Secretary-general of European bishops' council says the EU has failed to act on its pledge to protect persecuted minorities

Church representatives have accused the European Union of ignoring pledges to defend religious freedom, despite commitments set out in special 2013 guidelines.

Mgr Duarte Nuno Queiroz de Barros da Cunha, secretary-general of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, told Catholic News Service that the Swiss-based organisation, grouping 39 European bishops’ conferences, was disappointed by a lack of action since the guidelines were enacted.

“If officials talk about religious freedom, they usually do so abstractly and seem afraid or ashamed to name the communities actually suffering, especially in the Middle East,” he said.

“Freedom of religion is an absolute principle, and diplomatic and economic pressure should be used to defend it,” he said. “But the measures adopted four years ago are just words on paper, despite growing persecution. The EU should stop being hypocritical by saying one thing publicly and doing another behind the scenes.”

Mgr Da Cunha said the ideology of secularisation “views religion as a private affair of the individual; it has difficulty understanding the public dimension of religious communities.”

Church leaders welcomed Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief when they were adopted by the European Union’s Council of Foreign Ministers in June 2013.

The 18-page guidelines said the free exercise of religious freedom contributed “to democracy, development, the rule of law, peace and stability,” whereas violations were often “early indicators of potential violence and conflicts.”

It added that the European Union was concerned that religious rights abuses were now widespread “in all parts of the world, including Europe,” and would consider “the possible suspension of cooperation, notably as regards financial assistance” in response.

The secretary-general of the Brussels-based Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, Dominican Brother Olivier Poquillon, told Vatican Radio in late April that EU officials had ignored a requirement to report on the guidelines’ implementation during 2016.

He said the guidelines were not being reflected in EU diplomacy, and said many officials appeared unaware of their existence.

“European politicians at all levels have little understanding of religion and how to deal with it,” he said.

Mgr Da Cunha told CNS the May 2016 appointment of Jan Figel as an EU special envoy on religious freedom outside Europe had introduced someone “very engaged and respected by the Church” to top-level advocacy for religious rights. He said some feared Figel would just be “just a name,” without support and help from EU institutions.

“We’re still waiting to see if the special envoy will be given a structure and budget and have any real influence on EU policies,” he said.

“Today’s mass persecutions and human rights violations are demanding the EU and its member-states do something, and I think political pressure and trade leverage can rightly be used to force improvements,” he said.