In Europe, religious minorities face mounting hostility, harassment

People protesting against discrimination on religious minorities

Times are getting more difficult for members of minority religions across Europe as nationalism, security fears and anti-immigrant movements gain ground. Trends building up since 9/11 have accelerated in the past few years, especially hitting Muslims and Jews.

The Washington-based Pew Research Center issued a report on religious freedom around the world last week that found that Europe registered the sharpest increase in “social hostilities concerning religion” in 2016, the last year for which it has full statistics.

About one-third of European countries had political parties that openly agitated against religious minorities in 2016, a jump from one-fifth the previous year, it said. The number of like-minded activist groups harassing minorities was also on the rise.

“The majority of social groups displaying this kind of nationalist or anti-immigrant and anti-minority activity – 25 out of the 32 – were in European countries,” the report said. Harassment was aimed mostly at Muslims and Jews, although other faiths — including some Christian groups in a few places — also faced discrimination.

The current migration wave, which crested in 2015 with over a million newcomers — mostly Muslims — and prompted clampdowns on entry across Europe, has also made “migrant” and “Muslim” synonymous for many Europeans.

France is one of the strictest countries, with a law against headscarves in state schools and full-face veils in public. Beachside towns and municipal pools have tried to use France’s law on secularism to ban the “burkini” — a modest full-body bathing suit for Muslim women — by arguing it was a sign of religious affiliation banned at publicly owned beaches and pools. There have been mixed results enforcing it.

The Dutch Parliament banned full-face veils this month, as did Denmark’s last month. Belgium did so in 2011. Building mosques, authorizing minarets, allowing prayer time at work and teaching Islam alongside other faiths in state schools are also controversial topics across Europe.

The new populist government in Italy, whose Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has closed Italian ports to ships that rescue migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean in flimsy boats. He has suggested a census of “gypsy” people in the country and deportation of those who are not Italian citizens. Salvini told a rally in Florence last week that he opposed giving Muslims permits to build new houses of worship.

In Germany, the conservative Christian Social Union party in traditionally Catholic Bavaria is threatening to topple the coalition government of Chancellor Angela Merkel — their official ally in national politics — if she doesn’t agree to even tighter border controls against migrants.

In eastern Europe, nationalist governments have simply refused to take in migrants, despite European Union guidelines calling for them to be shared out among all EU members. Poland and Hungary, the leaders in this anti-migrant movement, have repeatedly said they are defending their countries’ Christian traditions against outsiders.

In February, Poland made it a crime to say Poles participated in the Holocaust, something  historians insist is true. Warsaw backed down saying it would remove the criminal penalties from the law.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has openly vilified the U.S. financier and philanthropist George Soros, who was born to a Jewish family in Budapest, as an enemy of the state for promoting democracy and liberal causes including  immigration into the region.

In France, where Muslims outnumber Jews by a ratio of 10-to-1, several violent attacks on Jews in recent years have made international news.