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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Forging a Trans-Atlantic Partnership on Religious Freedom

August 19, 2014

Shared values on promoting freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) globally present a unique opportunity for joint action between Europe and North America. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, where I work, has engaged European countries and institutions, as well as Canada, about ways to increase international coordination. We are beginning to see unprecedented interest in a new trans-Atlantic effort concentrated on promoting this fundamental freedom.1 Increasing Activity

The United States has long been a forerunner in this field with the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. The Act established the protection and promotion of religious freedom as an American foreign policy priority. It created an ambassador at large and an office on the subject within the State Department, and an independent commission to serve as a watchdog and think tank regarding US policy. Now, more than 15 years after the passage of the Act, the U.S. is no longer the only player in this field.

In 2013 Canada opened in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade the Office of Religious Freedom with a threefold mandate to (1) protect, and advocate on behalf of, religious minorities under threat; (2) oppose religious hatred and intolerance; and (3) promote Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad (Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada 2013). Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to offer “protection to vulnerable religious minorities” through Canada's refugee resettlement programs and to “ensure that the Canadian International Development Agency works with groups supporting such vulnerable minorities” (Conservative Party of Canada 2011, 40). Canada's Foreign Minister, John Baird, said his country will not only promote human rights, but will also “lead by example” noting that too often religious freedom is “measured in blood spilled and lives lost” (Bettina 2012).

The office is led by Ambassador Andrew Bennett, who was appointed in February 2013 by Prime Minister Harper (Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper 2013). Ambassador Bennett has been very active, traveling to many countries and issuing statements on topics such as the intimidation of Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergy in Crimea (Bennett 2014b), church attacks in Nigeria (Bennett 2014a), and violence against Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt (Bennett 2013b). In addition, the Canadian government established the Religious Freedom Fund to issue grants in places such as Nigeria (Bennett 2013a). Canada's parliament has also been supportive (Thames 2013). In April 2013, it adopted a cross-party motion on religious freedom, which received unanimous support in the House of Commons (David Anderson 2013). The motion called on the government of Canada to continue to emphasize the importance of religious freedom in Canadian foreign policy.

Across the Atlantic, several European countries—Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and the UK—have increased their activities on FoRB over the past five years in various ways. Some efforts have been at the intergovernmental level. Austria sponsored side events during the 2013 Alliance of Civilizations meeting in Vienna, focusing on rising restrictions on religion (5th Global Forum Vienna 2013—UN Alliance of Civilizations, 2013).

The Austrians also initiated a side event during the Minority Forum in November 2013 around the topic “Beyond freedom of religion or belief: Guaranteeing the rights of religious minorities” (United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 2013). Italy, for two years, established a special observatory on freedom of religion, a hybrid partnership between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the mayor of Rome (Forum for Religious Freedom Europe 2012). However, its actions were minimal and the next government allowed it to close by not renewing its mandate. In Germany, a group of parliamentarians created the “Stephanus Kreis” or Stephens Circle to focus on religious freedom internationally with an emphasis on Christian persecution. It comprises over 70 members (including Chancellor Angela Merkel) mainly from the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU) (Christian Democratic Union of Germany and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria 2014). In addition, the coalition agreement among German political parties after the 2013 elections made several references to the importance of international religious freedom. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has funded bilateral programs on FoRB in nine countries through their embassies (Government of the Netherlands 2013). The Norwegian Foreign Ministry issued guidelines entitled “Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Freedoms of Persons belonging to Religious Minorities” (Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2013), assigned a special envoy on religious freedom, and began issuing grants on related work through the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad–Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation 2013).

Among the Europeans, however, the UK stands apart, as both the British parliament and government have become actively involved in FoRB efforts. In July 2012, British parliamentarians launched the All Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief (APPG on FoRB). It is chaired by Baroness Elizabeth Berridge and is a cross-party caucus of members from the House of Commons and Lords concerned about religious freedom internationally for people of all faiths or none (APPG on FoRB 2012). The APPG is supported by various religious communities and a humanist group, and has a panel of experts. The panel wrote a detailed report entitled Article 18: An Orphaned Right, alluding to how the international community has too often ignored religious freedom protections outlined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (APPG on FoRB n.d.). Baroness Berridge and her colleagues have ensured that this issue is regularly brought before Her Majesty's Government. For instance, the House of Commons held a debate on FoRB in May 2014 (UK Parliament 2014).

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is also engaging FoRB issues. In 2010, the FCO issued a toolkit on FoRB, highlighting “how the FCO can help promote respect for this human right” (Government of the United Kingdom2010). In 2014, it issued a “dialog” paper to help diplomats understand the tricky intersection of hate speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion (Government of the United Kingdom 2014). The work of Minister for Faith and Communities Baroness Saeeda Warsi and others continues to highlight the challenges facing religious freedom internationally, and FCO has sponsored grants to promote work on FoRB issues abroad (Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs 2013). In addition, Prime Minister Cameron (Robert 2014) and Prince Charles (Rawlinson 2013) have both spoken about the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Regarding European institutions, the European Union (EU) has increasingly spoken to issues of religious freedom external to its political union. The most significant move forward on FoRB policy was the 2013 EU Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief. The culmination of efforts beginning in 2009, the Guidelines provide EU officials with practical guidance on how to seek to prevent violations of freedom of religion or belief, to analyze cases, and to react effectively to violations wherever they occur, in order to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief in the EU's external action. (Council of the European Union 2013)

With the Guidelines, the EU reaffirmed “its determination to promote, in its external human rights policy, FoRB as a right to be exercised by everyone everywhere.” The Guidelines further stated that the “EU focuses on the right of individuals, to believe or not to believe, and, alone or in community with others, to freely manifest their beliefs.” The Guidelines are practically focused, directing how EU representatives and member states can promote this important and often sensitive issue. They emphasize the EU's impartiality, as it “does not consider the merits of the different religions or beliefs, or the lack thereof, but ensures that the right to believe or not to believe is upheld.”

In 2014, the EU issued another set of human rights guidelines for its foreign policy. The EU Human Rights Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline reiterated the Union's commitment to “respecting, protecting and promoting the freedom of opinion and expression,” while also noting that religious freedom depends on freedom of expression (Council of the European Union 2014). These Guidelines recognize the interlocking nature of FoRB and freedom of expression, and noted that international human rights law prohibits restrictions on expression “solely in order to protect notions such as religions, cultures, schools of thought, ideologies or political doctrines.”

The expression guidelines contain a specific section on blasphemy laws, which states Blasphemy laws: Laws that criminalize blasphemy restrict expression concerning religious or other beliefs; they are often applied so as to persecute, mistreat, or intimidate persons belonging to religious or other minorities and they can have a serious inhibiting effect on freedom of expression and on freedom of religion or belief. The EU recommends for the decriminalization of such offences and forcefully advocates against the use of the death penalty, physical punishment, or deprivation of liberty as penalties for blasphemy. The EU will continue to work with and support organizations advocating abolition of blasphemy laws. Statements by EU leadership have also focused on FoRB. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, has offered robust remarks on several occasions. In 2012, before the Organization of Islamic Cooperation ministerial in Djibouti, she made the case for why religious freedom matters. She referred to it as an “essential pillar of safe and prosperous societies,” also linking its protection to economic development and democratic stability. She made the contra-wise argument as well, saying “its absence, in turn, breeds distrust and uncertainty and undermines economic and political viability” (European Union 2012).

In 2014, High Representative Ashton responded to the death sentence of a Christian woman in Sudan for the “crime” of apostasy. Her spokesperson said

Freedom of religion or belief is a universal human right that needs to be protected everywhere and for everyone. Sudan has ratified the relevant UN and African Union conventions and thereby has an international obligation to defend and promote freedom of religion or belief, which notably includes the right to adopt, change, or abandon one's religion or belief of one's own free will.  … . The EU has been calling on all countries to repeal legal provisions that penalize or discriminate against individuals for leaving or changing their religion or belief or for inducing others to change a religion or belief, especially when cases of apostasy, heterodoxy, or conversion are punishable by the death penalty. (European Union External Action 2014)2

In addition to efforts by the EU government, the European Parliament has been increasingly active on FoRB. The 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are elected every five years, most recently in May 2014. No other EU institution is directly elected, and the Parliament has been steadily gaining power in recent decades and now acts as a “co-legislator” for nearly all EU laws. Human rights are a major focus of work for the Parliament and their annual human rights report in recent years has discussed religious freedom. The European Parliament Working Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief (EPWG on FoRB) was formally launched in December 2012 (see EPWG on FoRB Facebook Page 2012). Led by two Dutch MEPs, Dennis de Jong and Peter van Dalen—one from the political left and one from the political right—the Working Group's diverse membership from across the European political spectrum demonstrates wide support for the crosscutting issue of freedom of religion. The EPWG is not a formal committee, but it uses its platform to press the various EU institutions about their efforts to address FoRB concerns.

Creating a Trans-Atlantic Partnership on FoRB Europe and North America increasingly share a common commitment to proactively support Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights. From this convergence arises the possibility for increased coordination at a moment when FoRB is under renewed attack. The events of the Arab Awakening unleashed forces antithetical to the free practice of religion, both for the majority faith and for religious minorities, with violent religious extremists using force to silence others. Elsewhere in the world, authoritarian governments continue to use the mechanics of the state to crush independent religious activity. In addition, an illiberal, unchecked form of “democracy” is resulting in religious freedom abuses when majoritarian influences trample over minority rights.

People of all faiths and worldviews are threatened by these trends, which have implications beyond human rights, including international security and the growth of violent religious extremism. The 2014 Annual Report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) identified serious religious freedom abuses in 26 countries around the globe. Between USCIRF's Tier 1 and Tier 2 countries, 4 billion people live in countries that perpetrate or tolerate systematic, ongoing, or egregious violations of religious freedom (USCIRF 2014).

Rising levels of religious freedom violations and their concurrent destabilizing effects are leading to increased interest in the issue. In the face of these new challenges and opportunities, the common understanding between Europe and North America creates a platform for coordinated and elevated activity. USCIRF has been discussing with like-minded partners about how to increase cooperation and coordination on FoRB. While the U.S. has special mechanisms, the challenges facing religious freedom are beyond the capabilities or influence of any one government or organization.

Starting in 2013, USCIRF began a series of engagements in Europe and Canada. In October 2013, USCIRF Commissioners and staff met in Ottawa with Ambassador Bennett and Canadian parliamentarians to discuss ways to increase coordination. In February 2014, USCIRF Commissioners and staff met with members of the APPG on FoRB in London, as well as FCO diplomats working on FoRB. From our meeting with the APPG, there was a strong desire to network parliamentarians from around the world who are committed to religious freedom for everyone, everywhere. On that same trip, USCIRF cosponsored with the EPWG on FoRB a joint public event in the European Parliament. That event had a remarkable, standing-room-only turnout. In June 2014, Baroness Berridge, chair of the APPG on FoRB, convened a meeting in Oxford in coordination with USCIRF between selected parliamentarians to discuss forming an international network of parliamentarians around promotion of UDHR Article 18. Ten MPs from Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Turkey, the UK, and the European Parliament responded to the invitation. MPs from Germany and Uruguay wanted to attend, but were unable to do so for scheduling reasons. The unprecedented meeting had geographic, gender, religious, and political diversity.

From the discussions at Oxford University, there was broad agreement on the need to create a nonpartisan, multi-faith, and regionally diverse network of MPs committed to promoting religious freedom, as defined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The MPs agreed to a statement of principles to guide their work and define the scope. Toward this goal, there was agreement to expand the group and have a larger follow-up meeting in the fall of 2014.

The same week the MPs met, the Canadian government hosted a working level meeting at its embassy in London with representatives from a diverse range of countries. Similar to the parliamentary network, the Canadians initiated the meeting to link foreign ministry officials who hold the religious freedom portfolio or work on the issue. Signaling the importance of the issue, experts from ministry headquarters were sent to the meeting from Austria, Canada, the European External Action Service and European Commission, Jordan, the Netherlands, Norway, and the UK. France, Indonesia, Italy, and Nigeria were represented by local embassy staff. (The author also attended as a representative of USCIRF.) The meeting resulted in an informal agreement to create a contact group on FoRB, discuss increasing cooperation, and share information about funding priorities.

From these meetings, real efforts are underway to build an interparliamentary and intergovernmental coalition to promote religious freedom for everyone everywhere. The challenge posed to FoRB cannot be addressed in one single event. To keep this effort alive and meet the growing challenge, it will be necessary to convene regular meetings to coordinate efforts and create synergies in promoting FoRB internationally. Discussions could focus on enhancing global cooperation through sharing information about priorities and activities to date, ascertaining current and future challenges, and identifying gaps in international efforts. Ultimately, the effort could lead to a plan of action mobilizing the necessary expertise and possibly creating a joint monetary fund for programming. Separate tracks could be developed for parliamentarians and government representatives, so as to honor separation of powers and reflect the different tools each branch brings for advocacy. In addition, future meetings could also discuss ways to encourage more parliamentary and governmental involvement from other states. Religious freedom is relevant in every country and culture and is not only a Western concern. “Proselytizing” to bring in other supporters of UDHR Article 18 from Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America would add international, cultural, and religious diversity to an issue of global importance.

This effort should be distinctly different from other initiatives. Unlike the UN Alliance of Civilizations or recent debates in the UN regarding “defamation of religions,” such a forum would be framed around support of UDHR Article 18. This would include the freedom to believe or not to believe, the right to worship, change faiths, be free from coercion, and peacefully share one's religious views with others and one's children. The meetings would rally international actors currently committed to Article 18 and re-commit participants to actively work to promote and protect the rights it enumerates.

This unprecedented endeavor is attainable. Look no further than the worldwide response to terrorism. In 2011, 29 countries and the EU created the Global Counterterrorism Forum (US Department of State 2014) to discuss ways to defeat violent extremism, pool resources, and share expertise. Since then, a series of high-level ministerial meetings has led to the creation of a special fund to share resources and programs to counter extremist violence. The increasing focus on FoRB by a number of countries and institutions provides a core group for such action.

The Time is Now While the stage is set for increased relevance, nothing is certain. New efforts in Europe and North America are unprecedented and as yet uncoordinated. Will a new movement come together to take meaningful action or merely become another “talk shop” to discuss how the global climate continues to worsen? How will the growth of far-right parties in the European Parliament and a new European Commission impact the religious freedom work of the Union? Will the UK and Canada stay committed after their elections in 2015? These uncertainties make it all the more important to set structures in place and build momentum to carry this initiative forward.

For a meaningful trans-Atlantic partnership centering on promoting FoRB to coalesce and have impact, a lasting commitment from parliamentarians and governments will be required. Pressing repressive governments toward reform will not be cost free. Sanctions and other corrective measures are never the first resort, but their possibility can create political leverage to encourage change. Being steadfast and insistent on improvements may hurt bilateral relationships, as repressive regimes will find ways to push back when pressured. Networking efforts can share the burden and multiply the effectiveness of bilateral engagements. For example, see the joint statement by the embassies of the United States, the UK, Canada, and the Netherlands in May 2014 expressing “deep concern” over the apostasy death sentence of Meriam Yahia Ibhrahim Ishag in Sudan (US Embassy Khartoum 2014).

There is a window of opportunity to do something different and meaningful to respond to the forces of extremism and repression. The challenges of the 21st century—growing violent religious extremism, repressive majoritarian impulses, and a return of authoritarianism—call for a new approach. To be sure, traditional bilateral engagements with countries of concern are needed and should be increased. But they can be more effective and impactful if pursued in concert with others. Notes 1. The views expressed here are the author's and may or may not reflect the views of USCIRF. 2. As of this writing, she had been released and was taking shelter within the US Embassy.


1. 5th Global Forum Vienna 2013—UN Alliance of Civilizations. 2013. “5th Global Forum—UN Alliance of Civilizations, Vienna 27/28 February 2013.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

2. All-Party Parliamentary Group (AAPG) on International Religious Freedom. 2012. “About the APPG on International Religious Freedom.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

3. All Party Parliament Group (AAPG) on International Religious Freedom. 2013. “Article 18: An Orphaned Right, a Report by the APPG on International Religious Freedom.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

4. Bennett, Andrew. Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. 2013a. “Baird Announces Support for Religious Freedom.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

5. Bennett, Andrew. Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. 2013b. “Canada Concerned by Persistent Violence against Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

6. Bennett, Andrew. Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. 2014a. “Ambassador Bennett Denounces Church Attacks in Nigeria.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

7. Bennett, Andrew. Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. 2014b. “Canada Concerned by Intimidation of Ukrainian Greek Catholic Clergy in Crimea.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

8. Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Georgetown University. 2013. “An International Response to a Global Crisis: A Conversation with Baroness Warsi on Religious Freedom.” YouTube Video, 1:29:03. Posted by “Berkley Center” on November 22, 2013. Accessed June 12, 2014.

9. Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU). 2014. “Stephanuskreis ist Ausdruck des Engagements für verfolgte Christen.” Accessed June 12, 2014. [This source was translated to English from German].

10. Conservative Party of Canada. 2011. “Stephen Harper's Low-Tax Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

11. Council of the European Union. 2013. “EU Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief.” Foreign Affairs Council Meeting. Accessed June 12, 2014.

12. Council of the European Union. 2014. “EU Human Rights Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline.” Foreign Affairs Council Meeting. Accessed June 12, 2014.

13. European Parliament Working Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief. 2012. “In Facebook [Group Page].” Accessed June 12, 2014.

14. European Union. 2012. “Remarks by High Representative Catherine Ashton at the Organizations of Islamic Cooperation Ministerial.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

15. European Union External Action. 2014. “Statement by the Spokesperson on the Death Sentence Passed for Apostasy in Sudan.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

16. Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. 2013. “Canada's Office of Religious Freedom.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

17. Forum for Religious Freedom Europe. 2012. “Italy Established Observatory on Religious Freedom.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

18. Government of the Netherlands. 2013. “Human Rights Policy—Justice and Respect for All.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

19. Government of the United Kingdom. 2010. “Freedom of Religion or Belief—How the FCO Can Help Promote Respect for This Human Right.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

20. Government of the United Kingdom. 2014. “Hate Speech, Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Religion: A Dialogue.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

21. Hutton, Robert. 2014. “Cameron Speaks of Christian Faith as Day Ends With Hymn.” Bloomberg News. Accessed June 12, 2014.

22. Krause, Bettina. Seventh-Day Adventist Church. 2012. “At Religious Liberty Dinner, Canadian Foreign Minister Promotes ‘Bedrock’ Human Rights.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

23. MP for Cypress Hill, David Anderson—Grasslands. 2013. “Canada's Parliament Adopts Motion on Religious Freedom.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

24. Norad—Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. 2013. “Rights of Minorities of Faith and Belief.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

25. Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 2013. “Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Freedoms of Persons Belonging to Religious Minorities, Guidelines for the Norwegian Foreign Service.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

26. Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. 2013. “PM Announces the Establishment of the Office of Religious Freedom.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

27. Rawlinson, Kevin. 2013. “Prince Charles ‘Deeply Troubled’ by Plight of Christians in the Middle East.” The Guardian. Accessed June 12, 2014.

28. Thames, Knox. 2013. “Canada's Religious Freedom Work Is Timely, Needed, and Should Be Supported.”EMBASSY. Accessed June 12, 2014.

29. United Kingdom Parliament. 2014. “Daily Hansard Debate.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

30. United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. 2013. “Sixth Session of the Forum on Minority Issues on ‘Beyond Freedom of Religion or Belief: Guaranteeing the Rights of Religious Minorities’.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

31. US Commission on International Religious Freedom. 2014. “2014 Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

32. US Department of State. 2014. “Global Counterterrorism Forum.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

33. US Embassy—Khartoum. 2014. “The Trial of Meriam Yahia Ibhrahim Ishag.” Accessed June 12, 2014.

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