Green Pilgrim Network Meeting: Faithful Pilgrims

Trondheim , 

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Dear Mayor Ottervik,

Your Eminences,

Distinguished guests,


It is a pleasure to be here today. I am very grateful to the City of Trondheim, the Diocese of Nidaros, The Church of Norway and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation for making the second international meeting of the Green Pilgrimage Network possible.

I am especially pleased to be here as the Cultural Routes activity is such an important part of the work of the Council of Europe. For our business is not just setting standards on human rights, democracy and the rule of law, but also designing tools and activities to educate our citizens, and guide them to historical empathy, which is vital to societies today.

I also extend my gratitude to all the faith leaders, distinguished academics and decision-makers who have made the long trip here. From Bethlehem, from Chennai in India, from Kano in Nigeria and so many other places: without your presence today this remarkable event would not have been possible.

It has to be said that Trondheim is a fitting place for this gathering. For many centuries a steady stream of pilgrims from across Europe have made their way to the magnificent Nidaros Cathedral to visit the relics of Saint Olaf, the Patron Saint of Norway.

The 640 km long stretch has caused many sore feet but, I have no doubt, many more happy faces.

Arriving at Nidaros Cathedral the pilgrims see, as most of you saw yesterday, a beautiful building boasting gargoyles, gothic arches and a glorious green copper steeple.

As they get closer they see spectacular stained glass windows and a garden with old tombs and carefully crafted monuments.

But take a step back and you will see much more than that.

You will see how religion has shaped our ideas: from art and architecture to the printed press.

Visiting Nidaros Cathedral now, on the eve of the anniversary of St. Olaf's death, reminds us – believers and non-believers alike – that faith goes to the very heart of European society and civilisation.

And one thing is clear: wherever you look today, religion matters.  There will never be true peace in our world without an understanding of faith and its followers.

But let me brutally honest with you. The issue of religion isn't always an easy one for us politicians.

It is not always easy to reconcile the business of religion, which is about absolute faith, and politics, which is about making compromises.

Religion makes many politicians hot under their collars.

Why is this so?

Well, unlike the day-to-day headaches of dealing with the financial crisis, health care and security challenges, religion is still seen as something abstract.

It is regarded as an unfamiliar territory potted with ideological land-mines and unwanted controversy.

The truth is that religion, in whichever form, is a permanent fixture in our society.

It is for this reason that it is crucial that we find ways for people of different faiths to co-exist peacefully.

To start talking with each other.

And this is what we are doing right now, right here.

"Sharing our experiences" is the theme of our meeting here in Trondheim. It is this spirit of diversity and shared responsibility embodied in the greening of pilgrimage cities and routes that the world needs so much right now.

Take the Armenian Orthodox Church, for example, which proposes in its Seven Year Plan to green the holy city of Etchmiadzin.

Take the plan to make Medina a Green Pilgrim City, alongside nine other Muslim cities.

Or take the Seven Year Plan which proposes greening Jerusalem.

Different religions, different holy sites yet they are all on the same page, working towards the same goal.

This is a valuable lesson for the world.

It is an important reminder that despite difficult times – be it the crushing weight of austerity measures here in Europe or revolutionary turmoil in the Middle East – we need to stay focused on what is truly important: and that is how we treat each other as well as the world around us.

It is clear: sustainable living and tolerance of diversity go hand in hand.

It is, for example, no coincidence that the new Pope of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, chose to be named after Saint Francis of Assisi, the Italian patron saint of animals and the environment.

Dear Friends,

Distinguished guests,

Europe has always been a continent of many religions and ethnic groups.

This is a sure advantage, but has also led to terrible suffering, as in the last World War. After this, which represented the negation of human rights and respect for the other, we set up institutions, such as the Council of Europe, and standards, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, to safeguard peace on our Continent, and freedom of expression and religion for all.

We must not only accept the multicultural patch-work of our continent, we must embrace it.

At stake here is not just the issue of religious freedom and tolerance; it is what kind of society we want to live in.

Only through dialogue and openness can we find credible compromises to important questions.

Questions such as: How to regulate and prosecute blasphemy as well as incitement to religious hatred?

How best to divide roles and responsibilities between religious communities and the secular state?

How to find an appropriate balance between the freedom of religion and the other fundamental rights protected by international mechanisms?

These questions are increasingly relevant for a tolerant society.

They are questions which influence the quality and the tone of democracy.

We must also do more to overcome the gulf between secular and religious circles.

Secularism should not be seen as the negation of religion but rather as a way to absorb it into society.

It's about freedom, and anchoring that freedom in law. The freedom to believe and the freedom of expression.

Ladies and Gentlemen, in Europe we have concluded that the secular State is a way to protect religious diversity. As Thomas Paine wrote, the secular society is not the negation of religion but a way to protect the individual and religion from the State, a way to absorb different religions into society.

The example of the Green Pilgrim Network shows us that we need to hold our communities up to high standards of behaviour and remind ourselves of what we have in common, not our divisions.

The Network will only work if it engages secular partnerships as well as religious groups.

From transport providers to solar power experts.

From local NGOs to academic institutions and environmental organisations.

Only then will it be possible to receive and accommodate millions of pilgrim visitors sustainably.

Only then will it be possible to spread greener living habits within our communities.

Dear friends,

As you know, on Monday Norway marked a very sad anniversary.

We will never forget what happened two years ago when the main government building in Oslo and then the idyllic island of Utøya was ripped apart by a gunman's bullets.

Seventy-seven innocent civilians, most of them still in their teens, were killed that day.

As a Norwegian, after this event, it is my duty to say that words count. They count for good or for bad. The events in Utøya came from words, because for some – words lead to action.

When public figures use fiery rhetoric when addressing multi-culturalism they spin irrational fears.

When politicians use religion as a wedge issue, they embolden extremists.

When, through our choice of words, we automatically link Islam to terrorism, we polarize the debate.

For example, is it really necessary to refer to terrorism committed by Muslims as "Islamic terrorism?"

No one ever called the perpetrator of the Utøya massacre a "Christian terrorist," just because he described himself as Christian.

Words matter. We must use them to build bridges and not to sow conflict.

And yet we all know that it is not enough to merely formulate human rights safe-guards; they will only become part of our legal and democratic culture if they are taught, promoted and supported.

This is one of our main priorities at the Council of Europe.

As our continent's guardian of democracy, human rights and the rule of law we have developed a particular sensitivity for the role of religion in democracy.

We assist our member states with practical guidelines and recommendations. 

We help our member states run operational programmes, for instance in the field of cultural heritage and education.

Together with civil society we launch campaigns, such as the one against hate speech and religious intolerance on the Internet.

In everything that we do we are guided by the notion that although we cannot legislate society into becoming more tolerant, we can build architecture that allows for mutual respect in society.

Through smart, well-implemented laws, we can define and defend European values.  That's what the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental freedoms sets out to do.

The Convention – in particular Article 9 – not only speaks of freedom of religion, but of freedom of thought, conscience and religion – the cornerstones of a democratic society.

It protects the freedom to have religious beliefs, but also the freedom to change such beliefs or not have them at all.

So yes, law forms the important basis of our conversation on religion.

But there are limits to what law can achieve.

The other part of the conversation has to be undertaken, in part at least, by those of faith.

It is the responsibility of religious leaders to educate and lead just as much as it is up to individuals and groups to forge compromises with each other.

The Green Pilgrim Network makes me optimistic that we can achieve greater understanding and appreciation between religions, and between religious and secular groups.

It is therefore my strong hope that the Green Pilgrim Network will contribute to deeper interreligious dialogue and to a deeper understanding that we human beings are dependent on each other and on our planet.

Thank you.