On 26 May, the sub-committee of the European Parliament held a hearing on freedom of religion or belief. The European Platform on Religious Intolerance and Discrimination (EPRID) was invited to contribute to the panel discussion. EPRID’s interventions by Sarah Vader and Penelope Faulkner focussed on why freedom of religion or belief matters and on examples of infringements of that freedom. The main speaker at the hearing was United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt. Charles-Michel Geurts of the European External Action Service was also present and discussed the various tools the EU has and is developing to help promote freedom of religion or belief.

“Freedom of religion or belief…is inherently, closely related to other rights and freedoms including for instance, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of assembly, etc.,” said Prof. Bielefeldt. “This clarification is certainly needed because of tendencies to see freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression somehow antagonistic, somehow in contradiction to each other.”

Sarah Vader emphasized that freedom of religion or belief should not be considered “in a compartmentalized or detached manner” but rather in a “broader context of democracy and human rights protection.” Furthermore, “the EU should pay particular attention to being inclusive and fair, enabling the participation of all, including those more vulnerable groups such as women, youth, ethnic and religious minorities”.

“In relation to the EU’s future policy on freedom of religion or belief, it is necessary for the process to be open, transparent, and inclusive, and find a way of involving civil society in different levels, whether it be here is Brussels or at the level of capitals and delegations at the EU,” said Ms. Vader, who provided some concrete recommendations for action by various EU institutions.

Describing religious freedom abuses in a wide range of religious and geographical contexts over the past year, Penelope Faulkner noted the systematic repression of the Bahá’í in Iran, Christians in Egypt, Ahmadiyya Muslims in Indonesia and Pakistan, Buddhists in Vietnam and Tibet, Uyghur Muslims, house church Christians and Falun Gong practitioners in China, as well as sectarian violence in Nigeria and state-endorsed tightening of religious freedom in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan following the Spring revolutions in the Middle East.

“According to Pew Forum, seventy percent of world’s population live in places where religious freedom is restricted or abused,” said Ms. Faulkner. “It is in every continent, every community, including Europe.  The devastating toll of the human suffering in recent months shows that EU policies in this area are not only needed but much overdue.”

“Victims of religious intolerance are not just people deprived of the right to practice their faith. They suffer abuses in every aspect of their daily lives.  Especially in countries where the state circulates this information or incites hatred religious minorities are defenceless. They lose their rights, their livelihood and in many cases even their lives.”

Prof. Bielefeldt in responding to questions said he sees such violations on a daily basis. But he believes such hatreds can be overcome. “After all,” he said, “it is human beings who are responsible, human beings who also can change groups of human beings who can also evolve in their conviction. This is something we must always take into account.”

He further stressed the view that freedom of religion or belief is universal human rights, which must be also interpreted to encompass the broadest interpretation of religion. The United Nations treaties concerning the issue clearly state that freedom of religion or belief “protects theistic, non-theistic, atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief…. This is the universalistic spirit, and not only spirit but also letter of human rights and freedom of religion. And this is really under threat.”

You will find EPRID’s contributions to the hearing here.