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Campaigners decry EU decision to close office

26 June 2020


The President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, speaks at a press conference in Brussels, last week

The President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, speaks at a press conference in Brussels, last week

POLITICIANS and campaigners have condemned a decision by the European Union not to reappoint a Special Envoy on Religious Freedom, despite evidence of growing rights violations worldwide.

“The Special Envoy has played an immeasurable role in shining a light on human-rights abuses and facilitating dialogue in countries where religious persecution is most severe,” the director of the Vienna-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe, Ellen Fantini, said. “Although the Commission has said it identifies religious freedom as a priority, it has not made clear how it intends to continue prioritising its protection.”

Ms Fantini was reacting to confirmation by the new EU Commission, headed by Dr Ursula von der Leyen, that it would not be renewing the mandate of Dr Ján Figel, which expired in December.

The move was also deplored by Austrian MPs, who said that religious communities were currently “exposed to discrimination and oppression in many forms”.

“A constant line is needed to protect human rights, and particularly freedom of religion and belief,” the MPs said in a cross-party motion last Friday. “The EU wants to be a pioneer in human rights, and has set up all kinds of agents and working groups for this. The Commission should not, therefore, close its eyes on religious freedom.”

Dr Figel, now 60, was appointed under a 2016 European Parliament resolution to work alongside the EU’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development. He was believed to have been influential in the opening of religious-rights offices by governments in Britain, Denmark, and Germany, and was personally thanked by the Pakistani Christian, Asia Bibi, for securing her release from a death sentence for alleged blasphemy in May 2019.

Supporters complained, however, that he had been denied office space and funds in Brussels, while his one-year renewable mandate had been too brief to formulate a long-term plan.

In a letter early this month to the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, the EU Commission said that it was committed under 2013 guidelines to advancing religious freedom “in its external action, including through its financial instruments”, and that freedom violations would continue to be “monitored and raised regularly by EU delegations”, as well as by the Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore.

The liquidation of Dr Figel’s position, however, was deplored by the European Parliament’s Intergroup for Religious Freedom, which said that he had “developed effective working networks”, despite his lack of resources.

In a statement last month, an All-Party Parliamentary Group of British MPs also insisted that Dr Figel had “worked extensively” with senior EU and UN officials, as well as with national governments and religious and civil-society groups, demonstrating how “freedom of religious belief can be promoted and protected effectively.”

The Geneva-based Conference of European Churches stated on Monday that intolerance was “on the rise”, and that religious groups “in Europe and beyond [were] experiencing more discrimination, hatred and even persecution”.

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