BRUSSELS (8 December) – The European Commission has appointed Frans van Daele as Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU. The Senior Diplomat has previously served as an Ambassador of Belgium to the United States, and as Chief of Staff to former President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy.
Aside from a brief period of five months in 2021, the Special Envoy position has been left vacant for almost three years. Religious freedom advocates have criticised the apparent reticence to fill the role in light of increasing pressure on religious freedom worldwide, including the persecution of Christians in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and the violent murders taking place against Christian communities in Nigeria.
“Nobody should be persecuted because of their faith. The reappointment of a Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU is an important step in showing much-needed, real commitment to protecting this fundamental right. We urge the European Commission to strengthen the position of the Special Envoy and build on the important work already achieved,” said Adina Portaru, Senior Counsel for ADF International.
Role of the Special Envoy
The Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU was introduced in 2016 in order to protect freedom of religion or belief worldwide. The European Parliament called for the ‘EU to establish a permanent Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief’ in its Resolution of 4 February 2016 on the systematic mass murder of religious minorities by the so-called ‘ISIS/Daesh’. Part of the mandate included visits to countries with some of the most violent religious persecution in the world in order to help address the situation and develop response plans. The Special Envoy played a decisive role in helping Asia Bibi safely leave Pakistan after she was acquitted of blasphemy charges.
There has been robust support for the continuation of the mandate, voiced by the European Parliament Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance, national special envoys, scholars, and civil society. A Report on EU Guidelines and the mandate of the EU Special Envoy, adopted by the European Parliament on 16 January 2019 with overwhelming support (576 votes for), stressed the need for the Council and the Commission ‘to adequately support the institutional mandate, capacity and duties, by exploring the possibility of a multi-year term subjected to annual review’.
“The Special Envoy has played a crucial role in bringing the horrors of religious persecution to light at the European level. The role has created awareness around some of the worst and most persistent violations of fundamental rights around the world and helped focus EU efforts to counter them. The EU should not only continue, but also intensify efforts to protect freedom of religion or belief around the world,” said Robert Clarke, Director of Advocacy for ADF International.