In the past several weeks, hundreds of lives have been lost at sea as refugees flee northern Africa seeking safety in Europe. How is this humanitarian crisis related to religious freedom? To what extent is this mass emigration related to a lack of religious freedom in home countries? On the other side of the coin, what do religious freedom issues in the EU have to do with the treatment of these refugees? To what extent do the religious identities of these migrants influence EU refugee policies?
By: Jacob Rudolfsson
Every year thousands of people seek asylum and better employment opportunities in Europe. Their journey is full of danger, and many times they travel across the Mediterranean Sea at the risk of their lives. In 2014 alone, at least 3,419 people died crossing the Mediterranean fleeing poor and war-torn countries in Africa. On April 19, 2015, a boat carrying 950 people capsized during an attempt to reach Europe. Only 28 survived. According to one survivor, at least 300 people had been locked in the hold by smugglers.
The migrants originate mostly from countries such as Yemen, Nigeria, Gambia, Syria and Libya. The reasons for migrants leaving their homes are varied, but not seldom due to human rights abuses and religious persecution. And many are trying to find a new future in Europe.
According to the 2015 Annual Report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Boko Haram’s rampages in Nigeria are responsible for the displacement of more than one million individuals.
The report also states that more than 6.5 million of Syria’s population is now internally displaced due to the religious persecution by ISIL and other violent religious extremists. More than 3.3 million more are refugees in neighboring states.
In much of the Middle East, the Christian presence has decreased rapidly, reducing the religious pluralism, which is vital for a pluralist society, of the area as a direct consequence. Religious tensions and radicalism have nonetheless followed the migrants as they flee persecution to neighboring countries.
The USCIRF reports: “The duration of the conflict and the large populations of refugees in neighboring countries are causing sectarian tensions, and increasing the risk of sectarian violence and instability, in those countries.” The same can be seen as refugees travel the dangerous route across the Mediterranean. In April, a group of Muslim migrants from Africa trying to cross to Europe allegedly threw about 12 Christian fellow passengers overboard. According to a recent report from the Swedish Commission for Government Support to Faith Communities, there have also been attacks on religious dissenters in refugee centers in recipient countries.
In its recommendation, the USCIRF emphasizes that the humanitarian crises require continued emergency action, “especially when it comes to the sheer number of refugees and displaced people created by the forces of religious radicalism.”
As refugees seek asylum and try to settle in Europe, religious tensions can arise there as well—even between secular and religious worldviews. As many European countries have become deeply secular societies and religion considered a private issue, which is interpreted by many elites (especially in Western Europe) as a normal consequence of modernization, religious expressions in public is seen as something foreign.
As sociologist of religion José Casanova writes:
“When it comes to Islam, secular Europeans also tend to reveal the limits and prejudices of modern, secularist toleration. One is not likely to hear among liberal politicians and secular intellectuals explicitly xenophobic or antireligious statements. The politically correct formulation tends to run along such lines as 'we welcome each and all immigrants irrespective of race or religion as long as they are willing to respect and accept our modern, liberal, secular European norms.'”
The transition to more pluralistic and religiously diverse societies has led to tensions in the public arena concerning religion and the all-too-eager efforts by politicians to regulate religious practice. Italian journalist Elisa Di Benedetto has collected a number of cases for the International Association of Religion Journalists that illustrate political tampering in the religious sphere:
France: Legislating what proponents called the nation’s secular values, France passed a law in 2010 banning full-face veils, a form of clothing some Muslim women see as a requirement of their faith.
Switzerland: In 2009, the Swiss approved a national ban on the construction of new minarets, the prayer towers above mosques. In 2013, nearly two-thirds of voters in Ticino canton approved a ban on full-face veils in public areas.
Italy: Court cases challenging the right to display crucifixes in public schools have generated continuing controversy. Polls showed as many as 85 percent of Italians opposed a European court ruling saying crucifixes in schools violated the rights of nonbelievers. Several towns have local bans on full-face-covering veils and mayors of the anti-immigrant Northern League banned Islamic swimsuits.
In secular Europe, immigration is almost always synonymous with Islam. Restrictions on religious expression are often done by governments to foster harmony in increasingly culturally diverse societies. Even bans on certain speech—such as criticisms of Islam—are motivated by the ambition to reduce hate. But as Brian Grim and Roger Finke argue in “The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century,” restrictions on religion, including those on speech, contribute to internal instability and create more tensions over religion.
In contrast, a study of five Western European nations, conducted by the University of Munster, found that having personal contact with Muslims was strongly related to favorable attitudes toward Islam in every country. For example, three quarters of the respondents in the former West Germany and two thirds of the respondents in the former East Germany, reported that they had perceived encounters with Muslims as pleasant. Respondents in the Netherlands, Denmark, and France shared this opinion. At the same time, the same study showed that more than 70 percent of respondents in former West and East Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands are convinced that the increasing plurality of religious groups is a source of conflict; in France, only 59 percent thought so.
One conclusion to draw from this is the need for policies and arenas that enable people from various backgrounds to meet, and less political tampering in those arenas. It is a huge irony that secular politicians and journalists see themselves as expert interpreters of religious beliefs they do not share themselves. It is not uncommon in European political debate today to hear statements about what is and is not “true Islam” or “true Christianity.” Theology and metaphysics are best left to the religious arena as they are outside the jurisprudence of the state.
While the process of integrating different religious identities in a predominantly secular society might be best solved by the various EU-member states, due to their various contexts, the refugee policies of the EU vary to such a degree that the burden of receiving refugees is unevenly distributed. According to a position paper by the European People’s party (EPP), which is the biggest in the European parliament, five “member states (Sweden, Germany, France, Italy, and Hungary) out of 28, accommodate and process the claims of 70% of all the asylum seekers, while member states located at the external borders of the EU (Italy, Malta, Greece, and Bulgaria) face disproportionate asylum and migratory pressure.”
In November of 2014, Caritas Europe and other Christian NGOs issued a series of recommendations for safe and legal paths to protection in the European Union. One of those recommendations is the lifting of visa requirements for groups like those fleeing the war in Syria. It is now up the EU-states to take the challenge seriously.
Jacob Rudolfsson is the deputy general secretary of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance.
This piece was originally authored on June 11, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.