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Interfaith Dialogue and Peace among Religions

Interfaith Dialogue and Peace among Religions
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21 December 2021 year 18:37

Address by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations at the Free Mediterranean University (LUM), Casamassima, Puglia, Italy, 20th December 2021.

Dear faculty members, Esteemed President of Puglia Region, Mr. Emiliano, Dear students, 

Today interfaith dialogue is coming to the fore not in Europe only, but throughout the world. And in promoting this dialogue Italy plays a notable role.

Three months ago the G20 Interfaith Forum entitled “Time to Heal – Peace among Cultures, Understanding between Religions” took place in Bologna. The conference brought together 370 participants, including 50 religious leaders, 90 politicians and diplomats, as well as some 100 scholars, experts and guests fr om 50 different countries. Only several years ago it would have been difficult to envisage such meeting in Europe, for it was not common to speak about the problem of religion being forced out of the public life in Europe. The recent forum in Bologna, however, has shown that the situation is changing, that the most reasonable politicians are unafraid to note the importance of religion in the life of the present-day European society. People have realised that the traditional religions provide the moral and spiritual foundation, without which society cannot survive. The participants in the forum emphasised, in particular, that religious organisations should be more actively involved in conflict resolution.

As the two years of pandemic have demonstrated, in times of crisis traditional religions alone can give people hope and strength to surmount financial and other kinds of difficulties, to recover fr om illness, and to survive the death of relatives and friends. At the same time, during the pandemic people of different faiths have faced a common challenge – a considerable increase in aggression against religious sites and shrines. I will illustrate my point with examples dating to the last months of 2021.

On November 9, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights published a report entitled “Overview of Antisemitic Incidents Recorded in the European Union, 2010-2020.” According to the report, the COVID-19 pandemic has provoked a new surge in antisemitism[1]. In October, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, chairman of the European Jewish Association, said that the Jewish freedom of religion was under direct attack across Europe fr om the very institutions that had promised to protect the Jewish communities[2].

At the same time, incidents of hate crime against Christians have soared in Europe. According to the OSCE report as of November 16, 2021, over the past year alone Christians fell victim to 980 attacks. There occurred arson attacks on Roman Catholic churches, Eucharistic hosts desecrations and robberies, assaults on priests; there appeared anti-Catholic graffiti on church property, written by abortion activists. The year 2019 saw fewer incidents, namely 595. There was a significant increase in the number of attacks against church property, from 459 in 2019 to 871 in 2020. Arson attacks on Roman Catholic churches took place in France, Germany, Spain and Italy. Religious hate crimes have also intensified in social media[3].

Recently, Monsignor Janusz Urbańczyk, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the OSCE, has raised public awareness of these facts. Speaking at a plenary meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council, he emphasised that crimes against Christians were no longer a marginal phenomenon, that, therefore, all states were called to combat discrimination against Christians, Jews, Muslims and representatives of other religions. The recent data indicates that Christian communities are largely falling victim to hate crimes and incidents motivated by anti-religious prejudices, even in the countries, wh ere Christians constitute the majority[4].

Throughout the history of humankind, religion has been playing a significant role in the life of individuals, societies and civilizations. Widespread in the late 19th and early 20th century was an idea that religion would fall into natural decay and degenerate against the background of the advancing scientific rationality, technical progress and modernization of societies. From that point of view, religion was regarded as an outdated archaic form of human consciousness, associated with many misconceptions and prejudices, for which there would be no room left in a new, dynamically changing world. Such standpoint, largely based on contrasting science with religion, and the positivism paradigm with a special notion of progress, has to this day been significantly affecting the attitude towards religion.

I was born and bred in the Soviet Union – the country wh ere atheistic ideology was being imposed on every citizen by the authorities. They tried to convince us that religion was in its final days, that interested in the church were only elderly women and those who failed to find their place in life, that in ten or twenty years religion would die once and for all. But since it did not want to die, a whole system of repression against “religious prejudices” was worked out.

When listening to the European politicians who in their speeches today urge to do away with religion, to remove religious symbols from the public sphere, to neutralize the church’s influence on society, and to “shield” children from the impact of the church, I want to say to them, “Dear sirs and madams, you just do not know what it is like to live under the regime which resorts to violence to stifle any religious feeling in a person, mercilessly extirpating the memory of God from his/her heart. We endured all this. With our own eyes we saw what the atheistic ideology might lead to, while you have seen nothing of the sort – neither the Red Terror under Lenin, nor concentration camps under Stalin. You live by illusions, myths, phantoms. You have read a lot of silly books about atrocities of the Inquisition, and are now afraid that churchmen will seduce your children. And then your kids turn into drug addicts and cynics, and you rush to a psychologist to save them. Open your eyes and appeal to the church which has always been the pure source of kindness and holiness, and realise that religion will never be a bad influence on your children.”

Based on my experience of living under the totalitarian regime, I can state that the atheistic ideology proved to be erroneous. We were told that religion was about to die, but as soon as the Soviet Union had collapsed, millions of people embraced God. In the early 1990s one parish priest would baptise 200-300 people a day. In the late 1980s the Russian Orthodox Church had 6,500 churches, while today their number has risen beyond 40,000. It means that every year we opened a thousand of churches, or three churches a day. It has been going on for over thirty years. We used to have 20 monasteries, and now we have around a thousand of them, filled with monks and nuns. We used to have three theological educational institutions, and now we have over 50. Many secular universities have opened chairs of theology.

Wh ere does this interest in religion come from? Why does the world remain “as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever” [5], as was noted by a well-known American sociologist of religion, Peter Berger (1929-2017), whom I knew well? It is because religions have colossal potential, which allows them not only to survive, but also to revive, like a phoenix, for a new life. And despite all the efforts of anti-religious forces, the traditional religions continue to exist and develop.

Today’s world is characterized by the unprecedentedly high interdependence and interconnection. Therefore, becoming particularly important is the task of addressing a range of problems that pertain to the development of relationships between adherents of different religions – what is usually called “interreligious dialogue.”

Nowadays we often run across the phrase “interfaith dialogue” in speeches of political, public and religious leaders, scholars, and experts, as well as in mass media. At the same time, giving an adequate description of this phenomenon in all the wide variety of its possible forms is a scientific task yet to be accomplished. The notion of interreligious dialogue has varying interpretations reflecting different concepts of its principles, tasks and forms.

I would like to dwell on the Russian Orthodox Church’s understanding of interfaith dialogue. As for its doctrinal foundations, we are guided, first and foremost, by the example of Christ Himself. The Gospel describes some of Christ’s meetings with the Samaritans, Canaanites, and Gentiles. He treated them with mercy and love and made an example of the Roman centurion and his faith for His fellow-countrymen (Mt. 8:10). As St. Paul teaches us, “if possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18). And St. Peter commands: “Make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15).

It means that we must treat every person as our equal, with respect and love. The Lord Himself commanded us to preach love and goodness with our own life, our own relationships with those near and those far off. He said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).

The Moscow Patriarchate actively engages in interfaith dialogue.

Among our priorities is dialogue with Islam. The Moscow Patriarchate maintains contacts with Muslim leaders and organisations in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, and other countries. Coming to the fore in our dialogue with Muslims is our common witness against extremism and terrorism, defense of traditional moral and family values, the situation of religious minorities in Islamic countries, human rights, globalization, problems of migration, and academic cooperation.

There is a growing interaction with leading Islamic organisations, such as the Muslim World League, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and the Muslim Council of Elders (UAE). In addition, for several years now we have been maintaining good working relations with the leading Islamic Al-Azhar University.

Since 1997, the Russian Orthodox Church has been holding regular talks with the Islamic community of Iran. The parties share their experience concerning relationships between religion and state, religion and society, traditional moral and family values. Over the years of the work of the Russian-Iranian Commission for Orthodoxy-Islam Dialogue, its members have discussed various matters, such as the role of religion in today’s world, inter-cultural dialogue, human rights, globalization, problems of terrorism and extremism, the spiritual and moral crisis in society, certain aspects of Christian and Islamic theology and anthropology, possibilities of academic cooperation, ecological problems, and the situation of religious minorities in the Middle East.

I should also mention the long-standing trust-based relationships with the Caucasus Muslims Board headed by Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshuqur Pashazade. Lately, Azerbaijan has set a course for the intensified development of interfaith dialogue through international efforts. For this purpose, an ad hoc Centre was opened in Baku. Among the members of its governing bodies are representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church. We continue our peace-making service aimed at resolving the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh by acting as the mediator in the dialogue between the religious leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The tradition of holding such meetings was established almost 30 years ago, with the latest meeting having taken place this October in Moscow. These efforts have helped to prevent the Karabakh conflict from sliding into a religious plane.

Religious communities in our country engage in dialogue on a permanent basis within the framework of the Interreligious Council of Russia (ICR). The Council was established in 1998, bringing together the heads of the four traditional religions in our country, namely Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. The cooperation of the religious communities within the Council is aimed at, firstly, peace-making and fostering civic peace and accord; secondly, asserting moral values in society; and thirdly, working to improve the situation of religious communities in the legislative, economic and social spheres.

The Russian Orthodox Church regards the traditional religious communities in Russia as reliable allies in the good cause of defending morality and family and fostering peace and accord. As practise has shown, the similar moral values make it possible for the Russian traditional religions to constructively cooperate and come out as a united front, presenting a consolidated stand on a number of socially significant issues. The ICR expressed the concerted position of the country’s traditional religions on such topics as migration, restrictions on the gambling industry, drug trafficking, protection of family and children’s rights, incitement to ethnic and religious hatred, construction of buildings for worship, law enforcement, inclusion of theology in the list of state-recognized academic disciplines, insults to the feelings of believers, and others.

One of the most pressing problems for the traditional religions today is the spread of extremism under religious slogans. In the Council’s statements, we do not use the term “religious terrorism.” Instead we speak of “the terrorism under religious banners”. None of the religions teaches to kill innocent people, including women and children. The misanthropic ideology of terrorists cannot be called a religion.

We are developing relationships with Judaic organisations and communities, among them the Conference of European Rabbis, the Elijah Institute in Israel and others. We continue our long-standing cooperation with the Appeal of Conscience Foundation headed by Rabbi Arthur Schneier. This October, while in New York, I once again visited Rabbi Schneier, who is already 91.

When engaging in interfaith dialogue, we find it of great importance to cooperate with the Roman Catholic Church. On November 24, 2021, I met with the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Miguel Ayuso Guixot, highlighting for him the interreligious activities of the Moscow Patriarchate in their variety. We discussed such a significant area of dialogue as making a joint stand against persecutions and discrimination of religious minorities, primarily Christians.

There are many types of interfaith dialogue, but in the foreground today is the dialogue that focuses on cooperation in resolving particular problems, namely, in rendering aid to the needy, asserting social justice and moral values, fostering peace, protecting the environment, etc. In such a dialogue, doctrinal issues are not discussed, while the participation of believers, representing various religions, in joint projects helps promote mutual understanding.

In conclusion, I would like to extend my felicitations to all those assembled here on the approaching feast of the Nativity of Christ. At a time when the name of Christ and even the very word “Nativity” is not often used in Europe, substituted by other words, concerted efforts are needed in order to preserve the traditional values, by which millions of people on our planet live.

Thank you for your attention!


 

[1] https://fra.europa.eu/sites/default/files/fra_uploads/fra-2021-antisemitism-overview-2010-2020_en.pdf

[2] https://www.interfax.ru/world/800096

[3]https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/249606/nearly-1000-hate-crimes-against-europe-s-christians-recorded-in-2020

[4]https://www.vaticannews.va/ru/vatican-city/news/2021-12/vatikan-prizval-obse-borotsya-s-religioznoj-diskriminaciej.html

[5] Berger P.L. Desecularization of the world: a global overview // The desecularization of the world: resurgent religion and world politics. Washington, 1999. P. 2.

DECR Communication Service/Patriarchia.ru

Version: Russian