A coalition of faith-based NGOs (wich CAP LC is part) has called for the idea of religious freedom and belief to be “centre-stage” as one of the main topics of the upcoming European elections in May, according to the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which held a press conference on April 1, before their conference organised in the European Parliament on 2 April.
“These elections are going to be arguably the most important in the EU’s history and we are calling on all election candidates to address the issue of religious freedom and belief in the campaign,” said Richard Milsom,Chief Executive of the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe, one of the biggest European political parties, who decided to support the Faith and Freedom Summit initiative.
The group is non-partisan and comprises 17 different organisations, including Human Rights Without Frontiers, a leading Brussels-based rights NGO, The All Faiths Network, and the Church of Scientology. The participants of the conference said they want the EU to take a harder look at religious freedom violations within Europe.
It has also called on all candidates standing in the elections from 23-26 May to sign a “pledge” which states that they will “uphold and defend the freedom of conscience and religion of all individuals by rejecting and speaking out against bigotry, discrimination, harassment, and violence.”
The pledge was supported by Ahmed Shaheed, the current UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, and has been signed by several Members of the European Parliament, including UK Socialist member Claude Moraes, who chairs the civil liberties committee; and Czech MEP Jan Zahradil, a candidate to be the next European Commission President.
Specifically, the coalition wants EU legislators and would-be MEPs to set up an all-party parliamentary intergroup to investigate instances of discrimination based on religion or belief within the EU.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition also wants to appoint a task force within the Fundamental Rights Agency to tackle the issue of religious discrimination and has called for an EU-funded research project to help guide policy for the EU concerning religious matters. The coalition has also said it wants to establish an “open platform” comprised of MEPs, civil society members and others that would be in charge of monitoring discrimination based on religion.
Lea Perekrests, deputy director at HRWF who also spoke at the news conference, said another suggestion is for the creations an MEP award which, she said, would “honour those who are active in promoting various aspects of freedom of religion or belief within the EU.”
“The aim would also be to encourage other MEPs, in the next mandate, to become more active in this field,” she added.
“We want to highlight where religious freedom is hindered in European Union today, to assess areas that need to be improved as regards the protection of freedom of religion or belief, and to be a force for good,” said Ivan Arjona, who heads the European office of the Church of Scientology. The coalition, Arjona said, was “committed to freedom of religion or belief, and the belief that the EU should have more involvement that goes beyond just tackling issues that are outside Europe’s borders.
“If we want to have a legitimate influence outside of EU borders in the field of freedom of religion, we must be beyond reproach within our borders. Unfortunately, this is not the case today,” Arjona said, adding, “The pledge will be sent to all election candidates and we are asking them to support this in their campaign. Currently, the issue of violations in the sphere of faith and religious beliefs are only looked at by the EU when they occur outside Europe. But why not look at such violations within Europe and the EU as well?”
The President of the Netherlands-based NGO the Gerard Noot Foundation, Hans Noot, told reporters that the aim of the EU’s policy should be to include minority groups, saying, “This applies not just to faith groups but all minorities, including refugees and the lesbian and gay community. We should be striving for a more inclusive society but, at present, minorities like asylum seekers and refugees are demonised and portrayed as the “bad boys” if anything goes wrong.”