In mid-June, the European Union announced a decision that came as a surprise and disappointment to many defenders of freedom of religion around the world. Dr. Ursula von der Leyen, current president of the EU Commission, announced that the position of Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (Fo RB) would not be filled. Less than a month later, July 8, Maragaritis Schinas, vice-president of the European Commission, announced the Office’s re-establishment in a tweet! A good lesson that pressure is often successful in changing situations for the better.
The European Union had offered four years of passionate advocacy in this position by Slovak politician Jan Figel, first Special Envoy. “During his mandate, Jan Figel traveled worldwide, opened bridges of dialogue, and had a crucial role in the liberation of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani woman who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy and then acquitted,” the Catholic News Agency reported in an article on July 17. Figel provided an invaluable report on “scaling up” the EU’s advocacy last fall.
So this decision would have had major impact on how advocacy was conducted. When Figel’s appointment expired in December 2019 and no announcement of replacement was forthcoming, the United States and others made efforts to lobby the European Union to appoint a new Special Envoy.
These efforts included a May 13 open letter to the EU by a coalition of human rights and religious freedom experts. ““With its Special Envoy, the EU has led in the international response, and that leadership is needed now more than ever” the experts said.
The European Commission Office on Gender Equality, Human Rights and Democratic Governance discussed “how best to promote the objectives of FoRB” outside of the EU. This was a response to the advocates who signed the letter confirming no new envoy would be appointed. The EU’s response letter was not specific in revealing, in that case, what actions would be taken to promote FoRB by the EU in the future, but they had to know how important the freedom of religion has become in foreign policy.
First, Great Britain which is in the process of formally leaving the EU has its own Envoy for FoRB. This is great news. It means that there is one more advocate to work with others to defend religious freedom and save persecuted people.
Another interesting twist has some members of the EU, Denmark and Germany, with their own envoys to work on the issue of FoRB. And such nations as Poland and Hungary taking their own, more bold, steps to promote FoRB.
Poland has hosted side events at the UN promoting FoRB. The nation is also hosting the virtual State Ministerial on International Religious Freedom this year.
Hungary actually created a unit within the office of the Prime Minister himself which provides direct aid to struggling communities in both the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. That country, probably the boldest of all, has also hosted two international conferences on Christian persecution.
One potential outlet for helping persecuted religious believers in addition to a newly appointed envoy would be increased EU support for the IPPFORB (International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief.) This network of Parliamentarians from around the world feel that this issue is of extreme importance. They host their own events and have established working groups. Since members of both the European and the National Parliaments are members of this group it is an opportunity for the Office of Gender Equality, Human Rights and Democratic Governance to engage with other concerned parties on this issue.
Another potential area of engagement for the EU is through refugees. Although the numbers of those fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and parts of Africa are overshadowed by other pressing events there is an element of religious conflict that lies at the core of the refugee issue. Frequently this leads to contention within the EU itself when it comes to the idea of Christian persecution. Some secularists see everyone except Christians as victims of persecution.
Regardless of these other avenues, it is a welcome relief that the EU flip-flopped on the decision concerning a Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Whatever other route they were planning to take would have appeared a setback to both allies, like the United States, Great Britain, Poland, and Hungary, as a sign of weakness by those who would exploit the situation to commit human rights violations.
Now, with a new Special Envoy coming into the position, the EU will be able to add a voice coming from Brussels to the other European voices calling for freedom of religion and belief.