“Freedom of religion or belief

One year after the adoption of the EU guidelines on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in June 2013, the EU continued to focus on this challenged fundamental freedom worldwide. The EU reaffirmed its determination to defend FoRB as a right to be exercised by everyone everywhere, based on the principles of equality, non-discrimination and universality.

The issue of violence being one of the priority areas of action highlighted in the FoRB guidelines, the EU gave particular attention to its occurrence during the year. Violent incidents and terrorist attacks targeting individuals, people belonging to religious communities or religious sites on the grounds of religion or belief have been condemned through diplomatic action, statements and Foreign Affairs Council conclusions. The EU also highlighted blatant violations of freedom of religion or belief. Specific situations in Syria, Iraq, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Iran, Burma/Myanmar, Sudan, Pakistan and Brunei have been of particular concern at different levels.

In Iraq and Syria, the EU was particularly shocked by atrocities and abuses of basic human rights, in particular when committed against people belonging to targeted religious minorities and the most vulnerable groups, and underlined the need for safeguarding the multi-ethnic and multi-religious character of those countries. In the Central African Republic (CAR), further to its diplomatic and military engagement to stop the fighting and restore security throughout the country, the EU reaffirmed its commitment to the peaceful coexistence of the different communities and religions in the country. The EU is notably doing so in the CAR by training religious leaders and civil society in conflict prevention and intercommunity dialogue.

As in previous years, freedom of religion or belief was systematically raised with many partners at different levels of political dialogue, including in human rights dialogues and consultations. The EU was particularly active in the case of Meriam Yahya Ibrahim, a Christian who had been sentenced to death in Sudan for adultery and apostasy. A joint statement33 was issued by the Presidents of the Commission, European Parliament and Council together with 20 religious leaders, including Muslims. The EU was at the forefront of the international efforts that ultimately helped in her acquittal and release.

In multilateral fora, the EU focused on consolidating the content of FoRB resolutions both in the HRC and in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). In the March 2014 HRC session (HRC 25), the EU-led resolution on freedom of religion or belief was adopted by consensus. The resolution included a reference to the Special Rapporteur’s report on the need to tackle manifestations of collective religious hatred. The explicit language on the right “not to have” a religion, which was introduced for the first time in the 2013 resolution, was confirmed. In the margins of HRC 25, the EU delegation in Geneva organised a side event with the Special Rapporteur on FoRB, Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt, to explore how to tackle religious hatred within the current international human rights framework.

At the 69th session of the UNGA, the EU-led resolution on FoRB was also adopted by consensus. The EU achieved its main objective of focusing on the protection of people belonging to religious communities and minorities around the world, ensuring the inclusion of an explicit reference to religious extremism that affects the rights of individuals, as well as a call to states to provide adequate protection to persons and communities at risk of violent attack on the grounds of their religion or belief.

The EU continued to engage with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on the implementation of resolution 16/1834 , and took part in the 4th Istanbul Process meeting held in Doha in March 2014. Hosted by the Government of Qatar and the Doha International Centre for Interfaith Collaboration, the meeting focused on “advancing religious freedom through interfaith collaboration”. The event – which was the first to be organised in a Muslim country and the first to which NGOs and non-state actors were invited – was well attended by scholars and civil society organisations, but very few state representatives were present to give an update on the implementation of the resolution.

As far as the EU’s financial instruments are concerned, the promotion of freedom of religion or belief as a fundamental freedom, the protection of persons belonging to minorities and the fight against discrimination remained funding priorities under the EIDHR. According to Article 2.1b (v) the EU’s assistance shall focus on “freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, including by means of measures to eliminate all forms of hatred, intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief and by fostering tolerance and respect for religious and cultural diversity within and among societies”.

The global call for proposals on combating discrimination, launched in 2013, was concluded. Out of a total allocation of EUR 20 million, EUR 5 million has been specifically dedicated to supporting projects to promote FoRB and combat discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. Most of the funded projects will start in the course of 2015.

In past years, FoRB has also been promoted through other EIDHR channels, such as local Country Based Support Scheme (CBSS) calls managed by EU Delegations, global calls to enhance respect for human rights and their defenders where they are most at risk, and small grants in support of human rights defenders (HRDs). In 2014, CBSS calls that included FoRB as one of the priority areas were launched in Armenia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka. In other countries, such as Egypt, the call addressed “the rights of vulnerable/marginalised groups”, which could have encompassed FoRB even though it was not explicitly mentioned.”