Government restrictions on religious freedom have reached their highest levels globally. Despite this finding of a recent report from the Pew Research Center, the EU has left the position of the Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU in limbo.
“Nobody should be persecuted because of their faith. Religious persecution is on the rise with many denied their right to freely live out their faith. For some this means social segregation while for others this can mean arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and even death. For example, during the COVID-19 crisis, religious minorities in some regions have been denied basic aid and food simply because of their faith. We are encouraged by the decision to reappoint the Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU, but it sends the message that religious freedom is not a priority while it remains unfilled. The victims on the ground are in dire need of a decisive response from the EU. With its Special Envoy, the EU can lead in the international response, and that leadership is needed now more than ever,” said Adina Portaru, Senior Counsel for ADF International in Brussels.
Role of the Special Envoy
The mandate of the Special Envoy was held by Ján Figeľ from 2016 until December 2019, when the current Commission took over. On 8 July 2020, Vice-President Margaritis Schinas announced that the Commission would renew the mandate of the Special Envoy. However, no appointment has been made since, which means that the position has now been left unfilled for one year.
The mandate included visits to countries with some of the most violent religious persecution in the world in order to help facilitate dialogue and response plans. The Special Envoy played a decisive role in helping Asia Bibi safely leave Pakistan after she was acquitted of blasphemy. There has been robust support for the continuation of the mandate, voiced by the European Parliament Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance, national special envoys, scholars, and civil society. The absence of the EU’s most important voice against religious persecution is notable in the face of rising government restrictions on religion worldwide, as the latest Pew report highlights.
“The Special Envoy has played a crucial role in bringing the horrors of religious persecution to light at the European level. The role has created awareness around some of the worst and most persistent violations of fundamental rights around the world and helped focus EU efforts to counter them. The EU should not only continue, but intensify efforts to protect freedom of religion or belief around the world,” said Robert Clarke, Deputy Director of ADF International.