Ján Figeľ, EU Special Envoy for Religious Freedom or Belief
The European Commission has announced that it is terminating the mandate of the Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the European Union. At the same time, however, in a letter to international experts on religious freedom, the Commission agreed that "together with other fundamental rights, the freedom of religion or belief is challenged worldwide."
"The European Commission's decision to terminate the mandate of the Special Envoy comes at a time when the right to practice one's religion, change one's religion, or practice no religion at all is imperiled in many places around the world. The Special Envoy has played an immeasurable role in shining a light on human rights abuses and facilitating dialogue in countries where religious persecution is most severe," said Ellen Fantini, Executive Director of the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe.
Although the Commission has said it has “identified [freedom of religion or belief] as a priority,” it has not made clear how it intends to continue to prioritize the protection of such freedoms outside the EU.
In May, European Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance strongly urged the European Commission to continue the mandate of the EU Special Envoy on Religious Freedom. "Since it is evident that, despite encouraging developments, there are still many challenges in the domain of freedom of religion or belief and religious tolerance.... We need more religious freedom around the globe, and we need to support encouraging developments. So we urge [the Commission] to renew the mandate of the EU Special Envoy as soon as possible.”
The Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU was introduced in 2016 in order to uphold freedom of religion or belief on behalf of the EU worldwide. Since then, the Slovak politician and former European Commissioner Ján Figeľ has held the role in representing the EU in its engagement with religious freedom as a human right.
In a case watched around the world, the Special Envoy played a decisive role in helping Asia Bibi safely leave Pakistan after she was acquitted of blasphemy charges.
“I want to thank an angel, a person who helped me from my imprisonment until now: that person is Jan Figel, the EU’s special envoy for Religious Freedom,” says Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row after being accused of blasphemy, in her first live message from her exile in Canada. “I am really grateful and thankful to him and I wish that God may provide more people like him,” she continued.
Support for the continuation of the Special Envoy's mandate has been voiced by the European Parliament Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance, national special envoys, scholars, and civil society.
Further reading here, here, and here.