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Freedom of religion - for whom?

Posted on 03 December 2012

A rethink on religious freedom is underway at the EUI, where academics and other experts are putting together proposals to take to Brussels


“Is freedom of religion an individual human right, freedom of the church or faith communities, and what are the conflicts of freedom?” asked EUI Professor Olivier Roy, who runs the ReligioWest research project which examines how western states are redefining their relationship to religion. On 17 November Roy gathered practitioners, scholars and religious representatives to map out the key challenges ahead.

At EU level the debate frequently plays out at the European Court of Human Rights, where cases currently before the court address everything from swearing a religious oath to the right to taxation of religious communities.

“It has to take decisions on these issues and have relative homogeneity on the decisions. They can take local laws and customs into consideration but they can’t make completely different decisions of France and Germany, for instance,” Roy explained. “The European Court of Human Rights has some obligation to find common ground on its legal decisions, not just to rely on the principle of subsidiarity.”

Whether freedom of religion is determined to be an individual right or one of religious groups has an impact on decision-making. Citing gay marriage, Roy questioned whether faith communities are able to ask for exceptions from societal norms or whether religious people can ask for exceptions from their own faith communities. The debate is further complicated as in some states such as Italy, a religious marriage can be registered under law by a priest without need for a civil ceremony.

It is these differences which MEP Cornelius de Jong tries to manage in Brussels through a network of people interested in freedom of religion or belief. De Jong wrote a Ph.D. thesis on the topic and served as an advisor to the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs before entering European Parliament, where later this month the network will be formally launched.

“As MEPs we don’t represent a specific minority or religion; each religious group is represented one way or another in Brussels. If you are open-handed and say you are open to anybody then some are extremely well organised,” he said while visiting the EUI. Work currently underway includes reviewing the European External Action Network’s (EEAS) draft guidelines on freedom of religion or belief for its embassies worldwide. De Jong said he will also be co-hosting an event on the Arab Spring and religious minorities - “A challenge for all of these countries and it’s not going well”.

This is also a focus point for Elizabeth Cassidy, deputy director for policy and research at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), who has been trying to get freedom of religion and rights of minorities into new constitutions currently being drafted in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia.

“We’ve been highlighting how religious freedom is related to a lot of other rights. If you don’t have religious freedom you tend to have more societal violence, more extremism and instability,” she said. Cassidy works on “the worst of the worst,” and said the end result is often the same whether a government is religious or anti-religious.

“You’ve got the purely authoritarian, anti-religious regimes – the Chinas and North Koreas of this world. But then you see a lot of violator countries which have religious regimes, but they are imposing one religious or one strain of religion on everyone else,” she said.

The USCIRF publishes a list of countries of ‘particular concern’ and ‘watch list’ countries, none of which are EU member states. Some however are on the edges, such as Belarus and Russia, meaning it is also important for the EU to monitor the situation in neighbouring states.

The Russian Orthodox Church has a presence in Eastern Europe and as a result is represented in Strasbourg by Hegumen Philip Ryabykh, in addition to having a representative in Brussels. Ryabykh remarked that Russia has had just two decades to develop a policy of religious openness, as before then religion was repressed in the Soviet Union. 

Creating dialogue at the European level was vital for religious freedom, he said: “I think it’s very important to hear different voices and try to find a decision which will not be imposed on society but will represent a balanced approach to satisfy as many members of society of possible.”

He drew on the example of Pussy Riot, a band who in February protested against President Vladimir Putin in the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow cathedral: “Pussy Riot invaded the space of a religious community, which is also protected by law, and expressed their views on politics. They have this right but it’s also necessary to respect the rights of religious people to pray and not to violate this.” Ryabykh would not give further comment on the band members’ subsequent trial and sentencing to two years in remote prisons, but said the Russian government is taking positive steps to ensure freedom of belief for religious people and secularists.

The European Parliament nominated Pussy Riot for the 2012 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, demonstrating the challenges ahead for creating unanimity at state, regional or international level. For Roy, the task is to analyse such decisions and look at the wider implications of policy: “We push for a debate on the basis and consequences of the different laws and decisions, so that it’s not just a technical issue of human rights. It entails far more issues…the idea is to find a common ground.”

(Text by Rosie Scammell)


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