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Cherie's Speech at the Launch of Ronan McCrea’s “Religion and the Public Order of the European Union”

Cherie Blair, 3 February 2011

This book makes a valuable and timely contribution to the debate on one of the most controversial areas of public life.

I am very pleased to be here this evening to launch this timely book. I remember well interviewing Ronan for his application to become a trainee in Matrix and then he worked with me on some of my cases during his time with us and I remember not only his undoubted intellect and hard work but his wonderful humanity and respect for the dignity of everyone with whom he came into contact. I know many members of his extended family and friends are here today and I know they would join me in paying tribute to him as a good man and not just a good academic.

Religious freedom has a strong claim to being one of, if not the, oldest issues which we now consider to be a human right. And intolerance of others and less favourable treatment of them because of their deeply held beliefs that has too often become a catalyst for the untold suffering and misery of millions. As the 1981 United Nations Declaration on Religious Intolerance notes, it is discrimination and intolerance on the basis of religion that has brought wars and great suffering to mankind over the centuries.

That this is an issue which has shaped our common continent of Europe is well known from the golden age of the Emirate of Cordoba during the tenth to twelfth centuries, a time of tolerance, through the struggles between Catholic and Protestant in the Thirty Years War which ended in the Treaty of Westphalia 1648 whose ideas of an autonomous self governing state, free from interference from other states shaped the very idea of the state that we still hold today. Then we had the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the idea of laicitie and the secular state which equally forms an important part of Europe today.

There is no doubt too that religious persecution which saw its extreme form in Nazi Germany led to that “never again” moment after the Second World War with the founding of the UN and the UN Declaration of Human Rights across the world the establishing of the EU and the ECHR in Europe.

But religious freedom is not just about the right to believe in a god, it is equally about the right not to believe at all.

Religious freedom does not end with the right to hold certain beliefs; it is about protecting the manifestation of those beliefs so that you are not discriminated against on the basis of practising those beliefs.

Every international human rights agreement includes a provision to the effect that rights must be protected ‘without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, religion, or other opinion ... or other status.’ But we are confronted with very real dilemmas when religious traditions and beliefs are used as a justification, real or purported, for discrimination against others. Often such discrimination is on the basis of the religion of others or their gender or sexual orientation.

Should we then respect and allow the manifestation of such religious beliefs or should we seek to uphold the value and dignity of each individual? This is an acute problem in many parts of the world, and applies to almost all religious traditions be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism or Hinduism.

Ronan McCrea’s book is addresses these important issues as they arise in the context of the European Union today at a time these issues have come to the fore, whether in their manifestation as questions whether there should be a ban on the wearing of the burkha or in the desecration of Jewish cemeteries or in the hostile media reporting in the run up to the Pope’s visit last year.

European law has come to cover many elements of our law. It is accordingly most welcome that, for the first time, a comprehensive account of the Union’s approach to religion is now available in the UK.

This book covers a broad range of elements of the Union’s approach to religion, including individual and institutional freedom of religion, religion as an element of culture and church state relations.

Importantly, it also addresses a topic that is often missed out in analysis of religion and human rights, the important principle of freedom from religion and the limits on religious influence over law and politics that are necessary in liberal democracies.

The book argues that the Union’s approach to religion is based on a balance between the Union’s predominantly Christian religious heritage and an equally strong secular and humanist tradition that involves limitations on religious influence over law.

It makes interesting arguments in relation to the reconciliation of respect for the religiously particular elements of national cultures with the duty to treat all religions equally.

This book makes a valuable and timely contribution to the debate on one of the most controversial areas of public life.

I am very happy to launch it.

To buy a copy of Ronan McCrea's book click here