Marco Ventura – The future of Europe and freedom of belief

Libro Bianco

23 march 2017 – FOB – On Saturday March 25th, the 60th Anniversary of the Treaty of Rome will be celebrated by government leaders or prime ministers of the EU.

It will be an opportunity for a reflection on the state of the Union and on its future of integration processes.

Certainly an analysis of these last 60 years will occur, as well as (according to us) a discussion of the problems that this historic moment mercilessly imposes on human rights and civil liberties, which should not be ignored.

Unfortunately we must note that the anticipations and preparations seem to be mainly oriented on the political and economical sides. Even during the Malta’s preparatory summit, held earlier this year, and during the informal meeting of the 27 leaders in Brussels on March 10th, the subject was not so different. EU’s future and the upcoming Rome’s Declaration, instead of human rights and freedom of belief, were generically the subjects.

Case in point is the “White Paper on the Future of Europe” which will be presented during the meeting in Rome, also available in preview on this site in both English and Italian languages. Words like “Religion” and “Creed” never appears on the 32 pages, not even once.

It is true that the 1957 Treaty of Rome was focusing on the “4 Fundamentals Freedoms” (free circulation of goods, services, people and capital) and primarily on the integration between the six founding states, starting with commercial and economical aspects. As a matter of fact, the European Economic Community (EEC) was thereby established.

However sixty years later, with the number of State Members increased fivefold and fifteen other countries knocking at the Europe’s doors, the discussion of such a key issue as the freedom of belief and religion, is unavoidable.

The daily chronicles, including recent London bombings, requires an immediate awareness and responsibility by European government and state leaders. Even those leaders will be armored in Rome during the next summit, for fear that ISIS terrorists could target them.

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

Just the failure of the states to address and resolve integrations issues, has allowed this current unlivable climate. The inability to manage fundamental rights, to promote dialogue and understanding, to welcome and include the other, the diverse, overcoming ignorance and misunderstanding generated by misinformation that stirs up hatred.

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

And yet the European Union created many initiatives, at least on paper, to support and upholds the rights of freedom of belief and religion, such as FoRB (EU guidelines for promotion and protection of religious freedom or belief), HDIM meetings in Warsaw (Human Dimension Implementation Meetings) and much more.

Thus, why those issues are not pivotal for the Roman summit? A very important event that confirms and strengthens the common goals of all members countries and binds them to overcome theories, good intentions and inconclusive discussions.

We believe that it should be done and we believe that the Four Fundamental Freedoms, if these sixty years taught us anything, should include a fifth one: the freedom of belief.

Here is the reason why today we publish an interview that Professor Marco Ventura released to FOB, concerning issues that should give the leaders, who will meet in Rome, pause for thought.

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

Author of several articles and books in Italian, French and English on the subject of law and religion. Some of his publications have been translated into Russian, German and Vietnamese.

FOB – Professor, given the many differences in terms of religious freedom within the different jurisdictions of the European Union’s countries, do you think that the guidelines of European Union FoRB Program are actually feasible and, if so, what would be the most urgent and effective actions to bring about or to put in place?

VENTURA – The European Union has made a unique journey through the history of peoples by harmonizing internal national rights so to protect the freedom of religion or belief. No other over-national space has ever done what Union did, thanks also to the integration of European Council and European Convention on one hand and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on the other. Just because it is serious and profound, this path is politically and legally challenged. Is the level achieved enough? Is more Europe needed? Or less? While the actors faces themselves, the international actuality of this early third millennium has raised the issue of global violations of freedom of religion or creed. To this problem even the Union reacted, particularly with the external action guidelines of 2013. If taken seriously, those guidelines will imply that Union won’t turn back their achieved standards so far and presumably will continue to improve. On an external side, on the very guideline, there is much to be done in compliance with an internal conversation in which the Union is always suspected of cultural and commercial neocolonialism and a prioritized defense for the interests of Christians. It is particularly important to invest on a strategic dialogue between the Union and global partners such as Brazil, Vietnam, India: it is within this strategic dialogue that a dialogue should be placed within non-European governments on violations of freedom of religion or belief.

FOB – From a legal point of view, how they are to be considered or how do you consider the activities of the many open or not “anti-sects” groups, where their work consists of broadcasting and diffusing disturbing informations on religious and spiritual groups often cleverly contrived?

VENTURA – Religious debate must be free. I conceive the legitimacy and usefulness of the limits to freedom of expression only in extreme cases. Religious or creed communities who consider themselves victims of smear campaigns must first react by improving their communication skills. Media and communication dynamics themselves must become the defeat process of those professional detractors of others religions.

FOB – In some countries, including Italy, there have been high-profile cases in which members of religious or spiritual groups have been abducted to be “reprogrammed” by “exit counseling” centers and “victims of sects” assistance. There are different types of these centers, sometimes within anti-sects associations and sometimes run by individuals. Beyond all the considerations about the blatantly illegal activities, how do you evaluate these kind of anti-sects activities and so-called “re-programming”?

VENTURA – The European Court of Human Rights ruled in my opinion definitively in the Riera Blume 1999 case. Such activities are illegal even when carried out by the public authorities. The ordinary criminal law is enough to punish them. There is not even need to resort to freedom of religion and belief.

FOB – On a purely legal perspective, how do you evaluate the conflict that exists between, on one hand, the content of the various sources of protection of human rights and, on the other hand, the existence of organisms such as FECRIS (mainly funded by the French government), the Anti Sects Team (SAS) of the Italian Ministry of the Interior and the French organizations MIVILUDES and CAIMADES?

VENTURA – I hope that any crime committed by believers in the shelter of their associations is prosecuted as such, with no distinction between religious and non religious conspiracy. I consider accordingly that only in the presence of an objective evidence proving a special need for prevention and repression that one can configure a security agency to a particular religious phenomenon.

FOB – Talking again about the legal aspect, how would you define the bills repeatedly proposed over the years in various European states to introduce offenses that should punish "plagiarism", the mental manipulation or psychological abuse allegedly committed in religious or spiritual groups?

VENTURA – In times where communication/persuasion tools are becoming more sophisticated and by contrast systematic attempts to induce beliefs and socially useful behaviors seems to fail, (such in the case of the application of techniques of de-radicalization to the veterans of the jihad), I consider these legislative initiatives unnecessary on a practical level and harmful on a symbolic one. Against who attacks the independence of thought and people’s choice, the only answer is the ability of the civil society with the support of good public policies so to contribute to the formation of informed and free critical consciences.

FOB – Do you consider necessary and/or desirable that European states should adopt a law to protect the freedom of religion and belief?

VENTURA – There is already a strong European law, culmination of national rights which in most countries of the European Union do not need radical reforms, as I believe. On the opposite, the agreement of national rights and European laws in the Union space configures one of the most advanced standard in the world.