The European Parliament adopted yesterday (20 January) a widely-backed resolution requesting sanctions against countries which do not protect religious minorities, following a spate of violence against Christian communities around the world. MEPs were reassured by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who promised action.
MEPs from all political parties called for a review of current EU foreign policy instruments to make them more suited to protecting effectively Christian communities in third countries.
They proposed drafting "a list of measures against states that knowingly fail to protect religious denominations," according to the adopted text.
The joint text also urges EU foreign ministers to discuss the issue at their next meeting on 31 January, "especially as regards the instruments that can be used to provide security and protection for Christian communities under threat," reads the document.
MEPs requested regular monitoring of religious intolerance and violence. The EU External Action Service should be equipped with "a permanent capacity to monitor the situation of governmental and societal restrictions on religious freedom," reads the resolution.
Several members of the European People's Party (EPP), the largest group in the European Parliament, called for more concrete action and instruments to defend Christians.
German EPP MEP Elmar Brok, president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs between 1997 and 2007, called for persecution of Christians to be included within the scope of action of the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), which provides grants for human rights protection across the world.
Although they supported the joint resolution, Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group members were more cautious and insisted on protecting all religious minorities in the EU. "It's very questionable if there is an increase of religious intolerance against Christians," said Austrian S&D MEP Hannes Swoboda.
Ashton pledges action
EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Catherine Ashton promised action to protect religious minorities and in particular Christian communities, seeking to assuage critics of her alleged lack of engagement in this matter.
"Long-established Christian communities in the Middle East face difficulties, which have led to significant displacement in some countries and dwindling numbers in the region as a whole. The EU will not turn a blind eye to their plight," she said, addressing a plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Ashton pledged increased attention from EU delegations across the world regarding cases of intolerance, even before they trigger actual violence.
However, she did not divulge details of possible changes to EU foreign policy instruments in order to better guarantee protection for Christians. Like S&D MEPs, she was keen to underline that intolerance and hatred concern all religious minorities, not just Christian communities.
As a concession to requests from many centre-right MEPs, she promised to analyse clauses in trade deals to encourage more stringent implementation of human rights. "I will look into GSP (Generalised System of Preferences) regulation," she said, but that dossier mainly falls under the remit of EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht.
Ashton also promised further discussions on the protection of religious minorities in the next EU Foreign Affairs Council and at the United Nations. "We are considering another initiative to rally strong cross-regional support on this theme in the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in March," she said.
Her engagement is expected to temporarily mitigate the criticism of Christian MEPs who are at odds with certain recent initiatives from the European Commission that are seen as anti-Christian.
During the debate with Ashton in the Parliament, many MEPs from the EPP and the ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists) groups reiterated their condemnation of the failure to mention any Christian festivities in the EU diary for 2010/2011.
The diary, of which over three million copies have been produced, has been widely distributed among EU teachers and citizens. But it does not include Christmas or Easter in its calendar, while it mentions European festivities and the celebrations of other religions.
The Commission admitted earlier this year that it had made a mistake, but the diary had already been distributed.