February 22, 2014

​US and EU Explore Cooperation on Religious Freedom

 ©2014 Religion News Service

In the first meeting of its kind, members of the U.S. Commission on
International Religious Freedom met with the European Parliament’s working
group on freedom of religion or belief to explore opportunities for
trans-Atlantic and international cooperation.

“One nation speaking alone may
just be accused of name-calling, but many nations speaking together will
certainly have an effect, and that’s what we hope to see,”
said Commissioner Mary Ann Glendon of U.S. foreign policy positions toward
religious freedom.

Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on freedom
of religion, delivered the keynote speech on February 12 at the European
Parliament in Brussels. He noted increased interest in religious freedom in
recent years but said that the topic is often viewed with unease or suspicion. “Freedom
of expression, being the epitome of liberal rights, is seen as a green light
for provocation,” Bielefeldt said.

Freedom of religion, on the other hand, is often considered a stop
sign. In Bielefeldt’s view, this “misguided” assumption stems
from religious defamation, hate speech, blasphemy, and apostasy being used
to stifle expression.

Dennis de Jong and Peter van Dalen, co-presidents of the EU working
group, discussed the group’s first annual report on freedom of religion in the
world. They argued that religious freedom should be given more prominence in EU
foreign policy and gave recommendations for 15 countries where the situation is
particularly dire.

“In Egypt, Coptic Christians must be able to freely and safely
practice their faith. In Pakistan, we demand that hate speech be scrapped from
school books, in particular where they are subsidized by the EU. In India, we’d
like to see states that have introduced anti-conversion legislation repeal
those provisions,” van Dalen said.

In its 2013 report, the U.S. commission recommended that the State
Department re-designate Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia,
Sudan, and Uzbekistan as countries of particular concern for religious freedom.
The body also recommended that Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan,
Turkmenistan, and Vietnam be added to this list.

Katrina Lantos Swett, vice chair at USCIRF, outlined specific
restrictions and incidents of torture, detention and harassment against faith
groups in these and other countries.

“In Russia, host of the grand spectacle of the Sochi Olympics,
conditions continue to worsen as the government uses extremism laws against
certain Muslim groups and so-called nontraditional religious communities,
particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses, through raids, detentions, and imprisonment,”
she said.

Lantos Swett praised President Obama’s remarks on international
religious freedom at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. “The
United States cannot and should not do this work alone,” she said. “We are
better and stronger when we work together.”