10/06/2010, 00.00
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Religious freedom: a dialogue of the deaf between China and the European Union

by Bernardo Cervellera
In Brussels, European parliamentarians and bishops call for greater attention to persecution, religious freedom and human rights in relations between the EU and other countries, a few steps away, the meeting with Wen Jiabao and other Asian representatives speaks only about economics. Yet the EU has always been proud to stand as a champion of human rights. The emptying of words is one of the methods of totalitarianism (H. Arendt).

Rome (AsiaNews) - At the European headquarters in Brussels yesterday two major encounters took place demonstrating the European Union’s deafness or its schizophrenia – in relations with partner nations, particularly with regards religious freedom.

Held almost simultaneously, one of the two meetings dealt with the persecution of Christians hosted by European bishops and members of the European People's Party, and the other with Asia-Europe relations, where Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao took centre stage.

Italian MEP Mario Mauro and his Polish colleague Konrad Szymanski participated in the conference on presecuted Christians, where they heard from a variety of witnesses of persecution: Mgr. Louis Sako, archbishop of Kirkuk (Iraq); T.M. Joseph, president of Newman College, Thodupuzha (India), Kok Ksor, president of the Montagnard Foundation (Vietnam, based in the U.S.), Mgr. Eduard Hiiboro Kussala, bishop of Tombura (South Sudan). Also present were representatives of agencies working to support the persecuted communities, such as “Aid to the Church in Need" and "Open Doors".

Szymanski said that "Europe can not remain indifferent" to the fact that "75% of killings related to religious hate crimes affect Christians". Mauro, in turn, said that "religious freedom is the condition by which all other freedoms are guaranteed."

For the occasion, the secretariat of COMECE (Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Union) issued a Memorandum of 11 points with precise demands to the EU to reinforce the value of religious freedom in relations between the EU and its foreign partners. Among the eleven points the request is made, for example, that in all dialogues with partners there is a section on human rights and religious freedom; that each year there checks on each country to verify if the situation improves, that recommendations for third party countries be drawn up.

The memorandum does not mention any particular country, but does mention the blasphemy laws - an indirect reference to Pakistan (and other Muslim countries) - and in directs a subtle hint (maybe) at China, when it says that we must "encourage" those countries that despite having signed the UN Convention on Human Rights, has yet to translate them into law. Beijing in fact signed the Convention in 1998, but so far has not implemented any law on religious freedom, preferring the provincial and local regulations, subject to interpretation, manipulation and violence.

The conference ended with the promise that a written declaration with this content and suggestions will be presented to the plenary of the European Parliament in a few weeks time. In order for it to be adopted, it will need the support of 380 members within three months.

A few hundred meters from the first conference instead the ASEM summit was held, a meeting between EU and Asian countries. The rally was attended by representatives from 46 countries. To the astonishment of some observers, there was talk of the climate, the Yuan, terrorism, aid to poor countries, but not human rights. Yet, even without waiting for the adoption of the Written Statement of the Conference on the persecution, the EU claims to always include in its relations with other countries the issue of human rights (and religious freedom, at least as an appendix of human rights).

In the presence of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the dominant issue on the table - and one which absorbed everyone’s attention - was the revaluation of the yuan. Yet, in 2006, marking the 30 years of partnership between China and the EU, the importance of asking China to release Catholic bishops in prison (there are two), guarantee freedom of religion and dissent was stressed.

Besides China, the meeting was attended by representatives of Pakistan, India and even Myanmar. One could perhaps raise the issue of blasphemy laws, anti-conversion laws in some Indian states, the suppression of the Burmese monks. ... Instead, silence. About Myanmar must be said that some were surprised by the presence of the Burmese Foreign Minister, as there is a ban on their presence in the EU. Perhaps it is an expression of Europe’s "traditional tolerance".

The philosopher Hannah Arendt said that the force of totalitarianism is not only ideology, but in emptying words of their meaning. Wen Jiabao continues to preach - only among Chinese leaders - that China needs political reform, but never says what they are. Meanwhile, human rights activists and journalists are imprisoned. In this way the word "political reform" is meaningless, as one would expect from a totalitarian regime.

But perhaps the EU is also emptying the words "human rights" and "religious freedom" of their meaning. In this way it becomes an accomplice of totalitarian regimes.

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See also
Fr. Bernardo Cervellera receives the Premio Giuliano Ragno 2008
Religious freedom for China's future
Christians in Asia, courageous witnesses of faith until martyrdom
Religious freedom, an instrument for progress and stability
Chinese Priest: The joys and sorrows of my mission, stifled by politics
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