“There is evidently higher awareness of importance of religious freedom. Special political positions, diplomatic agendas and supportive projects devoted to the situation of religious or belief minorities have been established during the last years in Denmark, Germany, United Kingdom, Hungary, Poland, Italy. There was the first ever Ministerial Summit on Advancement of Religious Freedom organized by the US State Department. There is also strong support in the European Parliament to institutionalize role of the EU Special Envoy for future, with stronger mandate and better working conditions. All these changes are encouraging.”
Interview by Danka Jaceckova to Jan Figel, EU Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion and belief outside the EU
Q: You’ve been appointed the EU’s first special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion and belief outside the EU more than two years ago. How would you evaluate this time? Has the situation of religious freedom changed over time?
A: My nomination in June 2016 was a reaction of President Juncker, European Commission and the European Parliament to the genocidal atrocities of Christians, Yezidis and other religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle Eastcommitted by the ISIS terrorists. War in Iraq is over and we need to work on reconciliation and reconstruction. The most difficult years of war in Syria are gone as well and country hopefully will achieve peace soon. Millions of refugees need to get back home. Mass atrocities against Rohingia Muslims have been committed by military in Myanmar over 2017 and more than 700 thousand of persecuted people fled to Bangladesh.
Q: Statistical figures show that 79% of the world population live in countries with forms of high restrictions to religious freedom. It’s a very high number… What are the most critical aspects and which population segments are more at risk at global level?
A: Yes, situation is appalling and the trends are worrying. Basically, we can speak about levels of religious intolerance, discrimination and persecution. Believers in anti-religious states are persecuted comprehensively. Minorities in many states suffer from either governmental harassment or social hostility or militant non-state actors. They are discriminated in access to education, employment, public offices, property, etc. 13 countries in the world apply death penalty for atheism, 22 countries for conversion, over 70 countries have blasphemy laws.
We see violent extremism nurtured by Islamic terrorism, Hindu or Buddhist nationalism, but also by atheist etatism or ideological secularism. And the most inhuman treatment of minorities is genocide; unfortunately it is not only historical or theoretical threat, but visible failure to protect vulnerable groups in the current times. Century of genocides appeals to our conscience and our responsibility to make a positive difference for the future of humanity.
Q: How can the three great monotheistic religions – Islam, Judaism, and, naturally, Christianity – join forces to ensure religious freedom? Which are the most critical problems for these religions, do they share them or do these problems differ?
A: If there is a minority persecuted within the country, then other minorities are under this threat as well. Take examples from Middle East, North Africa or South-East Asia. We all are minorities sometime somewhere. Therefore it is important to treat minorities fairly, not according quantity but according equality, within good governance, as social components and communities. For all people – secular or religious – there is strong invitation to act towards one another “in the spirit of brotherhood”. This is wording of the First Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Three monotheistic religions should show positive example. They have crucial role to promote justice and peace especially in the Middle East, in their cultural cradle and the Holy Land. It took very long time – centuries to see major Christian leader – pope Paul VI. to enter synagogue, and John Paul II. to enter mosque. Last year pope Francis and supreme Sunni Islamic authority Grand Mufti of Al Ahzar have met in Cairo. People generally do not know encyclicals or fatwas, but they get messages and images through media. We need more of it to show that we are “brothers in faith or in humanity” as Muslim scholars like to quote. Populations of Christianity, Jewry and Islam represent over 55 % of global populations. When majority of the world will act for better world, it can be achieved.
But we must work for religious freedom and respect in diversity, dialogue and cooperation, acting against abuse of religious differences. Leaders and faith communities have their share of “religious social responsibility” for peace, justice and sustainable development to prevail.
Q: You’ve been drawing EU attention on serious problems in the area of religious freedom. In your role, which tools and human resources can you count on for concrete intervention?
A: My engagement in this role is a pioneering mission. I struggle to communicate, open doors, minds and hearts and to cooperate with those who are willing to cooperate with the EU. I do not teach, preach, blame, but I try to understand the situation, roots of problems and to find effective solutions. When we find common language and common ground, then there is a chance to define also a common interest and aims. And in their core there is common good.
I do not have strong competences or budget, but I rely on trust and support of the European Commission and the EU diplomacy. For the human rights support including religious freedom protection the financial instrument EIDHR (European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights) with the budget of 1.4 bn EUR is used. It serves for projects where for the first time we support also interreligious and intercultural dialogue as a prevention of violent extremism. For the first time in 25 years of its existence the Lorenzo Natali Media Prize was given for professional and amateur journalism for reporting on freedom of conviction and cooperation between religious communities. There is growing support in the EP for institutionalization of the Special Envoy mandate and for personal empowerment and budgetary strengthening of the office.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge for the future in this sense? How can an ordinary EU citizen contribute to the solution of the situation in this matter?
A: FoRB as we say (freedom of religion or belief) is a civilizational criterion. It is a litmus test of all human rights. And respect of human rights is modern base of justice and international law. Peace and sustainable development are fruits of justice. Therefore we have to care more for freedom of religion and conscience in the world, because it reflects human dignity and promotes good governance. When we show our reasonable and timely solidarity with those who suffer, we are preserving humanity and working against hatred and violence. We need smart people more than smart phones. It means in the globalized world full of diversity we have to learn also religious literacy next to digital one. Defending and assisting persecuted communities we address roots of refugee crisis, too. And we reconfirm our identity as well, because our memory and identity are linked together.
I use to warn my audiences, media or university students from three influential and important phenomena. These are indifference, ignorance and fear. They are present when we do not care, when we do not know and we are afraid to say or to do something to help the helpless or defenceless people. These are siblings of evil.
The EU should facilitate peace and justice in conflict zones, defend humanity and provide responsible solidarity in the current world. There is a need, in many regions this role is explicitly demanded. I never met real anti-EU mood in different countries. Each EU citizen can do something – to speak up, share a prayer, care about the people in need, contribute a collection, send some material help, demand politicians to act responsibly or to elect soon a better representation.
Q: How do you perceive this situation as an ordinary person, not as a Special Envoy?
A: An ancestor bearing the same name Ján Figeľ, my uncle, was liquidated by state power in his 26 years during the communist regime. This deeply influenced life of our family. Fall of communism in Czechoslovakia has started by the peaceful prayer manifestation in Bratislava in March 1988 which was brutally oppressed. But after a year and half in November 1989 this regime collapsed. Our freedom is very precious and it calls upon us to show responsibility and active solidarity with the people who do not enjoy freedom. My problems are by far smaller when I see crosses and suffering of others. Just have a look at the fates of Asia Bibi and many Christians, Ahmadis, Sikhs, Hindus in Pakistan, to see persecution North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Eritrea and elsewhere. Europe is losing its memory of the battles with totalitarian ideologies, many people flirts with extremism as with an acceptable solution of our current problems.
My experience proves that it makes sense to struggle for freedom in every situation and in every time. Freedom is great value. Eight years ago I helped to save Cuban dissident Alfredo Battista from death in jail. Later it was life of Yousuf Nadarkhani in Iran who was sentenced to death for his conversion from Islam to Christianity. Last year I had possibility to contribute to release of several prisoners of conscience in Sudan, Czech activist Petr Jašek and human rights defender Ibrahim Mudawi among them. These and other results are encouraging. It always makes sense to fight for justice, to defend the powerless, and to be not afraid.