Europe can do more to safeguard religious minorities

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Muslims and Jews return from Mecca and Jerusalem. Zaventem Airport, October 2014. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

The suicide bombings on Easter Sunday in Lahore, Pakistan, should act as a reminder that the European Union needs a high-level office in charge of freedom of religion and belief in the world, writes Sophia Kuby.

Sophia Kuby is EU Advocacy Director in Brussels for ADF International, a Vienna-headquartered organisation that advocates for the right of people to freely live their faith.

On 14 April, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the Tehreek-e-Taliban’s suicide bombings on Easter Sunday in Lahore, Pakistan. In keeping with the European Union’s commitment to freedom of religion and belief and the rule of law, lawmakers stressed the importance of respect for the basic rights of all persons. Such rights are an essential part of a life lived with dignity, safety and equality.

The resolution also exhorts the Pakistani authorities to ensure that all its citizens can live peaceably according to their beliefs without the threat of discrimination, retribution or persecution. This laudable resolution demonstrates the European Parliament’s commitment to the universality of human rights.

However, with the growing persecution of religious minorities throughout the world, with terrorist attacks in cities like Paris and Brussels, the European Union must act beyond resolutions.

There is a growing urgency, stemming from conflicts and legal restrictions, that calls for a more adequate response. To follow-up on condemnations and commitments expressed in resolutions the EU needs a high-level office in charge of freedom of religion and belief in the world.

What is needed is a high-ranking Special Representative with a vision, a budget, and ultimately with political power.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief is increasingly under attack. Through violence, radical militant groups are seeking to create a monochromatic society in which religious minorities are persecuted, hunted and, ultimately, eradicated.

Their agenda is clear. In claiming responsibility for the Lahore attacks, which killed more than seventy and injured 300, the Tehreek-e-Taliban boasted of their intent to target Lahore’s predominantly Christian religious minorities. Not satisfied with merely killing, the Taliban sought to belittle its victims by attacking on Easter Sunday. By detonating explosives at a children’s park, the Taliban wanted to inflict extreme emotional distress.

The Taliban, Boko Haram and ISIS/Daesh all scorn human rights and ultimately human life. The attacks in Paris and Brussels also bear witness to this tragic truth.

Each militant group despises the international legal and social framework that values human life, respects difference and abhors religious discrimination and ideologically motivated violence. As world leaders have recognised, ISIS/Daesh’s atrocities in the Middle East amount to genocide. As a result of ISIS/Daesh’s crimes, the Yazidi community in the region of Kurdistan is almost eradicated.

The Christian community has radically declined – because they were killed, enslaved or forced to flee; from 2 million to 1 million people in Syria and from 1.4 million to less than 260 000 in Iraq. Boko Haram shares ISIS/Daesh’s disdain for human rights and religious difference. Their systematic campaign against religious minorities, particularly Christian minorities, has significantly reduced the number of Christians in Nigeria. Their atrocities have disrupted families, decimated communities and forced hundreds of women and girls into slavery.

The crimes committed by the Taliban, Boko Haram and ISIS/Daesh are motivated by an agenda to destroy all opposed to their brutal message of conformity. Such an agenda is contrary to the protections enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has no place in a just and free society.

Fundamentalist ideologies pose in fact a growing danger to free and democratic societies. They do not only kill people in the short term, they also tend to affect people’s liberties in the long term. Soon, religion in general may be arousing suspicion and lawmakers may be inclined to curb religious freedom.

The EU is a pivotal part of the governance framework that supports universal human rights. As an active participant in the United Nations, the EU is in a position to advocate for the enforcement of basic human freedoms. Through its involvement with the United Nations Human Rights Council and related forums, the EU is ideally placed to advocate for change.

Indeed, it has the capacity to orchestrate change. The EU is more than a single market. It is a symbol of commitment to human dignity and freedom. The Lahore resolution reflects the European Parliament’s dedication to promoting religious freedom, the rule of law, equality, and living-together peacefully.

In its 3 February 2016 Resolution on the systematic mass murder of religious minorities by the so-called ‘ISIS/Daesh’, the European Parliament recognised the need for the EU to establish a permanent Special Representative for Freedom of Religion and Belief in the world.

Under the EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief, the EU has committed to monitoring respect for freedom of religion or belief in third countries, and to work with the United Nations to promote and defend freedom of religion or belief.

Without interfering in the EU-internal dialogue process with churches, religious and philosophical groups laid down in Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty, a Special Representative for Freedom of Religion and Belief in the World would also need to ensure information flows, regular exchanges and strategic alignment on these matters with those working in it within the EU.

The EU has the ability to shape human rights policy in all the nations with which it has dealings. A dedicated Special Representative would ensure that the EU has before it the best information about the state of religious freedom throughout the world. It would provide the EU  with expert recommendations to address religiously motivated human rights abuse.

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