In cooperation with the EHF, the European Parliament organized its annual dialogue meeting with non-confessional organisations on 11 April in Brussels. On EHF’s request, this year’s focus was on the discrimination and persecution of non-believers around the world, an issue that still does not get the proper political and media attention it deserves.
The conference was opened by Mairead McGuiness, European Parliament Vice-President and Ján Figel’, Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU. In what constitutes an almost unprecedented stance from such high-level EU officials, they both highlighted the worsening of the situation for non-believers worldwide and stressed the importance of better including this issue in EU action on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB). They both condemned the existence and use of blasphemy laws that hit non-believers and often more broadly political dissidents. Ján Figel’ also proposed concrete recommendations to do so, including paying more attention to non-believers when it comes to helping financially human rights defenders around the world.
Their call in favor of protection of non-believers’ rights was joined by MEPs Ana Gomes, Antonio Panzeri, Jean Lambert and Sophie In’t Veld.
Freedom of Religion or Belief is also the freedom not to believe.
, said Vice-President McGuiness.
When in comes to protecting human rights defenders, it is important that the EU pays more attention to the “B” in FoRB.
, said Mr. Figel’.
Among other non-confessional organisations, the EHF, together with the International Humanist and Ethical Union, substantiated the issue expressed during the opening speeches.
Gary McLelland, IHEU Chief Executive highlighted that 7 countries actively persecuted humanists in 2017 while discrimination and stigmatization by state authorities take many forms in many other countries. He underlined the high invisibility that non-believers, free thinkers and humanists have to face, both in their country of origin (because they often have to hide) and in the media and political discourse (because atheism and criticism of religion is still too often a taboo, including in Europe).
He finally also raised the concern of blasphemy laws in Europe and highlighted that even though most of these blasphemy laws have not been actively enforced for some time now, their existence harms the EU’s ability to protect persecuted non-believers outside of Europe. Repealing them would allow our continent to exert moral leadership in this domain.
EHF President Giulio Ercolessi focused on the situation of non-believer, LGBT and other refugees coming to Europe in order to escape discrimination and persecution based on their life stances. He carried on explaining that opposite to the populist narrative that only wants to see all immigrants as the worst enemies of our civic values and constitutional principles, within the large wave of immigration towards Europe there are many would-be fellow citizens of ours that cherish these values and principles. Because they experimented what their absence means. He called on fellow humanists but also the wider European public, including the media and political class, to show solidarity and help these people raise their voice. As he explained, their stories could help convince fellow citizens who see in all migrants a risk for a renewed kind of obscurantism. Ultimately, they could contribute to tackling populist discourses aiming at confusing people into the simplistic narrative equating refugees with Islamists.
We are pleased to see that the important issue of the situation of non-believers worldwide is increasingly on the agenda of EU institutions, thanks to the coordinated efforts of the EHF and IHEU. EU institutions have had a tendency to privilege discussions on the situation of Christian minorities worldwide, with little attention on people holding atheistic or humanistic views, those leaving religion (apostates) or those criticizing religious views. EHF and IHEU will keep cooperating in raising this fundamental issue at European level and push for effective EU action in the area.
You can read EHF president Giulio Ercolessi’s full speech here.
 Article 17 TFEU : Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union regulates the relationship of the European Union with churches and religious associations on the one hand and philosophical and non-confessional organisations on the other. Its third article states that “the Union shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with these churches and organisations.”