Writing about Europe can seriously damage your blog stats. The exception is if you write about the EU and its reluctance to robustly defend the persecuted Church in the Middle East, in which case your stats rise significantly. Well, that has been my experience to date and while I don’t give a hoot about stats, it is an interesting populist trend to note.
Those who have been lobbying for the EU to take a firmer stand on the issue of religious freedom will therefore be pleased to hear that Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative Foreign Affairs, issued a statement yesterday following a meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council on the recent killing of a Polish Catholic priest, Marek Rybinski, in Tunisia. They will also be pleased to read that section of the Foreign Affairs Council’s Conclusions dealing with religious freedom.
This is the first such statement by Catherine Ashton. It is therefore worth further reflection. What does it tell us about the way the EU intends to handle the question of religious freedom? Does it meet the core demands of key Church constituencies?
Catherine Ashton’s statement starts by drawing attention to the fact that Tunisia has traditionally been a land of religious tolerance. This helps to give some historical depth to the statement. It also helps to frame the recent killing as something that falls short of Tunisia’s own high standards.
The statement then proceeds to set out why religious tolerance matters and why it needs to be preserved. It does so by placing religious freedom within a wider human rights discourse, the defence of which is seen as an essential prerequisite for democratic governance.
This all helps to set up the statement’s conclusion. It is the responsibility of the Tunisian government to continue to protect and safeguard the rights of citizens to practice their religion freely without fear of intolerance or attack. Such a judicial approach leads Catherine Ashton to call upon the Tunisian government to investigate the crime and bring the perpetrators to justice.
The statement is short and precise, but no less effective for being so. It represents a basic template that will be used when similar infringements occur.
The statement which draws on the main Council Conclusion’s on intolerance and discrimination, clearly reveals that the EU intends to approach the question of religious freedom as a fundamental human right and as an essential building block in democratic governance.
In terms of institutional mechanics what does all this mean?
It suggests that the EU’s External Action Service’s Directorate for Human Rights and Democracy will play a pivotal role. Equally important I suspect will be the Directorate for Multilateral Relations and Global Governance. This Directorate will take the lead on matters regarding the UN, the OSCE as well as the broader question of how the EU relates to political Islam.
It would be surprising if the EU’s External Action Service did not also develop a non-operational think-tank capacity to deepen its analytical understanding of key issues. This might result in policy papers as well as training courses for overseas diplomats. Used creatively this body might help to improve the religious literacy of those working for the EU’s diplomatic service.
Only time will tell how effective an operational model this all proves to be, but on paper at least it appears logical and intellectually coherent.
The mainstreaming of religious freedom as a human rights concern is unlikely to curry favour, however, with those who have in recent months lobbied for the EU to move beyond generic statements about religious freedom to a more concerted foreign policy where resources are translated into concrete measures that might guarantee the security and protection of persecuted Christian communities overseas.
What success might look like here is far from clear, but I suspect that the appointment of an EU Special Representative for Religious Freedom might go some way to meeting the demands of this lobby group.
The motives underpinning such an approach are entirely understandable, but last week’s visit to Brussels left me wondering if this strategy is both misguided and ill-conceived.
I haven’t come across a single Church or Church based organisation that is not vexed by the exodus of Christians from the Middle East. It is an issue that features high on the agenda of the Church that I work for and belong to.
It is right that churches and faith communities press governments the world over to take seriously the issue of religious freedom. But, if we are to respond faithfully to the situation on the ground then we need to better understand the relationship between cause and effect.
Put simply, the migration of Christians from the Middle East is not a recent phenomenon. It can be traced back to the early part of the twentieth century. This migration accelerated noticeably after 1945 and it has become more marked since the end of the Cold War.
There are as many pull factors driving this migration – e.g. the emergence of global travel – as there are push factors – e.g. war, occupation and revolution. It is obviously important to be aware of country specifics but for the most part – and I know that this is a big generalisation – Middle Eastern Christians are affluent, well-educated and middle class. More often than not they have the means and the opportunities to emigrate and – with UNDP estimating that 1 in 3 adolescents between the age of 19 and 29 in Egypt are currently unemployed – they possess ample motive.
With the landscape of the Middle East being redrawn with such uncertain effect, you might have expected churches to press the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council for a more concerted EU foreign policy where resources are translated into concrete measures that might help ensure the emergence of just and participatory models of government that provide for the well-being and dignity of all, irrespective of religious identity. In this respect, I thought Bishop Tom Butler’s Thought for the Day today was spot on.
The Conclusions of yesterday’s EU’s Foreign Affairs Council are likely, if acted on, to have a far more positive impact on the life of Christian communities in the Middle East than the lobbying agenda of certain churches. They won’t help to negate the pull factors but they will mitigate some of the push factors.
All of this makes you wonder about the guiding motives of those churches that have aggressively pressed the question of the persecuted Church. Are they motivated as much by a desire to re-engage with their own domestic constituency here in Europe as they are to provide faithful and loving service to those in need oversees. Is this agenda part of a wider strategy aimed at getting Europe to take seriously its own Judeo-Christian heritage?
That these questions have been raised and are the subject of debate and reflection in Brussels is itself a matter of deep concern and anxiety. Left unchecked it threatens to thwart the efforts of others who are eager to maintain a structured dialogue between the EU institutions and the churches on matter of the common good.
On more than one occasion when I was in Brussels last week, EU officials likened the robust engagement of some churches in terms more frequently used to discuss the Tea Party movement in America. That can’t be a good development. Is it time to rethink the strategy?