‘Freedom of religion is no longer necessary’, writes Bart De Wever, Chairman of N-VA, the biggest political party in Belgium, in his book On Identity published last week. This strong statement is no coincidence amid the revision of the Belgian Constitution, which guarantees the most fundamental rights and freedoms, including freedom of religion.
The Flemish party N-VA, led by De Wever, is at the center of many controversies undermining religious freedom. They successfully antagonized the Muslim and Jewish communities with a ban of ritual slaughter, which entered into force on 1 January 2019 in Flanders. Now, De Wever seems to take Christians as his new target. In his book On Identity, he downplays the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperors and describes how ‘Christianity wiped away a whole culture in a matter of decades’ during the Roman Empire (p. 94). He continues with a provocative question: ‘Can the Muslims in Europe become what the Christians were in the Roman empire?’ (p. 105).
This negativity against religious communities is not restrained to punchlines but seems to be rooted in a peculiar understanding of what ‘Enlightenment values’ are. Although, he includes freedom among them, he considers that the progress of Enlightenment values makes that freedom of religion is no longer necessary as it has come to ‘overlap with freedom of speech’ (p. 139). Such a statement comes as a surprise, given that Bart De Wever repeatedly and publicly had stated that freedom of religion is an integral part of Enlightenment values.
More importantly, however, it announces the position the N-VA will take during the revision of the Belgian Constitution. Both, the House of Representatives and the Senate, decided to open inter alia Article 19 for revision, which guarantees freedom to manifest religion. In Belgium, changing the constitution is only possible when specific articles are earmarked for revision, followed by a general election. Charles Michel, the current Prime Minister of Belgium, did not yet present the final Declaration of Revision, listing the articles to be revised. Whether Article 19 is included or not, depends on him. In any case, following the May elections to the federal government, the new Parliament will start its work with debate on the Constitution.
Regardless, in view of De Wever’s statements, if the N-VA retains its leading political position and Article 19 is open to revision, the removal of freedom of religion from the Belgian Constitution might be an option. That would be a grave violation of Belgian obligations under international law and founded on a fundamental misconstruction of what freedom of religion really is.
The right to freedom of religion is codified in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. In each of these instances, freedom of religion has an internal and external component. The internal dimension of a person’s beliefs and convictions includes the right to hold beliefs and to change them freely, without any limitation. The external dimension is the right ‘either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance’.
Therefore, freedom of religion encompasses much more than just freedom of speech. It first allows a person to hold beliefs and convictions, and then to act on those beliefs and convictions. Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights has described freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as:
one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned. The pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on it (Kokkinakis v. Greece, no. 14307/88, 25 May 1993, para 31).
Freedom of religion is essential to the identity of every person, and to society. It is regrettable that in presenting his vision of the Flemish identity, the leader of an important political party in twenty first century Europe presents a reductionist notion of identity by dismissing an essential component.
Alice Neffe serves as legal counsel with ADF International in Brussels, a faith-based legal advocacy organization that protects fundamental freedoms and promotes the inherent dignity of all people.ADF International