Featured profile: Peter Van Dalen, the MEP who helped Asia Bibi

Cover picture: Peter Van Dalen at the European Parliament with a burnt Bible from a church in Egypt

“Standing up for freedom of religion or belief in Brussels is vital”

“As a Christian, it is necessary to be a representative in the European Parliament. It enables me to fight for things that otherwise might go unnoticed, such as freedom of religion. It is important that we members of ChristenUnie-SGP, who explicitly root our politics in the teachings of the bible, to take on this task,” says MEP Peter van Dalen, who has been a member of the European Parliament in Brussels for almost 10 years and has spent much of that time defending the rights of religious minorities. The most prominent example is the case of the Pakistani Christian mother-of-five, Asia Bibi, and her acquittal of blasphemy charges.

Van Dalen: “In recent years, I, and others, have continuously highlighted the situation of Asia Bibi. We drew attention in the media and attention in European politics. I visited Pakistan with fellow MEPs on several occasions. We spoke with ministers, the Chief Public Prosecutor, governors and other officials about her case. We also met and encouraged the Bibi family. On our first visit to Islamabad and Lahore, I also met the lawyer of Asia Bibi, Mr. Saif Ul Malook. A Muslim man who took on the defense of this Christian woman with full conviction. Even with all the associated risks. His selflessness is an example for us all and he deserves the utmost respect.”

Motive

Peter van Dalen has – in addition to political – personal motives promoting freedom of religion or belief and offering support to persecuted Christians. “Freedom of religion or belief is an important human right. That is what I stand for, as a politician and as a Christian. Asia Bibi was denied that right and has been seriously wronged: she was falsely accused and subsequently sentenced to death twice by a Pakistani court. She spent nine years in a jail cell before the Supreme Court acquitted her earlier this year. The Bible tells us time and time again that we must stand up for justice. Especially for those who have been denied justice. That is my main motivation in this matter. “

Peter Van Dalen with the lawyer of Asia Bibi at Amsterdam Airport

Politically, he thinks that the blasphemy legislation in Pakistan that led to Asia Bibi’s imprisonment, is dangerously flawed. “Even in the case of a minor disagreement someone can be accused of blasphemy. It is then for the accused to prove that they are not to blame. The blasphemy law has affected hundreds of people including Christians, many Muslims and those who have chosen to give up or change their religion,” he says

Traveling

As a Member of the European Parliament, Van Dalen is able to travel to countries where freedom of religion is under pressure. “As a politician and MEP you enter those countries differently than as a private person. You have much quicker contact with government officials and ministers. Your influence is therefore immediately greater.”

Two trips to Pakistan were an example of this. “We were then able to talk at a high level about the situation with regard to Asia Bibi. You never know whether those encounters helped with her acquittal, but our visit certainly contributed to it.”

Peter Van Dalen with husband and daughters of Asia Bibi

According to the member of the European Parliament, these were also two fascinating and inspiring journeys that left a big impression on him, he added. “On such a journey you really learn to appreciate how privileged we are to live in the Netherlands. We do not experience such persecution. Although tensions here are rising, there is increasingly overt racism & Islamophobia as well as a wave of anti-Semitism that is going through France and other countries of Europe.”

Lawyer

During the trips to Pakistan, Van Dalen got in touch with the lawyer of Asia Bibi, who is still there today. “I immediately got along with Mr Malook,” he added. “When he needed to flee Pakistan we also helped to arrange matters for him from Europe; through an NGO  some of Malook’s costs were paid for by the European Union.” Eventually Van Dalen became one of the most important contacts of the lawyer in Europe. That is why the MEP was at the airport of Amsterdam on the evening of Saturday 3 November 2018 to receive Malook, who had just fled from Pakistan. “Afterwards we also took him to Strasbourg and arranged conversations with EP President Antonio Tajani and other leaders from the European Parliament.”

Europe

Van Dalen is regularly asked the question: “What does the European Parliament do for minorities like persecuted Christians?” His answer is often: “An Intergroup has been set up in the EP to deal with freedom of religion or belief, thought and conscience. Together with my SP colleague Dennis de Jong, I am a co-Chairman. We organize numerous meetings about the situation of freedom of religion or belief throughout the world, including a focus on the plight of Christians. We have received strong support for a number of years from the special EU envoy for freedom of religion or belief, Jan Figel, who was appointed as a result of an Intergroup proposal. This approach has given freedom of religion or belief a prominent and structural place on the European political agenda. And now Germany, Denmark and the United Kingdom have also appointed such special envoys. We are in constant contact with them to properly coordinate our commitment to faith minorities in the world.”

Worldwide

Persecution and discrimination against minorities is increasing worldwide. In other words: freedom of religion or belief is declining worldwide. Pakistan, Egypt, Eritrea, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, India, the list goes on: the pressure on minorities is increasing everywhere. Freedom of religion or belief is an important human right that must be defended, now more than ever. Time to stop talking: not words but deeds!

Reports on freedom of religion or belief from the UN Special Envoy, from the EP Intergroup and from numerous NGOs show that persecution of religion minorities is increasing worldwide. Many NGOs have told us here in the European Parliament that talking is meaningless. It is time for action because it is almost too late for some. The question is, what can we do?

The Dutch MEP added a number of suggestions:

1. Freezing trade agreements with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. For too long and too often the merchant has defeated the pastor in the Netherlands and Europe. As German poet Bertold Brecht said: “Food comes before morals”. It is high time that Brecht was wrong.

2. Recall ambassadors from countries that systematically persecute religious minorities. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is clear: everyone has the right to freedom of religion or belief. Europe will also have to become more active in New York for the benefit of the UDHR in general and article 18 in particular.

3. Stop development work in countries that structurally persecute religious minorities. Would we finance projects in countries that subsequently disadvantage Christians or other believers? It is crucial to become much more selective with aid money and to pull out the plug if necessary. Don’t you think that citizens, who are not responsible for their governments’ decisions, are struggling enough in their daily life already? Unfortunately yes and very often, because the funds do not always reach them. So why do we give money to countries that continue to systematically persecute religious minorities? Who ultimately benefits from it?

3. Ensure that funding from the EU does not contribute to violations of freedom of religion or belief and persecution of religious minorities. Rather than giving funds to governments who are known violators of freedom of religion or belief, the EU should work to support minorities and civil society within such countries, to help them to protect their rights.

Fortunately, there are glimpses of hope in the work that we do, such as the story of Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman who was eventually released from her chains in a Sudanese prison thanks to quiet European diplomacy. She was sentenced to death because she decided to change her religion. She now lives in America with her family. She has spoken at the European Parliament in Brussels to share her testimony and to call on Europe to act more strongly and more clearly against forms of persecution.

Are we seeing fruit from our labour to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief? Is it politically expedient to work on this? Absolutely! There is the EU support for the case of Asia Bibi and other people like her who languish in prison due to unfair blasphemy charges. And the Intergroup on freedom of religion or belief and religious tolerance in the European Parliament, with Co-Presidents Dennis de Jong (SP) and Peter van Dalen, who are working to increase the importance of Article 18 of the UDHR on the European agenda. There are the EU guidelines on freedom of religion or belief that are shared with all EU embassies in the world, outlining how best to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief in their countries of work. And finally the appointment of the special EU envoy for freedom of religion or belief, former EU commissioner Jan Figel from Slovakia.

Effort

According to Van Dalen, it really makes sense to take a seat in the European Parliament in Brussels as a Christian. “There is a very important task for us there, because the commitment to freedom of religion or belief, thought or conscience and the fight for persecuted Christians is an essential part of our political work in Brussels. As an MEP, I am the mouthpiece of many who may not be heard in any other way.”