Back Conference on "How religious leaders can help to re-invigorate the European democracies"

As delivered by Bjørn Berge, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe


Dear Frank,

Chairperson of the German Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe,

Federal Government Commissioner for Freedom of Religion or Belief,

Ambassador Peaucelle, Professor Zucconi,

Dear Heiner and Fabio,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,


This conference comes at an important moment for European democracies.

For some years now, the Council of Europe –

As well as a number of governments, civil society and other European institutions have warned about the increased level of democratic backsliding on many parts of our continent.

We have seen freedom of expression curtailed, with violence and intimidation directed against journalists.

Freedom of association and assembly restricted, with laws used and misused to prevent legitimate protest and shrink civic space.

Hate speech and hate crime on the rise – both online and offline – as our societies become ever more polarised.

Fanning all of this are very often extreme populists and nationalists –

Whose aim is very often to undermine community cohesion and the very fabric of our democratic institutions.

The most extreme example of this unravelling is provided by the Russian Federation –

Whose alarming democratic decay took place over a span of several years –

And which opened the door to its appalling, full-scale war of aggression against its neighbour, Ukraine –

And the violence, destruction and injustice that this continues to inflict upon so many.

So, today a call goes to all of us to do what we can to support Ukraine, but also to come together in a promise to do what we can to safeguard and secure our democracies in Europe, which is the theme of our conference today.

At the Council of Europe, we are certainly already taking a whole range of measures to help member states halt and reverse democratic backsliding.

These include various inter-governmental programs and projects, particularly in education, but also in mobilising our inter-governmental expert groups, as well as civil society and other international organisations.

We also adopted a set of 10 new Principles of Democracy at our Summit in Reykjavík last year, which will help us set clear goals of what we want to do, but also to remind our governments what they have committed themselves to live up to.

I believe the challenge to all of us here in Berlin today is how we can ask our religious leaders to help combat the democratic backsliding we now see throughout Europe, but also how we can learn from you – from your experiences – in making use of the method and practise of interreligious dialogue in promoting a spirit of dialogue and compromise.

Something that no doubt can help us build a less polarised democratic public sphere on our Continent.

It will also be very interesting to learn more of how interreligious dialogue can help us strengthen a culture of democracy in Europe.

And in particular in what practical ways interfaith engagement has been able to reinvigorate key democratic institutions at local, regional and national levels.

In other words, how can religious leaders and interreligious discourse play a role in combating democratic backsliding –

Helping us reverse the polarisation of our societies and at the same time strengthen the culture and institutions of our democracies.

And as always, what practical measures, or good practices, do you have some experience with.

And if the experience so far is somewhat limited, what measures and concrete steps can in your opinion be taken in meeting this fundamental challenge for Europe.

Only then, will we be able to solve the problem of democratic backsliding more fully and effectively.

Why do I believe that?

And why do I underline this?

Because all around us we see examples of the extraordinary civic good that religious communities already do.

First of all, supporting their members in challenging times –

But also, organising crisis and charitable campaigns to support the vulnerable in their own country and overseas –

Setting-up soup kitchens, food banks and shelters for those who have hit hard times –

And running social services that provide everything from sports clubs, youth groups and elderly care –

And health, housing and education –

Through to prisoner mentoring, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and anti-extremism programmes.

They also offer some of these services in close partnership with the authorities and through democratic state institutions –

And they engage with government and policy-making through campaigns, lobbying and official consultations –

So, the question is not really whether inter-religious dialogue can help to reinvigorate democracies, but in what way and with a focus on which issues.

Facing such a major challenge for the future of democracy in Europe today, we must also turn to the people and citizens.

I believe that there must not only be a discussion between the Council of Europe, religious communities and their leaders –

As important as that is –

But that we must encourage the habit of inter-religious dialogue to cascade down through religious organisations to religious people themselves –

So that they form common links and understanding at every level –

Share ideas and best practice –

And mobilise and empower one another to do as much as they can to reinforce strong, stable and inclusive democracies –

That respond to people’s needs.

The Council of Europe can make the case for that but, ultimately, we need others –

We need you – religious leaders and communities – to be inspired, take the lead, and do this for your communities and our broader societies.

I see this conference as a unique opportunity to discuss how we might further encourage exactly that.

Dear friends,

People of all faiths – and none – benefit from the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in European democracies.

This gives us the ability to be true to ourselves.

I hope that this freedom will also be the basis on which people of faith will come together –

In ever greater numbers –

And use their extraordinary skills and talents to defend our democracy itself.

At the end, let me also express my gratitude to the German and Italian governments, and the Liechtenstein Presidency of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, for supporting this dialogue and this important event –

And I am sure that we will all benefit from what is certain to be an interesting and useful discussion.

Thank you for your attention.

Berlin 14 May 2024
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