As theological debates on sexuality and marriage become more and more central, many Christian denominations are being asked to clarify their views.
It seems that our politicians slowly realise that the question really is what we believe about diversity and the role of the state in religious affairs. Are our governments elected to ensure uniformity among citizens? Should it be that intolerance and discrimination targeting Christians is somehow less serious because they represent power?
“It is increasingly difficult to be a Christian today.” (Elisabeth Schneider-Schneiter, Swiss Member of Parliament [MP], at the debate on Thursday)
Thursday’s debate at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (or PACE, in Strasbourg) made history, one should say it. For the first time – and what’s more, with quasi-unanimous agreement –, politicians representing 800 million citizens acknowledged the fact that Christians in Europe are facing increasing intolerance and discrimination, and pointed to concrete solutions for the Council of Europe’s 47 member countries.
For the European Evangelical Alliance, the recently adopted resolution on intolerance and discrimination against Christians, spearheaded by Valeriu Ghiletchi, is therefore a significant step in the right direction. But there are several stories behind the story, and thus, there is a lot that this vote teaches us. As an observer, I would like to share some of these lessons, which shows in what direction the discussion is currently going. There are several, and some of them are very powerful (I shall come back to them in a later post), but I would just like to highlight four.
LESSON 1: NOT BY LAW ALONE
First, why is it relevant that this happened at PACE? The quality of the debate prior to the vote was probably due to the fact that there was no piece of legislation at stake. PACE resolutions are not law, but they are like ‘strong advice’ for national or subnational parliaments, who are supposed to follow up. That made it easier to discuss the issue of intolerance and discrimination against Christians.
‘Religion is a sensitive issue,’ as several politicians have raised on Thursday (a refrain I also hear often in Brussels), and in that sense PACE, ‘Europe’s parliament of human rights’ as Valeriu Ghiletchi puts it, is perhaps the best, higher political place to discuss Christians’ situation in Europe in a non-legal (non-technical) way. It is first and foremost an issue of human rights and diversity politics.
LESSON 2: MAJORITIES CAN ALSO SUFFER FROM INTOLERANCE
The Ghile?chi report, which served as a basis for the resolution, rightly highlights that the sentiment of intolerance and hostility which Christians have is underestimated because they often represent the majority of the population or the largest religious group. Some may, therefore, find it difficult to view Christians as victims. For the first time however, in the debate, I have seen solid consensus forming around the idea that perhaps, Christians are not always the cause of the problem, whilst the real problem is a general trend of intolerance that all people experience, whether members of majorities or minorities. Interesting, isn’t it? Truth remains that this argument is unfortunately easy to use for demagogue politicians, especially anti-Muslim demagogical rhetoric, precisely because it may appeal to a large percentage of the population. Christians should be vigilant and exercise Gospel-based critique.
LESSON 3: THE MEDIA, THE LAWMAKERS AND OUR BELIEFS
So, where does the problem come from, then? Apart from worried discourse about Islam, much of the politicians’ comments, including from some left-wing MPs (e.g. Lord Don Anderson from the UK or Arcadio Díaz Tejera from Spain) acknowledge that pressure actually comes from the media an rom the way laws are drafted and applied. Mr Ghiletchi’s report highlighted an internationally-recognised problem of the media called ‘negative stereotyping,’ whereby a trend develops in the media and in the public of systematically talking about and portraying, in this case, Christians in a negative light.
LESSON 4: THE ISSUE WITH OUR BELIEFS ABOUT RELIGION IN THE PUBLIC SQUARE
More profoundly, it seems that our politicians slowly realise that the question really is what we believe about diversity and the role of the state in religious affairs. Are our governments elected to ensure uniformity among citizens? Should it be that intolerance and discrimination targeting Christians is somehow less serious because they represent power? Or should we search for a doctrine of diversity politics for 21st-century Europe, whereby people’s freedoms to live and behave according to their conscience are affirmed within limits defined by human rights, whatever their beliefs about life or about God?
That is exactly the debate where our Evangelical contribution is needed, and that is why we are so supportive of the Global Charter of Conscience. As Dr David McIlroy, a British barrister said when the Charter was published in 2012: “This is the only way we can secure and uphold freedom of conscience in the twenty-first century.”
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The discourse about religious freedom in Europe is undoubtedly changing. Religious freedom has been at the heart of the Evangelical Alliance’s action as a movement since it started in 1846. In the run-up to yesterday’s vote, we supported Mr Ghile?chi’s efforts and have been praying regularly for him and for his success. We were especially happy about the acknowledgement of the Global Charter of Conscience, whose promotion was spearheaded by the EEA, and whose message has convinced many Members of Parliament, starting with the Committee on Equality and Non-discrimination. This experience has proved that we can make victories for the good when we work together. And God has been faithful in showing us that things are actually moving, as these lessons show.
Christel Lamère Ngnambi is the Brussels Representative of the European Evangelical Alliance (EEA) and coordinates Evangelical engagement with the European Institutions. The EEA brings together and represents more than 15 million evangelical Christians from all Protestant traditions.