Tuesday 19. October 2021

The protection of religious heritage in Europe

Future for Religious Heritage (FRH) is a secular non-profit association. It is the only European network of charities and conservation departments of governmental, religious and university institutions, and other professionals who work to protect religious heritage buildings across Europe. Interview with Lilian Grootswagers, FRH Council Secretary.

Mrs Grootswagers, how do people in general regard religious heritage?


They value it a lot, from many different points of view. According to the results of a survey we conducted in 2014 in eight European countries, an overwhelming majority of Europeans, with or without religious affiliation, are deeply attached to their religious heritage and want to see it maintained for future generations.  In particular: 84% of Europeans regard churches and religious buildings as part of their cultural heritage; 79% consider that preserving and protecting churches and other religious buildings is crucial for the current and future life of their community. Furthermore, 87% believe that churches and religious buildings should be opened to visitors if they contain architectural or artistic treasures.


What is religious heritage?


Europe’s Religious Heritage forms one of the pillars of Europe’s cultural identity. There are 400,000 religious buildings (cathedrals, churches, chapels, monasteries, convents, synagogues, mosques), together with their contents (furnishings, monuments, sculptures, paintings, frescoes, silver, vestments, libraries) and all the architects, artists and musicians whom they have inspired over the centuries: their record of national, local and individual histories dates back well over 1000 years – it represents a unique and essential part of Europe’s cultural identity.


A report adopted in 2015 by the European Parliament states that “religious heritage constitutes an intangible part of European cultural heritage and that historical religious heritage must be preserved for its cultural value, regardless of its religious origins.” What we need now is a real plan for religious heritage at European level to make sure these historic buildings and their interiors will be preserved as part of our future.


What are your main concerns about religious heritage?


Today many places of worship in Europe are suffering from neglect and abandonment in a world of secularisation and restrictions on government spending. Shrinking congregations, financial distress and lack of specialist knowledge about the conservation of buildings and the treasures they hold, all contribute to the impending loss of a substantial collection of testaments to European history and its intangible heritage. If this heritage, already threatened by declining congregations and government spending cuts, is to be successfully adapted to the challenges of the 21st century, then some major structural changes will have to be made.


What can the EU do for religious heritage?


The challenges facing religious heritage are complex, the aims of its multiple stakeholders are widely diverse and there is a general lack of credible information upon which to build a forward-looking policy for the sector. With all this in mind, a research study is needed to demonstrate the cultural, economic and social value of this heritage and, more importantly, to identify what organisational changes need to be made in order to adapt this rich heritage successfully to the constraints of the 21st century.


Raising awareness is also important. The proposed European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018 gives us an opportunity to draw attention to the social and economic importance of religious heritage, and also to the threats it faces today. We, and our FRH members throughout Europe, look forward to contributing actively to this initiative.


What is the impact of technology on religious heritage and tourism?


New technology is actually a powerful driving force that increases the potential of the religious heritage sector. Digitised resources can enhance visitor experience by providing educational content, documentaries, and tourism apps. On its own initiative, FRH has developed Religiana, an online tool that provides practical and background information on religious buildings destined for a wide audience. It is easy to use and designed to an international standard. It helps the managers of these buildings to promote their use in the community and religious tourism in general. At the moment Religiana is being piloted in the UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. We are just about to extend it to other countries and regions.


Do pilgrimages form part of religious heritage?


Indeed they do. Our forthcoming conference ‘Tourists, Travellers and Pilgrims: Encountering Religious Heritage in Today’s Europe’,  taking place in Vicenza on 9-11 November, will examine the subject of pilgrimage in both its traditional and modern senses. This meeting will also set an example of how to get people interested and involved in religious heritage. We are very proud of the highly diversified programme we have been able to put together, including speakers from many fields of expertise. There will also be open discussion fora for the participants and on-site study cases presented from Vicenza, Verona and Venice. Your readers are more than welcome to attend!


The interview was conducted by Johanna Touzel



The Future for Religious Heritage association is based in Brussels and currently has 133 members in 37 countries.


The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Office.

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.