Religious liberty and the European Union

In a Facebook conversation a few weeks back Eddie Arthur asked me if I could see any religious liberty angle on the EU debate. At the time I said no, since religious liberty seemed fairly firmly enshrined both sides of the English Channel  and I didn’t see that changing however we voted. That claim stands, of course, but there is another religious liberty angle that I have only this week thought of, and it is (for me) a very strong argument to be pro-EU.

Let me tell you about three friends, all missionaries. Call them Anna, Bridget, and Claire, because in one case I cannot put her real name on the web.

Twenty five years ago, Anna was working across Eastern Europe, including Albania and ‘Another Eastern European Country’. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a rise of ugly nationalisms in many states, which often had a religious dimension, so Anna’s work was illegal most of the places she worked. She worked quietly, hid, sometimes had to leave places quickly. Once (that she told me about) she was assaulted by a mob when she didn’t leave somewhere quickly enough.

Bridget works in ‘Another Easter European Country’ now, for an illegal organisation, quietly convening evangelistic meetings for students. I don’t know her as well as I knew Anna, and can’t tell you the extent to which life has become difficult for her over the years; I have no doubt that it has, though.

Claire works in Albania now for an international mission agency that is legal and tolerated. The work she does is open and permitted. She can worship in a local church which meets publicly and does not fear the police or the mob.

Albania is not a member of the EU, but it is an official candidate for accession. The candidacy process involves the country being assessed on 35 criteria, which include fundamental rights and freedoms. An initial assessment highlights what needs to change, and then the EU works with the country to implement the changes. Albania is still some way off meeting EU standards on freedoms and rights, but it has got somewhere on religious liberty at least.

Of course, there are many differences between the stories of that other eastern European country and Albania since the fall of the Berlin Wall; maybe without any interest in the EU Albania would still have moved towards democracy and religious liberty; who knows? But right now, it is committed to high standards in those areas because it wants to be part of the EU.

Let’s pretend some of the Leave lies about the EU are true. It really does cost us £350m per week, or a little under £6 per week each; there are no cultural, economic, or political benefits from membership; it is entirely about petty regulations concerning bananas—but let’s also accept the single fact that it does this stuff promoting religious liberty on its southern and eastern borders. All I can say is, the morning I heard Anna had been beaten up, if you’d offered me religious liberty across Eastern Europe for the price of six quid a week and some rules about fruit, I would have bitten your hand off, and most of your arm with it.

And that, very simply, is my pro-EU religious liberty argument.


[16/6/16 Edit: a missionary friend contacted me and asked that I remove any identification for the ‘other Eastern European country’ concerned in this story, for fear of persecution for those working there, so I have done that.]

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Kleissner
    Jun 20, 2016

    Religious liberty is indeed to be prized, and is surely of fundamental importance to Baptists.

    Many years ago I heard an elderly Portuguese gentleman speak. He had been a Presbyterian evangelist in the Alentejo region of Portugal in the late 1920s. At that time the Roman Catholic church dominated life (and was supported by the Government). When he and his companion preached in a village they were sometimes greeted by an aggressive mob which had been assembled by the local Priest and Schoolmaster. Even in Britain the Salvation Army was, in its early days, often threatened by the “Skeleton Army” which was in the pay of the brewers. The Police were often reluctant to come to the Salvationists’ aid.

    Of course, none of this was enshrined in law, but we do need to have societies in which reasonable freedom of speech, in religious matters as well as others, is regarded as a basic principle.

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