Austrian lawyer Gudrun Kugler is the director of the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians. Her think tank recently released a report on discrimination in Europe. MercatorNet interviewed her about her views on secularisation in Europe.
Why did you write this report?
Kugler: Our goal is equal rights for all, not just Christians. Religious freedom in Europe is at risk. In private you can pray and think as you like – but in the public square there are ever more restrictions. We are all aware that Jews and Muslims experience intolerance and discrimination. But so do Christians – even if they constitute a nominal majority here. We are working towards greater awareness of a growing problem in Europe as a first step towards a solution. The findings are made available on our website for politicians, NGOs, journalists, Church leaders, and interested individuals.
What are your main findings from your report on discrimination against Christians in Europe?
Kugler: We analysed the phenomenon and found several problematic areas in Europe and the West in general:
- freedom of expression, especially regarding the Christian understanding of the human person, faith and morality,
- freedom of conscience, which includes medical personnel as well as Christian teachers and judges;
- the prior right of parents to ensure that their children’s education is consistent with their own religious and philosophical convictions,
- hate crimes against persons and property, desecrations and vandalism;
- removal of Christian symbols from public places;
- negative stereotyping of Christians in the media;
- discrimination in employment, social disadvantages for Christians, such as being ridiculed or overlooked for promotion in the work place.
Hate speech and anti-discrimination legislation often causes reverse discrimination against Christians by restricting freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and freedom of contract.
Intolerance in Europe, the birthplace of Christendom? Really?
Kugler: Since 2005 we have been campaigning to strengthen Christian values in the face of the growing de-Christianization of society. We have consistently heard of cases where Christians are discriminated against, but this is never mentioned in human rights debates. That’s why we launched an Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians.
Are “intolerance and discrimination against Christians” the same as Christianophobia?
Kugler: “Christophobia” was first introduced by the legal scholar Joseph Weiler, he himself being an orthodox Jew. The United Nations took it up as “Christianophobia”. It has used this word in more than 20 documents. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) prefers “intolerance” and “discrimination”. Intolerance denotes a social problem like the removal of Christian symbols from public life or ridicule of Christian views in the public square. Discrimination has legal implications. It might refer to the rejection of a Christian candidate because of his faith or a sacking someone because she wears a cross around her neck – as has happened in England.
We prefer to talk about intolerance and discrimination rather than Christianophobia, because the word “phobia” implies an “irrational fear”. This is not the root cause of the phenomenon. However, the descriptive meaning of the two terms is the same.
Is intolerance against Christians growing in Europe?
Kugler: The OSCE thinks so, not just us. Ambassador Janez Lenarcic, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has declared: “intolerance and discrimination against Christians are manifested in various forms across the OSCE area. While denial of rights may be an important issue where Christians form a minority, exclusion and marginalization may also be experienced by Christians where they comprise a majority in society.”
We do not have complete statistics in Europe, but a growing number of cases are being reported. For example, there are more attacks on church buildings in Germany although these are not recognized as “anti-religious acts”. But if synagogues or mosques are vandalised, they are and the media warns us of growing intolerance against Jews and Muslims. There is a study from across the Channel: a January 2009 poll showed that more than four out of five churchgoers (84 per cent) think that religious freedom of speech and action are at risk in the UK. A similar proportion (82 percent) feel it is becoming more difficult to live as a Christian in an increasingly secular country.
One familiar voice is Cherie Blair, wife of the former British Prime Minister. She said not long ago: “Everywhere you look today churches are being closed, Christians are often being marginalised and faith is something few people like to discuss openly.”
Aren’t you in danger of exaggerating? The situation is far worse for Christians in other parts of the world!
Kugler: You cannot compare injustices here with the situation in, for example, North Korea, India or Pakistan. The Christians who are there in spite of fierce persecution are our great models. However, religious freedom in Europe is a hard-won achievement which cannot be taken for granted. It needs advocates to keep it alive so that the Christian character of Europe is not lost.
Who is responsible for this discrimination in these countries?
Kugler: I have the impression that journalists and policy-makers are often more anti-Christian than their fellow citizens. But they shape the mood of the country. What we observe is that Christians are increasingly being described as “homophobic”, sexist, intolerant and unworldly.
Why is there such a negative attitude toward Christians?
Kugler: Christianity and the cross are a constant bone of contention. Perhaps crucifixes and other religious imagery are reminders that people ought to put their lives in order. Christians are also the last obstacle to a new vision of secularity which is so politically correct that it verges on totalitarianism.
Do you forecast a revival of Christian persecution in Europe?
Kugler: Yes, but not like the persecutions in Roman times or under Communism. But there are signs that hostility towards free and open demonstrations of faith is growing. Christians are increasingly marginalized and are appearing more often in courts over matters related to faith. So I think that we are heading for a bloodless persecution.
Are Christians aware of what is happening?
Kugler: Certainly Christian leaders are worried. The fact that the OSCE has recognized the problem demonstrates that it is not a subjective perception of stakeholders like myself, but a real development.
What do you want to achieve through your initiative?
Kugler: First, we want politicians, teachers and journalists to become aware of discrimination and intolerance towards Christians. We are trying to raise awareness amongst international human rights organizations. We recently published a five-year report to document our concerns and provide irrefutable data for opinion makers.
What can Christians do?
Kugler: Speak up. Many European Christians don’t realise that defending their beliefs is a way of speaking up for the weak, the disadvantaged and the defenceless. I feel that it is an act of Christian charity to insist on one’s democratic rights. We have to seek inspiration from brothers and sisters of ours who bravely face violent forms of persecution, instead of quietly backing down.
Christians in public life also have to have the courage to resist restrictions on religious liberties. Church leaders and lay men and women should speak out more clearly and boldly when they see religious freedom being undermined. And it should go without saying that all of us should be authentic Christians who proclaim the Gospel without fear or false respect. Prejudice can only be dispelled by friendship and respectful dialogue.
Dr Gudrun Kugler is a lawyer in Vienna, Austria, and founder of the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians. She is an advisor for the Fundamental Rights Platform of European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency.