2013 Council of Europe Exchange on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue

      “Freedom of religion in today’s world: challenges and guarantees”

      Yerevan, Armenia, 2-3 September 2013)

      Speech by Vice-President John Warmisham, (United Kingdom, UK) Congress of Local and Regional Authorities

      Council of Europe

      Messrs Co-Chairs,

      Minister,

      Your Holiness,

      Excellencies,

      Ladies and Gentlemen,

      On behalf of the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, I would like to welcome the participants of today’s Exchange and to thank the organisers – the Armenian Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers and authorities of the Republic – for keeping this tradition of dialogue between representatives of confessions, civil society, academia and public authorities.

      The question of religious freedom, which is the main theme of our discussions, is gaining in importance in today’s world where globalisation and integration processes present unprecedented opportunities for people of different religious backgrounds – opportunities to travel, settle, live and work around the globe. Through migration, the make-up of our communities has been changing drastically, becoming more diverse and increasingly multi-confessional.

      Today, it is more and more difficult to find a community that is mono-ethnic and mono-cultural; not only large cities but also small towns and villages are beginning to feature a mix of ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds among their local populations to a degree unseen before. Minority groups, including religious minorities, which used to be confined to big “cosmopolitan” areas, are increasing in number and size and are reaching the grassroots of our societies, the heartlands of our countries.

      This change brings to the fore the need for building harmonious intercultural and inter-faith relations with the majority population as well as between minority groups themselves, the need for fostering intercultural dialogue but also for taking special measures to protect minorities against possible discrimination and abuse, and sometimes outright hostility. Let us bear in mind that this Exchange is also taking place against the background of rising xenophobia and intolerance in Europe, fuelled to a great extent by the consequences of the economic crisis. In times of hardship, a search for scapegoats is a way to attribute the blame, and more often than not such scapegoats are people who do not look, do not speak or do not pray like the majority.

      For religious minorities, such protection means first and foremost respect of their religious beliefs, freedom to practice their religion and observe their religious rites, and their non-discrimination on religious grounds. In other words, it means upholding the guarantees of the freedom of religion provided by international and European human rights protection systems.

      Freedom of worship has been defined indeed as a fundamental human right, one of the “essential human freedoms”, to use the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoken some seventy years ago. This fundamental freedom was included, along with the freedom of speech and freedoms from want and from fear, in the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose Article 18 furthermore states, and I quote, that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” – end of quote. The European Convention on Human Rights echoed this guarantee in its Article 9.

      These international documents and the human rights guarantees they provide are increasingly relevant for local and regional authorities. It has been long maintained that human rights protection is a prerogative of national governments. However, today, through the decentralisation of competences to the grassroots level, local and regional authorities are assuming growing responsibilities for a wide range of areas affecting the exercise and enjoyment of human rights. Access to social rights such as housing, education, healthcare and employment is one obvious example. Yet more and more civil and political rights – such as freedom of assembly, freedom from degrading treatment, freedom from discrimination – are also falling within the local and regional remit.

      So is the practical exercise of the freedom of religion. Exercising the freedom of religion, protecting religious minorities and fighting intolerance towards them are indeed broad concepts involving all levels of governance. However, local and regional authorities are, if I may, the first line of defence, being the public authorities closest to the situation of minorities, and having to deal first-hand with potential conflicts and tensions within their communities. This is also the level where interaction between religious communities is the most direct.

      Today, authorities at the grassroots are taking decisions affecting the conditions for practicing religious freedoms – construction of places of worship, allocation of sites for observance of religious rites, maintenance of burial sites, decisions on events to mark specific religious holidays – not to mention the responsibilities for religious cultural heritage. From building churches, mosques or synagogues to preserving cemeteries, decisions and actions by local and regional authorities are increasingly in the centre of public attention and debate. Their growing role in the matter has been recognised at the national and European level as well. Just to give one example, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, in its resolution on Jewish cemeteries last year, called for partnerships with local authorities in preserving and protecting these burial sites. I am pleased to say that in response to this resolution, I am currently preparing a Congress position on promoting co-operation between local and regional authorities in this respect.

      Ladies and Gentlemen,

      In a broad sense, respect of religious freedoms and protection of religious minorities entails building a relationship of dialogue and co-operation between religious communities as well as between believers and non-believers. It entails creating a truly intercultural environment in our towns, cities and regions, based on tolerance and respect of diversity. This is why the Congress has been calling on local and regional authorities to develop and pursue intercultural policies aimed at engaging local residents in action for the benefit of the entire community, regardless of their cultural background or religious belief.

      Over the past eight years, the Congress adopted a wealth of proposals for intercultural action at the grassroots: from a 2005 resolution on local authorities’ responsibilities in interfaith dialogue and the 12 principles of interreligious dialogue for local authorities, elaborated in 2006, to our resolutions and recommendations in support of the Intercultural Cities network, in 2008-2009, and proposals for working with local religious organisations and leaders to meet the challenge of inter-faith and intercultural tensions at local level, adopted in 2011.

      However, our experience shows that building intercultural relations and fostering inter-faith dialogue within our communities is often impeded by the reluctance and negative attitudes of the local population. These attitudes are fuelled by prejudice and wrong perceptions that are frequently based on rumours, stereotypes and false information. A lack of understanding by local citizens of advantages that can be drawn from cultural and religious diversity represents a major obstacle to our living together in the 21st century Europe.

      This is why our most recent action is aimed at changing perceptions of diversity through intercultural education and effective communication at the grassroots. The Congress organised a conference on this subject in June this year in Ankara, and launched the preparation of a report to identify the existing problems and to recommend measures for improving understanding of diversity advantages. The report will draw on the experiences and good practices of municipal networks active in this field, such as Intercultural Cities, Cities for Local Integration Policy, and European Coalition of Cities against Racism, among others.

      It is especially important of course to begin intercultural education at an early age, to involve young people in the process of building an intercultural, multi-confessional community. This is why I particularly welcome the fact that at this Exchange we will be discussing the question of youth education and awareness-raising on religion and beliefs. Here, too, local and regional authorities have a major role to play, and this theme is closely linked indeed to the Congress’ current work on youth.

      Ladies and Gentlemen,

      To sum, we in the Congress are convinced that protecting religious freedom in today’s world goes beyond upholding guarantees provided by international law and human rights protection systems. Equally important is changing our mental constructs and perceptions of the religious values of others. We need to improve our understanding of other religions and to engage citizens of all confessions in action for the common benefit, for the betterment of our communities. It takes education and learning from experience, from getting to know each other. Today’s diversity in Europe offers an excellent opportunity for such learning, while our cities and regions provide a place for interaction and practical dialogue between religious groups.

      But this is also a common, concerted effort of all sectors of society, which is why platforms such as this Exchange are extremely important for forging proposals for concrete action. I would like to thank once again the organisers for this initiative, and to wish all of us productive discussions.

      Thank you.



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