Scaling up European Union support to Freedom of Religion or Belief
IMPORTANCE OF FoRB
Freedom of religion and belief is a condition of good governance, important for believers and non-believers. It is a civilizational objective and criterion, representing freedom of thought, conscience, religion. FoRB protection is a precondition of sustainable development. Why? Development is another name for peace. Peace is the fruit of justice. Justice is based on human rights for all. FoRB is a very central right. Art. 18 of the UDHR is in the middle of all universal HRs. It combines our freedom implemented individually and in community, in private and in public. It is a litmus test of all HRs – if it is not respected other rights suffer the same fate.
FoRB represents human dignity – the foundational principle of HRs. Dignity express my uniqueness, originality, my rights but also my duties towards the other and towards the community, I am living in.
FoRB – for decades was neglected, abandoned, misinterpreted human right. Today 79% of the global population lives in countries with high or very high obstacles against FoRB (Pew Research Center, 2017). The second bad news is that trends are worrying, oppression is on the rise. Drivers of persecution are totalitarian and autocratic regimes, proponents of religious nationalism and violent extremism, terrorists and non-state actors. We can speak about four levels of problems and crisis: Intolerance, discrimination, persecution, genocide. This is not theory, as even genocides represent current world reality.
In July 2019 Pew Research Center published a Closer Look at How religious restrictions have risen around the world. It analyses the decade from 2007 to 2017.
First, government restrictions on religion – laws, policies and actions by state officials – increased markedly around the world. Indeed, 52 governments impose either “high” or “very high” levels of restrictions on religion (up from 40 in 2007).
Secondly, social hostilities involving religion – including violence and harassment by private individuals, organizations or groups – also have risen from 39 to 56 over the course of the study.
Thirdly, levels of government limits on religious activities and government harassment of religious groups have been rising over the past decade – and in some cases, steeply. For instance, the average score for government limits on religious activities in Europe (including efforts to restrict proselytizing and male circumcision) has doubled since 2007, and the average score for government harassment in the Middle East-North Africa region has increased by 72%.
Fourthly, these trends suggest that religious restrictions have been rising around the world for the past decade. The level of restrictions started high in the Middle East-North Africa region, and is now highest there in all eight categories measured by the study. But some of the biggest increases over the last decade have been in other regions, including Europe – where growing numbers of governments have been placing limits on Muslim women’s dress – and sub-Saharan Africa, where some groups have tried to impose their religious norms on others through kidnappings and forced conversions.
In 2019 the UK FCO commissioned special Report. It says that up to 250 mil. of Christians are persecuted today, calling it “the most shocking abuse of HRs today”. Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar suffer systematic persecution, like millions of Uyghurs in China. Antisemitism is on the rise, including in the West. My nomination was a reaction to the genocide of Yezidis, Christians, Shias committed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Bahai´s suffering in Iran, Ahmadis in Pakistan.
Pressure is growing against groups from A to Z (from Atheists to Zoroastrians). Atheism may lead to capital punishment in 13 countries, conversions in 22 states. And over 70 countries in the world have blasphemy laws, some very stringent, like Pakistan or Mauretania.
If one minority is persecuted, many others are persecuted as well. For too long, FoRB was like a forgotten orphan, a priority neither in foreign policy, nor in development cooperation.
But there is also good news. FoRB awakening is growing. In 2013 the EU Guidelines of 28 Member States have been adopted. In 2014 the first Intergroup for FoRB and Religious Tolerance with 38 members emerged in the EP. At the same time, there is a global IPP FoRB – International Parliamentarians Platform. Since 2015 there is an International Contact Group of FoRB diplomats from a growing number of countries. And since 2016 the EU has the first ever Special Envoy for FoRB promotion.
After that, several Members States established their respective Ambassadors, Special Representatives and Envoys – Hungary, UK, Germany, Denmark, Lithuania, Poland, and Netherlands. They joined Norway, Finland, Sweden, and France. Some other EU countries may join the group soon as well. Very active transatlantic partners we have in the US and Canada. There were already two Ministerial summits in Washington DC with concrete commitments, testimonials, networks, side events. 104 governments and up to 1000 religious and civil society participants in July this year was a strong call for global FoRB cooperation.
In time of growing tensions, violence and conflicts we have witnessed unprecedented rise of religious initiatives for peaceful coexistence: Earlier ones like Amman Message as a reaction to 9/11 and Beslan killing in 2004, Common Word between Us and You from 2007, and recent initiatives like Marrakesh Declaration of 2016 on treatment of religious minorities in Muslim majority countries, Beirut Declaration 2017 called Faiths for Rights, initiated by the UN Office of High Commissioner for HRs,
Abu Dhabi Declaration on Human Fraternity and Peaceful Coexistence signed by Pope Francis and Grand Imam of Al Ahzar Al Tayyib in February 2019. I am glad to support growing PaRD initiative – International Partnership on Religion and Development bringing together more than 80 members and partner organizations. In addition, the OSCE is more active in FoRB area. Under Poland led proposal, the UN General Assembly agreed to devote the first ever International Day of Commemorating Victims of Acts of Religious Violence – August 22.
WHAT TO DO
I visited 16 countries on working missions; spoke to many leaders, communities, organisations, academia. The role of SE gave me closer access to human suffering.
I am convinced we need FoRB CLIMATE CHANGE! The situation is already alarming, trends are worrying. And it concerns millions of people in many regions of the world!
International community must
(1) Recognize the importance of FoRB;
(2) EU and MS must make FoRB permanent and important condition of external relations;
(3) We need to organize efficient cooperation on FoRB promotion with like-minded actors – against violent extremism, religious fundamentalism and intolerance.
With the adoption of the EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief in 2013, the EU has committed to advance this fundamental freedom in its external action, including through its financial instruments. Since then, there has been a significant increase in FoRB-funding in comparison to the previous period 2007-12 (2013-18: 18 million EUR, 28 projects, versus 4 million EUR, 23 projects).
Other entry points opted by EU Delegations in the past for promoting FoRB are e.g. non-discrimination and equal citizenship, minority rights, intercultural/-religious dialogue, prevention of violent extremism.
The foundational principle of HRs is dignity. Culture of Human Dignity is based on respect of the universal principle: We are all different in identity; we are all equal in dignity.
Dignity is crucially important for Christians (Dignitatis Humanae is Vatican Council II major document on religious freedom), for Muslims it is the Quranic concept of Karamah, for adherents of Bible it is Imago Dei and Medaber al kabot in Hebrew tradition.
EU Charter of Fundamental Rights starts with Dignity as the first out of four main values. In India, the most populous country, with secular Constitution Preamble we can find call for dignity.
I had good experience when sharing these principles at Punjab Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of Lahore or at Ahfad University for Women in Sudan.
Human dignity may serve as a meeting point for both, religious and secular humanists. Punta del Este Declaration on Human Dignity for Everyone Everywhere from December 2018 is the recent proof. I am happy that many scholars, experts and activists signed up to commemorate the 70 years of the UDHR, but also to recommit to its foundational principle. The document is still open for signatures.
The ethical principle of equal dignity is a departure point for socio-political principle of equal citizenship (inclusive, dignified one). It brings us to a pluralist society – like a mosaic,
to a civil state based on equal citizenship. E. g. this is the best option for the future of Iraq. The fair civil (secular) state is blessing for FoRB and different faiths coexistence.
Inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue must become a norm, not an exception. Dialogue not just for dialogue and exchange, but also as a quest for truth, justice, common good.
This is spirit of also Art. 17 Treaty Dialogue, where I was regularly invited by FVP Timmermans.
We need to move from respect of identity towards
1) awareness of interdependence, and
2) ethics of shared responsibility.
Pope Francis and Grand Imam of Al Ahzar, the latest one in Abu Dhabi, set an inspiring example. People generally very little read encyclicals or fatwas. However, they see images and they get the message immediately.
United Europe, it is a lesson on common good, winning over hatred and violence. It grew from the definition of common ground, understanding, definition of common values and interests, bringing common good and common future.
I know well from my missions that the EU is welcomed when not teaching or preaching, but sharing; when not imposing, but proposing.
Evil is very successful today because it has very widely spread and influential allies. These are indifference, ignorance, fear – they are siblings of evil. Therefore, we must learn how to live in diversity, not only to coexist in diversity. We need to nurture allies of good – engagement, education, courage.
Religious literacy is important (digital one is not enough).
More and faster smartphones? Yes, but this is not sufficient ambition. We need smart people – in diplomacy, public policy, schools, media, community leaders (with modern smart technologies) I am supportive of activities of the newly established European Academy of Religion in Bologna (2016) as network of universities, faculties, journals and scholars on nexus between religion and different sciences.
I was happy to get FoRB visible at European Development Days, and especially when Lorenzo Natali Media Special FoRB Prize was the first time given to both professional and amateur journalists (Tunisia, Burkina Faso). We discuss a FoRB Award for the best students at EMA Global Campus of Human Rights in Venice.
Most of the information one can find in my report.
Nevertheless, I would like to conclude on a more personal note.
CONCLUSION: ON A MORE PERSONAL NOTE
When genocide in the Middle East in 2014 started, I tried to persuade EU leaders and Slovak government that we have to do something credible to help victims of persecution. I sent more than 70 urging letters, we organized public manifestations. When the EP adopted a strong resolution demanding to establish a permanent position of EU Special Representative for FoRB, this issue came back to me like a boomerang. I want to thank Commission, especially to the President Jean-Claude Juncker for giving me the opportunity to start something really important, sensitive and unprecedented. He asked me for visibility. I told him then, at the beginning, yes, but we must keep visibility connected with credibility. I think this agenda is now both visible and credible. I had constructive support of Commissioner Mimica and his Cabinet, DG DEVCO led by S. Manservisi with very reliable collaboration of V. Manzitti, J. Journal and B. Philippe.
I held frequent meetings with EEAS, EP leadership and committees, CSO, FBOs, media. Via Art. 17 Treaty Dialogue I cooperated with the FVP Timmermans and DG JUST, but also with Johannes Hahn and his DG NEAR.
In spite of very limited working conditions or because of that I combined a lot of HARDWORKING, TEAMWORKING and NETWORKING. This was my recipe for success. This was behind very encouraging stories of releases – of two groups in Sudan (Czech Christian humanitarian worker Petr Jašek sentenced for lifelong jail, and his two Sudanese collaborators; and HRs defender Prof. Ibrahim Mudawi – threatened by lifelong imprisonment – with five other activists) and famous Asia Bibi from Pakistan, being double sentenced to death for blasphemy. It is important to add: autocratic regime in Sudan in the meantime collapsed with U. Bashir being investigated for his bloody crimes. In Pakistan, we have started a series of activities promoting equal citizenship and pluralism.
I want to thank all partners Member States, MEPs, EEAS, Commission services, CSO, FBOs and academia for very good cooperation on the common cause of FoRB protection. We are not perfect, but we tried to be reliable and constructive partners. The stocktaking event is not only on reflexion of the last years, but also setting a vision for the future.
There are five recommendations in my report:
1. Work on FoRB within an HRs framework and through the SDGs agenda – including education, gender equality, and peace.
2. Boost FoRB literacy.
3. Support engagement with religious actors and inter-religious dialogue.
4. Implement a more strategic and contextualized approach at country level.
5. Step up coordination among MS and the EU on FoRB.
My report is not exhaustive text, but it is my input into the two-day debate. I hope this conference will bring additional points to the future FoRB agenda. And it will be handed over to the incoming President and Commission for further reflexion and decision.
My nomination in 2016 was invoked by the genocide in the Middle East. Year 2016 marked Century of genocides – over 100 years. There were many, too many. What is coming next: Century of hope or Century of continuity (business as usual)? The world urgently needs a change; we must stick to the commitment NEVER AGAIN. We need FoRB climate change! FoRB is part of Robert Schuman’s legacy.
FoRB protection and promotion are in the best EU interest and global responsibility. This is a preventive antidote against persecution and the refugee crisis. The EU was born on fight against totalitarian oppression, against political, ethnic and religious persecution. This must stay alive in our memory and become a permanent part of our responsibility.
Therefore our effort on FoRB protection and promotion should continue. At the same time, it needs more adequate institutional support, stronger political conditions, and more efficient cooperation with MS, institutions and all relevant partners.