Ján Figeľ, speaking at the event in Vienna on Saturday (26 Nov.).
Ján Figeľ, speaking at the event in Vienna on Saturday (Psalm133 / YouTube)

Keeping the distinction between Islam and terrorism clear could prevent an ultimate ‘Clash of Civilisations’, an EU diplomat says.

“All this hatred and bloodshed is a misuse of religion,” said Ján Figeľ, the European Commission’s first Special Envoy for the promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief outside the EU. Failure to separate fanatics from the religion they claim could even spark World War III, the Slovakian MP said on 26 Nov. in Vienna at an event organised by religious freedom organisation ADF International.

Figeľ, who has been in the role since May, highlighted the words of an Iraqi Christian soldier returning to a church in the recently liberated city of Qaraqosh.

“No religion would do that,” the soldier said, pointing to the badly vandalised church. “They’re terrorists.”

“I applaud this distinction,” Figeľ said, adding that Christianity has been misused to achieve violence aims in the past. “Don’t mix [up] criminals and the religion they misuse,” he added.

Other speakers at the event, ‘Embattled: Christians under pressure in Europe and beyond’, included Swedish MEP Lars Adaktusson and Hungarian MP Tamás Török, Under Secretary of State for Hungary’s new office focusing on the persecution of Christians.

Adaktusson said that although “there is a very clear connection” between organisations such as the Islamic State and Islam, “we need to be very careful not to blame individual Muslims for terrorist attacks”.

Meanwhile, he outlined his support for an autonomous Nineveh Plain in Iraq to encourage displaced Christians to return home and warned that a Middle East without a “mosaic” of people from different faith backgrounds would be a region “rapidly returning to the Dark Ages”.

Hungary’s Török said European nations have a “precious obligation” to preserve their Christian values for future generations, saying he hoped “Hungary will have an important role to play”.

Justice for victims

ADF International’s Andreas Thonhauser stressed the importance of bringing perpetrators of religiously motivated violence to justice.

He said displaced Christians are “desperate” for justice and quoted an Iraqi refugee living in a camp in Amman, Jordan, who told him: “Make sure that those who murdered our families, those who tortured and brutalised our friends, torched our churches, drove us out of our homelands; make sure once Daesh [IS] are defeated, these people are not allowed just to shave off their beards and get on with their lives.”

Thonhauser said there is “great reluctance” in Western media to think of Christians – whom he said are “seen as aggressors” – as victims.

His colleague, Ewelina Ochab, added that the media needs to get to grips with the actions of the world’s fourth deadliest militant group – Fulani herdsmen in Nigeria. She praised the International Criminal Court for declaring Boko Haram’s actions “crimes against humanity” but said the herdsmen are in danger of being “forgotten” as they continue to carry out atrocities with impunity.

Figeľ emphasised the importance of religious literacy, noting that 84% of the world’s population – “the overwhelming majority” – still declare some kind of religious affiliation. He said “Christianity is the most persecuted religious community worldwide” and that there is a “genocide” of Christians taking place in the Middle East. However, he concluded: “If humanity, justice and solidarity prevail over fear, indifference and ignorance, centuries of genocide may belong to history and not the future.”

And in Europe?

Austrian politician Gudrun Kugler said she recognised the difficulty of focusing on Europe when much greater atrocities are happening elsewhere, but quoted the late Pope John Paul II as saying: “We must not overlook more subtle forms of persecution … that start with social exclusion and lead to social death.”

ADF International’s Paul Coleman said there is a “rising tide of restrictions” across Europe, regulating what people can say, how they can act, how they can raise their children and what they can teach in their churches.

He said Europe’s hate-speech laws are the equivalent of blasphemy laws elsewhere and warned that the position of FoRB in Europe is “fragile”.

Ellen Kryger Fantini, from the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians, cited the example of French priest Jacques Hamel, knifed to death as he led mass. She concluded: “If we don’t take [the threat to FoRB in Europe] seriously, it can lead to worse and, in fact, we’ve already seen it lead to worse”.