Restrictions on religious freedom decided by governments to limit certain forms of religious expression (such as dress and visible symbols, ritual slaughter, religious circumcision, and places of worship); ambiguous treatment of conscientious objection on the part of employers; worrying surge of episodes of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Western Europe was thus included among a list of places that deserves “monitoring” according to the to the 2016 Annual Report published on May 2 by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIF). The Report documents, place by place, violations to religious freedom in over 30 World Countries, and issued a set of recommendations. The map – along with Countries marked in red (such as North Korea, Iraq and Syria) and those marked in orange (Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan, Cuba and India) – the whole of Western Europe stands out, marked in beige.
Governmental restrictions on religious freedom in European Countries are aimed at ensuring equal opportunities to all and to the establishment of rules for coexistence in ever more pluralistic societies. However, there is a backlash:
“They encourage a societal atmosphere of intolerance against the targeted religious groups, and limit their social integration and educational and employment opportunities.”
The Report calls upon the international Community to carry out ongoing monitoring actions. “To be effective, such action must recognize the unmistakable fact that religious freedom is a common thread in each of these challenges, and deserves a seat at the table when nations discuss humanitarian, security, and other pressing issues”, redoubling “their efforts to defend this pivotal liberty worldwide.”
Religious symbols and dietary requirements. Several European Countries restrict individuals from wearing visible religious symbols, such as Islamic headscarves, Sikh turbans, Jewish skullcaps, and Christian crosses, in certain contexts. For example, France and some parts of Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland prohibit wearing such symbols in public schools. The French government also does not permit government employees to wear visible religious symbols or religious dress at work. Recently, President François Hollande and other high-ranking government officials have publicly called for the extension of this rule to at least some private workplaces. Also in France, the Report points out that in 2015, several French towns discontinued providing non-pork alternatives in school cafeterias for Jewish and Muslim students, arguing this was required under France’s strict form of secularism.
Circumcision. Disputes continue over the religious circumcision of male children, which is integral to both Judaism and Islam. Following a heated debate on this issue, (that even appeared to equate it with female genital mutilation) in 2015 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution that recommended that religious circumcision should be performed only “by a person with the requisite medical training and skills, in appropriate medical and health conditions” and with the parents “duly informed of any potential medical risk or possible contraindication.”
Places of worship. In Switzerland, the federal constitution bans the construction of minarets. The ban was enacted through a 2009 popular referendum initiated by the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP). The Report equally underlines that in certain Countries, including Italy, existing mosques are insufficient for the communities.
Conscientious objection. The Report highlighted issues in many countries concerning how to address conflicts between religious beliefs and generally-applicable laws, government policies, or employer requirements. In 2013, the European Court of Human Rights recognized that wearing religious symbols at work or not being required to endorse same-sex relationships are protected manifestations of religious freedom that employers may only limit under certain circumstances.
Anti-Semitism. This phenomenon includes anti-Semitic incidents, ranging from verbal harassment to vandalism of property to violent attacks, including terrorist attacks on Jews and Jewish sites: Toulouse 2012; Brussels 2014; Paris and Copenhagen 2015. Despite the condemnations pronounced by Prime Ministers and Heads of State, the Report indicates increasing Jewish immigration to Israel:
Around 7,900 French Jews immigrated to Israel in 2015 and approximately 7,200 did so in 2014. By contrast, the number was around 3,300 in 2013 and fewer than 1,900 in 2012.
Anti-Muslim bias. The US Report warns that “More than a million migrants and asylum seekers, mainly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, arrived in Europe irregularly during 2015. “At a time of high profile Islamist terrorist attacks around the globe, European governments management of the influx was chaotic.” this situation “exacerbated anti-Muslim sentiment. Despite the fact that many were fleeing conflict, the largely Muslim arrivals were viewed with suspicion and fear in many countries.”