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Europe needs a "climate change on religious freedom," says EU Special Envoy

According to the latest report of the Observatory on Intolerance and discrimination Against Christians in Europe, there have been in the last year about 500 cases of anti-Christian discrimination on European soil.

Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world.

In Europe, the persecution might be subtle or take place in the form of attacks on sites of worship. The situation in the world is different. This is the reason why the exiting European Commission looked attentively at the religious persecutions and established the office of the EU Special Envoy for Religious Freedom outside the European Union.

EU announced the establishment of the office on the very day Pope Francis was given the Charlemagne Prize in the Vatican.

Jan Figel was chosen as the EU special envoy for religious freedom. In that capacity, Figel was able to carry out some remarkable successes, as the liberation of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death. The woman won her final appeal, but she was in danger in her country. It was thanks to Jan Figel that she and her family were able to leave Pakistan and find a haven in Canada.

The new European Commission, along with the new EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, will have to decide whether to renew the mandate to Figel or not.

On Oct. 15-16, an event about the "Inventory of religious freedom" took place in Brussels. The event's goal was to summarize the step forward in terms of religious freedom and assess how religious freedom is important for the future.

Jan Figel took the floor at the end of the meeting, wrapping up the discussion. In his intervention, he stressed that "Freedom of religion and belief is a condition of good governance, important for believers and non-believers," and it is "a civilizational objective and criterion, representing freedom of thought, conscience, religion."

Figel then stressed that "we need a climate change on religious freedom."

Figel underscored that "religious freedom for decades was a neglected, abandoned, misinterpreted human right."

Mentioning Pew Forum figures, Figel said that "today, 79% of the global population lives in countries with high or very high obstacles against freedom of religion or belief."

Figel distinguishes four levels of problems and crises, based on Pew Forum's 2019 book "A Closer Look at How religious restrictions have risen around the world," which analyses figures on religious freedom in the decade from 2007 to 2017: intolerance, discrimination, persecution, and genocide.

Figel notes that "government restrictions on religion - laws, policies, and actions by state officials - increased markedly around the world. Indeed, 52 governments - including some in very populous countries like China, Indonesia, and Russia - impose either 'high' or 'very high' levels of restrictions on religion (up from 40 in 2007)".

The figures also show that "social hostilities involving religion - including violence and harassment by private individuals, organizations or groups - also have risen since 2007. The number of countries where people are experiencing the highest levels of social hostilities involving religion has risen from 39 to 56 throughout the study".

Figel also mentioned the UK Ministry for Foreign Affairs' special report on religious freedom. The report said that religious persecution against Christian is "almost at the level of genocide."

Figel also stressed that there is also good news on the religious freedom side.

Among the good news are items such as the EU Guidelines of 28 Member States, adopted in 2013; the establishment in the European parliament of first Intergroup for freedom of religion and belief and religious tolerance, with 38 members so far; the International Contact Group of Freedom of Religion and Belief diplomats, set up in 2015 and joined by a growing number of countries; and, finally, the establishment of the EU Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion Outside EU.

Figel finally advanced five 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 European Union on religious freedom.

During his five-year mandate, Figel also launched the Declaration for Human Dignity for everyone and everywhere, signed by politicians and members of the academy.

As mentioned, Figel was also involved in the Asia Bibi case. The case was an evident abuse of religious freedom, and Figel could, in his capacity, shed light on the issues of religious freedom. Figel was able to go to Pakistan for the first time in December 2017 and paid a second visit in 2018.

"During the talks – Figel recalled – I spoke about the importance of dignity and justice for every Pakistani citizen, especially minorities. I tirelessly spoke with my high-level interlocutors about the importance of having clear signs that the Pakistani authorities are moving toward the rule of law and justice for all. Delayed justice is denied justice."

Figel's involvement in Asia Bibi's case was decisive for the Asia Bibi released. According to Figel, this showed that "European Union is a soft power that can facilitate positive changes in the world on justice, sustainable development, human rights protection and more effective promotion of religious freedom."

It is not yet known whether the office of the Special Envoy for Religious Freedom outside the EU will be renewed. The outcomes, however, showed that religious freedom is a crucial factor and that EU commitment in advancing religious freedom in the world might be of benefit for the same EU.

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