The role of churches in efforts to build peace and resolve differences in the Mediterranean region is being examined during a two-day EPP Group annual inter-religious dialogue, being held in Nicosia.
In his opening speech, Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides said “Cyprus is at the border between the EU and our neighbors in Eastern Mediterranean. By being here, we are all much closer to a region that encapsulates the essence of the discussions of this conference”.
“This is the place where the three monotheistic (Abrahamic) religions were born; Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is where their first teachings took place, and their values and principles formed and communicated throughout the world”, he said.
One would expect, he noted, that this area would also be the place where these three religions would find the way to coexist and live in harmony, implementing the principles of equality and respect for one another; but “unfortunately this is not the case.”
“Whether we look towards the situation in Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or Lebanon; Syria, Israel and Palestine, or towards Iraq or Iran, we will find a common denominator that is the main driving force of developments in these countries and the region as a whole: Religion. The role of religion can and should be a constructive one”, he pointed out.
Kasoulides said “there is an ongoing/historical trend of suppressing the rights of religious minorities including Christians in this part of the world”, noting that Christian populations have been minimized to extremely low numbers, compared to what they used to be in the past, their places of worship burned and their religious and historical artifacts, hundreds years old, destroyed.
Examples such as the above have been seen in Iraq and Egypt and now in Syria. There are even visible here in Cyprus, where the destruction of religious heritage and the inability to exercise religious rights, due to Turkey’s continuous occupation of Cyprus’ northern part, is a serious issue.
As Members of the European Union, said Kasoulides, “we hold the respect of human rights, including the fundamental human right of religious freedom, as one of the main pillars of our internal and external policy”.
The EU and the EPP need to be bold to tackle these issues in a comprehensive and effective manner without turning the blind eye, said Kasoulides, adding “a particular and well-thought strategy is needed”.
Archbishop of Nova Justiniana and All Cyprus, Chrysostomos II, told delegates that the annual inter-religious dialogue is being held “amid very difficult and critical times for the sensitive area of Eastern Mediterranean and the wider region of the Middle East”.
In these troubled times, and especially in this part of the world which is being tried, political and religious leaders are called to actively contribute for a better and more prosperous world in this region, without war and bloodshed and with a spirit of good will and mutual understanding, to tackle the problems and take decisions, he said.
The Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church said that during these times, “we witness actions of violence, religious fundamentalism, hatred and religious discrimination in the wider region of the Middle East and North Africa.”
“We need to listen to the message from our people for freedom, democracy and dignity against regimes which in their effort to survive, spread death, violence and fear amongst their peoples”, Chrysostomos added.
Religious leaders, he went on to add, “cannot remain indifferent to what is going on around us. It is our responsibility to keep up with the times as much as possible and make sure we can secure the rights of our children to live in a better, safer and more peaceful world, on a local, regional and international level.”
Christians, said Archbishop Chrysostomos, have been persecuted in the Middle East from ancient times “and every effort to uproot them should be considered unfair and unjustified”.
At the same time, the prevalence of fundamentalist elements of other religions in the region endangers the presence of Christians in their homelands. “We urge the EU to intervene to put an end to this flagrant injustice”, he said.
The Archbishop said Cyprus is an example of religious pluralism, where 80% of the population is made up of Greek Cypriot orthodox Christians, 18% Turkish Cypriot Muslims and the remaining 2% Maronites, Latins and Armenians. “Until 1974, when the Turkish invasion took place, these people peacefully cohabitated in their mixed villages and towns and there were never religious conflicts or trouble”.
“Unfortunately, for 39 years now, in the Turkish occupied north of our island, religious freedom is not respected or implemented. In addition, Turkish occupation troops have undertaken an unprecedented effort to destroy and loot our religious sites and monuments, even in our cemeteries, generally, wherever there is an element of Christian population in the northern part of Cyprus”, said Chrysostomos.
He added that despite the great pain caused by the continued occupation and deprivation of our religious freedom, “as a church, we have created the necessary infrastructure to have an open dialogue with the religious leader of the Turkish Cypriots as well as other religious leaders on the island because only through a sincere dialogue we will be able to overcome our differences and build trust between us”.
Eleni Theoharous, MEP, member of the EPP Group in the EP and head of the Cypriot delegation of the EPP Group, said “we need to secure the right of hope for the daily lives of human beings”, adding that what is needed is “devotion to the universal application of human rights”. On this island, she said, “we were never allowed to enjoy the application of human rights”.
She said she hoped that the conference will show “our own adherence to human rights proven by our determination in striving to achieving respect for any and all human existence, regardless of colour, language, sexual preference and religion and ethnicity”.
Marrietta Giannakou, MEP, head of the Greek delegation of the EPP Group, told the conference that the main aim for the peoples of the region is to ensure the peaceful resolution of differences. For this to happen, she added, there should be institutional guarantees which will be found in the relevant authorities on a social level, in order to change the aggressive trends that exist.
She underlined that communication and good relations between churches in Europe is necessary, something that exists and should continue in order to yield results.
Rabbi Arie Zeev Raskin, Chief Rabbi of Cyprus, told delegates that everyone always talks about differences between religions but people forget something very important.
“The underlying foundation of our life was given back then, much before all religion. When God taught us all the Seven Noahide Laws. I think we should concentrate not on the differences but on what makes us equals, what makes us real brothers,” he said.
Everyone all around the world should have equal rights to practice his religion, his tradition and if these laws are followed, there will be shalom (peace) in the Middle East and the entire world, he added.
Youssef Soueif, the Maronite Archbishop in Cyprus, said “peace is the message of all religions; the official and classical greeting in the monotheistic beliefs in Judaism, Christianity and Islam”, the purpose of the sacred teachings, the dialogue of life, of love and truth among religions and cultures, in particular among people in conflict, is the unique way to create reconciliation among women and stability in society.
He said the Maronite Church is conscious of its role of being a small symbol of peace and reconciliation in Cyprus.
Archbishop Soueif noted that “in this spirit, all places of worship should be a space for all communities to renew the values of forgiveness, realizing the strategic role of Cyprus in peace building process being a geopolitical and cultural gate to the Middle East.
Communications and Works Minister Tasos Mitsopoulos told delegates that the international political arena is going through a transitional and critical time, which is defined by arguments and conflicts at every level.
At the same time, the world economic crisis has led to an unprecedented collapse of moral values. “We need to look for the cause of today’s crisis in the adulteration of original values with false values that we have adopted. We need to bring back religion to the forefront so that it can provide for answers to the great existential and moral issues that humanity is facing”, Mitsopoulos added.
He also said that religious freedom should be respected and should secure the creative relationship between religion and politics that is not undermined by fundamentalism.
Elmar Brok, MEP, member of the EPP Group, Chairman of the EP committee on Foreign Affairs in a speech about fundamentalism as a factor of political destabilitisation, said that a typical feature of fundamentalism is that it is unwilling to understand religion as a private matter and urges to dominate the public sphere according to its own beliefs. It does not only apply to Islam, he said.
What makes it dangerous, he added, is its desire to reshape the world at large and this often involves violence.
He said the EPP reaffirms its strong commitment to promoting and protecting freedom of religion without any discrimination. At the same time, Brok said that traditional Islam remains the most powerful weapon against Islamic fundamentalism.