The importance of Religious Freedom for Europe

EU Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB) policy: Considerations on Ján Figel‘s final report by Alberto Melloni, professor of History of Christianity at the University of Modena-Reggio and Chair Holder of the Unesco Chair on Religious Pluralism and Peace for his university and the University of Bologna

Struck by the scourge of COVID-19, grappling with the most unexpected and drastic rethinking of the industrial and macroeconomic paradigms of globalisation and forced to accept the dramatic prophecy Romano Prodi made to Le Monde in 2002 (“the stability pact is stupid, like all decisions which are rigid”), Europe will not have time to consider a very important matter which the Juncker’s presidency handed over to that of von der Leyen, the defense of the right to freedom of religion or belief in its external relations.

Jan Figel’ with Card. Parolin (Vatican Secretary of State)

It was, in fact, on 6 May 2016 that the European Commission decided to create the function of “Special Envoy for the promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief outside the EU” appointing Ján Figel’, a Slovakian politician former European Commissioner. In doing so, the Commission responded to a resolution of the European Parliament of February 2016 requesting to create a Special representative on Freedom Of Religion and Belief (FoRB). This decision, regarder with condescension by a secularist provincialism that is unaware of the more profound hence less apparent impulses of international politics, was more crucial than ever.

The USA has always made the issue of religious freedom a distinguishing mark of its foreign policy. Any desertion of this question by Europe would have confirmed the idea that there was only one (American) policy of religious freedom because there was only one international (American) actor capable of acting on it. It was, therefore, essential to support Freedom Of Religion and Belief scaling up the European voice and action reducing the hegemony of the American evangelical world, which has fought to make room in strategic areas of the world for a religious sensitivity that could be politically manoeuvred by and towards the right.

A European presence was also necessary to break the parallelism of reciprocity, particularly in Islamic areas: those countries where political Islam has assumed power are also those in which the persecution of native Christian religious minorities has found protection and indulgence. In many European countries this has raised the voices both of those who cry out against such violent policies and of those who, invoking a kind of “reciprocity”, justify acts of Islamophobia (promoting and complying with anti-Semitic ones) by those actions.

Finally, direct action, linked to the European ability to present itself, was very useful to accompany the EU’s international cooperation and external relations: in many contexts it encounters the presence of communities of faith that can either be formidable driving forces or insurmountable obstacles to a policy that sees as its objective the spread of the founding values of peace promoted by a Europe of rights.

Special Envoy Figel, notwithstanding the very limited capacity of his office and the minimal resources mobilized by the Commission for his work, committed himself with a dedication and success that could in no way have been taken for granted. His personal political history as a man of deep conservative roots could have made those who thought that the Envoy should merely be an idle, yet severe, critic of violations skeptical. The “executive” face of the Special Envoy’s office might have aroused mistrust in the European Parliament’s policy, led by Antonio Tajani, who had adopted a different approach to the problems of religious pluralism by favoring the meeting of religious leaders in the European hemicycle: leaders who, in solemn words, as is customary in these ceremonies, disavowed violence based on religion but whose lack effectiveness might appear to be determined either by objective reasons or by a deliberate or unconscious ambiguity.

Figel’, on the contrary, was able to perform a highly successful mission: the profile he took never appeared to be that of someone who exploited human rights in order to destroy dialogue, but rather of a man who was more rigid than others when dealing with sensitive issues (for example, marriage between people of the same sex), yet who always uphold the indivisibility of human rights and advocated for the need to promote them with persuasion, negotiation, diplomacy, personal credibility and discretion. His discrete and brave work contributed substantially, for example, to the liberation of Asia Bibi, of which he did not claim even 1% of the credit for the crucial role he played in this affair that inflamed politics in and on Pakistan.

Figel’ gives back to the European Commission is an enormous responsibility.

The Commission might indeed prefer a more internal solution by transforming the “FORB issue” into a sub-chapter of policies that are anything but secondary (those of human rights, cooperation, external relations), but which, at the very moment when they reduce the constituency of faith communities and the polyvalence of their historical-theological heritages to a mere sub-chapter, openly declaring themselves affected by a religious illiteracy that will fertilise violence and weaken spiritual counterbalances.

The European Commission might, on the other hand, conclude that Figel’s experiment was successful because born out of a specific political circumstance and of a relationship of personal trust between the envoy and the sender, and therefore impossible to reproduce – in this format, at least. In doing so, Europe would lose its voice and its ability to act in this field with the authority of those who recognize a problem as central and, by the mere fact of saying so, qualify both the problem and themselves.

If, on the other hand, the Figel’ experiment evolve into a clear, permanent mandate, this will be a sign that the Union has understood something decisive. The “temperature” of religious belief rose throughout the entire season of secularisation, that is to say, from the beginning of the 19th century to the first 8 decades of the 20th century. In the post-secular period, which has lasted for half a century, even though it has been perceived to have lasted less, what used to be a normal division in the communities of faith has changed because religious experience has always proved to be capable of producing either an awareness of rights or an integralist restriction of them, instances of social division or instances of justice, thoughts of peace and thoughts of war. It has been the implantation of divided hermeneutics, and their dissemination through the construction of theological cultures and historical-religious knowledge, that has designed relationships of power: secularist negligence, which has confused separation with ignorance, neutrality with illiteracy, distinction with ignorance, has favored those paths that an erroneous language calls “radical”, and which are instead mere terrorism, political violence and racist intolerance “rooted” in the ground of religious belief.

In this context, the instrumentation of “dialogue” has often been limited to a ritual exchange of affection between religious leaders, the diplomacy of religious belief has been reduced to a pathetic ostentation of the importance of the voice of communities of faith in political and social processes, and cooperation in the more unstable countries had been limited to a mythological exaltation of territorial actions in which an audience and a set of themes have been invented. Starting from a stabilized attention to the “FoRB issue” on a global scale would be a way to signal a shift in paradigm that does not end in this very field (more research, more politics, more cooperation capable of creating authoritative voices and more resilient knowledge are needed), but which finds its specific visibility here.


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