Puheenvuoro Euroopan Neuvoston uskonnonvapautta käsitelleessä seminaarissa Jerevanissa, Armeniassa

Eminences, excellences, all participants!

When reflecting on the theme of our present exchange I would like to share with you two thoughts I have lately had in my mind.

Firstly, in the near future we are going to have an increasingly urgent challenge not only to understand and tolerate religious and cultural pluralism but even reconciliating this diversity.

This future need is there because cultural, ethnic and religious tensions are often related to situations where people are having hard times.

The world seems to be heading towards more uncertain times: climate change really starts to threaten the life on this planet. More and more people will be worse off in the future. This surely makes the world more volatile.

In the “good old days” without any idea of environmental problems, in my country, Finland, a Christian monoculture lasted for centuries without serious tensions. Before the end of the 19th century, when some thousands of Tatar Muslims and Jews emigrated from Russia to Finland, there was no need nor possibility to encounter other religions. As far as I can see, minority religions in Finland have had a relatively good position. Freedom to practice one’s religion, as well as freedom to withdraw from a religious community, or to join another religion, was guaranteed in the first constitution of independent Finland in 1919, even though the Lutheran and the (Greek) Orthodox churches are in a position on national churches and have a strong autonomy. Both Muslims and Jews, these microminorities, integrated mainly well with Finnish society. And even though Finland in World War II fought on the side of Germany, Finland never agreed to hand over Jewish citizens of Finland to Germany. They were Finns just like anybody else.

Yet, the risk of politics becoming more aggressive has increased in Finland, even though political and religious extremism haven’t traditionally had success in our country. Lately, there has been a turn towards harder values and attitudes. This is due to the economical crisis, harder times, as I earlier stated. On the other hand, we have recently founded the National Forum for Cooperation of Religions, aiming to foster peace in Finnish society.

It is evident, that cultural, ethnic and religious tensions cannot be dissolved violently: by means of eliminating people who think and believe differently. By doing so, tensions will only increase and may result in terrible tragedies, as is well known in this very country.

It is possible to restrain aggression. A pluralistic, tolerant culture based on mutual respect is possible to achieve. Cultural, ethnic and religious tensions are often related to the fact that people are facing difficulties. That is, however, exactly when tolerant diversity is in demand, because it can even be the only possibility for humankind to survive. Being a member of the European Council of Religious Leaders I quote our Istanbul declaration: “Historically the idea of tolerance developed in Europe, through struggle and violent conflict, as a way of living with religious plurality.”

The model of ”unity in reconciled diversity” has long been discussed in the ecumenical work between Christian churches. It accepts a consensus on core issues as a basis for its unity. It is stated that differences in the circumferential cases do not reach the core and break this unity. As the Norwegian Reverend Doctor Stephanie Dietrich noted some years ago, “interestingly enough, the European Union uses the same term (reconciled diversity) concerning their work for cultural encounter within Europe.”

Unity in reconciled diversity is fully usable as a model for intercultural and interfaith dialogue: it means constructing the community based on shared values, while still recognizing the distinctiveness of different cultures and religions.

Various religions share a broad common ground, especially in ethical issues. Therefore people with different convictions and identities can achieve a consensus on the limits of tolerance as well as the political principles upon which pluralistic society is built. I quote the Istanbul declaration of the ECRL in 2011:

“Our understanding of human rights is rooted in our understanding of human dignity and incorporates many of our core religious values. We therefore consider human rights not to be a new value system but rather a formalised expression of some traditional moral values that is binding on states and formed and supported by diverse religious and traditional value systems.”

Secondly, I am concerned about the media world seems to becoming increasingly superficial and drama-oriented under economical and commercial pressure. It is further polarizing enmities and feeding narrow-mindedness rather than making intercultural dialogue and encounter easier.

A good religious community encourages independent and critical thinking, as well as respecting and tolerating humanity in its different forms. Blind and intolerant obedience of authorities and narrow-minded group thinking often occur in the name of better piety and dogmatism. It is also fueled by the said drama-oriented media, which easily promotes populism and fanaticism. Honest, calm and well-considered opinions tend to remain in the margin.

We should not resign to this. A superficial media creating stereotypical enemy images and juxtapositions operates with the means of cheap entertainment and feeds intolerance. We must not juxtapose and create enmities but a culture of peace, based on open collaboration with all people of good will and all institutions, religious or not, who are promoting the basic values of a culture of peace. To reach this we have to support freedom of press and expression for encouraging analytical journalism and a culture of dialogue.

I finish with a quote from the recently published recommendations concerning religious freedom and foreign policy by the Finnish Ecumenical Council: “The freedom of individuals and communities to practise their religious or non-religious beliefs is a precondition for peace and security, for social development and for the strengthening of democracy and civil society. When freedom of religion and belief is restricted, other human rights are often restricted as well, and the state or civil society may feel entitled to commit offences against the person.”