EU Human Rights Guidelines on the Protection of Religious Freedom
The EU needs to strengthen its policy on the Freedom of Religion or Belief since it is the pinnacle of all other freedoms and closely connected to many other fundamental rights and freedoms.
Religious freedom is a sacred, inalienable and universal human fundamental right, recognized by international and European instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention of Human Rights, and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. It is the pinnacle of all other freedoms and closely connected to many other fundamental rights and freedoms.
In today’s world, peoples and nations are mainly composed of religious believers. The expected future world trends show that both in relative and absolute terms, the numbers of religious believers will increase their proportion with respect to the world population from 84.8% (in 2000) to 86.8% (in 2025) and 88.1% (in 2050). It means that in absolute numbers religious believers worldwide will become 6.8 billion (in 2025) and 7.8 billion (in 2050). Christian denominations will remain the majority worldwide (33.4% of global population in 2025, and 34.3% in 2050), followed by Muslims (22.8% in 2025 and 25% in 2050), and Hindus (13.4% in 2025 and 13.2% in 2050).
The particularities of social evolution in Europe with an increasing and worrying hostility towards religions in many European countries and societies, might distort the understanding of the role of religions outside Europe. As rightly stated by Professor José Casanova, “Religions are here to stay… and are likely to continue playing important roles in the ongoing construction of the modern world.” While taking into consideration the geopolitical scope of action of the European Union’s external policies, it is in the interest of the EU external policies to avoid misunderstandings with most of third countries whose societies are highly religious and sensitive to what they might consider as foreign political interference in their internal affairs.
A better comprehension of religion in the world is essential to understanding the main social, economic and political issues, and helping to resolve the political and socio-economic problems that give rise to conflicts. Unfortunately, religion is too often misused for political interests and power politics. For instance, a recent EASO Report on Afghanistan (2012) shows the misuse of religion by Taliban for recruitment purposes. It is easy to identify similar cases where religion is a mere tool for gaining and maintaining political power to the extent of being used as a “war cry”, as exemplified by the extremist interpretation of jihad. Even if for a while we avoid speaking of religious persecution in particular countries and focus specifically on religious tolerance, which in fact exists in a number of countries, the latter does not have much effect since it remains limited in its field of action. In law and practice, religious majorities often “tolerate” the existence of religious minorities in countries where fundamentalist religious laws become state law. However, these same religious minorities which are being “tolerated” are subject to frequent constraints in multiple and insidious forms at the personal, social, cultural, administrative and political levels.
For the aforementioned reasons, it is imperative to move beyond tolerance to religious freedom i.e. from a restrictive and negative perspective of religion to a wide and positive one. While religious tolerance creates a gap between a religious majority and minorities, and promotes discrimination against the latter, religious freedom reinforces the rule of law, assures a common standard for all citizens promoting an inclusive citizenship, strengthens the equality of all members of society before the secular state law, and prevents direct and indirect discrimination against religious minorities. As rightly stated by John Paul II, freedom cannot be divided. As already stated, promoting religious freedom of minorities expands social freedom for all citizens, and underpins all freedoms and other human and fundamental rights which are closely connected to freedom of religion.
Religious freedom also guarantees diversity and pluralism in society, which is a substantial element of democracy, as the European Court of Human Rights has eminently maintained since decades ago (see: Handyside vs United Kingdom [5493/72], a case decided by ECtHR in 1976). Both extremes, fundamentalism or ideological secularism are effectively harmful to social freedom and put at high risk the real foundations of democracy.
A recent document compiled by the Secretariat of COMECE entitled Compilation Report on Religious Freedom at the European Parliament and the European External Action Service (January 2010 – September 2012), shows the commitment by the European Parliament and the EEAS to promote and defend religious freedom in the international arena, as a universal and non-negotiable value.
Now it is high time for action and for going beyond well-intentioned statements and declarations, concrete actions should be taken in the EU, and particularly in the EEAS, in order to reinforce freedom of religion in its external policies. As stated by Catherine Ashton when speaking at the European Parliament on the report on human rights in the world and the EU’s policy on the matter, “the EU needs to strengthen its policy on the Freedom of Religion or Belief, which is so fundamental to a free society.”
Dr Joe Vella Gauci