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Opening Remarks to the 2015 Council of Europe Exchange on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue “Building inclusive societies together”

Opening Remarks to the 2015 Council of Europe Exchange on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue "Building inclusive societies together"
Sarajevo, Monday, 2 November 2015

Honourable Chairman of the Presidency,

Honourable President of the Interreligious Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina,


Honourable representatives of religious communities,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is both an honour and pleasure for me to participate in the 2015 Exchange on the Religious Dimension of Intercultural dialogue, here in Sarajevo.

Historically, Bosnia and Herzegovina has been the meeting point between different cultures and religions, a place where different ethnic, religious and cultural communities coexisted for centuries. Yet, Bosnia and Herzegovina was also a land of conflicts – we all remember the events of the ‘90s and the terrible conflict that opposed former neighbours and, sometimes, friends only because they belonged to a different ethnic group and went to different churches.

Therefore, the fact that we are meeting here today is a symbol and a message that despite the conflicts of the past, it is possible to build peace and live together in unity and respect. I congratulate the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina for including this Exchange in the programme of the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers. And I welcome the fact that the senior representatives of the main religious communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina are playing a leading role in today's Exchange.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me now say a few words about the theme of this Exchange and the topics to be addressed.

As many of you will know, as former Assembly rapporteur on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue, I take a special interest in this subject and would like to suggest a few elements that could lead our discussions.

The theme to be addressed during the 2015 Exchange – the role of religions and non-religious beliefs in preventing radicalisation and violent extremism – is timely and appropriate.

Violent extremism and terrorism is unfortunately becoming a reality of our daily life.

To combat the danger of extremism and radicalisation, we must make our democratic societies stronger, focusing on the fundamental values that bind us together. What unites us are the basic values that underpin the foundations of our societies – peace, human dignity and fundamental rights, non-discrimination, tolerance, respect, and understanding.

All actors of our societies, including and especially the religious communities and non-confessional organisations, must play an active role in this process. Of course, we all know that religion may give rise to intolerance, fanaticism and violence, becoming a threat to democracy and human rights: this is unacceptable.

Also, religions may lead to inward-looking communities, cutting their members off from the society around them or even conveying to them a view of our societies as a diabolical reality to be shunned and combated. In this respect, the tragic attack on Charlie Hebdo and more in general those instances of terrorism claimed to be in the name of Islam show us that religious beliefs can be manipulated.

The contribution of religious organisations to combating effectively extremism and radicalisation is absolutely crucial. Each cultural and religious community has the responsibility and the duty to support the development of open-minded individuals, capable of critical thinking and of constructive dialogue with others; without their commitment we can hardly build up a pluralist but cohesive, democratic society.

A key question here is how can public authorities and religious leaders work together to fight against radicalisation that may lead to terrorism.

In this context the Parliamentary Assembly proposes concrete lines of action such as:

• develop projects in collaboration with religious communities to promote shared values;

• give encouragement to projects jointly developed by several communities with a view to strengthening the social fabric;

The "No Hate Parliamentary Alliance" can also become, I believe, an appropriate platform for developing collaborative action between society actors, including religious and non-confessional organisations, but also figures in the voluntary sector and sport. I was honoured that His Holiness Pope Francis agreed to support our No Hate Parliamentary Alliance and I hope that many more religious dignitaries and public figures will join in.

I am sure that these few ideas will give further inspiration to our discussion this morning.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The prerequisite for living together in peace is mutual understanding and respect. Here the role of education is crucial. Therefore, the second topic of this Exchange - "Teaching about religions and non-religious beliefs at school" – is very appropriate for our discussion.

This is a very tricky issue: is it possible, without violating the duty of State neutrality, to give a different place and role to religions in the education framework? And how to do it?

I have myself doubts about this question and probably different social contexts call for different approaches.

Because we have to abide by the principle of neutrality of education, I believe that education on religions is a matter for the religions. The role – and in fact the duty – of the schools is to teach pupils the basics of morals, ethics and democratic citizenship.

The Parliamentary Assembly follows this approach too and calls for co-operation between the State and religious communities "so that the teaching of religion becomes an opportunity for reciprocal listening and for developing critical thinking, including within the religious communities themselves."

We should look for innovative approaches where different religions are presented together and in a not-competitive way. The key word should be "encounter" and the methodology should be "reciprocal listening". The State should have here a role of facilitator of these encounters within or outside schools and ensure that they are not diverted from the objective to create a place for dialogue, intended to educate at "building inclusive societies together".

This brings me to the third topic of our exchange, which is "Building inclusive societies together".

His Holiness Pope Francis, when addressing the Council of Europe, called for: "mutual engagement in a far-ranging reflection aimed at creating a sort of new ‘agora', in which all civic and religious groups can enter into free exchange, while respecting the separation of sectors and the diversity of positions, an exchange inspired purely by the desire of truth and the advancement of the common good."

As some of you may remember, the Parliamentary Assembly formulated a similar idea in 2011, when we examined the issue of the religious dimension of inter-cultural dialogue.

More recently, in our Recommendation on "Freedom of religion and living together in a democratic society" the Assembly considered that the Council of Europe should step up its co-operation with the main religious communities and the main European organisations representing the secular humanist and philosophical world.

We recommended that the Committee of Ministers should "set up a stable an officially recognised platform for dialogue between the Council of Europe and senior representatives of religions and non-denominational organisations in order to consolidate the existing relations with those partners and foster active commitment by all the stakeholders in activities to promote the Organisation's fundamental values, which underpin ‘living together'".

This platform should be a flagship initiative, included among the Council of Europe priorities, linked to the holding of the thematic meetings on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue, also to make them more operational, and it should be intended to develop synergies in the action of different stakeholders, including with Council of Europe projects and initiatives in the field of education, culture and youth, such as the "No Hate Speech Movement – Young People for Human Rights Online", "Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights" and "Intercultural cities".

Today's Exchange gives an opportunity to examine this idea further and I hope that our discussion will contribute to the creation of this platform. I can assure you that the Parliamentary Assembly gives its full support to this initiative and I hope that the Committee of Ministers will be ready to support it too. However, what is really crucial is the interest and commitment of the religious institutions and this Exchange could be a first opportunity for their representatives to express their views on the Assembly proposal.

I thank you for your attention and wish you a fruitful Exchange.