Due to mounting abuses of religious minorities, especially by ISIS, the European Commission created a new position to promote freedom of religion.
The move by the executive body of the European Union comes on the heels of Canada’s decision to defund and close its Office of Religious Freedom at the end of March. The United States continues to monitor religious freedom violations through its Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which was created by an act of Congress in 1998 to monitor international violations and make policy recommendations.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker appointed Ján Figel’ as the first special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the European Union on May 6. Juncker announced the appointment at the Vatican as Pope Francis received the Charlemagne Prize.
“Freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental right which is part of the foundation of the European Union. The persistent persecution of religious and ethnic minorities makes protecting and promoting this freedom inside and outside the EU all the more essential,” Juncker said. He expressed confidence Figel’ will make sure religious freedom gets due attention.
Figel’ originally proposed the idea of a religious freedom representative to the European People’s Party congress in 2015, World Watch Monitor reported. He said it was necessary because “activities developed so far by the EU within the humanitarian and development or diplomatic field haven’t been sufficient in terms of effectively protecting believers.”
A Catholic from Slovakia, Figel’ was European commissioner for education, training, culture, and youth from 2004 to 2009. He assumes the new role for one year, but the commission can extend it.
“My aim will be to create a synergy in EU policies in order to help freedom of religion in … countries in which freedom of religion is on the decline or doesn’t exist at all flourish more and more,” Figeľ told TASR newswire.
Secretary General Peter Zoehrer of the Forum for Religious Freedom Europe (FOREF) said the appointment was extremely important for EU foreign policy given escalating religious intolerance in recent years. FOREF is based in Vienna, Austria.
“Our hope is that it can raise the awareness of the importance of religious freedom as the most fundamental freedom right around the globe,” Zoehrer said.
The Economist questioned the fact that the position would be focused outside of the EU, rather than also keeping watch on Europe itself.
Zoehrer hoped the new envoy would accomplish four things: “address the fundamental right of all human beings to freedom of religion and belief at an international level,” raise awareness of the value of religious freedom both inside and outside the EU, push EU leaders to “increase economic and military pressure” on governments violating religious rights, and “support local civil society formations that are active in the field.”
— by Julia A. Seymour