Freedom of religion or belief requires freedom of expression – both of these fundamental rights are protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Across the world, persons from innumerable faith backgrounds face severe persecution and restrictions regarding freedom of religion or belief. Sadly nearly half of all countries penalize blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion. Many countries not only suppress religious expression, they systematically torture and detain people who do not comply with their political regimes. Countries such as China, Myanmar, Iran and Pakistan are some of the worst offenders.
Over 260 million Christians face high levels of persecution around the globe. In the Middle East, ISIS waged a campaign of genocide against Christians and other minorities. In Nigeria, Christians face a near genocide by Boko Haram. In Pakistan, many Christians face the death sentence due to antiquated blasphemy laws and muslim Ahmadi are not recognised by the Islamic State. In China, over a million Uyghur are imprisoned in ‘re-education’ camps and Tibetans and Falun Gong practitioners are persecuted. In Iran, numerous minorities face brutal repression by the regime and in Myanmar the Rohingya have been forced to leave their homelands through religiously targeted violence.
In 2016, the European Parliament called for the establishment of an EU Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief. This post was created shortly afterwards but in the new mandate of the Commission no new appointment has been made.
In May 2020, Swedish MEP Charlie Weimers of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) raised a parliamentary question to the European Commission on the European Commissions failure to reappoint an EU Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief. The parliamentarian asked “why has the Commission not reappointed a Special Envoy for the promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief during the current mandate?” and “will the Commission reappoint a Special Envoy for the promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief in the near future?”
The Swedish representative also enquired “how much funding does the Commission allocate through its actions to protect the rights of people belonging to all faiths and none outside the EU?”
Two months later, the Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen, on behalf of the European Commission replied that in line with its core values as enshrined in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, “the Commission strives to promote freedom of religion or belief through a human rights-based approach and is discussing how best to ensure this objective”.
Ms Urpilainen highlighted that “in its external action, the Commission services, in coordination with the European External Action Service, mobilises the European Instrument of Democracy and Human Rights to contribute to the implementation of the EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief”.
The Commissioner finally reported that in 2019, the European Instrument of Democracy and Human Rights was funding 10 projects to this end, amounting to EUR 6.9 million and these projects cover countries in the Southern Neighbourhood, in South Asia and South-East Asia and the activities supported in these projects promote advocacy and monitoring, including instances of hate speech, and facilitate inter-faith dialogue.
Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen did not answer the questions of MEP Charlie Weimers which is somewhat concerning when religious repression and persecution on grounds of belief are increasing around the world. Whilst former EU Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Jan Figel, raised multiple concerns which may have been uncomfortable reading for geopolitical reasons, his work was appreciated in promoting the European values of freedom of religious and freedom of belief.
Photo Credit : https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/