Newsletter - Freedom of Religion & COVID-19 Restrictions in Europe

Posted on: May 21, 2020


May 20, 2020

Dear Readers,

In the time since our last newsletter, most of us have experienced some version of stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to restrictions on gatherings, religious services have been prohibited in many places.

As restrictions are slowing being lifted, many European governments and EU bodies have not included places of worship in their "roadmaps" for easing restrictions. The Commission of Catholic Bishops in the European Union (COMECE) recently warned that continued forced closure of places of worship will result in the serious erosion of fundamental rights. 

We have also included excerpts from a Working Paper which examines the situation in Spain and the governmental overreach in regulating Christian places of worship during the pandemic.

Despite the lockdowns and stay-at-home order, there have been a number of disturbing reports of vandalism across Europe. In this newsletter, we describe two such incidents -- one in France and one in Austria -- both of which appear to have been perpetrated by far-left activists.

Feel free to share our newsletters widely in your networks. If you received this from a friend and wish to subscribe, please click here

Ellen Fantini
Executive Director


COMECE warns: Religious freedom in Europe ‘under threat'

“The reopening of churches must be implemented by civil authorities in dialogue with ecclesial institutions” -- Fr Barrios Prieto, General Secretary of COMECE

By Jonathan Luxmoore, The Tablet 
May 11, 2020

The Brussels-based commission representing the European Union's Catholic bishops, COMECE has warned against the continued forced closure of places of worship during the Covid-19 pandemic, and called for their reopening to be consulted and coordinated with Church leaders.

"Freedom of religion, including freedom of worship, is a fundamental right and real necessity for many people", said Fr Manuel Enrique Barrios Prieto, the commission's Spanish general secretary. "COMECE takes this opportunity to restate that any erosion of fundamental rights in the current emergency context, including freedom of religion, must not become the new norm. These rights have to be fully re-established as early as possible."

"The aggressive approach of certain secularist actors against religion in the public square may have contributed to its marginalisation in the context of the current crisis. COMECE reiterates that religion is not a merely private issue: it also has a public and collective dimension, as clearly expressed in all main human rights texts, including the EU Charter."
-- Fr Barrios Prieto, COMECE General Secretary

The statement was issued as Masses and liturgies cautiously resumed across Europe from early May in line with national coronavirus regulations. It said dialogue between churches and EU governments was "as crucial as ever" during the pandemic, adding that respect for religious freedom was vital when the EU was showing "ever growing attention" to the rule of law in its member-states. However, the EU Commission's roadmap for lifting virus containment measures had made no mention of religious services, COMECE says. 

"This is disappointing, since it neglects the key role of religion in European societies," Fr Prieto noted in a rare criticism of EU practices. "The reopening of churches in compliance with rules of sanitary caution must be implemented by civil authorities in a clear and non-arbitrary way, in full respect of and dialogue with ecclesial institutions." 

Church leaders have raised concerns that anti-clerical politicians could seek to retain some curbs on religious rights after the Covid-19 pandemic, after armed police were filmed on social media entering churches to stop Masses at altars in Spain and Italy. In France, where churches have remained open for private prayer, the Bishops Conference condemned a late April government announcement that no services could be conducted until June, warning in a communique that freedom of worship was "a constitutive element of democratic life". In neighbouring Spain, Cardinal Antonio Canizares of Valencia rejected "false claims" by local authorities on Sunday that a Mass for the Virgin of the Forsaken had breached safety guidelines, and accused politicians of using "manipulation and distortion" against Catholics. (See below for a more detailed report about the situation in Spain)

In his statement, Fr Prieto said the Council of Europe had also warned in its recent coronavirus "Toolkit for Member-States" that religious freedom was "a benchmark of modern democratic societies", and had called on governments to ensure any restrictions were "clearly established by law, in compliance with relevant constitutional guarantees and proportionate to the aim it pursues". 

Religious Freedom in Spain during Coronavirus Pandemic

Working Paper: The Abuses Committed by Spanish Public Authorities in the Implementation of Emergency Legislation Against COVID-19 that Undermine Religious Freedom

By Dr. Jose Luis Bazan

May 14, 2020

Executive Summary:
The implementation by the Spanish authorities of the emergency legislation ("state of alarm") against the COVID-19 pandemic creates problems of compatibility both with the requirements of the Spanish Constitution and with international human rights standards, in accordance with legal and human rights experts. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the authorities are undermining the legitimate exercise of freedom of religion, including the right to public worship, when for example, police unduly interrupt masses inside temples while they are taking place, or by disproportionately restricting other acts of worship, despite all due sanitary measures are adopted (e.g., social distance, obligatory masks and use of hydro-alcoholic gel). Similarly, some political parties, media and NGOs have denounced a more favourable treatment of certain religious denominations that do not respect the principle of non-discrimination.

An example: The Exhibition of Our Lady of the Forsaken in Valencia
The Spanish city of Valencia (the third largest city in the country, after Madrid and Barcelona), commemorated on Sunday, May 10th, 2020 its Patron Saint, Our Lady of the Forsaken (“Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados”), with a solemn Mass at 10:30 am behind closed doors and without faithful, respecting the Government health regulations for the coronavirus pandemic -- an exceptional way of celebration -- for the first time in the 600 years of history of the devotion to Our Lady.

According to the statement by the Archdioceses of Valencia issued on Monday, May 11th, after the celebration of the Mass, the image of Our Lady was oriented towards the square in front of the church, without ever leaving the interior of the church (see photo above). The image was exposed only during the time the regional hymn was played. There was no formal call from the Archbishopric for the faithful to participate in an act of worship in the square, in front of the image of Our Lady.

Only those who were spontaneously in the square in front of the church at that time were able to contemplate the image of Our Lady, keeping the distance required by the Government health regulations and in the presence of three local police units and members of the Red Cross that were at that moment in the Square. The local police reminded those present that they should keep the distance marked by the health authorities, and these measures were scrupulously complied with without the local police having to intervene. Once the regional hymn finished, the doors of the church were closed.

Despite following all of the regulations, local police in Valencia have proposed to impose a fine on the Archbishopric for allegedly violating the legislation on health protection adopted due to coronavirus pandemic. The decision to impose the fine has not yet been taken by the Interior Ministry. 

Other recent cases of governmental abuses undermining religious freedoms:
The Spanish Conference of Catholic Bishops have requested the government to celebrate masses "without giving rise to problematic situations, to interventions by the police, to conflicts of interpretation of articles 7 and 11 of the Royal Decree", and "clarify with the government the situation of worship so that Masses can be resumed without the police breaking in.”

The Spanish Association of Christian Lawyers has filed a complaint before the Supreme Court against the Minister of the Interior, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, for an alleged "crime of prevarication" as well as for two alleged crimes against religious feelings, "one of prohibition of worship and another of interruption of worship," for the eviction of some churches while Mass was being held. This Association has accused the police of "religious persecution" for interrupting masses during the state of emergency.

Allegations of Double Standards:

The political party, Vox, as well as some media organizations and NGOs, have denounced the allegedly double standards applied by Spanish authorities, arguing that they easily disrupt Christians Masses and celebrations, but seem to be more tolerant with certain Muslim communities’ acts of worship. Examples provided by media organizations include:
Read the full Working Paper here

Dr. Jose Luis Bazan is an Independent Researcher and International Analyst in International Human Rights issues, in particular Religious Freedom, based in Brussels, Belgium. Ph.D. (International Human Rights Law), Degree in Law (University of Navarre, Spain). 

France: Shocking Destruction of Pic Saint-Loup Crucifix


Between the evening of May 9th and and the morning of May 10th, unidentified vandals cut down the emblematic summit crucifix of Pic Saint-Loup at its base. The iron cross overlooking Montpellier, which weighs 900 kg and is nearly ten meters high, was reportedly detached with a blowtorch or drills and left hanging over the 658 meters from the top of the peak. Inscriptions in red paint reading "Larcins des sorcières hérétiques" (crimes of heretical witches), "Le Pic Laïque" (the secular peak), and "Witch Power" (in English) were left on the pedestal. Police are investigating.

The incident occurred just before deconfinement due to the Covid-19 pandemic was set to begin in France on May 11th.

Photo: Nouvelles de France

Municipal and regional officials worked quickly to secure the monument to prevent it from falling into the valley below. Mayor Jean Vallon said, "These poor people should be taught what secularism is: respect for all religions. They confuse anti-clericalism and secularism." 

Monsignor Carré, Archbishop of Montpellier reacted by saying, "The Cross that has stood atop Pic Saint-Loup for over a century has been demolished. This act of vandalism hurts us all and especially affects Catholics because they recognize in the Cross the sign of their faith.

Any act against religious symbols is intolerable. It calls for an outburst of fraternity. I invite the Catholics of the diocese of Montpellier today to pray before the Cross of the Saviour."


Austria: Salzburg Catholic Organization Targeted with "Pro Choice" Vandalism


On May 5th, the cars belonging to the Catholic initiative, HOME Mission Base Salzburg, were sprayed with "Pro Choice" and the windows were smashed by unknown vandals.

"Windows smashed and all our cars smeared. Looks like we're getting more and more relevant!" With these words, the Catholic initiative HOME Mission Base Salzburg published photos of an attack on the community's cars, presumably carried out by left-wing abortion advocates. The slogan "Pro Choice" was sprayed on all cars, in addition the windows were smashed.

Patrick Knittelfelder, the head of the Home Mission Base, told “After our vehicles have been carefully selected, this indicates that we are very relevant. With what we do, of course, we give a clear statement of yes to life. This has implications in the spiritual, material and psychodynamic world.” reported that investigations are underway, with the focus on left-wing extremist circles in Salzburg.


Have you heard or read about an incident in Europe negatively affecting Christians or Christian buildings, symbols, or institutions? Have you been assaulted, threatened, or discriminated against because of your Christian faith? Have you been verbally harassed and silenced when stating a Christian position?

Please tell us your story or send us a link. You can email us here, or click REPORT A CASE on our website.

Observatory in the news: view recent articles quoting the Observatory here.

We post stories of interest frequently on social media.  If you haven't yet, please LIKE us on Facebook and FOLLOW us on Twitter.