The media has recognised the vulnerability of Christians in Afghanistan. Why won’t the European Parliament?
It has been a little over four months since Kabul fell to the Taliban. It’s almost Christmas time.
Faced with one of the most horrifying seizures of power in living memory, human rights experts and journalists called attention to gross violations of religious freedom burdened on minorities at the hands of the new regime. For the last seventy years, colossal European institutions have been built and primed for the promotion of peace and human rights, for the world to look to at such a time as this. For many of us in the Parliament, it’s this calling for which we serve every day.
But how have we fared so far?
Despite the calls of seasoned human rights experts to protect vulnerable minorities, the topic of religious freedom itself has become somewhat of a taboo in official documents emerging from the glass doors of Schumann and Place de Luxembourg. Thousands of Christians are being, quite literally, hunted down simply because of what they believe. The Taliban is reportedly executing anyone found with Bible software installed on their cell phones.
Responding to the urgent situation, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in the end of passed September. It condemned the violence of the Taliban. The text highlighted the dire situation for women and girls, and the “heavy discrimination” now faced by ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Shia Hazaras. Yet out of 3,444 words, not one mention was made of Christians. The blind eye turned towards the truly vulnerable Christian communities is no anomaly. On 17 August, European Union Ministers of Foreign Affairs put out a statement on the behalf of the EU, which condemned the violence appearing across the headlines –all without mentioning the word “religion”, “faith” or “Christian” at all. The disappointment to church communities seeking urgent action was compounded by the hollow resolution of the UN Human Rights Council, which was, as the OHCHR press release detailed, branded “an insult to Afghan people rather than a response to the crisis.”
It’s a sorry look for our institutions. Only last month, the European Union made grandiose public commitments to the cause of religious freedom in the form of a declaration. Similarly, a report adopted by the parliament in January of this year recognised that “Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world, constituting 80% of all persecuted religious believers.” Despite a bold public face championing one of the most deeply personal human rights, a look behind the scenes shows that the institution is not quite able to practice what it preaches. For example, the European Commission is currently looking for a replacement for their Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief outside of the EU. Christos Stylianides, who held the Special Envoy position for a handful of turbulent months while religious minorities faced extreme persecution worldwide, has relinquished his tenure.
Before Stylianides had accepted the post in May, the role was left empty for 15 months – a booming, shameful absence in the face of headlines calling out for attention not only to Afghan minorities, but also to the Rohingya, the Yazidis and so on. To the 1,000 teenage girls facing forced marriage every year in Pakistan, in order to “convert” them away from their minority faith (Christian, Hindu, Kalash).
And yet, the EU is not helpless to act on such issues internationally. Just take the example of Shagufta Kauser and Shafqat Emmanuel. The Catholic Pakistani couple sat for 7 years – yes, years – on death row on charges of blasphemy. Shut away from society, from freedom, from their children. The couple had been accused of sending a “blasphemous” text message to an Imam. It didn’t matter that the couple were illiterate. Or that Shagufta had lost her phone at the time the text was originally sent.
On April 28, 2021, the European Parliament adopted a joint motion for a resolution on the blasphemy laws in Pakistan calling for a more comprehensive approach to address the abuses of blasphemy laws. The case of Shagufta and Shafqat was highlighted in particular.
A political document might not always save a life. But international pressure on a country to uphold human rights commitments can certainly help. In June, prison doors swung open as the High Court in Lahore overturned the couple’s death sentence and freed them – at least from incarceration. It was two months later that Shagufta and Shafqat, who faced imminent threats to their lives, finally found safe refuge.
But for every Shagufta and Shafqat, there are thousands more vulnerable members of religious minorities who wait under the weight of trumped-up charges or looming violence, simply because of their faith. Take the 3,462 Christians, including ten priests or pastors, who were murdered in Nigeria in the first 200 days of 2021. Or take girls like Maira Shabaz. She waits in hiding in Pakistan for the court to take a decision on annulling her marriage to a much-older Muslim man, which took place to forcibly “convert” her after she was abducted at just 14 years old.
At a time where the West is looking in horror at the atrocities being committed against vulnerable minorities, Europe cannot allow the Special Envoy vacancy to linger as it has in the past. If the EU wants to be a world leader on human rights, now is the time, and religious freedom is the cause. The Commission must replace the Special Envoy with urgency indeed.
The world simply cannot wait.
Emmanouil Fragkos (ECR/EL)
Francois-Xavier Bellamy (EPP/FR)
Jorge Buxadé Villalba (ECR/ES)
Marco Campomenosi (ID/IT)
Angel Dzhambazki (ECR/BG)
Carlo Fidanza (ECR/IT)
Gianna Gancia (ID/IT)
Laura Huhtasaari (ID/FI)
Ladislav Ilcic (ECR/HR)
Beata Kempa (ECR/PL)
Isabela-Helena Kloc (ECR/PL)
Joachim Kuhs (ID/DE)
Ivan Vilibor Sinčić (NI/HR)
Ivan Štefanec (EPP/SK)
Jessica Stegrud (ECR/SE)
Charlie Weimers (ECR/SE)