Jun 30, 2015

European Parliament Conference: “Freedom of Religion? The Price of Faith”

The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), in cooperation with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Minority Rights Group and International Campaign for Tibet, will be convening an international conference entitled ‘Freedom of Religion? The Price of Faith’, hosted by Csaba Sógor MEP (EPP), György Hölvényi MEP (EPP) and Ilhan Kyuchyuk MEP (ALDE) at the European Parliament on 30 June 2015 from 15:30 to 17:30. 

Bringing together victims, activists, academic experts and engaged politicians, the high-level conference will offer a platform to discuss the significance of freedom of religion as a human right and the wide-ranging consequences of systematic denial of this freedom by authoritarian or repressive regimes, as well as concrete case studies giving first-hand accounts of religious persecution from the perspective of the religious minority groups around the world.

The conference aims to address the issues that arise when people’s freedom to practice their religion comes into contention with social and geopolitical forces, and the question of how to promote better relations between religious communities and cultures.

The EU, as a peace promoting community encompassing democratic ideals of freedom and equality, serves as the epicentre for the promotion of freedom of religion, and will therefore provide a symbolic background to the discussions. The freedom of religion and belief is one of the oldest and most deeply rooted human rights in Europe. The freedoms of thought, conscience, religion or belief have emerged as core European values over the past three centuries with the development of national and regional legislative safeguards for the respect of diversity.

However, around the world, repressive Governments oftentimes fail to protect vulnerable minority communities and thus, many religious groups are disproportionately affected. When Governments choose not to combat discrimination on the basis of religion, it breeds an environment of tension and intolerance. Violations of freedom of religion or belief may exacerbate intolerance and often constitute early indicators of potential violence and conflicts.

Over the past few years, the world has witnessed a growing number of religiously motivated conflicts and displacement of persons. Across Africa the Middle East and Asia, millions of people have been forced from their homes due to direct religious persecution or the inability to practice their religion freely. Members of vulnerable religious minority groups fall victim to repressive and discriminatory policies, such as criminalization of religious activities and expression, allowing for broader human rights abuses.

The first panel of this conference will address the freedom of religion as a human right and the consequences of its systematic denial. The panellists will discuss how to challenge the discrimination against religious minorities and the widespread impunity with regards to human rights violations. The debate will focus on concrete strategies about how to empower communities in their struggle to realize their human rights on the local, national and regional levels. The second panel will then focus on a number of case studies, including insights from Tibet, a testimony from a Christian Degar-Montagnard refugee, and an account of the recent havoc and bloodshed unravelling in Iraq against religious minorities, such as the Yezidis. 

Case Studies of the II. Panel


Yezidis are an ancient ethnic and religious group, present mainly in northern Iraq, and to some extent also in Syria, Turkey and various European countries. Yezidism is one of the oldest religions in the world still practised today combining pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian, Manichaean, Jewish, Nestorian Christian and Muslim elements. Due to misinterpretation of their religion, Yezidis have been regularly targeted with violence by militant groups: prior to June 2014, the 2005 population of 700,000 had reportedly fallen to approximately 500,000 with thousands of families having fled to Syria, Jordan and other states fearing arbitrary arrest, discrimination and other abuses. However, since the advance of ISIS in June 2014, Yezidis, considered to be devil worshippers by this extremist Islamist group, have witnessed devastating attacks on their physical and spiritual heritage, and Yezidi women have been forced into sexual slavery. 


China’s attack against Tibetan Buddhism began with the invasion and occupation of Tibet. In 1959 the International Commission of Jurists reported to the United Nations that “the Chinese were determined to use all methods at their disposal to eliminate religious belief and to substitute Communist doctrines.” During the Cultural Revolution, the destruction of almost all of Tibet’s monasteries - more than 6,000 - was completed and virtually all religious practice was banned. A brief period of liberalization in 1979 allowed Tibetans to contribute to the revival of religion - and Tibetan nationalism. The Communist Party moved to impose more restrictive policies. Regulations dictate official rules for monks according to Party policy, and Party work teams sent to monasteries carry out “patriotic re-education” characterized by denunciations of the Dalai Lama. Limits on the admission of new monks and expulsions of monks who fail or seek to avoid indoctrination on patriotism has resulted in the flight to exile in India of thousands of monks and nuns since the late 1980’s. Nuns and monks have been expelled on suspicion of political activities and, in the past, many took to the streets in dissent. Today, obtaining a traditional religious education is extremely difficult or impossible in Tibet - teachings cannot be given by a Lama without the permission of the Religious Affairs Bureau of the Chinese government. Due to China’s effective surveillance and control mechanisms, a climate of self-censorship and fear means that Tibetans express their religious beliefs and dissent privately or secretly. The draft law on counter-terrorism, currently under discussion in China, foresees a conflation between 'terrorism' and 'religious extremism'. According to this law, the definition of 'terrorist' in Tibet could potentially apply to Tibetans carrying out religious activities outside state-controlled institutions.


The Degard-Montagnard people are an ethnic minority that inhabits the central western mountains of Vietnam. A large proportion of their population has been resettled and forcibly relocated. In Vietnam, they face systematic abuses of their human rights, particularly violations of their rights to their freedom of religion, ancestral territory and their right to health, education and self-governance. Religious repression of the Christian faith, in particular Protestantism practiced by many Degar people, has long been part of Vietnamese government policy. This includes forcing Degar people to renounce their Christian faith in official renunciation ceremonies conducted by authorities under the threat of imprisonment and torture. Religious persecution stems from official Communist Party directives that show a centrally directed national campaign to suppress Christians in ethnic minority areas in order to control religion and any notion of independent religious denominations, using practices such as religious extortion and church burning. The persecution also targets Vietnamese Buddhists.

Conference Programme

Opening Remarks

Csaba Sógor MEP (EPP Group)

György Hölvényi MEP (EPP Group), Co-Chair of the EPP WG on Intercultural and Religious Dialogue 

Ilhan Kyuchyuk MEP (ALDE Group)

Marino Busdachin, UNPO General Secretary


Panel I: Religious Freedom: A Human Right for All?

Discrimination and Persecution of Religious Minorities: Who, Where, Why, How? - Mr Mark Lattimer, Minority Rights Group International

International Advocacy on Religious Freedom – Challenges and Opportunities - Dr Susan Kerr, Christian Solidarity Worldwide

EU Strategies to Promote Freedom of Religion and Belief Worldwide - Mr Jean-Bernard Bolvin, EEAS Desk Officer on Freedom of Religion


Panel II: The Perspectives of Religious Minority Groups

The Case of Yezidis in Iraq: “Convert to Islam or Die – ISIS Persecution of the Yezidis” - Mr Ameen Farhan, Yezidi MP

The Case of Tibet: Clampdown on Buddhism in China - Mr Vincent Metten, International Campaign for Tibet

The Case of Vietnam: Threatened for Being Ethnic and Religious Minorities - Mr Vu Quoc Dung, Executive Director of VETO! Human Rights Defenders' Network & Ms Penelope Faukner, Que Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam


Q & A

Closing remarks 



This conference will be followed by a ceremony and an exhibition entitled "Ways of Wisdom: Celebrating the Dalai Lama' s 80th Birthday" at the European Parliament at 18:00.


For more information please contact Iva Petkovic at i.petkovic@unpo.org 

Registrations are now closed