European Christians face discrimination, intolerance

This year has not been what most would call a banner year for religious freedom in the United States. It could, however, be worse. Just ask Christians in Europe. 

While widespread discrimination against Christians is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States, it’s almost standard protocol throughout the European Union, where for decades aggressive forms of secularism, many state-sponsored, have pushed European Christians out of the public square. 

That, however, may be changing. In recent years, Christian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have cropped up across the European continent to advocate for Christians in the media, the legislatures and the courts. Partly through the efforts of those groups, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) hosted a special seminar in Rome in June on how to combat hate crimes against Christians. 

According to Martin Kugler, who with his wife, Gudrun, founded one of those NGOs, The Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians, that topic would have been unthinkable for OSCE just a few years ago. 

Kugler sat down with Our Sunday Visitor to discuss the reasons behind the change, as well as the overall state of religious freedom in Europe. 

Our Sunday Visitor: When you talk about the situation Christians in Europe face, you differentiate between persecution, intolerance and discrimination. What do you mean by those terms? 

Martin Kugler: Persecution is what our brothers and sisters in the Arab world, Africa or Asia face. That’s not what Christians are going through in Europe. Here, we face intolerance, which covers the social issues, the marginalization and exclusion of Christians from the public square and in the media. There’s also discrimination, which is a legal concept. We make those distinctions because it’s clear we need a different response to legal questions and social questions. 

OSV: Could you give a few examples of the discrimination against Christians in Europe you’ve seen in recent years? 

Kugler: People in America might be familiar with one of the more well-known cases from this past year. In the United Kingdom, an Egyptian Coptic Christian who worked for British Airways wanted to wear a small cross as a necklace, but her employers told her no. It wasn’t a matter of security — it was a very small cross — and, as she pointed out, her Muslim and Sikh colleagues were permitted to wear signs of their faith. When she wouldn’t take it off, she was forced to go on unpaid leave. 

There also was a case of a nurse who prayed with a patient in the hospital, and was fired for that, even though she asked the sick person first if they wanted to pray. Then there are many cases about parents’ educational rights. For example, in Spain, the socialist government introduced a new obligatory subject for high schoolers: Education for Citizenship. It was a very ideological course designed to reshape values in a politically correct way. It was really biased against the Church. It fought the pro-life issues and told students that same-sex marriage is a good thing and adoption rights for homosexual couples are important. Fifty-five thousand parents sued the state. They had no other option. They weren’t allowed to take the kids out of the lesson. This issue was resolved, however, when a new government was elected and the course was dropped. 

OSV: What about intolerance? 

Kugler: First of all, we have the problem of dealing with the media who are communicating negative stereotypes about Christians. If, say, the BBC does a program on bioethics, nine out of the 10 experts they feature will be hostile to the Christian viewpoint. There actually was an internal document at the BBC that said among BBC journalists there is a real bias against Christianity. There also was a television movie in the U.K. where the main villain was a pro-life lady. To make matters worse, they intentionally cast someone who closely resembled the most famous pro-life activist in England. They’re all about promoting stereotypes. Then there have been political leaders thrown out of office because they’ve said something about their religious faith. [Italian politician] Rocco Buttiglione is a well-known example of this. Because he said he did not believe homosexual behavior was in line with the dignity of the human person, he was denied a seat on the European Commission. 

OSV: When it comes to questions of intolerance and discrimination, would you say the situation has grown better or worse over the last decade?

Kugler: On one level the situation has worsened. There are more instances of both intolerance and discrimination, which is concerning. On another level, Christians are getting better at responding to these problems, and there is much more awareness of them. That’s encouraging. Ten years ago, it would have been almost unthinkable that the EU or OSCE would try to tackle the problem in any meaningful way. Then, if you complained about such things, people would dismiss you, saying Christians are the majority — they can’t be discriminated against. Now there are people seeing that it’s not a question of who is in the majority but of rights. Some very dramatic cases — the Buttiglione case or both the evangelical pastor who was put in prison and the Anglican bishop who was sent to a re-education seminar [because of their remarks about homosexuality] — have been like an alarm clock for Christians in Europe. That in turn has led to more NGOs in civil society who are focused on the problem. 

OSV: In your experience, what works and what doesn’t when it comes to tackling these problems in the public square? 

Kugler: What works is to tell stories. It’s especially important to tell stories to journalists who are maybe not Christian, but who are still tolerant. With the right story, you can open their eyes. It also helps to talk to the bishops. Many are encouraged when laypeople come and offer their help and support on a certain issue, and feel more free to speak out. What does not work is a purely juridical approach. It’s good to defend people in the courts. It’s important, and there are good groups doing that, but it’s not enough. That’s because even the members of the courts are influenced by the media. For example, there was a judgment in Italy against the public appearance of the cross. It was an absolutely biased judgment and was later overruled, but the bias of the initial judge is proof that you can’t answer this problem just by legal arguments. You need those, but you also have to tell your story in a good way through the media. 

OSV: How would you compare the situation in Europe on these issues to the situation in the United States? 

Kugler: Well, the separation of church and state is seen differently in the States. It’s very clear, but clear in such a way that it empowers people to talk about their faith. Your president can say he’s praying for the people or a politician can say “God bless you,” and that’s OK. Your bishops also speak out on issues and nobody thinks that is strange. Essentially, the concept of religious freedom is more positive in the U.S. It’s normally seen as the freedom to confess, the freedom to have religion. In Europe, for a long time now, many intellectuals and journalists have perceived it as the right to be free from religion and the influence of the Church. The liberal secularist streak is much stronger in Europe than in America. The left wing parties are stronger here, and they have used their power to communicate their anti-religious ideas.  

You also have many ex-communist countries where the entire populace between [ages] 70 and 20 were raised without any sort of Christian education. They were never given any idea of the basics of Christian belief or Christian social doctrine, so it’s easier for secularists to convince these people that the Church shouldn’t have the right to speak in public. This is just one more reason why it’s so important for laypeople to stand up and defend religious freedom. It is, of course, also the bishops’ responsibility, but sometimes it’s more effective if a doctor or nurse or journalist stands up and explains their beliefs. As Christians, we must become better defenders of freedom so that 50 years from now people can say, “Thank God there were Christians who defended freedom in society.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.