at best, and utilities at worst. This is the reason that in all EU member states, Religions Freedom is part of our constitutions; and by agreement all European Nations have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, art. 18, and the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights, Art. 10. Besides, in First World nations Freedom of Religion or Belief causes all positive indicators to go up. There is a link between FoRB and the happiness and health of people, as well as economic growth. Freedom of Religion of Belief is plain good business and healthy for every politician.

Issues to deal with within the EU

 

            And yet, in ALL EU states we constantly come across nations and organizations trampling on the law with their feet. Here is a short summary of things we need to fix within Europe, before we can rightfully point the finger at other nations:

Ø   Parental rights related to the education of their children;

Ø   Religious, ethical, or humanist education in State and community schools;

Ø   Religious symbols (crucifixes in classrooms) and attire (veil, head scarfs, “burkini’s”, etc.);

Ø   Religious autonomy; States interfering with organizational and even doctrinal issues;

Ø   Illegal need for registration of religious/belief organisations;

Ø   Governments illegally making distinction between so called Religion, Denmination, Sect, Cult, Dangerous cult, as well as making differentiating between culturally (nationally) acceptable and non-culturally acceptable (foreign religions);

Ø   Illegally limiting proselyting/missionary activity. Hindering visa’s for foreign missionaries;

Ø   State financing of certain “preferred” religions, either through tax breaks, sponsoring of building or activities, etc.;

Ø   Not adequately dealing with conscientious objection to military service;

Ø   Not allowing the right to ask for protection as refugee for persecution for reasons of religion;

Ø   Allowing religious intolerance against people of small sects or so called cults, as well as Jews and Muslims;

Ø   Not dealing well in religious property disputes;

Ø   Labor related discrimination because of religion (some Lutheran-based countries, as well as some Catholic- and/or Orthodox based countries)

Ø   Political activities of religious organisations.

 

Remedies

It is important for all EU nations to realize how serious the many cases are within their own boundaries. Not one EU nation complies with all FoRB laws and agreements. The ECHR in Strasbourg is understaffed in its ability to handle the myriad of cases. At the same time EU nations find it much easier to point the finger at non-EU nations. And while we are glad these fingers are pointed, there is a special need amongst EU nations to work together and support each other on the road to complete Religious Freedom, tolerance of believer and non-believer, and even respectfully disagree with others. Here are some possible remedies:

•       Commit yourself to never turn Freedom of Speech into Hate-Speech. Make a personal pledge to treat all people equal, and to refrain from name calling or hate-speech; especially regarding those whom we do not agree with.

•       Let each nation appoint some sort of Human Rights Ambassador and have them work with each other to mend the issues.

•       Use Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in public schools, prepared by the ODHIR Advisory Council of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

•       Tackle blasphemy, insult and hatred in our democratic society.

Help colleagues from member States find their path towards compliance to EU agreements. Learn the issues from their perspective and find solutions together. Share best- and worst pr