“The religious dimension of intercultural dialogue”
In its recently approved Recommendation, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) calls for a new type of “partnership for democracy and human rights” between public institutions, religious communities and non-religious groups in the form of a “stable platform for dialogue”, with a view to developing “a new culture of living together.
On that Tuesday, 12th April, the PACE hosted an unusual session in Strasbourg: no less than five high representatives of the three monotheistic religions had been invited to contribute to the debate on “The religious dimension of intercultural dialogue”: Patriarch Daniel of Romania; Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran; Professor Mehmet Görmez, Chairperson of the Presidency of Religious Affairs of Turkey; Berel Lazar, Chief Rabbi of Russia; Prelate Bernhard Felmberg, Representative of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany.
Turkey, currently holding the six-month rotating Presidency of the Committee of Ministers, had included intercultural dialogue among its priorities. However, this theme has been amongst the Council of Europe’s subjects of interest for some time. In May 2008, it had already agreed a “White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue, Living Together as Equals in Dignity”.
The approved Recommendation focuses on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue. Referring to article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which “secures the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, the document acknowledges that “the European model is by definition a multicultural one and should take into account differences arising from different historic backgrounds”. This claim is not obvious, though, and “the problem often lies in our attitude to diversity”. Therefore, the PACE “calls everyone to learn to share their differences positively and accept others with theirs, in order to build cohesive societies receptive to diversity and respecting the dignity of each individual”. This is precisely where “the importance of the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue” comes into consideration as well as “collaboration between religious communities to foster the values that make up the common core of our European societies and of any democratic society”. The ultimate goal is to develop “a new culture of living together”.
The Recommendation also addresses the role of the State in fostering “a dynamic, productive partnership between public institutions, religious communities and groups that espouse a non-religious perception” in full respect of the State’s neutrality in religious matters. To this end, the Committee of Ministers is asked to “establish [...] a place for dialogue, a workspace between the Council of Europe and high-level representatives of religions and of non-denominational organisations, in order to place existing relations on a stable and formally recognised platform”. For the Council of Europe this is a novelty which runs counter to its previous positions and goes against the opinion of some Parliamentarians, for which the State should not intervene in any way in religious matters. Another subject of concerns for some Parliamentarians is that freedom of thought, conscience and religion seems to be submitted to the “unreserved acceptance by all of the fundamental values enshrined in the Convention” (See No. 4 & 10). The Committee of Ministers is expected to clarify this question in his forthcoming answer to the Recommendation.
Finally, the Recommendation stresses “the importance and the function of the education system for knowledge and understanding of the various cultures, including the beliefs and convictions which identify them, and for learning democratic values and respect for human rights”. In this context, in a very carefully worded and balanced position, the document lays emphasis on “religious education at school”, provided that “parents’ religious and non-religious convictions are not offended”.
At a time when nationalist movements seem to have gained ground in various countries all over Europe, calling for “a new culture of living together” in which religious convictions are fully taken into account, without prejudice to the full respect of non-religious beliefs, is welcomed. It will be interesting to see the response from the Committee of Ministers.
Hervé Pierre Guillot SJ
Jesuit European Office (OCIPE), Brussels