Speech on future perspectives on religions in the processes of peacebuilding and conflict resolution in the Mediterranean region (16th EPP Group annual Interreligious Dialogue)


Dear friends,

I would like to thank for the opportunity to speak here today, and to have the honour to wrap up the conference with all of the things we have learned here in mind. Before going into the content of our speech, I would like to honour our dear colleague, Mr. Wilfried Martens, who was the great mind behind these inter-religious dialogues. I remember having discussed the importance of these dialogues with him, and I would like to remind everyone here, that we are in Cyprus today because of Wilfried.

Remembering Wilfried as a person who shaped the future of Europe and also dialogue around the Mediterranean basin, I would like to move to a brief overview of the future challenges we face in terms of peacebuilding and religious co-existence.

The first point is embracing diversity, tolerance and understanding.

Yesterday, when I gave my opening statement, I mentioned that it is essential for us to understand each other. It is very dangerous to allow extremist groups define what we think of another religion. Therefore, we should take time to explain our religion to others, and ask others questions about their religion. We should all be more curious and open-minded.

We should not let fundamentalist voices define religion as a negative force; religion is the core of most societies and provides strength, hope and a peace of mind to many individuals and groups. For the future, my wish is that we re-embrace religion. As we have discussed here, we should not assume that secularism leads to a society without religion. Liberalism, in its essence should not mean secularism, but rather pluralism, which gives space to all ideologies – and religion too.

The second point is protecting the vulnerable – minorities, women and youth – in order to mitigate fundamentalism and to embrace freedom and equality.

In just societies, minorities are provided protection against the tyranny of majorities. I know this all too well as the President of an international human rights organisation, the First Step Forum, which focuses primarily on minority issues.

One of the main themes of this dialogue conference, too, has been the status of the Christian minorities in countries with Muslim majorities. The rights of Christians and their religious sights should receive special protection, but so should the rights and sights of other minorities – including Muslim minorities of other traditions. This applies to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine and many other contexts.

Other vulnerable groups include women and young people. We should make sure that especially in post-conflict and transition societies these groups both sit around the table and their priorities are included in peace agreements and legislation. By guaranteeing that vulnerable groups are included in decision-making we also prevent and mitigate fundamentalism – both here in Europe and abroad. This is especially important in the context of reduced economic opportunities for young people.

The third – and biggest point – is resolving the Syrian crisis, other frozen conflicts, as well as helping refugees in the region.

Possibly the most difficult and contentious issue in our neighbourhood is the fact that there are still plenty of both on-going and frozen conflicts. One is not easier to resolve than the other.

Firstly, we need to rapidly find solutions to the Syrian conflict, which also has many sectarian elements, as we have seen recently in the case of the Christian village of Maa’loula. Nevertheless, after the big power games that took place at the end of the summer concerning Syria’s chemical weapons, it almost seems that the world has forgotten about the humanitarian crisis in Syria. We have seen that it is unlikely Europe will provide a military solution. At best, we can provide humanitarian relief and be an actor in civilian crisis management, i.e. elections, institution-building, security sector reform, reintegration of former combatants, transitional justice, constitution-drafting support etc.

But already now, we need to find out who the people with democratic ideals ares. And it is a fact that most of the democratic forces have left Syria. I suggest that as MEPs we try to find out who these democratic champions among the diaspora are, and how we can help them to realise the dream of a democratic Syria, before the country slips into the hands of radicals. Supporting democratic forces and civil society organisations does not only apply to Syria. This applies to all the MENA countries and Turkey, too.

And talking about Turkey and Syria’s other neighbours, Europe desperately needs a dignified and at the same time realistic refugee policy. We need to support the internally displaced, the neighbouring countries of crisis regions and the EU countries under most pressure. The countries that have more leeway in terms of resources should also be more open to share the burden. The Middle East has more refugees than any part of the world, and we are their neighbours. By sharing the responsibility, we avoid dealing with radicalisation later on.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is an issue that has featured in these discussions, too. The big issue with this conflict is that we very easily become part of it ourselves, and we should find ways to avoid this in the future. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not primarily a conflict between religions. However, more and more, it is staged as a religious conflict, and we should try to avoid this at all costs.

My final point is about what the EU can do concretely to make our shared future one of peaceful coexistence.

Unfortunately, this has not featured much in our discussions, which have been rather theoretical. I would like to get a bit practical with this last point of mine. The EU has many tools that it can use in its neighbourhood. It is very important that especially the marginalised and vulnerable groups have access to these tools and are put in contact with them. Such tools include the Instrument for Stability or the Civil Society Facility, and funds available for human rights defenders, among others.

We as EU policy-makers do not make decisions on whether a country’s government is secular, sectarian etc. We can merely push for people to be active citizens by providing programmes to especially young people and marginalised groups to learn about different democratic possibilities in society.

For example, in spring 2012 Catherine Ashton invited Palestinian refugees to Brussels to discuss about their major challenges and future needs. Or when the Turkish protests started last summer, the EEAS invited young people from Turkey to come and tell how they experienced the government reaction to the protests and to explain what is needed now to create a more pluralistic society. These are quick, cost-effective and informative responses from which both the EU and the civil society of neighbouring countries can benefit.

At all times, we should listen to civil society before we act. A Libyan civil society representative visited my office a few weeks ago, and told me the EU Task Force had delved into the post-conflict situation in the wrong order. It is pushing for elections and constitutions before ceasefires, and this will not work. We need better planning, and this we can only do together with civil society.

We as MEPs can also act as individuals. I will go to Egypt in November to train young Copts on democratic participation. I believe our support to these kinds of events is essential. We can start small, and possibly after some time, we could organise a conference for Copts and Muslims together.

All in all, we need to make our Neighbourhood Policy stronger and more civil society-oriented. Even if instruments like the high-level Union for the Mediterranean do not work the way we wish, it does not mean we cannot fund people-oriented programmes. Moreover, there are many other fora for dialogue, such as EU-Arab League or EU-OIC dialogues. We should not get stuck in our known boxes, if they are not dynamic and suited to present and future needs. Even small steps can mean a lot to individuals.
Thank you.

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