Are Freedom of Religion and Human Rights in Conflict?

Englishaudio-input-microphone20140327 ECRL Brussels - group photoRecently, I was invited to address an assembly of political and interfaith leaders at a meeting organized by the European Council of Religious Leaders, at the German federal state of Hessen’s representation in Brussels, under the banner of “Welcoming the Other: Equal Citizenship in Europe – the contribution of religion.” It was an opportunity to explore the mounting pressures attempting to limit freedom of religion and tolerance for others in Europe. The title of my lecture was provocatively entitled: “Religious practices and expressions: contradicting human rights?” and below are an audio recording of my talk, as well as my edited and slightly expanded remarks, responding to the question “are there obstacles that prevent people from fully using their rights as EU citizens to live and work anywhere in the EU?”

Full, slightly edited and expanded comments follow below.

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Are Religious Freedom and Human Rights in Conflict?

Honorable hosts of the Brussels office of the German federal state of Hessen,
Honourable Moderator,
Honorable General Secretary,
Honorable political and religious leaders,
ladies and gentlemen,

Today, we look back at, and – from our perspective as representatives of religious communities in Europe – evaluate, a year under the banner of the “European Year of the Citizens,” which intended, as per our invitation, to “stimulate debate about the obstacles that prevent people from fully using [their] rights [as EU citizens to live and work anywhere in the EU] and generate specific proposals for addressing them.”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, from my perch as a European Jew, the son, grandson, great grandson, descendant of European Jews, in other words, someone whose family has for many centuries been part of European history, and as someone active in interfaith work, I see a new and strengthening current, which is increasingly erecting such obstacles in Europe and beyond.

The invitation to today’s round table includes the suggestion that the notion of citizenship be considered not only from the legal perspective, but broadened to include the notions of social and spiritual citizenship. Under social citizenship, we understand “an inclusive society in which we accept ‘the other.'” Spiritual citizenship is a “notion of citizenship [that] should exclude no-one in the society.”

And yet, ladies and gentlemen, statements made in legislatures and parliamentary assemblies at the national and supranational level, are marginalizing minority religions and their practices.

Almost two years ago, following a Cologne court’s ruling, that labeled religiously motivated male circumcision a violation of the rights of the child, a debate has been launched across the western world regarding this practice. Whereas the German federal government quickly stepped in to protect the custom, which has been practiced and accepted in Europe for millennia, the debate did not cease. Meanwhile, I add parenthetically, discussions and actual bans of ritual slaughter have exacerbated the situation.

Along with other Jews, Muslims and others who practice male religious circumcision, I was surprised to learn, at a recent discussion at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, that I must be traumatized from the experience. At least those speakers stopped short of issuing me a prescription for expedient treatment in a psychiatric hospital.

What particularly struck, was the dismissive attitude of German PACE representative and rapporteur Marlene Rupprecht towards religious values. Though in her statement she apologetically tried to strike a right chord, stating: “The text adopted by the parliamentarians in a vote does not intend to stigmatize any religious community or its practices,” while in reality, she showed not the least appreciation for the psychology of identity, far less for how important this identity and what a central role circumcision plays in Jewish and Muslim self understanding. She repeatedly set religious values, including but not necessarily limited to circumcision, as being in conflict with the right of the child, totally ignoring children’s right to belong to a community and be incorporated into his family’s identity and culture.

While on the one hand the German federal government set the example to follow by rushing to protect minorities, sensibly reasoning that given centuries of practice by minorities in Germany, the authors of the German constitution could and would never had imagined curtailing religiously motivated male infant circumcision through its constitutionally enshrined human rights legislation,  we do witness, on the other hand, the forging of a new, militant secular narrative that seeks to reframe established law so as to proscribe certain religious practices.

At this point, ladies and gentlemen, I must ask the question that is the title of this talk: Are religious practices in conflict with human rights? Well, no, they are not, unless one wants to foist a particular exclusivist secular narrative upon minorities sharing the space in Europe. And let it be said loudly that some of these have been established here in Europe since time immemorial. European history is no less their’s than anybody else’s.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, when we ask today, in 2014, whether there are “obstacles that prevent people from fully using [their] rights [as EU citizens to live and work anywhere in the EU],” the answer is sadly increasingly “yes.” Practices very dear to Jews and Muslims and many others are being loudly criticised and at times outright prohibited. The net result is that social and spiritual citizenship is being denied to minorities.

Even as my Belgian passport entitles me to live and work in Denmark, the meat I eat is labeled unethical by a minister of agriculture, and I hear loudly how unwelcome I and my faith have once again become. I say this knowing that the decision of the Danish minister of agriculture to ban and circumscribe shechita and halal slaughter is not at all motivated by hatred of Jews and Muslims. However, even though the decision is apparently purely motivated by animal rights concerns, the actions speak louder than words, and the actions convey that I and my faith are not welcome. Additionally, it patronizingly labels my value system and that of halal consumers as unethical. Again, we are not welcome.

Ladies and gentlemen, we were very much gladdened in the German circumcision controversy, to immediately have gotten strong support from key people in the Catholic and Evangelical churches. However, for Christians, too, this is not only a matter of lovingkindness towards other faith communities, which should motivate their involvement. Mark my words. This matter may quickly escalate to the level of vital self interest. For, as we could see from the reactions of talk show audiences and blog commenters, the phenomenon of opposition to those religious rites is part of a larger wave of anti religious sentiments. There is a portion of the population, which, hidden behind a mask of purported scientific objectivity, increasingly seeks to marginalise religious values and religious life. At its core, this phenomenon also includes a profound misunderstanding of how religion is lived and transmitted.

Let me momentarily cross the Atlantic with you, to show where things could be headed, as well as where we are not headed at all.

Let me begin with a fascinating case in the USA Supreme Court’s docket, which shows can be discussed in America, which is totally unthinkable, unimaginable in Europe. The Hobby Lobby is a company owned by devout Christians. By all accounts, the owners are exemplary employers. They treat their workers well, deal with them respectfully and grant them useful and desirable perks. The health insurance they provide their workers with, is a good plan. But, as devout Christians, while they do include coverage for many kinds of birth control, there are four methods which they find so egregious, that they cannot in good conscience provide. However, under the new health care mandate colloquially known as Obamacare, company health insurance must cover those four methods, too. Must the Hobby Lobby owners be forced to violate their conscience? The USA Supreme Court has not decided yet, but in the US, they can have that conversation, which would be unthinkable in Europe. It inter alia also raises the very pertinent question, whether our European society allows very devout Catholic to become gynecologists and geriatrists, and respect the fact that their conscience does not allow them to perform certain procedures, or do they only get equal rights and protections only after checking their faith at the door? Do they have a right to integrity of conscience?

Much more alarming is an initiative by the Parti Quebecois that would deny civil servants the right to wear religious items. The kipa head coverage I wear would become illegal for Jewish postal workers, bus drivers and court clerks, as would the hijab for Muslimas and all but the smallest crosses for Christians. Amazingly, they are revising their national narrative (for the Parti Quebecois, their province’s narrative is a national narrative, nothing less) to claim that Quebec was always ultra secularist, even though that is manifestly historical nonsense, and are willing to deny their majority’s own rights, only do as to force the other to be less conspicuous.

Back home, I must ask, how long until religious instruction is booted out of the curriculum of school systems where such has historically existed and still exist, for example, in Germany, in Norway and a slew of other countries? Already, religion classes are pressured away from teaching faith, to include more instruction about faith.

Again close to home is the difference between how French and US courts interpret the gravity of impediments to free exercise of religion. Jewish Law prohibits operating electronic equipment on the Jewish Sabbath, requires affixing a symbol on the exterior post of the entrance door and requires Jews to eat their meals during the seven days of the Sukkot festival (Tabernacles) in a special temporary hut, a sukkah, which many erect in their balconies or yards. All of these practices have been subjects of lawsuits either in France or the USA. In the US, even though it could be argued that one could technically eat one’s holiday meals for one week a year at the synagogue, US courts have sided with defendants fighting coop managements that prohibited the erection of a sukkah, reasoning that such prohibitions are onerous deprivations of rights. In France, on the other hand, courts have considered the far more onerous result of homeowners no longer being able to leave their home for the weekly twenty five hours of the Sabbath, following the installation of electronic locks, not to be a sufficient burden on the homeowner, and have sided with building managers, instead. Clearly, French courts don’t take religious practice seriously.

All faith communities are impacted by this trend and it behooves us to belabor for a turnaround, in favor of increasing tolerance for all non violent religious communities.

What can be done? Where can we draw a different approach from?

Perusing the ECRL’s past resolutions, we find a very different, hopeful message, which may guide us on the path we should embark on. It is a message that understands that respect for people’s traditions and values, as well as their right to transmit those values and traditions to their children and to initiate them into their religious communities, is part of human dignity, a human right no less basic than any other right.

In that light, I encourage the ECRL and its political partners at the EU and the Council of Europe to take this message to heart and work to reverse the present worrisome trend of marginalization of religious communities, religious people and religious freedoms.

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One Response to Are Freedom of Religion and Human Rights in Conflict?

  1. Arie Folger says:

    >The following item is not from Erope, but since I mentioned it in my talk, let’s celebrate the good news of the likely demise of Quebec’s proposed bigoted Charter of Values: Parti Quebecois Suffers Crushing Defeat.

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