Despite major successes, the EU let the office of the Special Envoy for the promotion of Religious Freedom and Belief outside of Europe expire, and haven’t renewed yet its highly successful envoy – who secured the liberation of Asia Bibi and safe passage to Canada for the Pakistani Christian woman wrongly convicted and sentenced to death.
All this is unfolding within a broader international context in which religious freedom is increasingly under attack, and religious persons and institutions are under increasing pressure to bring their beliefs in line with a prevailing Western secular orthodoxy.
A signal was the report on religious freedom presented on March 2 at the Human Rights Council in Geneva was a signal.
In particular, the report underscored that all religions had to be open to these new rights. These new rights have not an international consensus, and they cannot be in any way considered on a par with the human rights listed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Report was based on fighting “worldwide religious precepts (that) underlie laws and state-sanctioned practices that constitute violations of the right to non-discrimination of women, girls and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+)”
One of the goals of the Report is “emphasizing the responsibility of States in creating enabling environments to advance the non-discrimination and freedom of religion or belief rights of women, girls and LGBT+ persons.”
The report also attacked religious beliefs when they were opposed to the so-called “new rights,” especially “LGBT rights”.
The Holy See and several NGOs sharply criticized the report, which they argued was based on a twisted interpretation of religious freedom, one that ultimately came to a sort of freedom from religion.
The Holy See lamented that “the Report seems to focus less on the protection of men and women, of any faith or personal belief, that are persecuted or discriminated against (a still too vivid reality for millions of persons worldwide), and more on pushing a vision of human society that is not shared by all and does not reflect the social, cultural and religious reality of many peoples.”
The UN report can be interpreted as a signal that religious freedom will not be at the top of the international agenda.
The situation becomes more worrisome when you focus you eyes on Europe.
On May 6, 2016, the European Commission established the position of an EU Special Envoy for the promotion of Freedom of Religion and Belief outside of Europe. The Juncker Commission announced the establishment of the envoy on the very day Pope Francis was awarded the Charlemagne Prize. The new position set religious freedom issues among the priorities of the EU foreign policy.
Jan Figel was tapped for the position of special envoy.
In three years, Figel traveled a lot, established bridges of dialogue, and achieved some remarkable successes, notably the liberation of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death. The woman won her final appeal, but she was in danger in her country. It was also thanks to Jan Figel that Bibi and her family were able to leave Pakistan and find a haven in Canada.
The commission headed by Figel did not address threats to religious liberty inside of Europe, but Asia Bibi’s acquittal and liberation showed that the European Union could act as a soft power in defending religious freedom.
This is one reason why there were expectations that EU leadership would confirm Figel in the envoy’s position, once the Juncker commission ended its mandate and following the EU elections,.
This was especially the case in view of the new EU policy priorities that focus on Africa, a continent where religion plays a great role. An EU official championing religious freedom in diplomatic talks would have been a natural choice.
However, more than 100 days into the mandate, the EU commission chaired by Ursula van der Leyan has not decided yet. The question is: who is going to take care of the religious freedom issues in EU foreign policy?
There are three possibilities.
First: the Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outisde the EU is re-established. This seems to be the more natural option.
Second: EU institutions can rely on the European External Action Service (EEAS). Within the EEAS, there is also the position of consultant of the EU Special Representative for Human Rights Eamon Gilmore. Merete Bilde was tapped at the post, with a particular focus on Religious Freedom and Freedom of Faith.
In this case, the option might be a downgrade of the portfolio of Freedom of Religion or Belief. In fact, there would not be a dedicated envoy, but just a consultant to a wider human rights portfolio.
Also, this option would be much weaker than what was initially called for by the European Parliament in the resolution recognising the atrocities perpetrated by ISIS as genocide in 2016, where it called for the establishment of an EU Special Representative on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Third: the EU Commission might establish a special consultant on religious freedom issues.
The fact that there are no decisions yet might suggest that religious freedom is lower on the list of EU priorities.
Adina Portaru, legal counsel for ADF International in Brussels, voiced with CNA the preoccupation of the advocates of religious freedom.
“Nobody, said Portaru, should be persecuted because of their faith. At a time when religious persecution is on the rise, the EU should strengthen its international response, not weaken it”.
For this reason, she added, “the EU should take the steps necessary to become a champion for religious freedom worldwide. Failing to continue the mandate of the Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU is clearly a step in the wrong direction. We urge the EU to make good on its promise to defend victims of violence based on religion or belief worldwide.”
The UN Report presented in Geneva might be an alert. Without a firm policy on religious freedom, there is the risk that there will always be more papers like that one. Papers that – in the Holy See’s words – “seemingly defend religious freedom, while in fact, they attack it.”
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.