Freedom of Religion or Belief

In line with previous years’ commitments, and with the specific Council conclusions on the issue adopted in 2009 and 2011, the EU remained committed to the promotion and defence of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) worldwide.

Intolerance and discrimination on religious grounds, as well as religiously motivated violence, have been under close scrutiny by EU delegations and at headquarters. Violent attacks against a number of religious communities in Europe and outside Europe were condemned at the highest levels. In a joint statement on 20 March 2012, coinciding with the Toulouse killings and terror attacks in Iraq, the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission stressed that any form of persecution and violent acts against religious communities had “no place in Europe and, indeed, in the world”. They pointed out that Europe had fought a “long and painful battle to achieve freedom of thought, freedom of religion and belief and the respect for the individual. These human and fundamental rights form part of the Charter on fundamental rights which is at the heart of our European values”. They also expressed the EU’s willingness to continue to foster these rights.

Discrimination based on religion or belief is a persistent concern in all regions of the world, and persons belonging to particular religious communities or non-confessional groups continue to be targeted in many countries. Moreover, legislation on defamation of religions is often used to mistreat persons belonging to religious minorities and to limit freedom of opinion and expression as well as freedom of religion or belief for society as a whole. The EU points out that freedom of expression also plays an important role in the fight against intolerance and that freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression are mutually reinforcing rights.

With the Foreign Affairs Council’s adoption on 25 June 2012 of the EU Strategic Framework on Human Rights, along with its Action Plan, which encompasses the adoption of new EU guidelines on FoRB1, the EU stepped up its commitment to address this issue. Such guidelines will not be legally binding, but politically underline that FoRB is a high priority for the EU. They will consist in messages, practical instructions and guidance to EU and Member States’ staff in diplomatic postings and at headquarters on how to assess situations and to engage in the most pragmatic way. Preparations have been ongoing since mid-2012, with a first round of consultations with civil society (including religious, non-religious and philosophical groups) held in Brussels on 19 October 2012. The EU expects to adopt these guidelines in 2013.

The EU engaged bilaterally with various countries on the crucial importance of FoRB. As regards non-EU countries, freedom of thought, conscience and religion was systematically raised with many partners at different levels of political dialogue, including in human rights dialogues and consultations during which implementation of FoRB and the situation of persons belonging to specific religious minorities or groups were addressed.
Whenever prompted by serious violations and concerns regarding religious freedom and related intolerance and discrimination, the EU expressed its views via diplomatic channels, public statements and Council conclusions, as for instance in the cases of Egypt, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Pakistan or Tunisia. It systematically advocated full respect for freedom of thought and conscience, as well as the prohibition of incitement to religious hatred and violence through the action of an independent judiciary in line with international standards, and called for dialogue and the use of freedom of expression to react to speeches or content perceived as offensive.

Given the worsening situation in Syria, the EU reiterated its call to uphold the principles of freedom of religion and belief and to refrain from sectarian and ethnic division. It repeatedly urged the Syrian opposition to agree on a set of principles for working towards a Syria where all citizens enjoy equal rights regardless of their affiliations, ethnicities or religion or beliefs and reaffirmed its support to the Syrian people and their aspirations for a democratic Syria respectful of the rights of all its communities. The EU High Representative issued statements condemning all acts aimed at inciting inter-ethnic and inter-confessional conflict.

The EU also explored possibilities for further cooperation with organisations, such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) or the League of Arab States (LAS), notably in the wake of violent events linked to the publication on the Internet of a controversial film which was viewed as offensive by many Muslims. On 20 September 2012, a joint statement was made by the European Union High Representative, the OIC Secretary General, the Arab League Secretary General and the Chair of the Commission of the African Union, calling for peace and tolerance, condemning any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility and violence, and calling on all leaders, whether they be political, secular or religious, to promote dialogue and mutual understanding. On 13 November 2012, the EU and LAS foreign affairs ministers adopted a joint declaration in Cairo, emphasising, amongst other things, their commitment to “the promotion of freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief” and condemning “all forms of incitement to hatred and intolerance, in accordance with international legislation on human rights”. They also emphasized the need to ensure gender equality and full respect of human rights for all people, and “condemned any advocacy of religious hatred in accordance with the Human rights council resolution 16/18.”

The HRVP attended an OIC ministerial meeting for the first time in Djibouti on 16 November 2012. In her speech, the EU High Representative depicted freedom of religion or belief as an “essential pillar of safe and prosperous societies”, the freedom to exercise one’s faith playing “a key part in reinforcing development and democratic stability”. She also pointed to the challenge of “how to protect and guarantee religious freedom” that countries transitioning towards democracy had to face, whilst shaping their new societies. She also expressed her view that it was political leaders’ responsibility “to ensure that everyone can practice their faith freely and equally”, and that, in doing so “we honour our shared humanity”.

This issue was also promoted at a multilateral level. In the Human Rights Council (HRC) as well as in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the consensus reached in 2011 with HRC resolution 16/18, on the need to fight religious intolerance, whilst not claiming the concept of defamation of religion as a human rights standard, was upheld (cf. 2011 report). At the 19th session of the HRC, in March 2012, the traditional EU resolution on “freedom of religion or belief” was adopted without a vote (resolution 19/8) alongside the OIC resolution on “combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons on religion or belief” (resolution 19/25). At the 67th UNGA session in December 2012, EU-led resolution 67/1791 and the OIC-led resolution 67/178 on the same subjects were adopted by consensus.

As far as the EU’s financial instruments are concerned, the protection of persons belonging to minorities and the fight against discrimination, including on religious grounds, was adopted as a funding priority under the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). Projects for the protection of persecuted individuals and persons belonging to religious minorities in countries where they are most at risk, are being funded and will continue to be funded in the future under the EIDHR. In particular, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief is one of the main priorities of the call for proposals for the “EIDHR Objective 1” strategy that finances actions in “difficult” countries and has a worldwide coverage.

Finally, freedom of religion or belief was one of the three sensitive human rights issues discussed at the annual EU-NGO Forum that took place on 7 and 8 December under the overall theme “promoting the universality of human rights: the role of regional mechanisms and their cooperation with civil society”.”