EU Should do more to Protect Religious Freedom

When reading policy evaluations and seeing terminology like “religious persecution” and “religious extremism/fundamentalism” abound, it’s easy to divide believers into victimized minorities and radicalized aggressors. 

Indeed, much (Western) international policy on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) has been affected by this framework. 

This narrative has recently been challenged by the realization of religious actors’ potential to positively affect today’s urgent societal concerns, not least because they are among the most trusted members of their communities, according to Religions for Peace. 

FoRB is a vital requirement for peaceful coexistence, as it comprises both the freedom to exercise one’s faith and the right not to believe. 

Peaceful societies, at their core, defend all human rights and allow for the flourishing of variety. When religious liberty is in jeopardy, social cohesion suffers and conflict escalates. 

Many players, including the world’s largest peace-building organization, Search for Common Ground, are now aware of the important contributions religious actors make to society. 

Some decision-makers in secular organizations, such as the EU, may not see the value in including them or may be uncomfortable doing so. 

It would be naïve not to recognize the sensitivity and difficulties of working with religious actors. It would be equally naïve not to take them into account, and it would be equally naive not to deal with them at all, as the Pew Research Center reports that 84 percent of the world’s population identifies with a religious community. 

The EU’s status as a leading international advocate for religious freedom has been reaffirmed with the appointment of Christos Stylianides as the new special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief. 

As the next special envoy starts office, here are three steps the EU may take to recognize FoRB’s important role in broader social issues. 

To begin with, FoRB must be viewed as a fundamental right like any other, rejecting the popular perception that it is incompatible with women’s rights, LGBTQI rights, or freedom of expression – or, conversely, superior to other rights. 

We can address overlapping issues and intersectional demands by recognizing FoRB’s linkage with other rights. 

The Joint Initiative for Strategic Religious Action(JISRA), a new secular and interfaith alliance, will take this approach. 

JISRA will work with religious actors, especially women and youth, in seven conflict zones spanning Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia to improve their ability to engage in discussion on religious tolerance and peace, as well as help them in their advocacy efforts around FoRB. 

Second, FoRB must be recognized as an important component of societies that are peaceful and resilient. 

The EU’s Global Exchange on Religion and Society indicates a rising appreciation for the importance of involving religious players in a variety of societal challenges. 

Furthermore, the June Council Conclusions on an EU Approach to Cultural Heritage in Conflicts and Crises emphasize the need of interfaith dialogue and religious minority’ inclusion as part of the EU’s external push for peace, democracy, and sustainable development. 

Women, youth, and other vulnerable groups, such as religious minorities, must be involved in these discussions, as they should be in all approaches to FoRB and peace-building in general. 

These groups frequently face particular violations of their rights, and their inclusion in conflict resolution brings new views and unexpected solutions. 

Third, EU institutions and workers must be properly trained on FoRB, particularly its role in conflict transformation. 

Increasing their faith literacy and knowledge of the significance of religious engagement would be in accordance with the European External Action Service’s commitment to producing training materials for field and HQ workers in the 2013 guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief. 

Anyone interested in religious engagement and FoRB in conflict contexts can benefit from training like the joint Search for Common Ground and the US Institute for Peace’s recently published free online course on Religious Engagement in Peacebuilding – A Common Ground Approach. 

Neither the building of peace nor the advancement of FoRB is a linear process. Patience, perseverance, and a long-term conviction in the possibility are all required in the face of setbacks. 

The EU, however, can play a vital role in effectively pushing us towards a world where our plurality of ideas is recognized and accepted by everyone, with its new special envoy at the helm.