Speech of Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger at the Conference of European Imams and Religious Advisors in Vienna
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Ladies and Gentlemen!
It is my great pleasure to cordially welcome you to the opening of the third Conference of European Imams and Religious Advisors in Vienna. I am very pleased that this project, which was started with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2003, has been continued. Based upon the Graz Declaration of 2003 and the Vienna Declaration of 2006, the agenda of this year’s conference includes many more topics that are of crucial importance to Muslim citizens of Europe: the empowerment of women within Islam, prevention of violence, training of imams and teachers of Islamic Religious Education in public schools, and the interreligious and intercultural dialogue as a challenge as well as an opportunity. The variety of issues shows that all citizens of Europe regardless of their religious affiliations are facing similar challenges and that our opportunity to cope successfully with these challenges and to jointly develop solutions lies within dialogue.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I should like to address three points in relation to the Conference of European Imams in Vienna that appear to me to be of crucial importance:
- first, the role of religious communities in the construction of Europe
- second, the importance of religious freedom in Europe and worldwide
- and third, the importance of integration, democracy and participation as the cornerstones of the future of our societies in Europe.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
For the first time in history a formalised dialogue between the European Union and the churches and religious communities has been established in the Treaty of Lisbon. With the explicit recognition of their specific identities and their positive contribution to the process of European integration a substantial progress has been made. This commitment of the European Union to dialogue encompasses three important challenges:
First, a call to churches and religious communities to promote greater acceptance for the European Union, its goals and values within the population. A Europe of diversity is based on universal human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as on the commitment to the rule of law and democracy - no matter what religion we belong to, or whatever religious and cultural traditions may shape our lives. Thus, “dialogue” implies also to seek dialogue within one’s own religious community and to encourage members to take on a common European identity, based upon Europe’s respective values and principles.
Secondly, the dialogue among churches and religious communities should be strengthened. Without any doubt we need this dialogue with civil society to ensure social peace and a harmonious and constructive cooperation in Austria, in Europe and beyond its borders. When we speak of Islam, we also do have to speak of its diversity in orientation and representation: Especially in Europe, states and society face the challenge to talk to Muslim representatives whose forms of organisation and whose impact differ from each other. This Conference of European Imams and Religious Advisors should increasingly accommodate and embrace the diversity of voices, initiatives and organizations of Islam in Europe.
Thirdly, dialogue also implies the opportunity to learn from each other. There is a promising opportunity, to benefit from the historical, social and political experiences of others and instil those experiences into the development of our own communities and institutions in today’s Europe. The past has impressively shown the fruitful influence of dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims on the vast progress of the sciences in europe, particularly between the 5th and 15th century. As such we are proud of the existing institutions and courses for the training of teachers of Islamic Religious Education in public schools and imams at the University of Vienna. We hope that the Austrian and European universities and educational facilities remain the centres of dialogue and continue to be strengthened in this regard.
Ladies and Gentlemen!
A second point crucial in connection with the Conference of European Imams and Religious Advisors is freedom of religion. The concept of the indivisibility of human rights links religious freedom closely to other fundamental rights and freedoms, such as freedom of expression and equal rights for men and women. The universal right to freely choose one’s faith and religion, to exercise it undisturbed, to change it or even not to belong to any religion, was a right hard-fought for (even) in Europe.
Austria holds a unique position in Europe concerning the recognition of currently 14 churches and religious societies. Out of this recognition by law, a number of rights and privileges as well obligations emanating from the constitution and other relevant laws arise. Compared to the situation in other European countries, the Islamic Community in Austria has been privileged in particular with regard to Islamic religious instruction in public schools.
Religious freedom, however, I have to underline here, is not only relevant when it comes to rights, privileges and obligations. In many countries of the predominantly Muslim world, there is without any doubt a lively diversity of religions and cultures and a vivid coexistence and co-operation. But in many countries people still struggle for the full respect of human rights. It is a sad fact that the rule of law, pluralism and religious freedom are often entirely missing or disrespected and the situation of religious minorities is indeed very precarious.
Not only on a global level but particularly in Europe we must ask ourselves what we make of the religious freedom we have acquired. Do we use this freedom sufficiently in order to contribute to the further development and stability of Europe and to seek actively and constructively enough dialogue with other churches and communities?
I am convinced that we also need to understand the right to freedom of religion in Europe as an invitation to actively contribute to the shaping of the values and objectives of the European Union. We, therefore, need a clear commitment to democracy and pluralism, to equal rights of women and men, to the right to education and vocational training for all. Freedom of religion in Europe also implies the opportunity to develop theology and practical experience together with others and to further expand them with a view to strengthening the European common welfare.
Ladies and Gentlemen, let me raise a final point.
The challenge for all, be it to the majority society or to minority communities, is not to be found in the differences between Christianity or Islam, but in our dedication to democracy and participation. Driving forces of our societies are well-educated women and men and a committed youth. But the confidence and trust in politics of younger generations is decreasing. This trend makes them susceptible to simplistic answers to complex questions with regard to life and society. Young people, no matter of what religion or ethnic origin, have very similar expectations and objectives - they want education, jobs and a perspective for the future. We therefore must make use of cultural diversity as an economical and social potential.
I therefore hope that the imams and religious advisors in Europe see themselves as promoters and pilots for dialogue and integration, and assume their responsibility for a common European future in peace and prosperity.
In this spirit I wish you productive discussions and a successful conference!