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We seek answers in dialogue and we find them

The president of the Juncker Commission entrusts the Slovakian politician with the promotion and safeguarding of believers beyond the frontiers of the European Community. Respect for religions, he states, is the “primary condition for a more humane world in the XXIst century

Jan Figel with pope Francis

“The freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental right at the base of the building of the European Union. In light of the continuing persecutions of ethnic and religious minorities, it becomes even more important to protect and promote this right within and outside the EU”. For this reason, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has named Jan Figel as “special representative for the promotion of freedom of religion and belief outside the European Union.” Jan Figel, a 56 year old Slovakian, parliamentarian and Minister of his country where he was also leader of the Christian Democratic Movement, has also been EU Commissioner for Education, Formation, Culture and Youth in the period 2004-2009. His new appointment will initially be for one year. His first interview is for SIR.

How do you see religious liberty in the context of being one of the fundamental rights?

Religious freedom is a measuring rod of human rights and fundamental liberties. Usually where there is no religious freedom, civil and political freedoms are also lacking. This is why the understanding, respect and support for freedom of religion and belief represents a preliminary condition for a humane world in the XXIst century.

What contribution can religions bring to the dialogue between nations and to the question of peace?

Faith and religion live within people. And we can say the same for the freedom to doubt or not believe. Human dignity is the primary and essential value uniting all in a civilized world. It should be a universal, permanent principle for all. And dialogue represents the path for the recognition or radical change of this value. Through dialogue, we seek and find answers, because dialogue is more than two monologues. While monologues are limited to confirming and furthering requests, only through dialogue can reciprocal relations be developed – between persons, communities, religions, nations. We have great need for a culture of dialogue in the contemporary world, as it brings with it enrichment. Through dialogue 1 + 1 equals more than 2, because we are dealing with ethics, not mathematics.

What is your opinion of the present situation in the area of religious liberty in the world? Can you define some of the principle challenges that merit priority attention?

Persecution and intolerance for reasons of religion or belief are very widespread and unfortunately these problems have worsened in many regions of the world. Religious freedom is strictly limited or denied in more than half the countries of the world, and this tendency is developing in a negative direction. All religions, even if in different degrees, are being oppressed by totalitarian regimes, by anti-proselytism laws, by militant atheist regimes or extremism. We are also witnessing the genocide of religious minorities – in particular Christian, Yazidis and other religions – by the Islamic State. And it is not sufficient to point a finger against this situation; a more decisive action is necessary. According to international law we are obligated to help victims of persecutions, hunt down the guilty and act to effectively stop the genocides.

What can you tell us about religious liberty within the confines of the European Union? Can this be considered an acquired right?

The EU guarantees this form of freedom on the basis of its Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is an integral part of its system. The definition and realization of the collective rights of Churches and religious associations is the strict competence of each Member State and the EU is obligated to respect this. Beyond this, a space-system has been created based on the Treaty of Lisbon, in view of a constant, open and constructive dialogue between the EU and religious communities. On this basis, I see a significant potential of attitudes and serious agreements aimed at the common good within the EU and beyond its borders. However, up to now this potential has not been fully utilized.

In what way is the migratory crisis connected to the question of religious liberty? What challenges must we meet in this context?

There are two sides to this crisis, which must be understood. Economic migration consists in the search for better prospects for personal, self-realization. Then there are groups of people who are persecuted for various motives, including that of their religious beliefs; there are refugees coming from regions in conflict…. The question of migration is the most urgent challenge we are facing. It challenges solidarity within the EU and involves peace and stability in the regions of conflict. And – in a subsequent stage – it concerns the real integration of migrants, provided a sincere and mutual interest is shown by both parties.

What will be the priorities of your new appointment? What will be your concrete first step?

This is a job that has no precedents, the first of its kind in the history of the EU. I have no offices, only the status of special envoy which is equivalent to a collaboration that is primarily professional and political with the European Commission, particularly in the sector of cooperation and international development, with a clear goal: supporting the freedom of religion or belief in the world outside the EU. Together with President Juncker and Commissioner Neven Mimica I would like to collaborate not only with member States but also with the international NGO’s of the EU and in the entire world. Freedom is never an acquired good and it is necessary to safeguard it in a responsible manner in our own countries as well as abroad. And to save just one person is equivalent to saving humanity.

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