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EU religious freedom envoy position now vacant while Afghan faith minorities face deepening crisis

  • Christos Stylianides set to leave role as Special Envoy for freedom of religion or belief outside the EU after just five months in office

  • Threat to religious minorities in Afghanistan highlights need for swift appointment of new Special Envoy

BRUSSELS (08 September 2021) – Amidst the unfolding religious freedom crisis in Afghanistan, the position of “Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU” has, again, been left vacant. Christos Stylianides has accepted a different position after less than five months in the role.  

“Nobody should be persecuted because of their faith. The current plight of Christians, Shia Muslims, and other religious minorities in Afghanistan highlights the need for a Special Envoy to quickly get to work, focusing on the needs of the most persecuted worldwide. A swift reappointment is crucial in showing real commitment to improving the precarious situations religious minorities are facing worldwide,” said Adina Portaru, Senior Counsel for ADF International in Brussels. 

The European Commission had appointed Stylianides this May after the position had been left vacant for two years. Human rights experts had raised concern over the poor resourcing and staffing provided to carry out the mandate.  

“We lament that this position was vacant for almost two years before Stylianides was appointed. This August, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs stated that ‘The EU works relentlessly to address violations and abuses of freedom of religion or belief’. We hope the EU will live up to this promise and urge the European Commission to strengthen the position of the Special Envoy and build on the important work already achieved. The victims on the ground are in dire need of a decisive response from the EU. With its Special Envoy, the EU can lead in the international response. That leadership is needed now more than ever,” Portaru continued. 

Role of the Special Envoy 

The Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU was introduced in 2016 to protect freedom of religion or belief on behalf of the EU worldwide. The European Parliament called for the ‘EU to establish a permanent Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief’ in its Resolution of 4 February 2016 on the systematic mass murder of religious minorities by the so-called ‘ISIS/Daesh’. Part of the mandate included visits to countries with some of the most violent religious persecution in the world to help address the situation and develop response plans. The Special Envoy played a decisive role in helping Asia Bibi safely leave Pakistan after she was acquitted of blasphemy charges.  

There has been robust support for the continuation of the mandate, voiced by the European Parliament Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance, national special envoys,scholars, and civil society. A Report on EU Guidelines and the mandate of the EU Special Envoy, adopted by the European Parliament on 16 January 2019 with overwhelming support (576 votes for), stressed the need for the Council and the Commission ‘to adequately support the institutional mandate, capacity and duties, by exploring the possibility of a multi-year term subjected to annual review’. 

“The Special Envoy has played a crucial role in bringing the horrors of religious persecution to light at the European level. The role has created awareness around some of the worst and most persistent violations of fundamental rights around the world and helped focus EU efforts to counter them. The EU should not only continue, but intensify efforts to protect freedom of religion or belief around the world. The reappointment of a Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU is now more necessary than ever,” said Robert Clarke, Deputy Director of ADF International.  

Next role for Stylianides 

The Cypriot, Christos Stylianides, was the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management from 2014 to 2019. Since 2020, he served as special advisor on education in emergencies, migration, and inclusion to the current Vice-President of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas. Stylianides is set to leave his role as Special Envoy after accepting an appointment as Minister for Climate Crisis and Civil Protection in the Greek government. He was granted honorary Greek citizenship in order to assume the position. 

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