For evangelicals in Western Europe, the most tangible problem is not one of freedom, but rather of public participation.
This year, the World Evangelical Alliance, which has been organising the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church for 13 years, has emphasised the serious situation of the anti-religious freedom laws, which are mainly in force in Islamic countries.
Blasphemy laws state that one cannot speak ill of the sacred elements of Islam. These rules are what led to several Christians being on death row in Pakistan, including Asia Bibi, or to journalists or bloggers being persecuted in places like Saudi Arabia.
Laws and customs against apostasy were also denounced. In this case, these are rules - sometimes unwritten - that severely punish anyone who abandons what is considered the "faith" of his or her family or people. In Islamic contexts, it means that 1.3 billion people do not have the freedom to leave this faith without suffering some form of reprisal.
The question underlying this behaviour is whether the religious freedom of the individual is above or below the impositions of groups, governments or institutions. If there is one thing that the defence of religious freedom has stood out throughout history, it is that it aims to ensure that the experience and expression of faith is guaranteed, above all, for minorities.
In this respect, the situation worldwide is dramatic. Christians are a persecuted minority in more than half the world: one in seven Christians (some 360 million) suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination because of their faith.
With this perspective in mind, where do we stand in Spain? As an evangelical minority, we are aware that we are living in a time of freedom, where the experience and expression of our faith, which at other times in history was harshly persecuted, has the protection of the law and an acceptable social tolerance - with aspects that could be improved, of course.
However, it is not a perfect situation. In 2021, hate crimes against religious beliefs increased notably, although they are still very punctual. The Ministry of Interior has recorded 63 cases in total.
However, this past week a report was released by the Observatory for Religious Freedom and Freedom of Conscience, an association that since 2006 “defends the right of citizens to participate in public life without being defamed or discriminated against because of their moral and religious convictions”.
In its annual report, which has received some media coverage, this association denounces “195 attacks” on religious freedom in our country, of which 146 were against Christians (132 against Roman Catholics), 12 against Muslims and 7 against Jews. Only 2 were against Protestants.
The figure seems alarming, almost 200 attacks in one year! However, let’s look at the details, which are divided into five categories: violent attacks, attacks on places of worship, attacks on believers, attacks on religion and belligerent secularism.
It can be seen that only two cases involved violence against people: one was against a Muslim, the other against a Roman Catholic parish priest, and in both cases the police and judicial authorities intervened. Then there are 25 attacks on places of worship and religious symbols, with an abundance of graffiti, desecration, the removal of crosses related to Francoist monuments, and a serious aggression, such as the burning of a mosque.
So far, albeit with nuances, the report paints a picture similar to that of the government. However, where do the vast majority of the rest of the “attacks” come from?
The vast majority of the remaining cases that appear in the report are related to communication: expressions on television, articles in the press and social media, or statements by politicians that fall into three categories. There are 22 reports of harassment of believers, 49 reports of slurs on religion and 97 cases of “belligerent secularism”.
In terms of harassment, the report identifies as “insults” the criticism of a mayoress of a bishop, or articles in the press against Bishop Reig Pla for his statements against the euthanasia law. Also included is a joke made on TV by presenter Andreu Buenafuente to the well-known author Juan Manuel de Prada as an alleged “insult” when he asked him how, being so clever, he believed in God.
The last two categories - representing 75% of cases in the report - follow along the same lines. In terms of ‘slurs against religion’, we find mainly statements by politicians -mostly from left-wing parties- that are considered offensive, and opinion articles criticising any aspect of the Catholic Church or its leaders or its traditions, such as Easter Holy Week. Included are secularist cartoons, or an article calling evangelicals “fundamentalists” or “ultraconservatives” along with anti-Semitic expressions on Twitter.
Under the category of “belligerent secularism”, the restrictive measures on places of worship that were approved in some Spanish Autonomous Communities during the pandemic are included. There are the petitions to the Senate to eliminate the crime of offence against religious feelings, or the petition to revoke the controversial “immatriculations” of the Roman Catholic Church. The list even includes the petition to revoke the Concordat Spain has with the Vatican State or to debate the presence of religion in schools. In the same category, by the way, is included the cancellation of an evangelical conference in Vinarós due to pressure from an LGTB group.
Behind the headline “195 attacks on religious freedom” there is, therefore, a much more complex, and certainly less alarming, reality. Can it be considered an “attack on religious freedom” to call for a review of the immatriculations from which the Roman Catholic Church unfairly benefited in the past? Is it an “attack” to debate agreements between the state and the confessions, or a motion calling for political representatives in a town council not to take part in religious events in their public function? I wonder if next year’s report will include as an attack on religious freedom the Evangelical Federation (FEREDE) letter to the Government and the Royal Household asking the King to reconsider his traditional participation in the offering to the Apostle St. James.
When dealing with the issue of religious freedom it is necessary to be serious and fair, and the report of the Observatory for Religious Freedom and Freedom of Conscience falls into victimisation by trying to add as “attacks” what are secular initiatives - not always secularist - or discrepancies of opinion. Instead of creating a space for debate, the report presents a scenario of “us” believers against “them” non-believers. And in that scenario, Protestants, to be honest, are not comfortable at either extreme.
For evangelicals, the most tangible problem is not one of freedom, but rather of public participation. What is difficult is that, as “dissident” Christians, we are allowed to participate in public debate on equal terms. As Jaume Llenas usually says, we do not want to control the table, what we want is to have a place to sit with and like others. But this is not going to be solved by denouncing alleged “attacks” by politicians or journalists.
We may feel offended by unfair attacks in the public sphere, but the solution is not to victimise ourselves. On the contrary, we must reclaim our right to speak out equally against any idea or action that seems inappropriate to us. This right to dissent from the majority has usually been given against the dominant religion, and if we can see on the horizon that a new “religion” is beginning to form that wants to impose certain views as if they were dogma, we need to strengthen the right to critique those ideas. But you cannot ask for what you are not willing to give to others.
At the beginning of the article I referred to the lack of freedom for Christians in the Islamic world, where those who dare to speak out are persecuted. It makes no sense that here in Spain we would try to replicate the same “theocratic” persecution of those who criticise religious beliefs.
Freedom of expression rests on freedom of religion, and freedom of expression will be threatened when we are prevented from speaking out against certain ideas, be they religious, political or of the new secular religions. The solution will not be a law that punishes those who offend us, because we also need to be allowed to offend others from time to time.
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