by Johannes de Jong, 18th June 2016
On 4th September 2013 more than 70 guests, including a number of MEPs, took part in a European Parliament (EP) event on the fate of converts in other countries and the responsibility of the EU to protect them. Many of the guests were from mission organisations, and one major speaker represented the European Commission.
How do mission organisations and Christian converts go together with the European Commission? It does not seem to make much sense until you read the ‘EU guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief’.
These guidelines determine the policy of the European External Action Service (EEAS) which is like a Foreign Affairs service of the EU. The EEAS can only do what the EU Member States allow it to do, and it focuses on human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as representing trade agreements and other common areas of concern. In addition the EEAS offices in many countries simply represent the EU as a whole.
It is important to emphasise that the EEAS cannot act outside the authorisation of Member States and the EP. Thanks to this, religious freedom has become an important issue at European level as Member States and MEPs have been able to get this on the agenda in a way that was unknown in many Member States. Out of that effort came the guidelines to promote freedom of religion at the global level by the EU.
Article 39 states that the EU will:
- Call on states to repeal legal provisions penalising or discriminating against individuals for leaving or changing their religion or belief or for inducing others to change a religion or belief especially when cases of apostasy, heterodoxy, or conversion are punishable by the death penalty or by long prison terms.
- Condemn the use of coercive measures against individuals in their choice or exercise of religion or belief. States must impartially apply measures against coercion in religion or belief.
Elsewhere the guidelines state that the EU will protect the right of ‘Changing or leaving one's religion or belief’ and even the right to try and ‘induce others to change their religion or belief’. Basically this means that the EU protects the right of evangelism and missionary work – which is why there were so many mission organisations present in the EP that day. Some may say that it is a good place for missionaries to be anyway, but that is a different discussion.
The fact that these statements became part of the guidelines is thanks to the work of Members of the European Parliament, many of them Christians, who successfully made the case that without this right there is no real freedom of religion and belief.
It’s particularly encouraging that this drive for religious freedom is supported across all political groups. This can also be seen in the EP intergroup working for freedom of belief or in the new friendship group for Syriac Christians. In 2015 and 2016 the EP adopted with overwhelming majorities several resolutions on this issue, including one that clearly condemns the ISIS atrocities as genocide. But beyond that the European Parliament has been very clear that countries such as Saudi Arabia should end their support for spreading Islamist extremism.
This protection of freedom of religion and belief has gone so far at European level that the European Commission has appointed a special envoy to promote freedom of religion and to anchor this deeper in EU policy, in response to a proposal from the EP.
In a time when many Christians in the UK feel that some of their fundamental freedoms are under pressure, it is encouraging to know there is such concrete support by the EU for religious freedom around the world. The UK government agreed to these guidelines and has therefore the duty to consider them also at national level.
This untold story demonstrates clearly that Christians can make a real difference in the EU and we hope they will find the courage to continue to do so.
Johannes de Jong is Director of the Christian Political Foundation for Europe