Towards the Action for Europe as a Peace Project


EIYN Annual Summit, Lillehammer 23 June 2012

Stein Villumstad

General Secretary European Council of Religious Leaders

Increased diversity – a trend with potentials and challenges

Over the last years there has been a significantly increasing ethnic, cultural and religious diversity in Europe.  Some commentators start comparing to the US diversity.  This is relevant only to a certain degree.  USA has a relatively short (shallow) history with significant population.  Most ethnic, cultural and religious groups represented in USA have only two-three hundred years history in the country. The indigenous Indian populations had developed a diverse presence for thousands of years, but were quickly marginalized as the influx of foreigners picked up.  There is not, like in Europe, a historically old population and culture as opposed to the increasing number of  “newcomers”. A multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious American reality has developed – with tensions – over time. Societies around Europe have adapted to a new reality and invested substantial human and economic resources in creating unity in the fast growing diversity.  Numerous examples show that societies that embrace change and explore human, cultural and religious potentials benefit from the diversity.  Still, tensions between the “original and true” European heritage and the “imported” and “alien” cultural and religious elements exist. Economic and cultural marginalization creates a number of deep-seated tensions within the European community.

Economic trends and political actions in Europe are important for people in this continent, and far beyond.  Economic policies and crises are negatively influencing lives of people who are marginalized when jobs disappear, economic and social safety nets are removed, and rouge capitalism bring out the destructive sides of globalization.  The plight of asylum seekers and migrants is an integrated and important element in this problem complex.  Exclusion and marginalization bring about dangerous rifts in European societies, and social unrest has come to the surface in strong language and physical actions – riots in England being a relevant example.

The history of European institutions

Much has been invested in the political, economic and social European integration process since World War II.  The main expression of this process is the European Union and the European Economic Area, which has led to intended and non-intended consequences for individuals, local societies, nations and the European region.  Free flows of people, money and ideas across national borders have encouraged unity within diversity based on predictable frameworks.  Challenges have increased as EU has been enlarged with countries with weaker economy and recent histories of belonging to a communist empire and distinct cultural traditions with links eastwards.  Labour migration, unemployment and economic crises have given unintended consequences that have influenced the European integration process. The outer border has at the same time been protected more rigorously, creating serious obstacles particularly for people from non-Western countries to enter.   Influx of refugees and asylum seekers from non-European countries has caused challenges for political leaders, and public opinion has been divided on how to treat this influx.

The European integration process has also been built on a strong commitment to the UN Human Rights regime, with further elaborations and adoption through the European Human Rights regime.  The institutional mechanisms created through the Council of Europe to protect and promote Human Rights have been crucial in creating a common platform for minimum standards and practices throughout the 47 member states.  While economic conditions and political and philosophical trends have fluctuated substantially over time and followed different geopolitical paths, the human rights principles have served as important “peer pressure” points in an integration process.

The OSCE traces its origins to the early 1970s, when the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) was created to serve as a multilateral forum for dialogue and negotiation between East and West. Meeting over two years in Helsinki and Geneva, the CSCE reached agreement on the Helsinki Final Act, which was signed on 1 August 1975. This document contained a number of key commitments on politico-military, economic and environmental and human rights issues that became central to the so-called ‘Helsinki process’. It also established ten fundamental principles (the ‘Decalogue’) governing the behaviour of States towards their citizens, as well as towards each other.

Paris Summit of November 1990 set the CSCE on a new course. In the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, the CSCE was called upon to play its part in managing the historic change taking place in Europe and responding to the new challenges of the post-Cold War period, which led to its acquiring permanent institutions and operational capabilities.

Terrorist attacks – including 11 September 2001 – in various countries served as a stark reminder of the shifting security threats the world faces. By 2005, calls were once again heard for OSCE reform. Can the Organization adapt to meet the new challenges? .

The Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe is quite important in a number of European countries, probably more in the Eastern parts than in Western Europe.  OSCE is particularly focusing on the status of religion, and has rapporteurs who monitor the situation for the different faith communities in the member countries.  ECRL is about to move into an agreement with OSCE about different possitilities of cooperation.   Since OSCE is operational on country level, it will be important to explore relationships both on national and central levels.

Religion in Europe

While religion and political power historically lived in a symbiotic and often unhealthy relationship, different experiences have changed this. Secularism as practical framework in legislation and constitutional arrangements took hold in most West European countries.  The Communist period represented another experience in the relationship between state and religion, with clear intentions by the state to completely control or extinguish religion.  These trends have impacted education, legislative processes and debates around social and moral issues. Significant growth of Islam and“new” religions in the European context has added to the debate about the role of religion in the public sphere. At the same time a significant revival of religious life in countries of Central and Eastern Europe, including Russia after the collapse of the communist regime has created a new role of religion in significant parts of Europe.  This trend has paid an important role both within these countries, and not least for inter-Christian and inter-religious relationships between Russia and other Central and Eastern European countries and rest of Europe.

Religion has become, in spite of growing secularism, increasingly important as identity-marker.  The search for identity that on the one hand divides national groups, go on the other hand beyond and unite groups across national borders.  This identity formation results in “in” and “out” groups.  One aspect is the discussion around respect for national law (abortion, gay relationships, forced marriage, circumcision, religious attire…) and maintenance of traditional regulations that are linked to certain cultures and religions and go beyond national borders.

As part of the overall dynamic of religion in society, extremist ideology, propaganda and at times violent action are increasingly a challenge to social cohesion and peaceful co-living.  We have seen this demonstrated through terrorist attacks, including Madrid in 2004, London in 2005,  Moscow metro in 2010 and Domodedovo airport in 2011, and latest in Norway in July of 2011. We have seen attacks on places of worship – including the tragic event in Belgium, and killings of students at a religious school in Toulouse. When religious justification is used to defend and promote this development, religion is by many dismissed as dangerous, divisive, defunct and deceptive.  The Norwegian Prime Minister echoed the 2011 ECRL Moscow declaration about advancing human dignity when he asked the Norwegian people to counter terrorism with more transparency, inclusion and democracy – while not being naïve.  It was therefore logical that we moved into the ECRL annual meeting in Sarajevo with the theme “living together”. The Sarajevo Declaration on Living Together that came out of Sarajevo is timely and useful.  “Living Together” was also the title of a report published by the Council of Europe, and shows that basic issues of citizenship are important as we build an inclusive European society.

The Sarajevo declaration outlines eight components that could make up what we believe living together in Europe could be:

  1. A diverse society which perceives itself as an interdependent whole composed of a variety of persons, cultures and faiths of essential value.
  2. A wise society which values the spiritual wellbeing of each human being.
  3. A compassionate and caring society in which needs are provided for and solidarity is shown without discrimination based on differences of religion, gender, ethnicity or other such factors.
  4. A free society in which different perspectives are respectfully and vigorously debated.
  5. A law abiding society in which all participate in and accept the democratic processes of government.
  6. A flourishing society in which the creativity of communities is encouraged to the benefit of all.
  7. A stewarding society in which the divine gifts of creation are valued and safeguarded.
  8. A self-critical society in which religious and other groups are aware of the destructive risks of the abuse of power.

When drawing your attention to the Sarajevo Declaration, it is logical to say a bit more about the potential of inter-religious cooperation as part of moving towards Europe as a peace project.

Cooperation among the world’s religious communities for peace can be more powerful, both symbolically and substantively, than the efforts of individual religious communities acting alone.

The symbolic power of cooperation is especially important in situations where religions are implicated or have become entangled in communal disturbances.

But cooperation does more.  It also provides a powerful way to engage the enormous – and still underutilized – assets of the religious communities to advance unity in diversity and respect for otherness.  And these assets are large.  Although Europe is a rather secular society, in many countries the religious communities have well developed and  inter-connected social infrastructure present, reaching from the smallest village to the capital and beyond. When mobilized and equipped, these religious communities can be harnessed for needed advocacy and the delivery of important services related to the challenges of peace and development.

Cooperation is substantively powerful because it can help diverse religious communities to align their unique and often complementary strengths around shared concerns, identify common goals and offer efficiencies in the provision of needed mobilization and equipping.  Moreover, cooperation among religious communities establishes a mode of operation that can facilitate the establishment of strategic partnerships with other public institutions and agencies committed to addressing similar changes, without at the same time engaging those public institutions in advancing particular sectarian beliefs.

When religious leaders and communities want to systematically engage in dialogue and joint action, it is important to develop instruments for these actions.  An inter-religious council is such an instrument that brings together religious communities under the leadership of their respective leaders.  ECRL has expressed an explicit wish to encourage establishment and development of inter-religious councils in Europe. Your own Interfaith Network is another significant tool for promotion of knowledge, attitudes and policies that secure a unity in the European diversity. The vision is that all European countries would have multi-religious instruments for consultation, dialogue and joint action.

ECRL, as part of Religions for Peace in Europe, can hopefully contribute to the European peace project.  Their coming together and exploring common concerns and actions can have impact on European discourse about common values and principles.  In this context the annual declarations that have been produced by ECRL over the last five years are of significance.  They form a valuable menu of texts that can be used to promote a public discourse that may build common platform of understanding values that can bring Europe together towards constructive co-existence.  I encourage you to read them and figure out in which contexts you can gain from using a language that has been agreed by representatives of different religions through a consensus process.  The declarations are hopefully useful tools as we engage in dialogues.

A project

As the economic crisis hit the world, also Europe, the asymmetric world reality was brought to our attention in graphic ways.  While the economic ship struggled through rough weather and dangerous waters, the marginalized fell overboard.  Hands were not reached out to offer rescue.  Those who helped build prosperity were branded as unwelcome aliens as the going got tough. In this respect it is interesting to note The Economist last year ran an article called: “Let them come.  The West should be more welcoming to migrants – there’s competition for the East for them”.  The article argues that migrants are important for economic recovery in times of crises.  Even in times when jobs are in short supply, the article concludes that: Rather than sending immigrants home, with their skills, energy, ideas and willingness to work, governments should be encouraging them to come.

Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of Council of Europe touched on this challenge in his speech to the European Council of Religious Leaders in Sarajevo 8 May. He claimed  that we may expect further tensions of cultural, ethnic and religious nature in the future European communities.  As an illustration he referred to the already 10% level of “newcomers” of the total population of Europe.  In order to maintain our current level of economic development and welfare we need another 70 – 80 million migrants to join us in Europe.  At the same time, Europe wide polls that have recently been published show that about four out of ten of the surveyed had negative attitude towards the current level of “outsiders/newcomers” in Europe.  We are faced with a considerable gap between popular opinions and the realities on the ground… and the expected future scenarios.

Politicians and the people of Europe are left with choices.  If maintenance of current level of economic development and welfare is a clear demand, we have to – individually and collectively – deal with the reality of a further diversified community.  If resistance towards “newcomers” increases, decisions may be made to reduce influx of new members of our European society.  This may in turn lead to a subsequent reduction in welfare and a slowing down of economic growth.  While these choices seem distant in the current situation of unemployment and financial crisis in a number of European countries, we know there are substantial areas of disconnect between available workforce and needed skills in the workplaces.  The ability to turn the economy around is dependent on increased productivity that requires manpower.  At the same time we are faced with serious challenges around how we deal with “citizenship” in today’s situation.  In what ways do we promote “equal citizenship” in a time when tensions between expected standard of living and preconditions for this are on the increase?

How do we deal with the issue of “welcoming the other and living together” and “equal citizenship” as religious leaders and communities?  Can a multi-religious approach add value to what is already being done within respective religious communities?  What can we contribute as Religions for Peace in Europe to promote a constructive discourse and common action to promote “living together” in Europe?

2013 will be the “European Year of Citizens” under the auspices of EU .  This year will:

“ provide an opportunity for people throughout Europe to:

•learn about the rights and opportunities open to them thanks to EU citizenship – particularly their right to live and work anywhere in the EU

•stimulate debate about the obstacles that prevent people from fully using these rights and generate specific proposals for addressing them

•encourage people to participate in civic fora on EU policies and issues.” ( )

The indicated challenges seem to fit appropriately within the framework of the “European Year of Citizens”, and partnership between religious leaders and their institutions and European multinational institutions could be quite relevant.

Within the Religions for Peace context, the major theme of the upcoming Religions for Peace IX World Assembly:  “Welcoming the Other: Action for Human Dignity, Citizenship and the Common Good” is also begging for deeper engagement with these problem areas.

The proposal:

Develop material that can be used primarily by religious leaders and communities in addition to civil society groups and other stakeholders , and a framework for how we may promote the material throughout Europe.

a.       Small study-booklet with “facts”, “problem areas”, “shared values and policies”, “possible joint actions”… Could be posted electronically and provided in paper.

b.       Video, which may be put on Youtube and other relevant social media, in addition to be available on ECRL website and as DVD.

The idea would be to highlight the current situation, and possible future scenarios of population movements and demography in Europe.  Ideas about culture as an evolving and open-ended process… combined with basic ideas that can be deeply held and widely shared by respective religious and non-religious communities.  What are some of the worrying trends in Europe (extremism … left/right, religious, ethnic…)?  What are some of the problem areas that religious communities should be made more aware of and should be ready to respond to in a constructive way?  What does “equal citizenship” mean beyond the legal interpretation.  If “global citizenship” is applied in parallel with “national citizenship”, what might be some visions for how we can live together as a European society?  What could be some possible actions that may be taken on policy/advocacy level, and on local community level?


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