European Union, Religious Freedom and European Churches

Within the human rights system there is no hierarchy of rights. Human Rights are universal. One’s rights are equally important as the rights of the others. Only if we give credit to the universality concept, we can have the credibility to defend our own interest in whatever right we address in the public or private arena. The Conference of European Churches has closely monitored the violations of freedom of religion and belief due to the very many recent events. The Conference of European Churches would like to underline the importance of the respect for all human rights and their universality and religious freedom for all people, nations, and governments all over the world. Christians truly have belief in what was said in Genesis 1.27 “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them”. We find similar principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood[1].” Freedom of religion or belief is guaranteed by several International Human Rights Instruments as well.

Churches have been preaching and practising the concept of justice, due their own historical development. For CEC member churches, it was always clear that religious freedom is the fundamental right of every person living on the earth recognising at the same time forum internum (privately) and forum externum (in public) within the religious freedom principle. This means that, whether as an individual or in the community, this right is exercised and granted by International Human Rights Law.

After the disasters of the Second World War International organizations started to work on the creation of the international legal regime to ensure the peace and stability in Europe and the entire world. Therefore the United Nations (192 member states), Council of Europe (47 member states), Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (52) and the European Union (27) were born more less at the same time, having different working methodology, for the same scope - preserving the peace, security, democracy, human rights, rule of law etc.

Each of these organizations has its own human rights instruments and mechanisms.

The EU Lisbon Treaty underlines that the inspiration for the European Union is drawn from the “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe[2]”. In article 10 of the TFEU[3] it was stipulated that in defining and implementing its policies, the Union will combat discrimination based on …religion or belief. In art. 13 respect for religious rites and cultural traditions was underlined. Finally in art.17 the EU committed itself to have “open, transparent and regular dialogue” with the churches, religious communities and philosophical and non-confessional organisations.

It is important to mention (ar. 17 (1)) the Union respects and does not prejudice the status under the national law of churches and religious associations or communities in the member states.

That means that the EU is not going to interfere on the national church-state level. But still we need to pay attention to how the EU secondary law influences the national church settings by different directives in the area of anti-discrimination legislation, labour law, tax law etc. In the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU one can find the protection of religious principles in Chapters: II (Freedoms) and III (Equality). And finally the Chapter on Freedoms art.10 says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change religion or belief and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance[4].”

Even if the legislative framework is very clear still the part on implementation stays. Human Rights in general are the area where the churches have permanent work to do: whether to defend their own interest or to advocate for the rights of others. Currently the EU is working to implement the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Last autumn the Commission came up with a proposal[5] for its implementation and the Council of the European Union[6] recently brought out their conclusions on the role of the Council of the European Union in ensuring the effective implementation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.[7] That means that fundamental rights are fully taken into account when drafting legal acts and throughout the legislative procedures as well the use of the already existing tools in this regard.

At the same time, the accession process of the EU remains, adding its 49 signatures to the ECHR for which the Church and Society Commission of CEC has been advocating as well. The EU commitment towards human rights and democracy in the world was also stated in the EU Human Rights Annual Report presented by the High Representative and Chief of the EEAS, Baroness Catherine Ashton, for the period of 18 months from July 2008 to December 2009.[8]

In its report, the EU opposed the death penalty in all circumstances, especially stoning as a legal punishment, rape as an instrument of war and at the same time urged the UN to adopt a worldwide moratorium on female genital mutilation etc. The EU has its human rights dialogue with a certain number of countries as part of the packet of the EU neighbourhood, development, integration policies etc. Those dialogues are not enough, in the sense that they will change the situation immediately, and therefore a long-term strategy should be applied in terms of advocacy.

How does the EU operate in terms of human rights?!

The European Parliament addresses human rights through the sub-committee on human rights of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

COHOM working group helps the Council of the EU to make and coordinate its human rights policies. The WG meets monthly. The Council decisions are brought in by unanimity by the 27 member states.

The European Commission has its share in the implementation of the human rights policies, including assistance under the EIDHR.

The EU Fundamental Rights Agency provides the European Institutions with the human rights developments on the side of the 27 EU Member States.

Recent violations of Religious Freedom or Belief and the EU action

The death of the Coptic Christians in Alexandria caused by the suicide bombing (1 January 2011), the interruption of the Christmas Liturgy[9] in the Northern part of Cyprus (25 December 2011), the killing of two Iraqi Christians in Mosul (22 November 2010), the series of the attacks targeting the Christians where also innocent civilians died in Baghdad (10 November 2010) the attack on the Syriac Cathedral in Baghdad where 50 worshippers have been killed (31 October 2010), the assassination of the Minister[10] in Pakistan related to religious matters and the death sentence for blasphemy[11] were the very recent violations of religious freedom or belief which occurred in the world and were the tragic events which the European Institutions addressed on several occasions. The chief of the EU Diplomatic Service and High Representative, Baroness Catherine Ashton and members of the European Parliament addressed the principle of the violation of religious freedom or belief. The European Parliament came up with a resolution on the situation of Christians in the context of freedom of religion[12] where the EP Urges governments and authorities in all countries concerned to continue their efforts aimed at protecting vulnerable religious communities, including Christian minorities, against violent attacks and to do their utmost to bring the perpetrators of such acts to justice[13].

this regard, the Committee of Ministers of the 47 member States of the Council of Europe unanimously adopted a Declaration on religious freedom[14] and a recommendation (1957 (2011)) - Violence against Christians in the Middle East - where the Assembly recommends to the Committee of Ministers to monitor the governmental and societal restrictions in terms of religious freedom, coming up with measures against states which knowingly fail to protect religious denominations etc.

In its communication of 21 February 2011, the Council of the European Union under the headline “Intolerance, discrimination and violence on the basis of religion or belief” stated that the Council expresses its profound concern about the increasing number of acts of religious intolerance and discrimination, as epitomised by recent violence and acts of terrorism, in various countries, against Christians and their places of worship, Muslim pilgrims and other religious communities, which it firmly condemns. Regrettably, no part of the world is exempt from the scourge of religious intolerance[15].

The EU stays committed to support the field of intercultural and interreligious dialogue and its engagement to promote religious tolerance and human rights protection.

The EU action plan to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief is still on its way to being developed. The CSC would welcome more transparency about the production process of this document and would like to contribute to its developments and continues to monitor the process.

The churches should underline and closely monitor the implementation of the human rights clause in economic and trade agreements. The question is whether in the trade and economic agreements we first pose the question about our values and then we discuss trade or we firstly discuss trade and then ask about European values as a part of the economic and trade agreements and their implementation?! There is no simple response to these questions, but churches have a role to play and give their contributions to the solutions from their socio-ethical perspective, in order to strengthen the concept of justice, peace and integrity of creation.

often in the public debate we focus on human rights outside of Europe, but we have a lot of work to do as well in terms of religious freedom or belief on the side of the European Union and to witness to our own values for ourselves and to avoid double standards. We ask the other to fulfil criteria that we sometimes cannot fulfil ourselves in Europe.

European Union’s internal human rights policy

In terms of the EU policy on freedom of religion or belief, it is important to mention its internal dimension.The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) is an advisory body of the European Union which was established in 2007 by a legal act of the European Union and is based in Vienna[16],which is a successor of the European Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia. The EU FRA collects theevidence about the situation of fundamental rights across the European Union and helps the implementation of the fundamental rights in the EU.

The EU FRA is on its way to addressing the debate for the next meeting of the EU Fundamental Rights Platform 2012 – the balance between fundamental rights with an emphasis on religious freedom and anti-discrimination. The violation of religious freedom or belief in the European Union takes other forms than outside of the EU. Usually human rights activists demand more tolerance, combating hate speech, non-discrimination on religious grounds, allowing the existence of religious symbols in the public sphere, or re-definition of church-state relations, or freedom of religion or belief in conjunction with the right to education, right of assembly, property rights, parental rights and conscientious objection, access to places of worship etc.

If the EU Member States violate human rights as basic European values the Council may decide to suspend certain rights of that Member State, including its voting rights within the Counci[17].

In the European Commission 2010 Report on the Application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights[18]it was stated that the first step that EU has to do related to the Charter of Fundamental Rights is to explain to EU citizens how and in which circumstances the Charter could be used. The Charter protects individuals and legal entities against actions by the EU institutions and bodies which are in the conformity with the fundamental rights[19].

In the European Commission’s 2010 report on the application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in the paragraph on religious freedom it was stated that the display of religious symbols and wearing of the burqa or veil were the most frequent questions discussed in relation to religious freedom where the art. 17 clearly says those issues fall under scope of national law where the member states have different approaches.

The CEC member churches have different needs in regard to human rights and religious freedom or belief. Some churches are still struggling with church-state relations in the post-communist countries; others are forced to deal with property rights and restitution laws, such as the Serbian Orthodox Church; some others advocate for the full implementation of religious freedom and fundamental rights in prisons all over the Europe, such as IPCA; some advocate for the minarets initiative in Switzerland, for example; some try to access places of worship, such as the Church of Cyprus; other churches make claims to have legal personality as it is the case in Turkey; some churches advocate for religious freedom in Cuba, such as the Czech churches do etc.

These are only a few of the cases that CEC member churches deal with in terms of human rights and religious freedom or belief.

Some churches even have problems with the concept of universality of human rights; however, they still recognise international law and international human rights law as the supreme instruments and mechanisms that were established by International Organisations such as UN, CoE, OSCE and EU.

What the CEC member churches could do in terms of advocacy vis-à-vis the European Union?!

Here are some proposals:

They could raise awareness on the local, national, regional, European and global level about the prosecution of the religious minorities;

They could advocate for the implementation of the human rights clause in the economic and trade agreements of the EU and third country nationals through their respective governments;

They could advocate for a strong external policy of their respective countries and to build into it a strong policy on freedom of religion or belief as a part of their foreign policy, as some countries do, for example UK;

They could organise human rights training sessions

They could establish living letters of people prosecuted on the basis of their religion or belief;

They could strengthen the cooperation between the church and civil society in the human rights area;

They could play an active role through the ecumenical and inter-religious organisations and strengthen the common understanding of the violation of religious freedom or belief;

) They could advocate and stand for the rights of minorities ( see Charta Oecumenica)

Each church should find its own way, according to its own strength to advocate for human rights and religious freedom or belief;

Monitoring the EU human rights dialogues and the implementation of the human rights guidance with certain countries would be one more option;

Implementation of the European Parliament’s and CoE resolutions on freedom of religion or belief could also be monitored etc.

The Religious freedom or belief is the right where there is constant work to be done.

The Church and Society Commission of CEC will continue to monitor and advocate for human rights and religious freedom or belief in all international organisations (United Nations, European Union, Council of Europe, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) where it is accredited and has its consultative status.

Implementing human rights is not only a politically correct goal which should bring us political benefits. Human Rights are about people and for people no matter where they live and this is what we stand for.

Mag. Elizabeta Kitanovic
Represented in Helsinki 28.4.2011


[1] Article 1 Universal Declaration of Human Rights

[2] Gerhard Robbers, Religion-Related Norms in European Union Law, collected by Christine Schmidt-Konig, Update: December 2010. Trier University, 2001.

[3] Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union

[4] Gerhard Robbers, Religion-Related Norms in European Union Law, collected by Christine Schmidt-Konig, Update: December 2010. Trier University, 2001.

[5] Communication from Commission: Strategy for the effective implementation of the Charter of the Fundamental Rights by the European Union Brussels 19.10.2010 (COM (2010)573 final)

[6] Note the difference between the European Council and Council of Europe

[7] Council of European Union, Brussels 11 February 2011 6387/11


[9] In the village Rizokarpaso and Agia Triada

[10] Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab (4. January 2011)

[11] Case of Mrs. Aisa Bibi

[12] The Resolution was adopted on 17.1. 2011.

[13] Ibid.

[14]The Declaration was adopted by the Council of Europe on 21.1.2011.



[17] Human Rights and Democracy in the world/ Report on EU action