The office was restored, after the European Commission dismantled it and many protested. While his or her name is still unknown, the work of the next Envoy must start from China.
by Marco Respinti
Contradictory signals from Brussels continue. On July 8, Mr. Margaritis Schinas, the Grecian Vice-President of the European Commission (EC), announced on Twitter that the European Commission decided to renew the function of the Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the European Union, to show “our determination to ensure the rights of ALL faiths and beliefs are respected across the world.”
This comes quite unexpectedly. In fact, on June 4, the EC wrote to the International Religious Freedom Roundtable in Brussels, which had supported the renewal, stating that the office of the Special Envoy will be discontinued, vaguely adding that the same mission will be pursued in different ways.
The office of the Special Envoy was established on May 6, 2016, fulfilling the call made by the European Parliament through its Resolution of 4 February 2016, in response to the massacres of religious minorities in Iraq and Syria by the terrorist group known as ISIS.
That post was filled by Mr. Ján Figel’, a Slovak politician, who had served formerly as European Commissioner, and as Minister of Transportation and Deputy Prime Minister in his own country. Mr. Figel’ served as Special Envoy until December 2019, when his mandate was over.
Immediately after that, NGOs and advocates for religious liberty in Europe ‒ among which the multilanguage daily online news portal International Family News, of which I serve as Editor-in-Chief, and a group of NGOs and human rights media, including Bitter Winter – wrote petitions to the President of the EC, Ms. Ursula von der Leyen, requesting that she bestowed a new mandate on Mr. Figel’. When the EC answered not only that the mandate of Mr. Figel’ will not be confirmed, but even that the office itself will be discontinued, many remained puzzled. At that time, we speculated that the affair might have been something to do with the intention of the EU to avoid direct confrontation with important countries of the world whose record on human rights and religious liberty is quite poor.
The case sort of re-opened when three prominent German religious leaders appealed again to Ms. von der Leyen.
Now that the office of the Special Envoy has been restored, and many advocates for religious freedom rejoice, somehow comforted by Mr. Schinas’ comment that “the forthcoming appointment shows our determination to ensure the rights of ALL faiths and beliefs are respected across the world,” a few perplexities remain.
First, the office of Special Envoy has been restored, but the name of the Special Envoy is still unknown. All petitions to Ms. von der Leyen asked for a renewal of the mandate of Mr. Figel’.
Appointing somebody else, no matter how qualified, would be a personal blow struck to a man who served brilliantly in the role, in spite of the many structural limitations of this office, and perhaps a hidden change in the EC policy toward religious freedom itself. Time will tell.
On the plus side, that an Envoy will be appointed is a sign that the EU takes religious freedom seriously, even outside its own borders, or at least that the Commission believes that the protests against the cancellation of the office were too many to be left unanswered. Now, the EU should seriously address all violations of religious liberty in the world, starting from the country which, for its size, the number of its citizens, and its historical abysmal record on human rights, is the major culprit in the world of violating the religions liberty of believers of all faiths: China, which too often has remained out of the EU’s radars.