A look at its sway over Europe

The decision by the European Court of Human Rights—on appeal—that Italy’s schools may lawfully display the crucifix in classrooms was a rare piece of good news for religious believers in a Europe increasingly marked by aggressive secularism and, in particular, antipathy towards Christianity.

The idea of “Islamophobia” is very well-established in Europe’s political discourse. In the years following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, European governments have been at pains to avoid the scapegoating of Islam in general for the sake of the sins of some extremists. However, the continent’s political elite has been slower to wake up to the widespread phenomenon of “Christianophobia” that is sweeping through many countries.

Powerfully demonstrating the trend earlier this year, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, vetoed a resolution responding to outbreaks of violence against Christians in Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East. In a move that met with an angry reaction from France, Germany, and Italy, Ashton objected to the specific reference to Christians, preferring a general condemnation of religious intolerance. Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, accused Ashton of “excessive” political correctness.

Frattini, backed by his French counterpart, Michèle Alliot-Marie, said that issuing statements defending religious tolerance without referring to the specific minority that was under attack was pointless.

“This position is an excess of secularism, which is damaging the credibility of Europe,” Frattini said. And Europe’s increasingly apparent silence on abuses of religious freedom is causing disquiet among many religious believers.
Privately, diplomats have accused Ashton of appeasing Muslim sensibilities to avoid a so-called “clash of civilizations” after Egypt reacted furiously to a request from Pope Benedict XVI for better protection for the country’s Christian minority. Frattini demanded an EU response on the persecution of Christians after a January suicide bombing at a Coptic church in northern Egypt killed 23 people and injured 97. The Egyptian bombing followed attacks in Baghdad as well as fears, expressed by the Vatican, of persecution leading to a Christian exodus from the Middle East.

The move also angered lawmakers in the European Parliament, who just days earlier had passed a resolution specifically condemning the anti-Christian violence and calling on the EU to put security for Christian minorities at the heart of its foreign policy. The row illustrates a deeper concern in many Christian circles that persecution and discrimination against Christians is not taken seriously enough. Speaking earlier this year, the German president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch, called on society to become aware of Christianophobia. He told Vatican Radio that today, “Christians are the most persecuted group in the world, although that has yet to be acknowledged in the collective conscience.”

“We will continue to openly denounce every case of martyrdom and emphasize that Christianophobia is constantly on the rise in Western Europe” and other parts of the world, Cardinal Koch said.

His reference to Western Europe highlights alarm in the Vatican that Christianity is being marginalized in more subtle ways than the outright violence and persecution witnessed in other parts of the world. In May, for example, the European Ombudsman was forced to apologize after an Irish priest complained that a calendar, sponsored by the EU and distributed to millions of students across the 27 member state bloc, included holidays and feasts from virtually every religion except Christianity. Nikiforos Diamandouros has promised the “error” will not occur again. However, he refused to be drawn on why exactly the omission happened in the first instance.


The list of threats to religious freedom emanating from Europe recently is alarming. A Catholic doctor in a Catholic hospital is reprimanded because he will only offer fertility treatments to married couples. Catholic adoption agencies are forced to close because they are unwilling to place children with gay couples. A politician is severely censured because he suggested that it is better for children to have both a mother and a father, and another is fined for arguing that heterosexuality is better for society. A pastor is barely spared imprisonment for offering a biblical perspective on homosexuality.

These incidents from Ireland, Spain, Great Britain, France, and Sweden didn’t generate any interest from international human rights organizations that monitor religious freedom around the globe, nor in the US government’s annual survey on religious freedom.

Appropriately, that report focused on countries where religious believers are regularly killed or imprisoned for their faith—countries where the right to worship is severely restricted or even prohibited. But the cases outlined above are evidence of what many see as a growing threat to religious freedom that is mounting, not in some despotic regime in the Middle East, but in the heart of free Europe.

Dr. Phil Boyle runs a successful fertility business in the west of Ireland, offering couples living with infertility the opportunity to conceive using ethical NaPro technology for a fraction of the cost of in vitro fertilization. He was recently hauled before the Fitness to Practice Committee of the Irish Medical Council. His offense? As a scientist, Dr. Boyle relies on evidence, and all the reliable evidence indicates that children, in general, fare much better in life when they are raised by parents who are married to each other. He only offers his services to couples who are married. Dr. Boyle was found not guilty of professional misconduct based on a technicality. He now faces a probe by Ireland’s Equality Authority and may yet be found guilty of discrimination.

In neighboring Britain, Catholic adoption agencies—long renowned for their success in finding placements for children from extremely challenging backgrounds—came under fire after legislators insisted that only agencies that would agree to place children with same-sex couples could continue to operate. The agencies faced the impossible dilemma of having to choose between staying faithful to their traditional Catholic ethos and continuing their vital work with vulnerable children. In the end, political correctness and an inflated notion of equality won the day and the agencies were forced out of business.

Britain, in particular, where Pope Benedict XVI visited in September 2010 with the clear leitmotif of religious freedom, is at the forefront of the battle for freedom of conscience for religious believers. Dr. Martin Kugler, director of the campaign group Europe for Christ, lists Britain as the “country where religious freedom in Europe is most under threat.”

Dr. Kugler told CWR, “A series of equality regulations coupled with anti-discrimination laws are making it increasingly difficult for religious believers to assert their sincerely held beliefs in public.” He also believes that Christians are particularly vulnerable due to the rise in multiculturalism and the desire to appear welcoming to minorities to the exclusion of traditional majorities. “The influx of many different immigrant groups with different religious backgrounds presents a challenge. There is a desire to accommodate their customs and practices, but this courtesy is often not extended to native believers,” according to Dr. Kugler.

British Airways recently came in for sharp criticism after it suspended a Christian employee for wearing a crucifix, though it permits Muslim and Sikh workers to wear symbols of their religious faiths in the workplace. The crucifix has become something of a flashpoint symbol in the battle for religious freedom. Ironically, but perhaps unsurprisingly, it is not followers of other religious traditions who are objecting to traditional Christian religious symbols, but rather aggressive secularists.

A recent case taken against the Italian government before the European Court of Human Rights offers some succor that the current trend of legal positivism might not all be directed toward restrictions on freedom of religion. In 2009, a lower chamber of that court ruled in favor of a Finnish-born atheist émigré to Italy who objected to her son having to sit in a classroom with a crucifix despite the fact that every other child in the classroom was Christian. However, on appeal, the court found in Italy’s favor and insisted that Italian schools were entitled to display crucifixes and other religious symbols.

The appeal became a lightning rod for many religious believers—and national governments—who were determined to draw a line in the sand. Italy was joined in its appeal to the Grand Chamber of the 47-member Council of Europe court by 10 other countries: Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Monaco, San-Marino, Romania, and the Russian Federation. It is the first time that so many countries have joined in an appeal to the Grand Chamber.

The original decision saw the Council of Europe draw down a rare rebuke from the meeting of the 27 heads of state and government of the smaller but more powerful European Union. While not referring directly to the court case, in a statement issued just days after the initial ruling, the EU warned against any attempt to restrict freedom of religious expression.

According to Agnes King of the Strasbourg-based European Centre for Law and Justice, “by intervening, the states are explaining that the court had superseded itself in the creation of rights…. Those states explained that it cannot be found that there are any duties to secularize education in Europe. In fact, the European Convention on Human Rights says nothing on the nature of the relationship between the state and the church.

“Secularization is not part of the convention,” she said. The retention of crucifixes in the classroom had won widespread backing among Italy’s normally fractious politicians, with conservative parties joining with communist adversaries to denounce the original action and welcome the decision of the Grand Chamber.


Christians are also winning support from Europe’s fast-increasing Muslim population. According to Ali Selim, an Islamic scholar and member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, most Muslims are dismayed that Christian symbols are under threat. “Sometimes there is a confused belief that Islamic immigration to Europe is resulting in Muslims agitating for the removal of Christian symbols. This is not the case. The people rejecting Christian symbols are those who are rejecting religion,” he said.

Selim said that “Muslims living in Europe have no objection to Christian symbols whatsoever. We understand and appreciate that these symbols are important for Christians and to European heritage.” Nirj Deva, a Conservative Party Member of the European Parliament (MEP) representing southeast England, believes that religious believers must work together to combat discrimination. “There is an attempt being made to depict all religious faith as intrinsically divisive and therefore something which must be privatized entirely,” he told a recent meeting at the European Parliament. “We must reject this and show that we stand together for freedom of religion and the freedom for religious believers to express their views,” he said.

Gay Mitchell, an Irish MEP who leads the parliament’s Working Group on Human Dignity, agrees. He told a recent sitting of the Brussels-based parliament that “some people in Ireland and elsewhere believe that the EU is becoming a cold place for Christianity in particular and religion in general. I have to say that I personally have experienced disrespect from people here who see themselves as fair-minded and liberal but who are anything but that when it comes to trying to see things from the point of view of people who have religious belief.”

“I respect those who do not have religious belief but I fully expect them to reciprocate that respect,” Mitchell continued. “That is what the whole EU project is about: Unity in Diversity.”

Mitchell told CWR that there is an “urgent need” for religious believers to “unite in the face of many people who are trying to restrict basic freedoms and push religious people to the margins of society.”

A militant gay-rights agenda is also emerging as a threat to people exercising their right to freedom of conscience. A recent law passed in Britain, for example, makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services. The first test case was heard in January, and saw a gay couple awarded damages because Christian hoteliers refused to allow them to stay in a double room.

A judge ruled that Peter and Hazelmary Bull were breaking the law when they denied Martyn Hall and his civil partner Steven Preddy a room at the Chymorvah Hotel, near Penzance, in September 2008. A court awarded the couple €4,300, or about $6,300, in damages.

In the British case, Judge Andrew Rutherford said he accepted that Mr. and Mrs. Bull “genuinely hold a perfectly orthodox Christian belief in the sanctity of marriage and the sinfulness of homosexuality,” but, remarkably, said their views were out of date. The hoteliers denied discriminating against the couple because they were gay, saying they had a long-standing policy of banning all unmarried couples from sharing a bed, founded on their Christian beliefs.

However, Justice Rutherford rejected this saying: “the only conclusion which can be drawn is that the refusal to allow them to occupy the double room which they had booked was because of their sexual orientation…and that this is direct discrimination,” he said.

Just days before Britain’s General Election in May 2010—which saw the return to power of a Conservative prime minister for the first time in 13 years—a Conservative MP, Chris Grayling, was severely reprimanded by his party for questioning the far reach of the anti-discrimination legislation. Mr. Grayling told a political meeting “if it’s a question of somebody who’s doing a bed and breakfast in their own home, that individual should have the right to decide who does and who doesn’t come into their own home.”

Gay-rights activists were furious, and when the Conservatives were returned to power just days later in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrat party, Grayling lost his front-bench job and was banished to the backbenches.


David Quinn, director of the pro-religious think-tank the Iona Institute and a member of the Pan-European Forum on Human Rights, believes the raft of anti-discrimination laws represents a “direct attack on freedom of conscience and religion.

“It potentially penalizes everyone and anyone who believes in traditional marriage and traditional sexual morality,” he said.

“It treats opposition to same-sex civil partnerships as a form of prejudice to be punished by law under certain circumstances,” he said.

Quinn gives the example of a private citizen who runs a photography business. “That photographer might also be a devout and traditional-minded religious believer who is asked to photograph a same-sex ceremony but refuses to do so on grounds of conscience. This person won’t face imprisonment, but they can and will be fined for discrimination,” Quinn said.

Quinn also believes that most religious believers are not awake to the potential threats. “As more and more ‘anti-discrimination’ cases are taken against Christians in the coming years and as more and more religious believers are placed on the wrong side of the law by an ever more ferocious, state-imposed secularism, more and more people are going to wake up to what is happening,” he said.

Dr. Kugler of Europe for Christ believes that some politicians are starting to wake up to the fact that Europe is becoming a cold house for Christians. He was recently invited to speak to a panel of MEPs who are evaluating the situation. “On the face of it this should be a good time for Christians in European politics,” Kugler said. “By and large politicians from the Christian Democratic family are in control of the major institutions of Europe.”

This is true. The European Commission is headed by José Manuel Durão Barroso, a Portuguese Christian Democrat who opposed abortion in his native land. The European Parliament is headed by another Christian Democrat from Poland, Jerzy Buzek, who regularly quotes his compatriot Pope John Paul II in his addresses. The first president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, is a devout Catholic from Belgium who is also a member of the Christian Democrat political grouping.

Nonetheless, the Christian conviction of political leaders seems to have little impact on the relentless threat to Christian religious freedom coming from some lobby groups and in some political spheres.

Dr. Kugler has no doubt that “Christianophibia is thriving in Europe.” It is a phenomenon perhaps first recognized by Pope John Paul II in 1983, when he addressed European politicians on the necessity for religious freedom in the public sphere. “Today, besides prison, concentration camps, forced labor camps, and expulsion from one’s country there are other punishments less known but more subtle: not violent death but a kind of civil death, not only isolation in prisons or in camps but social discrimination or permanent restriction of personal liberty,” the Pope noted.

Kugler insists “this phenomenon, this civil death, consists in a growing hostility towards traditional Christian beliefs and an attempt to silence these beliefs.”

“Christianophobia means irrational fear or hatred of Christians, or Christianity in general,” he explains. “It includes anti-Christian bias, and also manifests itself in the slow marginalization of those confessing the Christian faith in the public square.”

Still, Kulger is upbeat: he said he thinks highlighting instances of discrimination against religious people will allow European Christians to have more self-confidence. “Christianity constitutes a large part of the humanism Europe is famous for. It gave much—and it still has a lot to offer. It is on us Christians to participate in the public square with self-confidence. As a result, Christianophobic tendencies will diminish,” he told CWR.

While there’s no doubt that Europe is suffering from a certain amount of historical amnesia, particularly in relation to its Christian roots, Europe’s Catholic bishops, as represented by the Commission of the Episcopal Conferences of the European Communities (COMECE), are pinning their hopes on the latest EU treaty—the so-called Lisbon Treaty, which came into force late in 2009. The treaty obliges the EU to maintain an “open, transparent, and regular dialogue” with the Church.

Bishop Adrianus van Luyn of Rotterdam, Netherlands, president of COMECE, said: “We hope that as a consequence of the institutionalization of an ‘open, transparent, and regular’ dialogue between the European Union institutions and the churches we will be able to more effectively partner with the European Union in all the areas where people are in need of justice and solidarity.”

Renewing the Christian roots of the EU became something of a pet project for the late Pope John Paul II, who—having seen his beloved homeland suffer the twin-tyranny of national socialism and communism—saw the potential of European integration to unite people in solidarity and peace. He was conscious, however, that cut off from its roots, the project could not flourish to its full potential.

Since his election in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI has expressed a similar concern for the future direction of the EU, warning that Europe “will be a good place to live for everyone, only if it is built on a solid cultural and moral foundation of common values drawn from our history and our traditions and if it does not deny its Christian roots.” With upcoming visits to Spain and his native Germany, the Pontiff is likely to renew his plea for politicians to embrace pluralism over secularism.

“European policy-makers skeptical of religion need to get over their phobia,” insists David Quinn of the Iona Institute. “In the absence of a warmer reception for Christians, many Christians will turn against the idea of European integration, and think it has nothing to offer them.”

At a time when the EU is struggling to keep citizens supportive of the project at home and struggling for relevance abroad, one tangible way forward may be for some of the more hostile elements to start treating religious faith with a bit more respect. The alternative is that more aggressive laws targeting freedom of conscience will leave in tatters Europe’s reputation as a defender of freedom. It is indeed ironic that a transnational community established in the aftermath of World War II to rid Europe of intolerance and discrimination finds itself in the driver’s seat of a movement pushing a different, if no less dangerous, form of discrimination and intolerance.

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About Michael Kelly 29 Articles
Michael Kelly is editor of the Irish Catholic, Ireland's best-selling religious newspaper.