The 2010 International Religious Freedom Report

Nothing for Europe to crow about.

The US State Department has just released its annual International Religious Freedom Report (you can find the Executive Summary here and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remarks introducing the report here).

The list of designated Countries of Particular Concern -- those that have "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom" -- is not entirely unexpected: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. But Saudi was not the only US ally to come in for harsh words. The summary concludes the following about Egypt, for instance:

The status of respect for religious freedom by the government remained poor, unchanged from the previous year. Members of non-Muslim religious minorities officially recognized by the government generally worship without harassment; however, Christians and members of the Baha'i Faith, which the government does not recognize, face personal and collective discrimination, especially in government employment and their ability to build, renovate, and repair places of worship.... Government authorities often refused to provide converts with new identity documents indicating their chosen faith. The government failed to prosecute perpetrators of violence against Coptic Christians in a number of cases.... [and] continued to contribute to a climate of impunity.

A few bald facts put the other side about holiday destinations like the Maldives, where you may be surprised to learn that the "law prohibits citizens from practising any religion other than Islam". While the "good news" includes the odd statement that might raise eyebrows among some readers. Take this one about Morocco: "In positive developments, on July 28, 2009, King Mohammed VI formally acknowledged the Holocaust..." Progress of a kind, one supposes.

Just as interesting, however, is what the report has to say about the UK and our neighbours.

In Austria, the report listed 200 anti-Semitic incidents, including one where a Palestinian refugee bit off part of a rabbi's finger.

In April, Belgium's "House of Representatives adopted draft legislation prohibiting persons from appearing in public with the face fully or partially covered, if it makes identification impossible. The draft legislation was sponsored by members of the center-right Francophone Liberal Party (MR), but it received nearly unanimous support in the House of Representatives. Because of religious freedom concerns, the sponsors made no mention in the text of burqas or niqabs. However, human rights advocates and spokespersons of the country's Muslim community criticized the initiative arguing that it was racially motivated."

France: "The country is home to Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish communities. Members of these and other groups were victims of violent physical attacks, attacks on their places of worship, and discrimination..... During the reporting period, the government proposed draft legislation that would prohibit the wearing of face-covering veils in public. Some religious groups criticized the proposed legislation because if passed it would restrict religious freedom." The bill has since been passed by both the National Assembly and the Senate, although a constitutional challenge is considered likely. "The public debate on this problem intensified when President Sarkozy condemned burqas as 'not welcome on French soil' during a speech on June 22, 2009."

Germany: the list of anti-Semitic incidents, many of them involving the vandalism and desecration of synagogues and cemeteries, to which the report refers is too long to repeat, but includes this horrific example: "during a soccer match, supporters of SV Muegeln-Ablass 09, a district-league soccer club in the eastern state of Saxony, chanted 'a tree, a noose, a Jew's neck' and 'we're building a subway, from Jerusalem to Auschwitz,' until the match was stopped."

Hungary: "Extremist groups grew in size and number. These included the far right-wing political party Jobbik, which grew in popularity while taking openly anti-Semitic positions, and winning 47 parliamentary seats (12 percent of the total) in the April 25 national election." When its members took their seats in May, "Jobbik Chairman Gabor Vona wore a black vest with symbols of the party's banned paramilitary arm, the Magyar Garda."

Italy: Despite many efforts, which the report details, "no Muslim group has been able to build a mosque in the past year", while in April a 1975 anti-terror law was used to prosecute a woman for wearing a niqab. She was fined Euros 500.

Netherlands: The report mentions the electoral success of Geert Wilders and his trial on charges of inciting hatred against Muslims (which has just collapsed), anti-Semitic attacks and arson attempts on mosques. "Muslims faced societal resentment, attributable to perceptions that Islam is incompatible with Western values, that Muslim immigrants have failed to integrate, and that levels of criminal activity among Muslim youth are higher than the national average. Major incidents of violence against Muslims were rare; however, minor incidents including intimidation, brawls, vandalism, and graffiti with abusive language were common."

The list goes on, and you can find the full index for individual countries here.

But two patterns emerge: anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim attacks are far more commonplace all over the continent than we might wish to think. And, as Secretary Clinton said in her introductory speech : "Several European countries have placed harsh restrictions on religious expression." While this may not be the same as the threats to religious freedom she also mentions, from authoritarian regimes and from violent extremist groups, I would say it fits into her third category: "the quiet but persistent harm caused by intolerance and mistrust which can leave minority religious groups vulnerable and marginalized."

The headlines may be grabbed by what the report has to say about China and Saudi Arabia, but there is not so much for Europe to crow about in it, either. In fact, it's more of a stern "room for improvement".

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.