"Religion ist integraler Bestandteil individueller und kollektiver Identität"

Rede vor dem Europarat in Straßburg

13. April 2011

Mr President, distinguished Members of the House,
My brethren in faith, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for the invitation to address you today. Religion was and is a golden thread in the fibre of our societies. It makes its impact felt, mostly for the good, occasionally for the bad. It is our common duty, as political office-holders and as men and women of the Faith, to work together in order to strengthen the former and prevent the latter.

As European societies become more and more pluralist in their outlook, permanent encounters between different religions have become the rule – and yet, they still have an aura of the unusual.

To put it bluntly, this is the case with some religions more than with the others. The more a religion is connected to foreign cultures, the less easy dialogue become. Thus, there is not only a religious dimension to intercultural dialogue, but also a cultural dimension to interreligious dialogue. This must not be forgotten.

Both ways, the issue at stake is complex. There are four main aspects which I will address today:

1. As you rightly point out, Mdm le rapporteur, religion is just one aspect of our personality, but it can be very dominant and forceful.
2. Europe is shaped not only by religious plurality, but also by a diversity of legal systems concerning religion.
3. The life of churches and religious communities depends on the guarantee of the fundamental right to freedom of religion, not only in its individual, but in its collective and  corporative dimensions.
4. Churches and religious communities have a valuable contribution to make to society at large,
a.) through their social and societal engagement and
b.) through their fostering of mutual understanding.

1. On religious identity: Religion is but one aspect of our identity. I am not only Protestant, but I am also German, also European, also a fan of my football club... Personalities are multilayered and multifaceted. In Berlin, where I come from, we used to talk about “the Turks” referring to our largest ethnic minority. After 9/11 we started to speak about “the Muslims” instead. I urge that we all be more careful in picking out single aspects of identity. Discrimination is largely based on our failure to distinguish if and when an attribute is relevant. So my plea is to talk about religion when religion is at stake, but not reduce all matters of migration and integration to religious questions, but rather look at the person itself.

2. On religious plurality: In the context of the Council of Europe and the EU we tend to look for things that unite rather than divide us. This is understandable, but must not happen at the expense of individuality and plurality. “United in Diversity” is the leitmotif of European Integration. And it is our strength.
This applies especially to religion and the legal systems governing the relations between religion and the state.
In principle, this is not only accepted, but positively recognised by EU and European law. Art 22 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights endorses “Cultural, religious and linguistic diversity” in Europe. Art. 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union respects the national competence in these matters.
Recently, the Grand Chamber of the European Court on Human Rights revised a decision concerning the display of religious symbols – here a cross – in public schools in Italy, stressing the broad margin of appreciation signatory states have in these matters. Speaking as a German Protestant, I nevertheless emphasise: We fully endorse this judgement. It may seemingly protect a majority culture, a denomination that is not ours. But we would rather live in a society that is open to religion, than in a culture of mistrust, in which the “religious” is banned from the public sphere. In Italy, pupils are allowed to wear the Muslim headscarf and the Jewish kippa. Protestants built churches and openly and publicly confess their faith. The mere fact that the majority religion is more visible than other, smaller groups is, in itself, not a discrimination.
The state musts needs take account of social realities. Religion is a part of this reality, plurality is a part of this reality. We need to balance the rights of majorities and minorities in the light of these realities. While majorities will have more visibility, minorities need to have the chance to being seen and heard as well.

3. On religious freedom:  This leads me on to my third point. Freedom of religion is the human right par excellence. Long before people fought for political freedoms, people fought for their right to believe – or not believe. They did so, because religion is so close to the very core of human existence:
 the interpretation of the world, its origin and destiny,
 to making sense of our very being, of living and dying, suffering and hope,
 so close to accepting duties and responsibilities that transcend simple self-interest,
 so close to concepts like love and mercy.
It is the state’s most noble duty to protect this right. Over centuries, the state saw its role in choosing one religion and then protecting it. But to choose one always means to exclude others. This may be the seemingly easiest way. But the seemingly easiest way is not the best. The state’s duty is toward religion, not towards a religion. But, as I have already pointed out in relation to the recent Grand Chamber judgement, the state does not need to be blind towards religion and social realities. The state cannot ignore a force of the mind so strong and fundamental, without ignoring a key element of human life. Therefore, the state has to have a positive attitude towards religion, but to remain neutral towards religions. This is also in the well understood self-interest of the state: To engage with religion promotes what is good and peaceful and beneficial in them.

4. On the valuable contribution of religions: And religions do have a contribution to make. Theirs is a double input:
a.) through their social and societal engagement and
b.) through their fostering of mutual understanding.

a.) The level of dialogue and cooperation offered by the state, with some deplorable exemptions, in the whole of Europe shows there are expectations behind it. Can we meet them?

Yes, we can. In the tradition of my church, for example, we speak about the “public mission of the church”. Already in the Hebrew Bible the People of God is called to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city“ (Jer 29,7) – even in exile. How much more in a free society of which we are an integral part!

We are convinced that we cannot engage in social work, care for the poor and the needy, the orphan and the widow, the stranger and the exiled without also working on the conditions that make or break poverty and exclusion, injustice and discrimination.

For a true dialogue, the state needs to be an open partner as well. Art. 17 TFEU, which I already referred to, also establishes an open, regular and transparent dialogue between the EU and the churches, religious and non-confessional communities.

The dialogue according to Art. 17 – like any other dialogue with public authorities – is one of religions, not between religions. To organise the interreligious dialogue is the task of religions alone. But, of course, the common dialogue with public bodies also offers a field for exchange and cooperation.

In fact, dialogue-fora have become many and diverse. If I look at high level interreligious dialogue alone, we have the religious leaders meetings with the EU presidents, the religious leaders meetings at G8-level, we have the Parliament of the World’s religions, we engage in the UN Alliance of Civilisation. In order for these dialogues to deliver, we must now seek to concentrate forces rather than to broaden the variety of forms and platforms.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, religion has and deserves a central place in society. My own church is one of Europe’s biggest: with a registered membership of 25 million Protestants and about half a million employees mostly in the welfare sector. The church, from church taxes alone, spends 800 million Euros on its welfare work. If you add gift-aid and other donations, it is more than one billion. We run more than 1000 schools, provide more than 600.000 places in day-care institutions for children, young people, the elderly and the sick.

Most of our social work addresses those in need, irrespective of their religion. Some of it, by its very nature, addresses especially people of other religious backgrounds – integration projects, asylum counselling, and advocacy for refugee rights. In some areas of my native city of Berlin, we even go so far as to employ Muslims to work for a Christian Church in order to help us deal better with those we are there to help. As a “global player” our development agencies run thousands of projects abroad, in a partner-based approach, strengthening civil society around the world.

But also hat home: 1.1 million people support our work through voluntary engagement. In this “European Year of Volunteering 2011” our attention is on their contribution.

When I have been speaking about my own church now, it is because here my knowledge is the best. The Catholic contribution is, however, the same in numbers, the Jewish community contributes if in lesser numbers in the same spirit. Our invitation is to the other religious groups, especially the Muslim communities, to set up structures that enable them to make their contribution to and their role in society more visible.

b.) How we, the official representatives, encounter each other here today and even more so back home does have an impact on how our people deal with pluralism and diversity. Tolerance and respect need to shape our relations on all levels. In Germany, for instance, the Protestant, the Catholic and the Orthodox churches organise, every year, an “Intercultural Week”, supported by the trade unions, by city councils, migrants’ organisations and other civil society actors. This is just one example of what is possible when we join forces and work together.

Easy as it sounds, the way of cooperation is a stony one. Different religions also endorse different concepts of society and the place of the individual in it. I have already pointed out that there is not only a religious dimension to intercultural dialogue, but also a cultural dimension to interreligious cooperation. Dialogue, even in the very basic sense, depends on the possibility of meaningful exchange. If clergy and representatives do not speak the language of the land or speak it only with difficulty, this is a problem. Dialogue is the way, yes, but the preconditions of dialogue have to be established on both sides.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, let me sum up. Religions are an integral part of individual and of collective identity. The state needs to protect the freedom of religion so that any religion can be freely exercised. In most cases, this exercise will include a positive contribution towards society at large, both through voluntary engagement and through dialogue.

We invite you, as representatives of the political sphere, to accept this contribution and help in making it work.

Thank you for your attention.