FREEDOM OF RELIGION OR BELIEF WITHIN THE EU WHY DO WE NEED THIS?
After the successful conclusion of the Faith and Freedom Summit, held in the European Parliament and attended by both the EU’s Special Envoy for the Promotion of Religion outside the EU, Jan Figel and the OSCE’s Senior Advisor on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Kishan Manocha – both key speakers, the Summit has launched for a very promising year to come.
The key focus of the summit, a coalition of 18 NGOs (and growing), is the promotion and protection of freedom of religion and belief within the European Union. So it is vital to understand why such an orientation.
Why should we be concerned about and place greater importance on freedom of religion or belief that currently already exists?
Whilst the basics are already written into the EU’s human rights principles it is the view of all those supporting the summit that this right takes a back seat to other rights and this article takes a look at explaining why that is.
The approach to religion varies quite significantly throughout EU countries. There are State financed or privileged religions in many countries and a secularised approach in others. Some countries are quite open to accepting religious cultural differences and have policies which aim to integrate these cultural expressions of religion into their structures whilst other countries have taken express steps to exclude them.
Examples are, of course, religious commitments in the dress code, such as head coverings – be they Sikh, Moslem or other – expressions of religion in public places whether this be wearing a cross or opposing the construction of a mosque or pulling down a religious statue – or attempts by governments to exclude or deny minorities from entering into the ‘mainstream’ of society.
All these examples can be seen in countries that have a religion that is predominantly recognised as well as those oriented towards secularism.
There are of course problems with both extremes. Favouring one religion above all others existing in a country is, or can be, discriminatory. Excluding expression of religion in the public arena is also discriminatory and can effectively place secularism, as its own belief system, above those of religious belief systems resulting in their repression.
And both are steeped in historical developments of democracy particular to the culture of that country. It is not our proposal to make some kind of uniform change throughout all EU countries but rather, as is the tradition within the EU, to develop true applicable principles at EU level to better accommodate them.
What this has now resulted in is a hugely rich secular, cultural and religious mix running criss-cross, through the different countries of the EU. Not respecting these beliefs with the right balance will bring about conflict and denigration and the disintegration of social structures when people are, or feel they are, excluded.
To be clear, we are not talking about justifying or excusing any kind of violent acts here. Violence as a “solution” is out and we take this for granted – but there is the factor of preventing people from moving towards violent acts because they feel excluded from the society in which they live.
Through widespread immigration into Europe bringing a plethora of minority religions entering the arena, along with the development of new religious movements all thrown into this mix we have a modern social phenomenon that must be fully confronted and understood in an EU context if we want to make our societies work.
And this is one of the most basic reasons why the subject of freedom of religion or belief must be a lot more prominent on the agenda. The alternative is the current situation which effectively condones religious discrimination because Member States prefer to turn a blind eye and sweep such issues under the European carpet.
Clearly, such a wide variety of national policy approaches towards religious acceptance and tolerance can make for a difficult and rather explosive discussion. But it is one we must have. And we must have it.
There may well be vested religious as well as non-religious influences. There may well be individuals and groups who wish to maintain a status quo. There may well be those who wish to close the door on religious minorities and newcomers. However, if we are to have a democracy this must be founded on freedom of religion or belief for each and every citizen of the European Union – big, small, traditional, fundamental, odd or outright outrageous.
Our proposal is an inclusive approach and this is why it is essential that the various proposals of the Faith and Freedom Summit are implemented at EU level. These principles can be then applied at national level in different ways applicable to the national context.
• MEPs to sign a pledge supporting freedom of religion or belief.
• Parliamentary Intergroup to investigate and raise instances of discrimination based on religion or belief within the EU, at European Parliament.
• FRA (Fundamental Rights Agency) task force to tackle the topic of discrimination.
• Academics EU resources should finance a full research project carried out by academics already known and experienced in the area of discrimination based on religion or belief in the EU.
• Open platform Create an open platform gathering members of the FRA, members of the EU Parliament, civil society partners, members of the EU Commission, religious stakeholders, that will be in charge of monitoring discrimination based on religion or belief issues in EU Member states.
• Article 17 TFUE (Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to dialogue with religions and philosophical organisations) adequately manned task force in the EU Commission to implement article 17 TFUE.
• EU guidelines Create EU guidelines to protect EU citizens against discrimination based on religion or belief that will be approved and adopted by the Council.
• EU Special Envoy for Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief outside of EU to have the same responsibility within the EU.
• Faith and Freedom Award to award MEPs and other worthy individuals that are active in promoting various aspects of freedom of religion or belief within the EU.
Government interference in religion or belief can be blatant or subtle. It can come in many forms from covert administrative blocks, delays and denials to overt legislative and policy statements that implement undue restrictions on religious expression or practice.
It may not be easy to start raising these issues within the EU institutions but without any communication between all the relevant players – EU officials and politicians, religious groups large and small, active or less so, national governments and administrators and involving people in general – then we go nowhere – or rather we go down.
Why do we need to do this at EU level and not just leave it up to the national governments of each country? Apart from it being a fundamental rights issue along with all the other rights which should be respected and which are being addressed by the EU, ignoring one of them is not an option. We must look within our own borders at any discrimination that arises and not stick our head in the sand and try to ignore it. Nothing good ever came from such an approach. Plus we have to set an example for countries that we wish to criticise in our external human rights policy and should show commitment and clean hands when doing this.
This is why it is important to establish a variety of inter-institution, as well as institution-specific initiatives. These bodies such, as an all-party parliamentary group to look at issues of freedom of religion or belief would address details of contention or concern and to work out what responsibilities there are towards protecting the rights of the individuals and groups’ concerned.
We are not without the tools to help in these tasks either. The OSCE and the Council of Europe have together and separately already done a lot of work in this area, drawing up, amongst other things:
• Guidelines on the Legal Personality of Religious or Belief Communities
• Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools
• Guidelines for Review of Legislation Pertaining to Religion or Belief
• A Compilation of the Venice Commission Opinions and Reports Concerning Freedom of Religion and Belief
These go into the details of how to apply the broader principles of FoRB. They are very practical tools which can be used to examine, advise and guide on issues of discrimination and exclusion within Europe.
This way we’ll build a better Europe together and for all.