EU Needs Fresh Input on Religious Freedom

On 30 June 2015, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), in cooperation with Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Minority Rights Group International (MRG) and International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) convened an international conference entitled ‘Freedom of Religion? The Price of Faith’ at the European Parliament in Brussels.

Hosted by Csaba Sógor MEP (EPP), György Hölvényi MEP (EPP) and Ilhan Kyuchyuk MEP (ALDE), the conference addressed the issues arising when people’s freedom to practice their religion comes into contention with social and geopolitical forces, as well as the question of how to promote constructive relations between religious communities and cultures.

The conference opened with the reflections of Mr Csaba Sógor MEP, who stressed his strong commitment to the promotion of minority rights and freedom of religion in Europe and beyond. Accentuating on freedom of religion as a raison d’état, Mr Sógor argued that the European Union should act as an epitome and give a good example to other countries, by making sure all its Member States adhere to basic human rights. Mr Ilhan Kyuchyuk MEP then stressed that minority communities worldwide are being gradually eradicated from the geographical map, and therefore urged EU policy makers to do their utmost to prevent this tragic trend.

Mr György Hölvényi MEP and Co-chair of the EPP’s Working Group on Intercultural Dialogue and Religious Affairs addressed some of the contemporary challenges and opportunities as regards the protection of religious minorities around the world and the promotion of constructive dialogue between communities.

Mr Mark Lattimer from Minority Rights Group International opened the first panel by stressing that every country hosts a certain level of religious discrimination, if not persecution. He further argued that religious persecution has turned into a feature which can be instrumentalized by political parties as a means to serving their own agendas, so that the persecution of minority groups actually becomes a ‘’side show’’.

Dr Susan Kerr of Christian Solidarity Worldwide provided an overview of current trends, challenges and opportunities with regards to international advocacy on freedom of religion and belief for people of all faiths. In her view, international pressure and focus of mass media on the issue of religious freedom would generate wider public awareness and political will, which in turn have the potential to trigger possible solutions to existing problems.

Mr Jean-Bernard Bolvin, Desk Officer on Freedom of Religion at the European External Action Service (EEAS), emphasized the EU’s stance towards freedom of religion, defining it as a ‘’right to believe or not to believe’’. The EU’s approach is neither to defend nor to promote, but rather to advocate for this very right. Mr Bolvin added that the role of religious and faith-based communities as drivers of peace and promoters of mediation must not be overlooked.

The second panel focused on concrete case studies, giving first-hand accounts of religious persecution from the perspective of various religious minority groups around the world. First to take the floor was Mr Ameen Farhan, Leader of the Yezidi Movement for Reform and Progress and Member of the Iraqi House of Representatives. Noting that the Yezidis have been confronted with violence by various groups throughout history, Mr Farhan highlighted that since the advance of ISIS in June 2014, attacks on their physical and spiritual heritage have escalated exponentially.

The clampdown on Tibetan Buddhism in China was addressed by Mr Vincent Metten of International Campaign 
for Tibet. In particular, he explained how a new draft law on counter-terrorism currently under discussion in Beijing poses a great threat for Tibet, as its vague wording leaves room for a broad (mis)interpretation.

The last case study of the conference was jointly presented by Mr Vu Quoc Dung, Executive Director of VETO! Human Rights Defenders’ Network, and Ms Penelope Faulkner from Que Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam. They shared their expert insights on Vietnam’s state policy and drew special attention to the issues facing the Degard-Montagnard, Hmong and Khmer Krom peoples. Due to their religious confessions, these peoples face continuous threats of persecution, imprisonment, torture and religious extortion on behalf of the state authorities.

Through the fruitful exchange of views among speakers and participants it became clear that a swift growth of religious and ideological fundamentalism has severely hindered the free practice and observance of religion and faith. Moreover, underlining an urgent need for a more comprehensive interpretation of religious freedom, the conference concluded that decision makers in the EU need fresh input to facilitate the collective understanding of freedom of religion or belief.

[report from UNPO]