The European Union (EU) has decided it will have a Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion, responding to calls from political and civil society fronts in Europe and abroad. The decision was announced on Wednesday 8 July by the European Commission (EC) Vice-president, Margaritis Schinas, prompting a sigh of relief among the many organizations working for the protection and promotion of this fundamental freedom, including Aid to the Church in Need.

“The stakes were very high”, indicated ACN’s executive President Thomas Heine-Geldern, “with many Human Rights under threat since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, and particularly Religious Freedom curtailed in many countries. The EU is now confirming its engagement, which seemed compromised a few weeks ago”.

Indeed, the EC had cancelled the position on 15 June without explanations, and then immediately retracted after an outcry pointing out with evidence that the threats to religious freedom, such as the resurgence of extremism and violent persecution, are on the rise globally.

The position has been vacant since November 2019. All the cases which were being followed by the Special Envoy were in limbo, including cases of prisoners in Pakistan accused of blasphemy, kidnapped Christian girls in Nigeria, and the largely Muslim Uighur minority in China. Thomas Heine-Geldern said “We hope the nomination will come sooner rather than later, before the damage increases. Sometimes the mere knowledge that someone cares in the West for the victims of persecution does wonders to keep hope alive. In fact, ACN will be delighted if the position gets a permanent and multi-annual mandate and is not subject to yearly review.”

Jan Figel, a Slovak politician, had performed the function of EU Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief Outside the EU since May 2016. His work had been highly appreciated by victims and advocates, especially for his important contribution and constant vigilance of the case of Mrs Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman awaiting release after 6 years in prison in Pakistan. Mr Figel’s visits to countries where faith-related tensions are mounting helped release the pressure on religious minorities for example in Indonesia and Egypt. His mandate might be continued in the coming weeks.

There is interest from some EU Member States, but the decision about the appointee lies solely with the President of the European Commission, Dr Ursula von der Leyen, as this is a mandate dependent on the executive branch of the EU.

A Special Envoy fulfills the mission of promotion and protection of the fundamental right to Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion, as specified in Article 10 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. He or she is to become the “guardian” of the application of the EU Guidelines for Freedom of Religion or Belief and interact with European faith-based organizations and Churches with operations abroad.

“Because of this bridge function of the Envoy, his work has been very important to ACN”, continued Thomas Heine-Geldern, “for us it is very important that our project partners in difficult situations, like Myanmar, Iraq, Indonesia, Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have someone to address directly and who can be trusted to bring their message back to Europe, where the policy-makers’ decisions can be made with the needs of the victims in mind”.

“ACN International also follows-up on the contacts established with our project partners and regularly informs the policy-makers about the situation on the ground. This in turn helps the politicians and staff to address not only issues of freedom of religion, but also the consequences of persecution which ACN witnesses in countries where the EU has agreements  and can review its policy of Emergency Aid, Development and Cooperation, Security, Foreign Affairs, Youth and Education, and Trade.” concluded Heine-Geldern.