MEPs: Religion remains significant – but in a different way…
In the list of parliamentary intergroups published in December 2014, there is an intergroup for freedom of religion and belief. It has now commenced its work, with clear priorities.
The founding of the “European Parliament Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance” (FoRB&RT) was preceded by a working group on the subject of freedom of religion and belief which had already been set up in 2012. It was the initiative of two Dutch MEPs: Dennis de Jong (SP; NGL/GUE) and Peter van Dalen, (Christian Union; ECR), who had in 2009 set themselves the goal of putting freedom of religion and belief in the comprehensive sense on the agenda of the European Union and its Parliament.
The Intergroup, with six MEPs as part of its bureau, always speaks up when people are persecuted on account of their religious or philosophical convictions. It also speaks out, on a consistent basis, for those people who do not claim to belong to any religion. For example, FoRB&RT has condemned the murder of the 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya, the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in Syria, Iraq and Nigeria, as well as the forced conversion of Hindu girls in Pakistan and the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma (Myanmar). At the same time, in a letter addressed to EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, the Intergroup also referred to the beleaguered situation of humanists and atheists in many countries and their associated suppression and harassment.
Religion continues to play a role
The Churches may find some features of this Intergroup unusual: its membership cuts right across the Parliament’s political spectrum, and its work domain is wide-ranging, calling for and defending respect for freedom of both religious and non-religious beliefs. The key to this approach adopted by the Intergroup can be found in an international scientific study presented to the European Parliament on 27 January 2015 by the study group leader Prof. François Foret of the Free University of Brussels (ULB) and Dennis de Jong. This study examined the question of the significance of the religious (or declared non-religious) beliefs of MEPs for their parliamentary work and how far their beliefs influenced their work. (The167 MEPs taking part in the study form just over 20% of the total number of MEPs). The study arrives at some interesting – albeit perhaps not quite unexpected – conclusions.
According to the first conclusion, religion plays a ‘role’ in several respects: in addition to the individual religious convictions of the MEPs that guide their political actions, their openness to religion in general is also determined by the significance that religion occupies in the society of their respective native countries. Major differences are revealed between the individual Member States in this regard. The MEPs carry their national experience into the European Parliament – French laicism, the British pragmatic attitude to religion, the German model of cooperation or the current acrimonious conflict between the Catholic Church and anticlerical forces in Spain – then the study observes that not one of these models can be implemented or realised “in a pure form” at the European level. A “concordance system” is developing in the European Parliament which increasingly makes room for different religious and philosophical stances without watering them down.
Two further conclusions from the study should also alert those who work in the Churches. Secularisation – in the form of decreasing social significance of institutionalised religion – is on the increase right across Europe (though developing faster and with greater intensity in some countries than in others). This is accompanied by the individualisation of religion as well as the pluralisation of the religious landscape. At the same time, there is also more “cultural sedimentation” of Christianity taking place, which sometimes has little to do with faith as it is lived but, rather, all the more to do with (supposed) cultural identity. This is the case, for example, when people chant xenophobic slogans while brandishing their crosses.
This study should perhaps be compulsory reading for all Churches as well as providing “consolation and an obligation” in equal shares: religion remains relevant, but in socially changing forms that will find their way into politics. It is important to prepare for these and adjust to them.
Translated from the original text in German