LONDON – A Vienna-based watchdog released a new report where it voiced concern over the ability of Christians in Europe to publicly express their faith.
The report is released every five years by the Observatory of Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe.
It warned that discriminatory laws were preventing the equal exercise of freedom in the areas of speech, conscience and religion, while the introduction of equality legislation was leading to "side-effect discrimination" against Christians.
"Hate speech legislation has a tendency to indirectly discriminate against Christians, criminalizing core elements of Christian teaching," the report reads. "We recommend that legislators carefully consider legislation with a view to freedom of religion, speech and conscience especially with regard to its effect on Christians."
The report raises concern over recent threats to freedom of conscience. They include the 18-year suspension of a judge in Spain in 2008 for conscientiously objecting to the adoption of a girl by her mother's lesbian partner, and the U.K. Supreme Court's refusal to grant an appeal to a Christian registrar who was disciplined because she refused to perform ceremonies for same-sex couples.
The report points to the arrest of Christian street preachers in the U.K. and an ongoing case against Christians in Turkey for supposedly slandering Islam as evidence that freedom of expression is coming under threat in Europe.
Many of the incidents of discrimination highlighted by the report related to the experiences of Christians in the U.K.
Examples of discrimination against Christians also included those in the area of employment and education.
The Observatory said in its report that it was not looking to legislate against social intolerance but rather to respond to the growing phenomenon with "soft measures" such as raising awareness and "giving incentives."
The report went on to raise concern over "negative stereotyping" in the media and by prominent public figures, saying that the media "ought to be more aware of the marginalization of Christians when they are selecting information and choosing how it is presented."
"Opinion leaders must also be aware of their responsibility in shaping a tolerant public discourse and should refrain from negative stereotyping of Christianity," the report states.
The Observatory defended the right of believers to wear their religious symbols, saying that the public display of a religious symbol should not be perceived as an attempt to proselytize or demonstrate intolerance towards people of another or no faith.
It said there was "no reason" to repress or remove religious symbols. Rather, Christians should be allowed to wear religious symbols in the school or workplace so long as they do not pose any risk to health and safety or public order.
The group further called for respect to be shown towards long-standing traditions and historic-cultural parameters when considering the display of religious symbols in public spaces.
"The Christian symbol of the cross is more than a religious symbol, it illustrates historical roots and its removal is more than a merely neutral act."
Political correctness, the group warned, is fostering a "dictatorship of opinion" and making the expression of Christian views "impossible" in the public square.
A "more friendly and positive atmosphere in favor of religion in general and Christianity ought to be fostered," the group encouraged, and the political community in Europe has a "duty" to tackle intolerance and discrimination towards Christians.
It called upon European governments to uphold freedom of religion and modify legislation that discriminates against Christians, and appealed to the European Union to respect the autonomy of churches and promote dialogue with church leaders on the issue of intolerance and discrimination.