The Netherlands is a country living off exports. This tiny country is largely dependent on foreign trade, and not only within Europe: The United States, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia are all important partners as well. For its national safety the country is also becoming more and more dependent on other countries.

At the same time, the country has a view about human rights in different countries around the world. When there’s a need to work together with other countries in areas like trade, safety and humanitarian issues, it’s not only of vital importance that you speak the same language. You also need to understand each other as well, and that includes an understanding of religion. Indeed, in many countries religion is a prominent factor in society.

Secular bias

As the Dutch are becoming more and more proficient in English, their international business partners are literally understanding them better. However, there is a notable decline in their knowledge and understanding of religion.

“The Netherlands is one of the most secular societies in the world, but is in this case an exception to the rule. Without a doubt we run the risk of being secularly biased and lacking religious literacy,” is what is written in a secret internal document of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, obtained by the Dutch Catholic Weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad.

The document goes on: “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs becoming more knowledgeable about religion and religious traditions, leads to a more proficient foreign policy. In a world that is experiencing a revival of religion, we need to invest more in knowledge and skills in this area.”

Revival of religion

Research done by the Unit of Strategic Advice (ESA), an advisory body of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirms these statements, the document says. ESA questioned all Dutch ambassadors abroad on the added value of religious literacy in their field of work. The ambassadors told ESA that their home country is “relatively secular,” while “as soon as you cross the border you find yourself relatively quickly in a (more) religious context.”

Dutch ambassadors also note a “worldwide revival” of religion. Therefore a basic knowledge of religion “is essential for a sound and effective foreign policy.” But that knowledge is not automatically handed to them by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The embassies noticed that the gaining of general knowledge and experience in matters of religion and religious traditions are, at this moment, essentially an ambassador’s own responsibility,” the report reads.

The research shows that the ambassadors are very much interested in gaining more knowledge of religion. The ambassadors told researchers that “there’s a great need” for sharing information on religion.

Focus on religion

In the secret document, the ESA concludes that the Dutch foreign policy would benefit from an improvement in religious knowledge and an overall greater consideration of religion. Four things are needed to get to this point, the ESA says.

First, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should structurally pay more attention to religion, for example by establishing a task force. “This should lead to religion being one of the standard topics of the policy of the Ministry and of the embassies, just like gender, safety, politics and economy.”

Second, the ESA advises to structurally include the ambassadors when discussing the subject of religion. A virtual network should be established so the Dutch embassies are able to exchange their knowledge, experiences and needs.

Third, all new diplomats should receive a training on religion. Experienced employees should also be trained in this area. “Part of this training is a list with ‘leading principles’ on religion with an explanation of Dutch secular prejudices.”

Finally, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs should include international religious organizations in its networks.

Sign of inertia

The internal document is dated Dec. 1, 2017. When confronted with the document, the Dutch Christian parties Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and ChristenUnie said that, according to them, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hasn’t made any progress on any of the recommendations.

“I didn’t know this internal document existed,” said CDA politician and member of the Dutch House of Representatives Martijn van Helvert.

“When I see the list of recommendations now, I immediately think: This is really very important. However, I cannot find any of the recommendations in the current foreign policy. That’s a shame. The document is a year old: That no action has been taken up to this point, is a sign of inertia. The minister of Foreign Affairs should explain the reason for this,” he said.

According to the Catholic politician, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs “clearly has no clue about religion.”

“We are proud of our secular attitude, but as a result also arrogant towards people who are religious. Even worse, we are intolerant towards believers. While in the rest of the world it’s completely normal to talk about religion, we get all weird about it, because we think it’s not trendy. As a result we miss important signs in other countries. A better understanding of religion leads to a more solid foreign policy. But we don’t see any sign that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is doing something about its religious illiteracy,” said Van Helvert.

Van Helvert has asked the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok to better train Dutch ambassadors on the subject of religion.

Yet to see the results

Joël Voordewind, a ChristenUnie politician and, like Van Helvert, a member of the House of Representatives, also says he has never heard of the document.

“I think these recommendations are very important and action should have been taken much earlier. But I don’t see any of that happening,” he said.

Last May, Voordewind asked Sigrid Kaag, Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation to ensure religion plays a more important part in development aid.

“At that moment, she reacted positively, but I have yet to see the results,” he said.

In a reaction the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stresses that religion is high on its agenda.

“We are actively participating in several religious networks and notice that the subject of religion is discussed and talked about more often,” a spokesman of the Ministry said.

Formal reaction

After being confronted with the article in Katholiek Nieuwsblad and the reactions of the two Christian politicians, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, wrote a formal reply to the House of Representatives.

In it Blok says he is working on extra training for employees of his Ministry. Soon they will be able to take a class in religion and diplomacy, to deepen their understanding of the subject.

“In whichever way you look at it, religion plays an important role in this world,” Blok writes. “Therefore a better understanding of this role is needed to come to a sounder foreign policy.”

He confirmed that his Ministry is actively participating in several international religious networks and says knowledge and information is shared with Foreign Offices in other countries on a regular basis.

Blok also promised to send the most important conclusions of the secret internal document to the House of Representatives.

This article was originally published in the Dutch Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad on November 16, 2018. It was translated for Crux by Susanne van den Berk.