Freedom of religion or belief in Europe
Recent events and calls to action have defended the freedom of religion or belief in Europe. This article examines these and asks whether these are enough.
On the 5 and 6 July 2022, the UK government hosted the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief in London. Organised by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, the human rights conference brought together more than 500 ministers and faith leaders from 60 countries. It urged increased global action on freedom of religion or belief for all. While Liz Truss, then foreign secretary, spoke of Russia’s “holy war” in Ukraine, King Charles III, then Prince of Wales, warned that the world stands at a “crossroads between totalitarian and liberal societies.” The right road to take, he answered, would see us embed freedom of religion as a right in all areas of life, including on social media.
In many ways, the foreign secretary’s warning about one religion warring against one or a few other religions is a familiar warning. It is explained by a long history of religious conflict in Europe, and often involves the familiar pact of separating church from state. King Charles’s warning, on the other hand, is an unfamiliar one, particularly because it is about a more recent threat to freedom of religion or belief.
Rejecting freedom of religion or belief
Millions of Europeans see profoundly held aspects of their religion or belief being rejected on account of bigotry or calls for national cohesion. This rejection has taken different forms, ranging from acts of cancel culture to government interference. The few months before the conference, for example, saw many French Jews and Muslims worry about campaign promises being made during the French presidential election. French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen declared she would end religious animal slaughter if elected. This would have effectively outlawed Jews’ kosher and Muslims’ halal dietary practices. Le Pen also pledged that she would push to ban the headscarf in France, the country with western Europe’s largest Muslim population. Despite distancing himself from Le Pen, Macron debated a woman in a Muslim headscarf during the campaign and also defended his existing ban on headscarves in schools as part of France’s secular principles.
As a result, it can be argued that religious or believing individuals, and their communities and institutions, are being placed at a profound disadvantage in European law and life. The state is increasingly interfering in religious liberty, if not the church. King Charles is of course warning against this. In 2015, he explained his views as follows: “I mind about the inclusion of other people’s faiths and their freedom to worship in this country. And it’s always seemed to me that, while at the same time being Defender of the Faith, you can also be protector of faiths.” These remarks resonate even now, perhaps even more so, since the multicultural society his mother, Queen Elizabeth, presided over has been increasingly contested in the UK.
The challenge of intolerance
While national policies across Europe have called for fewer rights for religious traditions, its continental policy has supported freedom of religion or belief. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights 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.” But much like in the United States, the European project to protect both civil and religious liberties at the same time faces many challenges. One key challenge, arguably a resurgence of a perennial challenge, is intolerance. Particularly with the rise of polarisation, and with it the erosion of a culture of free (or empathetic) speech, people of all faiths and no faith are worried that their rights of conscience are less protected, from each other and from their governments.
Is policy enough?
The question, of course, then is whether policies are enough for the religious discourse in Europe. Do events such as the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, or individual calls to action such as King Charles’s call to defend all faiths, make a difference? The risk and suspicion are that there is often little discernible difference. It arguably comes down to whether European nations, just like any other, have the ability to understand and the willingness to reconcile the traditional definitions of human life with their wider cultures and liberties. The right road, as King Charles called it, is a difficult one to take.
 Mark W. Konnert (2006) Early modern Europe: the age of religious war, 1559-1715. Ont., Canada: Broadview Press