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Defending Faith from Fear

During COVID, Western nations did the unthinkable by banning religious gatherings and services. Many states deemed ‘inessential’ what all believers consider most essential: the act of gathering together to worship God. Ludwig Graf von Brühl

I can still vividly remember how determined my 94-year-old grandma was to find a Sunday church service. She traveled across the city, climbed a seemingly endless flight of stairs, and arrived faint with exertion to a hidden chapel where a small congregation gathered to worship away from the prying eyes of the state.

Legally, the act of communal worship was in a gray area. This was back in 2021 when across Europe governments banned religious services. The state deemed ‘inessential’ what all believers consider most essential: the act of gathering together to worship God. For the first time in recent Western European history, governments did the unthinkable by banning religious gatherings and services, thereby violating a core aspect of the fundamental right to religious freedom.

Ján Figel’, former EU special envoy for freedom of religion and belief outside the EU, knows exactly what he’s talking about when he calls the ban “illiberal and undemocratic.” This respected politician has held various positions in the Slovak government and the EU-commission. He never imagined that his freedom-fighting efforts would end up pivoting toward the defense of the freedom of worship in the heart of Europe. But in 2021, it became clear that the erosion of fundamental rights in response to COVID was happening with alarming rapidity. The Slovak government extended its existing worship ban, only allowing weddings and funerals to take place with up to 6 people, including religious staff.

Figel’ decided to take a stand for freedom by challenging the ban in court. With Alliance Defending Freedom International as co-counsel, he sued the Slovak state at Europe’s top human-rights court.

Figel’ argues that the worship bans lacked legal foundation. They were neither legal nor necessary to curb the pandemic. The government was at fault for failing to rely on data and avoiding scientific consultation. Big churches and outdoors spaces provided smart and safe ways to continue worshiping together, even through the pandemic’s darkest days. Arguably, this is when coming together to pray is most needed.

Both the Slovak constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights guarantee freedom of religion. This explicitly includes the “freedom … to manifest [one’s] religion … in worship” (Article 9, ECHR). For people of faith, worshiping together can be as important as food and water.

The right to religious services becomes tokenistic when it can so easily be violated in times of crisis. It is precisely for this reason that people of faith and religious leaders across Europe, such as the Slovak bishop’s conference, welcome the case as a much-needed defense of the human rights we hold most dear.

Worldwide, the pandemic brought a number of absurd cases of religious-freedom violations because of COVID restrictions. In Switzerland, choir practices were allowed, but religious gatherings banned. Uganda opened shopping malls while locking up religious buildings. In Scotland, bike shops were deemed more essential than churches. The list can continue on with examples from countries around the world.

For now, it’s over, but what does this episode portend for the future? Figel’ doesn’t want to wait to find out. This case is a key opportunity and one of the first to examine this kind of human-rights violation in the European Court of Human Rights.

Given the nature of the court’s processes, the ruling likely will take many months, if not years. But we hope and pray this is an opportunity to re-establish religious liberty in its rightful place in a just and democratic Europe—at the core of the human-rights framework. Hopefully, when we look back at the days when we could not gather for the simple act of prayer, we will be reminded of how precious our rights really are and never fail to defend them anew.

Ludwig Graf von Brühl


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