European Union sees faith bias problem, but isn’t sure of a solution

December 10, 2012

(Should Muslim teachers be allowed to wear full face veils in European schools? They can at this Palestinian school in the village of Hawara near Nablus. Picture taken on September 1, 2009. REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini)

Europe’s growing religious diversity is creating social and legal tensions that cry out for reform, but even a European Union seeking solutions may not have the political will to implement them.

That was the impression given this week when researchers for a three-year EU-funded study of discrimination and other problems faced by minority faiths in member countries presented some of their proposals to European Commission officials.

The findings of the survey were clear: minority religions, especially Islam, face growing job discrimination and many restrictions in the public sphere. This hinders integration and could eventually put a drag on the EU economy, it said.

“If you don’t respect these people’s desire to combine their citizenship and work with their religious identity, you exclude them and lose their potential,” said Marie-Claire Foblets, the Catholic University of Leuven anthropologist who heads the Religare research project.

The study, which will be officially completed in the coming months, suggests the EU expand its directive against discrimination in the workplace to include a right to reasonable accommodations for citizens’ religious needs.

But the economic and political climate has changed since that law was passed in 2000 and the EU called for an extensive academic survey of faith-based problems as part of its current research program running from 2007 to 2013.

“These are already not easy times for defending (what) we currently have in place,” said Andreas Stein, head of the equality law unit in the European Commission, who said the 2000 directive was passed “at a politically very opportune moment.”

“There is a non-negligible political risk in reopening these directives. Trying to improve them may achieve the opposite in the end,” he advised the researchers at the end of a two-day conference held in nearby Leuven and Brussels.

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