The Brussels-based commission representing the Catholic bishops of the European Union is backing tougher steps to combat hate crimes, but warned that current EU proposals could violate religious freedom and have a “chilling and self-censoring effect”.
“Hate crimes are more and more common and are cause for increasing concern – a grave phenomenon to be condemned without reservations,” the Commission of European Union Bishops’ Conferences (COMECE) said in a June 7 statement.
However, while supporting such measures, the bishops’ commission, known as COMECE, expressed concern that establishing provisions uniformly across the EU would potentially criminalise “the mere expression of an idea, at actions carried out by the Church in exercising its magisterium and teaching activities”.
Acknowledging that the Catholic Church was committed to “effective policies” against hate crimes, and favoured “sound reporting mechanisms” and “effective and regular data collection”, COMECE said such measures were best addressed by individual EU nations.
The commission noted that the EU’s Lisbon Treaty of 2007 recognised “different legal systems and traditions” among the bloc’s 27 member-states, and said categorising the offenses as “EU crimes” risked restricting “core fundamental rights”, including freedom of speech and faith.
Headed by Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, COMECE’s statement was released ahead of the planned debate on EU-wide legislation.
“The risk of a chilling effect on democratic debates and open discussions in society is always present, precisely due to the unsure borders for conduct and expression. While aiming at promoting tolerance and prudence, the relevant laws often entail the danger of fostering self-censorship. In some cases, such initiatives harbour ideological and political aspects,” COMECE said.
In recent years, human rights groups have warned of increased abuse and harassment against social and ethnic groups across Europe, fuelled by social media, and have urged tighter measures to identify and prosecute perpetrators.
However, Church leaders have warned against extending “hate speech” to penalise valid criticisms of practices such as abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
In its statement, COMECE said “highly sensitive legal questions” were best tackled at national level, adding that “uncertain and vague” terms such as “hate speech”, with no globally agreed definition, could be “used as a pretext for censorship”.
“It is important to distinguish between hateful, nasty, vicious or malevolent attacks on the person on one hand, and disagreement or dispute with an ideological position on the other,” COMECE said.
“Persons belonging to any religion should be protected by hate crime provisions and care taken not to foster a minorities-versus-majorities dynamic – according to which protection would be primarily aimed at the former,” the commission said.