European Commission abolishes position of special envoy for the promotion of religion or belief.
The European Union has abolished its office for religious freedom, and religious leaders on the Continent are not happy.
“In some countries, religious oppression has now reached the level of genocide,” said Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, who heads COMECE, the consortium of Catholic Bishops conferences in the European Union. “Vulnerable religious minorities and groups are at risk, and the EU must continue campaigning for religious freedom, with its own representative included.”
The post of special envoy for the promotion of religion or belief outside the EU was created by former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in 2016 in the wake of massacres of religious minorities in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State group.
But last month, the Commission, now under the leadership of Ursula von der Leyen of Germany, announced that the position would be discontinued, with its work to be carried out by the Commission’s vice president, Margaritis Schinas, and the EU’s special representative for human rights, Eamon Gilmore.
A leading European rabbi warned that the move sends the wrong signal at a time when threats against religious minorities are appearing with greater regularity.
“Jews and other religious minorities are increasingly being targeted online and offline by extremists, and the free exercise of religion is being undermined,” Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, told the German news agency Deutsche Welle.
Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Germany Augustinos pointed out that the current debate about Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is an example of where the envoy could make the European stance clear.
Meanwhile, a leading Muslim pointed to attempts in some European countries to ban the wearing of headscarves or the slaughter of animals according to Islamic codes as a sign that the office is still important. Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, told Deutsche Welle that in light of those attempts, it’s “all the more important that the voice of such an envoy is not silenced particularly now.”
Religious leaders were not the only ones criticizing the move. According to the Tablet, “135 German parliamentarians from various parties urged their country to use its new tenure of the EU’s rotating presidency to press for restoration of the post.” Conservative members of the European Parliament tabled similar demands in a letter to Von Der Leyen, the Catholic news outlet said.
The position may well have had something to do with the freeing of Asia Bibi, who was on death row in Pakistan for 10 years for allegedly insulting Islam. Jan Figel, the first Special Envoy, was believed to be influential in securing her release in 2019.