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Catherine Ashton

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission

Situation of Christians in the context of religious freedom

European Parliament

Strasbourg, 19 January 2011

I fully share the concerns of this House about the recent violence against persons belonging to religious minorities as well as those who stand up for religious freedom.

I have expressed my views on this issue most recently on 6 January, when I visited Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity on the eve of Orthodox Christmas. There I underlined the need for all religious groups around the world to be able to gather and worship freely. I also stressed that the EU condemns all forms of intolerance and violence against persons because of their religion or belief, wherever it takes place.

In addition, I have strongly condemned the recent terrorist attacks in Iraq and Egypt targeting places of worship, as well as the assassination of Mr Tajeer, Governor of Punjab in Pakistan. I think we can all agree that these attacks are unacceptable, perpetrated by extremists with an agenda of intolerance that must be condemned and resisted.

In today's world, all too often people's human rights are violated because of their religion or belief. The victims do not belong to one faith or region. Regrettably, no part of the world is spared from the scourge of religious intolerance. Any discrimination or violence against an individual because of his/her religious belief runs against the values that the EU upholds. Each violation must be taken seriously and condemned with the same force, wherever it takes place and whoever is the victim. Human rights are universal

Long-established Christian communities in the Middle East face difficulties, which have led to significant displacement in some countries and dwindling numbers in the region as a whole. The EU will not turn a blind eye to their plight. We consider their demand to have their rights respected as citizens of their own country as entirely legitimate. Freedom of conscience, religion or belief belongs to everyone, and every state has the duty to ensure that it is respected. The EU stands ready to enhance its cooperation with governments to combat intolerance and protect human rights.

We must not fall into the trap that extremists and terrorists are laying before us. We must resist the manipulation of religion into a source of division. The best response to extremism is a united international front based on the universal standards of freedom of religion and belief. The EU was the driving force at the UN General Assembly behind the resolution on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief, which was adopted by consensus in December. The EU makes a concerted effort every year into building that consensus, so that the international community can send a firm and united message. We are considering another initiative to rally strong cross-regional support on this theme in the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in March.

We also raise the issue of freedom of religion or belief during human rights dialogues and urge countries to eradicate discrimination and intolerance. The EU Delegations closely monitor such issues around the world, and the EU’s next annual human rights report this spring will address the situation of religious minorities around the world.

I am fully committed to keeping freedom of religion or belief at the top of the EU’s agenda. The next Foreign Affairs Council on 31 January will revert to the issue so that the EU can step up its efforts to promote religious freedom.

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