This year marks the 1700th anniversary of the birth of religious tolerance in Europe. After 313 AD Christians and followers of other religions were free to practice their beliefs without interference from the authorities of the Roman Empire. The event has been marked by seminars and conferences (especially in Serbia, the birthplace of Constantine the Great). Religious leaders have expressed their concern, however, that Christians are once again under pressure in an increasingly secularised Europe. “Christians are still dying in the world for their adherence to Christ, while in Europe the acts of intolerance and discrimination against Christians are on the increase”, says the Orthodox Metropolitan of France.
In the following interview, historian Martin Kugler, of the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians, explains the significance of the anniversary.
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MercatorNet: This year, 2013, is the 1700th anniversary of the Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan, an event which had momentous consequences for the history of Europe. Could you explain what it was and why it is so important?
Martin Kugler: In 313 AD, shortly after consolidating his power in the Western part of the Roman Empire, Constantine the Great granted religious freedom to all Romans. At that moment it was very clear that Christianity – this being, by the way, contrary to the Muslim religion founded 300 years later – does not necessarily imply any particular style of law or political organisation. Christ’s saying, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”, marks the beginning of our modern understanding of religious freedom and cohabitation of State and Church.
Though there was a long way to go, the so-called Edict of Milan is a milestone. But it also created further important historical steps inspired by Christian belief. Constantine prohibited the custom of branding the face of slaves and criminals in 315, arguing that “the human face is an image of the divine glory”. In 321 he installed Sunday as a day of worship and recreation. In 374 his successor Valentinian I banned abortion and abandoning children.
MercatorNet: The Christian world in 313 was now split into three regions: Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In the Middle East Christianity has a tough time; in Eastern Europe it was persecuted under Communism. But in Western Europe? Western Christianity can hardly be a victim, when it seems to enjoy so much ancient authority.
Martin Kugler: History is a movement. While Christianity has enjoyed supremacy – and sometimes Christians have not not used it well – today the situation is very different. They might constitutes a majority in nominal membership in some areas, but practising Christians are only a minority. A bygone supremacy must not be used as a justification for restrictions imposed today. The mere fact that Christians in Western Europe suffer legal restrictions and social hostility in various countries speaks volumes. We don’t talk about “persecutions” but it would be crazy to postpone our response until our position is too weak to defend freedom.
MercatorNet: The Edict brought tolerance to the Roman Empire. But a lot of people associate Christianity with intolerance. What went wrong?
Martin Kugler: After Christianity became the official state religion in 380 AD, the Church got closer and closer to the political power, and began considering the Roman Emperor as the patron of her freedom and later even of her doctrinal integrity. The so called “alliance between throne and altar” had a lot of negative consequences for the Church. She often sacrificed her autonomy and sometimes even part of her credibility. But today’s reaction among progressives against this alliance seems very anachronistic and unhistorical. Sometimes it sounds like: “don’t insist on your rights today because yesterday your ancestors misbehaved badly.”
MercatorNet: What are the principal ways in which Western Christians are being discriminated against today?
Martin Kugler: In the latest report of the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians we document legal restrictions on Christians in the areas of freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, parents’ rights and equality legislation. We also document almost 1,000 cases of social hostility against Christians on our website. These cases comprise countless acts of vandalism against Christian sites as well as social exclusion of Christians or their convictions, disrespectful pieces of art or cartoons, intolerance at the workplace or in school. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has recently examined the problem at a high level meeting on tolerance in Albania. Fifty-seven governments met in a special separate session which was devoted to combating rising intolerance against Christians in the OSCE area, which includes the Western world.
MercatorNet: Why don’t we hear more about Christianophobia in Western Europe? The US State Department has criticised European prejudice against Scientologists, Muslims and Jews. But it hasn’t scolded governments about their treatment of Christians.
Martin Kugler: The US State Department has criticised the UK government in previous years. But the focus of each report is of course politically motivated, and awareness still needs to grow. Averting one’s eyes will not be possible in the near future.
MercatorNet: How can a majority be discriminated against?
Martin Kugler: It is not nominal Christians who are fully aligned to society’s mainstream who suffer discrimination. It is those who strive to live according to the high ethical demands of Christianity who experience a clash with the dominant culture. These are not in the majority. And even if they were, history has shown that a minority can discriminate against a peaceful majority, as we saw in the striking example of apartheid in South Africa.
MercatorNet: In April the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted resolution 1928 which reaffirms freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. Has there been any resistance to this among European governments?
Martin Kugler: Countless declarations and resolutions affirm and reaffirm these rights and freedoms. Sometimes I have the feeling, however, that everyone loves general terms and nods politely, but when asked about a concrete application they do not stick to the principles. This might be due to a lack of philosophical understanding. In countless conversations we have heard from European officials that there is “too much freedom of conscience” and that its “excessive use” must be restricted.
What they mean is that Christian medical staff and denominational hospitals should either perform ethically disputed medical acts or refer to someone else who does it. But this clearly constitutes a violation of freedom of conscience. Guidelines on Freedom of Religion and Belief recently adopted by the European Parliament praise freedom of conscience — but they meant it only in the context of military service. Medical procedures were not even mentioned and the humanist NGOs applauded it.
Martin Kugler lives in Vienna and is member of the board of the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians. He holds a PhD in contemporary history.