The annual report on religious freedom published by the United States is well-known, but this year the European Parliament decided to publish its first annual report on the topic by a newly-formed group of concerned parliamentarians.
In a little-publicized move early in June the European Parliament Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance published its first Annual Report on the “State of Freedom of Religion or Belief” at an event hosted by the Intergroup in collaboration with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The Intergroup was established in January 2015. It was previously the European Parliament Working Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief (EPWG on FoRB). This group had previously published a report on religious freedom. The latest report covers the events of 2014.
Along with providing information about violations of freedom of religion and belief the Intergroup explained in the report’s introduction that they want to raise awareness of the issue among European policymakers and to assist in this they have included recommendations for the institutions of the European Union.
This is important, the report explained, because while international and human rights law is mainly concerned with the responsibility a state has towards its citizens, the state also has a duty to ensure that non-state groups or persons are prosecuted for crimes they commit.
Freedom of religion, the introduction to the report noted, is increasingly under attack from both states and non-state actors, among which are Islamic extremist groups.
In the section on the Americas the Intergroup commented that while it is not a region where religious persecution makes the headlines in some countries there are severe problems. Thus, while in general religious freedom is respected “worrying exceptions remain.”
For example, in Mexico criminal organisations and drug cartels have targeted Christians to extort money. Churches are also attacked because of their support for programs to rehabilitate drug addicts and alcoholics.
A report by Aid to the Church in Need stated that Mexico is the country in 2014 in which the most priests were killed, the Intergroup observed. All of these murders were linked to major drug cartels and groups that engage in trafficking in human beings and human organs.
A similar situation exists in Colombia the report stated, with hostility towards Christians from both guerrilla and paramilitary groups. The report cited figures from 2013 showing the forced closure of approximately 150 churches in that year.
Turning to the situation in the Middle East and North Africa the report observed that it has captured the headlines.
Few countries “have any degree of religious or belief liberty,” the report added, with violence and state persecution taking place on a “massive scale.”
This is evident in Iran, for example, where the Constitution gives Shi’a Islam a monopoly. “Power is wielded by the religious elite, which does not protect or promote religious or belief tolerance,” the report explained.
Meanwhile, in Iraq although there are some legal guarantees of religious freedom, “Iraq has become synonymous with religious motivated persecution.”
The advance of Islamic State has worsened the situation, leading to “outright horror for all those opposed to their specific interpretation of Sunni Islam.”
A situation of extreme persecution also exists in Saudi Arabia, one of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world, according to the report.
No church or non-Muslim house of worship exists in the country. Laws punish those who evangelize for other religions and atheism is considered an act of terrorism.
Saudi Arabia is also responsible for propagating its vision of Islam abroad and, along with some of the Gulf states, sponsors Islamic radicalization.
In Syria the state of civil war has led to increased persecution on the grounds of belief, although it is mixed with violence from the ongoing conflict.
High levels of violence
In sub-Saharan Africa the report acknowledged that there have been improvements in recent years, but there are still countries with high levels of violence, some of it based on religion. Nigeria is one of those countries, with thousands of people being killed last year.
The extremist group Boko Haram targets both Muslims and Christians in its quest to impose strict Islamic rule. The report accused the Nigerian government of failing to take adequate measures to mitigate religious-based violence.
Other countries with high levels of violence due to religious differences include the Central African Republic and Sudan. Somalia, described by the report as “archetypical failed state,” is also home to Islamic extremist groups who want to eliminate Christianity.
Asia, Oceania and Europe are also examined in the report, along with an overview of violence against places of worship and holy places.
One of the concluding sections looked at actions taken by European Union foreign policy and affirmed that the EU is increasingly active in the area of promoting religious liberty, but the report admitted that a lot more needs to be done.