The European Commission’s regular meeting with religious leaders on Tuesday (7 November) coincided with the 100th anniversary of the October Bolshevik revolution, probably the single event that left the greatest mark on the 20th Century, and one of whose major crimes was the crackdown on religion.
The meeting was the 13th of its kind and took place in the context of the ongoing debate on the future of Europe, launched by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker with the Commission’s White Paper on 1 March.
Since 2009, the dialogue with churches, religious communities, philosophical and non-confessional organisations has been enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty (Art 17 TFEU). The dialogue is currently under the responsibility of Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans.
EURACTIV.com asked religious leaders to comment on the October revolution anniversary, and also the fact that that despite the religious dialogue, in recent year heinous attacks, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are on the rise, not to mention repeated terrorist attacks by radical Islamists on European soil.
Albert Guigui, chief Rabbi of Brussels and Permanent representative at the Conference of European Rabbis agreed that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe. But he also thanked the European institutions for their efforts to address the issue, and in particular the appointment of a high-level person, attached to the Commission’s First Vice-President, in charge of being in permanent contact with religious leaders. (He is referring to the appointment of Vincent Depaigne as the European Commission Coordinator for the dialogue between the EU executive and churches, religious associations or communities, philosophical and non-confessional organisations.)
Guigui also voiced his appreciation for the adoption of a law which allows the deletion of heinous or anti-Semitic messages from social media.
Metropolitan Emmanuel, Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, Vice-President of the Conference of European Churches (CEC), addressed the issue of the crackdown on churches during Soviet times. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople ranks as primus inter pares (first among equals) among the heads of the several autocephalous churches that make up the Eastern Orthodox Church. He is regarded as a spiritual leader of the 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.
“The absence of religious freedom at that time, the destruction of religious sites, the victims of the Soviet atheist regime has marked not only Russia but many countries,” he said.
Indeed, not only the former Soviet Union, but many countries in its orbit followed the same policy vis-à-vis the churches, and atheism was also spread in the West, among Communist Party members, their families and supporters of this ideology.
The situation of atheists was also discussed. Dr. Irmgard Schwaetzer, President of the Synod of the Evangelical Church in Germany, said religion has responsibility for the peace project that makes Europe a success. But for members of the society who are not part of any religion the most important is to stay in dialogue and promote peaceful coexistence, she said. She mentioned the “citizen conventions” proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron, adding that the Evangelical Church in Germany would make its contribution to the process.
Ján Figeľ, former Slovak Commissioner for Education and Culture, who is now special envoy for religious freedoms in the world, said that half of his life he lived in Communist Czechoslovakia, half in freedom, in today’s Europe.
“The real Europe means not only peace, but peace and freedom. We had peace, which was actually Cold war. 70 years of Bolshevism, communism and the Soviet system was a very long time. We need to remember, we need to remember victims, and the best gratitude for the gift of freedom and peace in Europe is responsibility.”
Figeľ further said that Europe remained open to countries in the East.
“Enlargement was the most successful European story, and an answer to the tragedies of the 20th century and I hope it will continue. There are many countries that knock on the door and hope to become part of the family,” he said.
Imam Tareq Oubrou, director of the Bordeaux mosque, delivered the message that Europe was the best solution for a better understanding between Islam and the prevailing secular societies where pluralism is managed by common right. “This is a challenge for us, for Islam, as we don’t have the secular experience,” he said.
Oubrou said that the religious phenomenon was not always a matter of religion only. There is an economic dimension, an identity dimension, there is education, the role of the teacher, of the school, of the media and of politics, he argued, stressing that the phenomenon of religion in the public space is an issue for everyone.
The difficulty, Oubrou said, is for the religious leader to teach their disciples what the spiritual order is, while respecting the legal and political order in which the believer lives.
“Europe is constituted of states with different legal and constitutional orders. But for me as Muslim and as a believer, Europe is for me the adventure of the universal. While respecting the nation state, there is a trans-national project, as a landmark for a mankind suffering from identity crises. If Europe doesn’t make a success of this transcendence, I don’t think this challenge would be met anywhere else,” he said.