On the mandate of Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Posted by: Cătălin Raiu Comments: 0

My vision on church and state relations outlines an upgraded balanced European model, an adequate synthesis between the demands for modernization and Europeanization, enhancing the cooperation between religions and the state, the neutrality of the state regarding religion and belief, further protection of the autonomy of religious organizations, and so on. Over the past few years, in particular, as religious extremism and fundamentalism have escalated in European countries with a deep secular tradition in respect of the relationship between the state and religious organizations, a question arises more and more often: how to revive and promote the positive side of religious freedom through political gestures and actions.

The US State Department fights for decades for the rights of religiously persecuted people worldwide and to promote religious freedom, France contemplates redefining the principle of laïcité, Great Britain established a Ministry of Faith, Germany created a task force within the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs to promote peace through religion, Austria created a governmental taskforce titled ‘Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue’ within the Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and European Affairs, Finland, Denmark, and others adopted the American model and created the position of Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, etc.

A position of Special Envoy for Promotion of Freedom of Religion outside of the EU was even created in May 2016 within the European Commission. Now 28 countries worldwide (of these 13 EU member states) have created a position of representation on FoRB (ambassadors, dignitaries, special envoys, etc.) trying to reconnect the religious freedom as a basic democratic right with the current political establishment characterized through rising populism, continuous struggle for cultural liberation and the decline of political representation. All of Europe is now concerned with changing the paradigm of the relationship between the state and religious organizations, the recovery of the positive side of religious freedom by consolidating the state-religious organizations partnership through various public policies, such as social, environmental, or educational strategies, the creation of a predictable framework for financial support intended to help the activities of religious organizations, boosting the religious literacy efforts, enhancing religious literacy of career diplomats who will be offered professional training programs on the state-church relationship, encouraging the freedom of expression of religious organizations in respect of public issues, etc.

At the same time, the positive dimension of religious freedom is intended to revive the integrating and community character of religion, to help religious organizations get involved in activities which are close to their theological and missionary vocation according to the principle of subsidiarity, and to convey the message that religion is a social phenomenon which unites rather than divides people.

In my opinion, the international community should address the following:

  1. The elaboration of a North-Atlantic strategy on religion, to encompass both the potentially discriminatory elements which religion may trigger (persecutions, hate crime, and speech), and those elements which boost the efforts of religious organizations for society. This strategy may be defined by the joint efforts of EU, US Department of State, UN, and OSCE/ODIHR, and may be used as a practical guide for all stakeholders.
  2. Bearing in mind that religion is often presented as a pernicious force with social consequences and that it is better to keep it in people’s heads and souls, it is important that international institutions elaborate easy-to-read guidelines with good practices on public manifestations of religion, pertaining to dress, ritual, or civic invocations, the limits of free speech inside places of worship, the fiscal status of religious organizations, the judicial status of places of worship, and so on.
  3. Religious identity has recently become the subject of legal protection, and what once would have been deemed legitimate expressions of free speech in relation to religion can now be regarded as prejudiced and abusive, on a par with racism and sexism (this is, for example, the case of Romania: during the 2018 referendum campaign on the introducing in the Constitution of an explicit definition of family as being the union of a man and a woman, we have witnessed lots of hate speeches and actions against Christians). In such situations, governments should rather promote inter-faith dialogue and religious identity.
  4. It seems that today, religious tolerance, including tolerance of the non-religious, a value that was secured three or four centuries ago as the contingent foundation of many liberties, can no longer be taken for granted. With the exception of North-Atlantic countries, this protection of religious identity is often the reverse of pluralism: a particular religion that is bound up with a national culture as the ‘default religion of the nation’ can enjoy increased favor and protection while suppressing other faiths. This leads to religious extremism and anti-Semitism and triggers all kinds of secular backlash and further restrictions on the free public expression of religious bodies or free self-organizations. It seems that the more we see religion as a threat, the less people are willing to tolerate other beliefs. The solution is not mere legal pluralism, but developing some practical measures to assist states to live up to their commitments to freedom of religion and belief in the name of democracy.
  5. Finally, a real re-politicization of religious freedom would have to address the problem of representation of people, of religious organizations, and of governments. Following the American model launched by the US State Department in 1999, already 32 countries worldwide from which 13 EU member states have created a form of political representation in the field of freedom of religion or belief. Some of them have created the position or only the mandate for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief for diplomats or dignitaries as shown below.

United States of America – the position of Ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom, since 1999. He/she also carries out the task to coordinate the Annual Report on Religious Freedom compiled by each American embassy;

European Union – Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief Outside of the EU, European dignitary mandated with the task to promote religious freedom as a European brand and to denounce the cases of religious persecution, discrimination and hate crime.

United Kingdom – PM’s Special Envoy for Religious Freedom or Belief (either a junior minister from the Foreign Affairs Office or a member of the Parliament) to promote religious freedom externally and also the position of Minister of Faith (since 2014) with no bureaucratic apparatus to promote religious freedom internally;

Canada – Religious Freedom Ambassador;

Finland – Ambassador at large for Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue Process;

France – permanent adviser to the minister of home affairs;

Sweden – Ambassador for Human Rights, democracy and the rule of law (includes the mandate on the promotion of freedom of religion or belief) and also Special Envoy for Religion in Conflict and Peacebuilding;

Germany – Task Force on the Responsibility of the Religions for Peace, part of the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs and also a high commissioner for the promotion of freedom of religion;

Denmark – special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief as of 2018;

Austria – Task Force Dialogue and Culture part of the Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs;

Hungary – state secretary for the promotion of religious freedom and support for the persecuted Christians;

Poland – state secretary for humanitarian aid and also Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief; and

Norway and the Netherlands – Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Most of these countries have either well consolidated democratic regimes, either are in an advanced process of democratization. Almost all of them are important political players in the field of international relations. The portrait of the new special envoy on the promotion of freedom of religion or belief is made up of very few lines:

Firstly, all of them have a resume that testifies high-level academic expertise on the topic, as the field of faith and politics is not a general one, but a very narrow one. He is an expert in a field that had not been much emphasized in academia or in practice over the last decades.

Secondly, they all have a clear mandate and work if not for the national Foreign Affairs Office very closely with the Office. Most of them are under the mandate of the national governments, subordinated directly to the prime minister, and are also limited to involve their country in different international projects. More important are the facts the international community needs to create awareness. According to Pew Research Center figures, in 2019, 79% of the global population lives in countries with high or very high obstacles against freedom of religion or belief.

Important steps towards de-bureaucratization and re-politicization of FoRB have been made recently: the EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief adopted at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Luxembourg, on June the 24th 2013 by all the 28 Member States;

the creation of the European Parliament Intergroup for freedom of religion and belief and religious tolerance;

the International Contact Group of Freedom of Religion and Belief and the establishment of the EU Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion Outside EU.

After a work of three and a half years (2016-2019), Jan Figel (2019) has advanced five key recommendations:

work on the freedom of religion and belief within a human rights framework;

boost the freedom of religion and belief literacy;

support the engagement with religious actors and inter-religious dialogue;

implement a more strategic and contextualized approach at the country level;

step-up coordination among member States and the European Union on religious freedom.

Conclusions

This process of empowering different diplomats (representatives of the states) or state dignitaries (representatives of the people) with the mandate to speak on behalf of their country on religious issues, to promote worldwide their home model of freedom of religion or belief and also to gather intelligence from the international community for the benefit of their national governments is clearly a step further towards de-bureaucratization of the field of church and state relations and religious freedom. Having in mind that some serious facts and figures are well known worldwide: Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world (only in 2019 there were reported more than 500 cases of anti-Christian offenses in Europe), hundreds of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic acts, and so on, we might have to consider that freedom of religion and belief is a precondition of good governance and welfare.

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