The EU’s special envoy for religious freedom, Jan Figel, believes that Europe needs to “face up” to the numerous cases of discrimination that occur against religious minorities within its own borders.
Speaking at a high-level conference in Brussels, Figel said the upcoming European elections in May was a perfect opportunity to raise awareness of the threat to religious freedom and belief.
“The credibility of the EU and Europe is at stake,” Figel said during his opening address at the Faith and Freedom Summit, a coalition of 18 NGOs which have come together to promote religious tolerance, including in Europe.
Figel said he had personal experience of a society where freedom of speech was frowned upon, saying, “I spent half my life in Czechoslovakia under Communism so know all about this issue. Even today, data shows that some 73% of the world’s population lives in countries which have high or very high restrictions or obstacles in place against religious freedom and belief. We must stop these negative trends and reverse the threat that currently exists. It is not just discrimination against minorities that is going on, but persecution and, in some cases, even genocide,” said Figel, who added, “We simply cannot stand by here in Europe and be mere commentators or observers of this.”
Figel outlined some positive developments that have occurred in the last five years including the creation of his own special envoy post in 2016 and the adoption of EU guidelines on religious freedom three years earlier, as well as the creation in the parliament of an intergroup for religious tolerance.
The EU Fundamental Agency on Human Rights was another “vital instrument” in the struggle against restrictions on religious freedoms.
Noting the difference between “Continental Europe” and the wider region covered by the Council of Europe, Figel said that “real problems” still exist in Europe, including in Turkey in the crackdown against the Orthodox Church and also in Russia against Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as numerous cases of anti-Semitism in various EU countries.
“We have got to face up to these problems and tackle them head-on. The aim has to be to raise awareness of what is going on in Europe itself, as well as further afield, and to seek improvements,” said Figel. “We have to realise that we, in Europe, cannot preach to others what they should be doing if we are not credibly tackling these issues within our own borders.