EU: From the EU Guidelines on FoRB to “Religious freedom is not a second-class right”

Paper presented at the conference held on 29 June at the European Parliament to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief. The FORB Roundtables Brussels-EU and Netherlands as well as HRWF contributed to this event hosted by MEPs Peter van Dalen and Carlo Fidanza.

By Andrea Benzo, Special Envoy of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation for FoRB Protection and Interreligious Dialogue.

HRWF (29.06.2023) – I would like to thank our co-hosts – the Honorable MEPs Carlo Fidanza and Peter Van Dalen, along with Mr. Willy Fautré – for their kind invitation.


Today’s event provides us with a much timely and needed opportunity to discuss how to strengthen our common commitment to the protection and the promotion of freedom of religion or belief as this universal right is under increasing pressure globally.


Last week, the Italian Embassy to the Holy See hosted the presentation of the 16th Report on religious freedom in the world by the international NGO “Aid to the Church in Need”. In her message for that occasion, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni made a very powerful statement and stressed that “religious freedom is not a second-class right”.


There are a number of considerations that we should draw from these illuminating remarks.


First, we are reminded of the interrelatedness, interdependence, indivisibility and universality of human rights. If FoRB is restricted, the whole set of human rights a person is entitled to will be consequently under pressure. Such view allows us to grasp all possible forms of religious discrimination, both visible and hidden ones.

Secondly, the promotion of FoRB is a universal value and a common heritage of all humanity, not a Western concern, as some try to portray it. Therefore, FoRB should not become hostage of a “West vs the rest” pattern. Rather, it is one of the fundamental prerequisites for stable and prosperous societies, which is the ultimate goal of any country across cultures, religions, and geographic boundaries.

Given the importance of FoRB as a crosscutting and universal goal, there is a need to increase FoRB literacy across sectors, including governments and civil society. The EU FoRB Guidelines serve this purpose effectively and they should be implemented more and more widely.

We should also recall that FoRB issues can only be tackled if we raise collective awareness on FoRB violations on a global scale. Similarly, awareness-raising cannot be successful without FoRB literacy. For too long, religion has been kept at the margins of public life on the wrong assumption that it is a purely private issue. At the same time, religious freedom is often confused with freedom of worship while it has a much broader nature. FoRB is made up of two layers. The first layer refers to the core of FoRB as enshrined in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, i.e. the freedom to have, not to have, to change and to manifest a religion or a belief. The second layer refers to the right not to be discriminated on religion or belief grounds. This is a much broader dimension, as it potentially involves all fundamental rights that may come under threat because of religious discrimination. It is a direct consequence of the interrelatedness, interdependence, indivisibility and universality of human rights. Without a correct understanding of all the ramifications of FoRB violations, our response cannot be affective.

FoRB promotion is a collective effort that relies significantly on partnerships involving Governments, parliaments, academia, religious actors, and civil society. Therefore, FoRB should not be advanced only on a purely inter-governmental level but through a multi-stakeholders approach, where all potential players contribute to this common goal, in line with the universal nature of FoRB, which benefits all, without distinctions. We need both a whole-of-society and a whole-of-government approach in this regard.


Based on this multidimensional nature of FoRB, there is also a need to streamline FoRB within our daily policy making activities, especially within development cooperation. FoRB violations constitute obstacles to growth, stability, and development. There are studies showing that there is a positive correlation between the respect of FoRB and growth. If some people or even entire communities are kept at the margins of society, unable to fully take part in the social and economic life of their own countries on account of their religious or belief affiliation, such exclusion will entail a loss of resources, both human resources as such and ideas. On the political and security level, religious discrimination may fuel resentment that, in turn, may lead to instability and undermine growth.


I would like to conclude by a reference to the broader Mediterranean region, our common region and the cradle of the three monotheistic religions. This area is not only Italy’s strategic neighborhood but also one of the world’s most religiously diverse areas. Despite this rich legacy, the Mediterranean region is beset by growing tensions that require the utmost commitment of all players – religious, political, and economic ones – to avoid escalation and provide people with the foundations for a more prosperous future. The region’s historic religious pluralism has also been under pressure in the last decades. The rise of Daesh, the shrinking of Christian communities, and the spreading of hate speech all point out to the need to increase our efforts to advance inclusive citizenship and equality as a political, social and cultural priority for the future of our common region.


With this in mind, in 2018 the Italian Parliament established a fund to support Christian communities in crisis areas. Through this fund, which has a yearly budget of 4,4 million euros, we support projects run by NGOs in several countries, mostly in the broader Mediterranean region, with a view to improving the economic condition of the beneficiaries, foster social inclusion, and reduce inequalities. In other words, we target the nexus between FoRB and equality to directly address those forms of exclusion that stem from religious or belief discrimination. Such interventions are meant to support interfaith cooperation – as a means to foster mutual knowledge and understanding – and to improve the protection of religious freedom by empowering individuals and enabling them to enjoy their rights in full.


Once again, I am grateful to the co-organizers for this opportunity and deeply appreciative of their personal commitment to the advancement of FoRB globally and I look forward to keeping engaging with them on this common goal.

Further reading about FORB in the EU on HRWF website