2012 Council of Europe Exchange
on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue
”Taking responsibility for tomorrow’s Europe: the role of young people in the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue”
Durrës, Albania3 and 4 September 2012

This brief report does not claim to be a verbatim account of the proceedings but is rather an outline from my notes on the main issues discussed.
The 2012 Exchange, one of the events under Albania’s Chairmanship of the Council of Europe, was attended in all by some 100 representatives of religious communities (Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox, Protestant), non-religious convictions (Humanist), faith-based and secular youth organisations, the media and media associations, experts and academics as well as Council of Europe member States and institutions (PACE, ECRI, CDMSI, Conference of INGOs and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities (CLRA)).
The programme consisted of four main sessions – statements and introductory remarks followed by three panel discussions. Speaking during the opening sessions were Aldo Bumçi, the Albanian Minister for Tourism, Culture, youth and Sport, representatives of CoE bodies (DG Democracy, ECRI, PACE Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media, the CLRA, the Chairs of the Committee of Ministers Rapporteur groups GR-C and GR-H, who were also Co-Chairs of the Exchange, as well as guest speakers from the major faiths and the International Humanist and Ethical Union.
During the opening session, Aldo Bumçi remarked that Albania was an example of not merely the co-existence of various faiths but of harmony between them. Albania had come a long way in twenty years from a Constitution that declared “The state recognises no religion whatever and supports atheist propaganda for the purpose of inculcating the scientific materialist world outlook in people” to chairing the Committee of Ministers. The main points made by other speakers were:

    · Intolerance is becoming increasingly widespread;
    · Young people are vulnerable and susceptible and therefore there is a need for responsible leadership;
    · Only when public policies are grounded in the reality of today can democratic values be passed on to future generations;
    · Young people feel alienated from the current political environment because politicians have failed to deliver on promises to tackle youth unemployment, discrimination on grounds of age, sex, ethnic origin and faith;
    · Whether religious or not, there are numerous shared values – human rights, peace, respect for the individual, democracy;
    · Young people’s thinking is inherited from their elders and it is important to examine our own record – are we giving them what they deserve?

The first panel discussion looked at the question of “raising young people’s awareness of common values and their transmission: the role of parents for education, interaction between the family and educators, intergenerational relations;” Introducing the session Janine ELKOUBY (VP Israelite Consistory of Bas-Rhin) stated there were certain values that transcended relativity and were common to mankind as opposed to the animal kingdom – freedom and responsibility, respect for life, equality and dignity of all individuals, and that it was up to parents and schools to pass on these values. Ms Elkouby saw three dangers – excessive individualism, identity entrenchment which can lead to chauvinism, xenophobia and the embedded fear of the other, and insufficient trust in these common values. The second speaker, Hégoumène PHILIPPE (Moscow Patriarchate representative), addressed the problem of trolling (posting inflammatory messages on the Internet to provoke an emotional response). He pointed out that freedom of the individual is balanced by laws to protect the freedom of others and gave the impression of defending regulation of the Internet and the convictions in the “Pussy Riot” case. Hégoumène PHILIPPE argued that churches mosques and synagogues were private spaces for the exercise of the freedom of religion and that the act of “Pussy Riot” prevented dialogue for which the church was ready. Interestingly, the Chair of SYNDESMOS – World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth, Rev. Christophe d’ALOSIO, denounced the instrumentalisation of religion for political ends and disagreed with the previous speaker calling the “Pussy Riot” incident a harmless prank but the convictions shameful.
Shannon PHILLIP of the World Student Christian Federation made a courageous intervention. As a gay Catholic person he found it difficult to justify his being a Catholic. Other youth representatives argued for the need to open up pulpits to different views saying “we cannot demand tolerance from others if we ourselves are intolerant”. Religion could not only be hijacked by politicians but also by the clergy. Speeches and philosophizing were all very well but “we need to do things together”.
The second panel discussion concerned solidarity and values: how solidarity and values are rooted in religions and non-religious convictions, what are the issues that can unite young people? Opening the discussion, Jean De Brueker (Centre d’Action Laïque) asserted there was no such thing as youth as an homogenous group and it was important clarify who we are talking about – the young person who works at the age of 6? The young person who at the age of 35 is thinking about leaving the family home? The hyper-qualified but unemployed young person? The untrained unemployed young person? Jean De Brueker pointed out that as soon as there was a debate on youth, two camps appeared – the one defending youth as victims of society and other defending society victimised by youth. Catherina COVOLO of the Ecumenical Youth Council was of the opinion that wherever young people were given trust and respect and treated as equal stakeholders, they showed solidarity. Young people are thankful for the guidance of their elders but have to “walk on their own”.
Panel 3 discussed the responsibility of young people for the promotion of understanding, respect and dialogue: risks and potential in the representation of religions and non-religious convictions, in particular in the new media. Gabriel Nissim (World Catholic Association for Communication) opened the session by asking how do we create spaces for encounters. Internet is the new interactive social space. Although it can be a source of knowledge, it can also encourage the expression of opinions in simplistic terms. Similarly, social media can also be a tool for intolerance, bullying and exclusion. The issue of history teaching was raised, which may be problematic in certain situations where there is a lack of a common social memory. One way forward could be the creation of fictional works in order to reach out to people. An on-line example of ways to reach out is the Israel loves Iran initiative (http://www.israelovesiran.com).
The Chair of the CDMSI was also asked to make an intervention. I began by regretting there were not more young people present, although I was given to understand there were far fewer young people at the previous Exchange in 2011. I considered it a matter of personal conscience to disagree with the views of the representative of the Moscow Patriarchate concerning the “Pussy Riot” trial. The charge of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred was clearly ill-founded (as also stated by Amnesty International, Article 19) and I agreed with the line of the representative of the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth that this demonstrated too close a link between the State and the Church. Needless to say this provoked a strong protest from a Russian Foreign Ministry attaché.
Following up on the argument made by an earlier speaker that Council of Europe standards should be adhered to in the on-line as well as the off-line environment, I recalled the 1997 Committee of Ministers Recommendations on hate speech and the role of the media and the promotion of a culture of tolerance, that is, to foster a culture of understanding between different ethnic, cultural and religious groups in civil society. I also mentioned the 2006 PACE Resolution on freedom of expression and respect for religious beliefs followed in 2007 by its Recommendation on blasphemy, religious insults and hate speech against persons on grounds of their religion.
I proposed that there is a great temptation for states to introduce regulation of the Internet and social media and reminded the Exchange that already back in 1997, the CoE Group of Specialists on Media and Intolerance had advised against the preparation of legally binding instruments in this regard over and above existing international law and that non-binding instruments, namely sets of principles, were preferable.
As far as our current work was concerned, I informed the meeting of the draft declaration on tracking and surveillance and why the CDMSI thought it necessary. On the issue of the protection of Internet users’ rights, representatives of the Muslim community (Arab Centre for Education on International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights (Strasbourg) and the Regional Council of the Muslim Faith (Alsace) thought that more work needed to be done on the protection of privacy and that consideration should be given to the idea of an Additional Protocol 15 or even a new convention regarding Article 8 and the protection of the privacy of users of new media.
Although the 2012 Exchange will not result in a final report, several recurring ideas were highlighted by the rapporteurs of the panel discussions:

    · Common values – striving for the flourishing of the human personality;
    · Most valuable were the contributions of young people that demonstrated the practical application of solidarity through their selfless work for the benefit of others;
    · The functioning of youth groups depends on the moral and financial support of their elders;
    · There is a correlation between economic inequality and social ills;
    · A whole generation has grown up with the Internet – good and bad.

Multi-stakeholder exchanges on intercultural dialogue in the spirit of tolerance and understanding are, in my view, extremely useful and it is imperative that young people be involved. Indeed, I would argue that where their role is to be discussed, they should be the main drivers of the agenda.
The Albanian authorities are to be congratulated on what was an intellectually most stimulating event that also provided many useful networking opportunities.

Andris Mellakauls
9 September 2012