Marco Ventura – The future of Europe and freedom of belief

Libro Bianco

23 march 2017 – FOB – The 60th Anniversary of the Treaties of Rome will be celebrated in the Italian capital city on Saturday march 25th, by government leaders or prime ministers of the EU.

It will be an occasion to go over the current state of the Union and the future of the integration process.

Certainly an appraisal will be done on the past sixty years and according to us, it should not be regardless of the discussion of issues, which in this period of our history, are mercilessly imposed on us as far as human rights and civil liberties are concerned.

Unfortunately we must ascertain that the premises and the preparations mainly seem to address economical and political issues. During the preparatory meeting in Malta held early this year as well as during the informal rally of the 27 leaders in Brussels on 10 march, not much was told about other issues. Some discussion occurred about the future of EU and the soon-coming declaration in Rome, but neither human rights nor freedom of belief either, were subject matters of attention.

Evidence being the “White Paper on the Future of Europe”, too, that will be presented during the meeting in Rome, which FOB is making available in preview in Italian and in English. In the 32 pages of this text, the words “religion” and “belief” never recur, not even once.

It is nevertheless true that the Treaties of Rome of 1957 especially focused the “Four Fundamental Freedoms” (free movement of goods, services, people and capitals), and especially stressed the integration between the six founder states starting from commercial and economical aspects. Hence the European Economic Community was established.

However sixty years later, with the number of member countries quintupled and fifteen more countries knocking at the door of the EU, discussion on such a key issue as the freedom of belief and religion cannot be omitted.

Everyday news accounts, including the so recent attack in London, impose an immediate increase of awareness and responsibility on the part of government heads and presidents of Europe. They themselves will be under armoured defences in Rome during their next meeting, exactly due to the dread that ISIS terrorists are targeting them.

Terrorism, fundamentalism, extremism, radicalization, religious hate, are all children of ignorance and intolerance.

It is just the incapability, on the part of national governments, to cope with and sort out integration issues, to allow the current unliveable climate to come up. Incapability to handle fundamental rights, to forward dialogue and reciprocal comprehension, to accept and include the other and the different by overtaking the ignorance and the misunderstandings generated by misinformation which stirs up hate.

This should be discussed in Rome, before anything else, even before the security and police measures, certainly before economical issues.

Besides that, the European Union implemented several programmes, al least in theory, to uphold and affirm rights to freedom of belief and religion, for instance the FoRB programme (EU guidelines for promotion and protection of religious freedom or belief), the Human Dimension Implementation Meetings (HDIM) in Warsaw and much more.

So why not put such issues in the orders of the day of the Roman meeting? A so important happening that reaffirms and supports the common goals of all member states and thus binds them to step up beyond mere theories or good intentions or ineffective discussions.

We deem that this must be done and we believe that the Four Fundamental Freedoms, if these sixty years taught anything to us, should be integrated with the fifth freedom, the Freedom of Belief.

This is why we today publish an interview that professor Marco Ventura released to FOB about issues that should cause a reflection in the leaders who will gather in Rome.

Professor Ventura is Director of Centre for Religious Studies of the Bruno Kessler Foundation of Trento, and Professor at the University of Siena.

Author of many articles and books in Italian, French and English concerning law and religion. Some of his literature were translated in Russian, German and Vietnamese.

FOB – Professor, considering the many differences as far as religious freedom is concerned within the several law systems of the countries composing the European Union, do you deem the guidelines of the EU FoRB programme actually feasible and if so, which would be the most urgent and effective actions to be executed to turn that into reality?

VENTURA – The European Union walked through a unique journey in the story of peoples, of harmonising interior national rights to the protection of religious freedom or freedom of belief. In no other supranational area something was done about it to the same ratio it was done by the Union, also thanks to the integration with the Council of Europe and the European Convention on one side, and with the Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe on the other side. Just because it is serious and deeply-rooted, this path is today politically and juridically under discussion. Is the current level sufficient? Is more of Europe needed? Or less Europe? While the actors debate, topical facts of this beginning of third millennium internationally, imposed attention on global infringements of religious freedom or freedom of belief. On this problem, the Union reacted, too, especially with its guidelines for external action of 2013. If seriously abided by, such guidelines would include that in its interior area, the Union wouldn’t withdraw from its reached standards but presumably continue to improve. To the exterior, according to those guidelines, there is still a lot to do against international relations in which the Union is always suspect for some cultural and commercial neo-colonialism, and for some defence of the interests of the Christian. It is particularly important to make investments in the strategic dialogue between the Union and global partners such as Brazil, Vietnam, India: it is within the strategic dialogue that should be placed dialogue with non-European governments about infringements of religious freedom or freedom of belief.

FOB – From a juridical standpoint, how should be considered or how would you consider the activities of the many groups, openly or less ‘anti-cult’, in their work of spreading, through the media, alarming and often shrewdly disturbing, artificial information about religious and spiritual groups?

VENTURA – Debate on religion is to be free. Only in extreme cases I would conceive the legality and utility of limitation to the freedom of expression. The religious or belief communities who deem themselves victims of slanderous campaigns should first of all react by increasing their own communication abilities. The dynamics of the media and the communication itself is to defeat professional libellers who work against other people’s religions.

FOB – In some countries including Italy, glaring cases occurred in which members of religious or spiritual groups were kidnapped to be “reprogrammed” on the part of centres for “exit counselling” and assistance to the “victims of cults.” Several such centres exist, sometimes within anti-cult organisations and sometimes managed by single professionals. Besides reflections concerning clear-cut illegal activities, how do you evaluate such type of anti-cult activities and the so-called reprogramming?

VENTURA – The European Court on Human Rights issued a decision which according to me is a ultimate one concerning this matter, in the case Riera Blume of 1999. Such practices are illicit even when performed by public agencies. Just common criminal law is enough to consider them illegal. There is not even any need to appeal to freedom of religion or belief.

FOB – From an exclusively juridical standpoint, how would you evaluate the conflict factually occurring between – on one hand – the contents of the various human rights protection materials which unequivocally set forth freedom of religion and belief and – on the other hand – the existence of such entities as FECRIS (mainly funded by the French government), the Anti-Cults Squad (S.A.S.) of the Italian Ministry of Interiors and the French agencies MIVILUDES and CAIMADES?

VENTURA – I hope for any possible crime committed by believers in the inside of their organisations is prosecuted as such, without a differentiation between a religious or a non-religious felony of criminal association. Therefore I deem that only in the presence of factual, objective evidence demonstrating a very need for a prevention and repression, might a security agency be configured as detailed to a specific religious phenomenon.

FOB – Remaining in the legal field, how would you define the law bills proposed repeatedly in the last years in the various European countries, to instate types of crimes that should punish “mental manipulation” or psychological abuses allegedly committed within religious or spiritual groups?

VENTURA – In times when mass communication/persuasion means become more and more sophisticated, and in which – on the contrary – failures seem to come of systematic attempts to solicit socially useful values and behaviours (such as cases to apply techniques of de-radicalisation on jihad returnees), I deem such legislative initiatives useless from a practical viewpoint and harmful from a symbolic viewpoint. Against those who attack people’s autonomy of thought and of choice, the only response is the capability of civil society (with the support of good public policies) to contribute to the education of critical consciences, acquainted and free.

FOB – Do you believe it necessary and/or desirable, that the European states advantage themselves of a law protecting freedom of religion and belief?

VENTURA – A steady European law systems already exists today, crowning each national law system, which in the majority of EU states would not need any radical reform, in my opinion. On the contrary, the coordination of national law systems and the European law system within the area of the EU results in one of the highest standards on the planet. So rather than legislative initiatives, the next steps should be up to the civil society, including the religious confessions themselves, and to the national governments, especially on their territorial districts.