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Address by the Hon. Minister at the International Conference ““Protecting Religious Communities – Investing on youth as the major players of a new season of rapprochement, dialogue and peaceful coexistence among peoples”

Allow me to extend a warm welcome to everyone and especially to Msgr. Gallagher. We are honoured by his presence, which confirms the extraordinary vitality and deep harmony of views in the relations between Italy and the Holy See.

Today’s is not just another one of the many Conferences organised to discuss an issue. Firstly because we are convened at the presence of High Representatives of different Institutions and faiths, convinced of the profoundly human, and therefore cultural and political, nature of the theme of freedom of religion and of its absolute centrality in foreign policy.    

Secondly because today we will announce the establishment of the Observatory on Religious Minorities in the World and the Respect for Religious Freedom. The Observatory will be chaired by Prof Salvatore Martinez, whom I thank wholeheartedly for his generous helpfulness. I would also like to thank the other members of the Observatory: Dr Alessandro Monteduro, Prof Riccardo Redaelli, Minister Plenipotentiary Fabrizio Petri and Counsellor Massimo Santoro.

I would especially like to point out that the presence of Fabrizio Petri, the diplomatic official who chairs the Interministerial Committee on Human Rights, is the liaison between the Observatory and the Committee. This is proof of the fact that religious freedom is and must continue to be considered a fundamental human right.

The establishment of the Observatory also meets a need long expressed by several political forces in our Parliament. We have paid heed to and embraced this firm petition, which comes from our citizens, our people. And, at the same time, we have wanted to give the Organisation an international scope. 

Indeed, the action of the Observatory is oriented abroad, at the service of our diplomacy and Embassies around the world. It was designed to be an instrument whereby to monitor religious freedoms and to issue an early warning of their violation. Its task is to detect the most significant cases and warn of the most critical situations. We ask this new Organisation, which is scheduled to convene for the first time today, to formulate proposals to submit to the diplomatic officials who will have to evaluate and implement them under my political guidance.   

Defending religious freedom is one of the loftiest tasks of foreign policy. It means protecting the very essence of the law, which is founded on all the freedoms that guarantee peace, security and prosperity: once the freedom of religion is protected by law and in everyday life, it will be possible to assert the rule of law and assure security; if this protection is not assured, the consequence will be the multiplication of conflicts and the persistence of social and political instability. 

This is a message forcefully transmitted in the words spoken by Pope Francis. He said: “Religious freedom, acknowledged in constitutions and laws and expressed in consistent conduct, promotes the development of relationships of mutual respect among the diverse confessions and their healthy collaboration with the State and political society, without confusion of roles and without antagonism. In place of the global clash of values, it thus becomes possible to start from a nucleus of universally shared values, of global cooperation in view of the common good.”

Dear friends, in these last few days, we have welcomed with satisfaction news of the defeat of Daesh in Mosul and in the plains of Nineveh, where Christian and Yazidi minorities have experienced indescribable suffering. In Iraq and in too many more Countries, violence and intimidations have shaken the pillars of dialogue and peaceful coexistence among peoples.

Let me sorrowfully recall the terrible suffering of the Yazidi people. And especially the story of Nadia Murad: a young 20-year old woman from North Iraq who was captured by Daesh in 2014 together with 5,000 more women. Nadia’s mother and her six brothers were killed on the spot – together with 600 more people – on the day after their capture.

Nadia became a victim of Daesh’s horrible crime of human trafficking. But Nadia managed to escape! She told us that her jailers obliged women to pray and then brutally raped them. When she managed to escape, Nadia spoke up and told her story. She became a UN Ambassador for the dignity of the survivors of human trafficking. She is an extraordinary woman; a great example of dignity and courage.   

The terrifying fact is that these crimes were perpetrated in the name of God. But God is love and could never request His followers to perform atrocities of this kind. We must therefore separate those who pray from those who shoot. And we must uproot the destructive fury of those who, far from professing a faith, intend to take a religion hostage.  

Real religion is testimony of peace, solidarity and brotherhood. These are the sentiments that inspired the courage of Faraaz Hossain. Faraaz was a Bangladeshi university student who was killed exactly one year ago, in July 2016, in the terrible massacre of Dhaka, in which nine Italian citizens lost their lives. Unlike the two girlfriends accompanying him, Faraaz, a Muslim, knew the Qur’an and this had enabled him to escape from the fury of extremism; however, this young man chose to stay by his companions and to sacrifice his life to defend the supreme value of humanity.

It is a story that has deeply struck me. I often tell it because, as we are also reminded by the title of today’s Conference, young people can become the new players in a time of coming together, dialogue and peaceful coexistence among peoples; the new players in protecting religious communities. Indeed, this is one of the most important messages that we can convey today.

Youth must be the privileged interlocutors of our political and cultural action to safeguard religious communities and the freedom of religion. An action for which Italy has a natural inclination, thanks to our universally recognised noble tradition of promoting and defending human dignity, which is a typical trait of our humanistic culture. 

Our actions are motivated by convictions that are universal but we must not be afraid to denounce the many, far too many, acts of persecution perpetrated against Christians: abuses and discriminations that are unprecedented in the history of some regions of the world, apart from early Christianity. Only too often do we now witness attacks on churches and on innocent believers in prayer in various Countries in Africa and in the Middle East.

Very pragmatically therefore, I ask our Embassies to promptly report all the cases of negligence and violations of religious freedoms, whatever the faith involved. From today on, these cases can also be reported to the Observatory, to be adequately examined with a view to formulating practical proposals and initiatives. 

I want to emphasise this once again: the freedom of religion is an essential principle in human coexistence and in relations between States. Denying this endangers any person’s most basic individual rights but if the aggression is perpetrated against entire communities, it triggers a perverse cycle that undermines security and peace among peoples. This is what makes it part of foreign policy. 

The Foreign Ministry’s commitment is all-around: from the UN to the EU, from the OSCE to the Council of Europe and all forums of bilateral dialogue. In many Countries, we are already in the forefront with Development Cooperation projects to assure the freedom of religion. I will quote one out of the many examples possible: the supply of school materials in Iraq with a view to favouring the return of religious minorities to the Niniveh plains, especially Christians and Yazidis. Thanks to this intervention, many schools will reopen in September after being closed for more than three years because of Daesh. 

At the UN, Italy every year supports Resolutions to protect the freedom of religion or belief. We also support those initiatives that involve religious leaders in preventing incitement to hatred among young people.

Allow me to also recall that at the Taormina G7 Summit we encouraged our partners to pay more attention to the responsiveness of the most vulnerable groups to the call of extremists. And we launched a strong signal to Internet providers to put off-line the Internet of terror: that obscure space on the net that attracts and radicalises many, far too many, youths.

The places dedicated to prayer or education, such as schools and universities, the world of the media and social media, must become places in which to prevent violence and promote the values of dialogue and tolerance.   

Also the European Union can help in this strategy. In Brussels, for example, Italy has contributed in defining the “EU Guidelines on the Freedom of Religion or Belief” to orient European policies in non-EU Countries. We want religious freedom to always be reflected in the European Union’s external relations. 

At national level, thanks to the Law on denialism that I contributed to enact, today anybody committing or instigating to commit violence for reasons of race, or ethnic, national or religious belonging is punished very seriously, including with a term in prison. 

However, it is not enough to assure formal legal protection.  Even in Countries with a high level of protection of rights, there are increasing attempts to reduce the phenomenon of religion to just one of the many manifestations of merely individual choices, to be confined within people’s private sphere. 

I forcefully refuse the opinion of those who are in favour of the freedom of belief as long as it is kept “out of sight” and “practiced within the walls of one’s home”. This means denying democratic and liberal principles. Every person should be entitled to freely express his/her belief, not only through a cult but also by participating in the life of the community. 

This is another fundamental message that we must try to transmit to young people and we must do this by investing more on education. Education, more than any other action, lifts the veil of hypocrisy and teaches us to continue believing in tolerance, pushing aside all fear and hesitation.  

To this effect, let me recall the soon-to-be-established “European Academy of Religions”, promoted by the University of Bologna and the Foundation for Religious Sciences John XXIII, which has obtained the patronage of the Foreign Ministry and the support of the European Parliament with the aim of fostering interdisciplinary studies and dialogue between researchers of all faiths and cultures.

It is no coincidence that the targets of terrorist fanaticism in the world are schools, universities, cultural centres, burning books and combating knowledge: the point of a pencil is the most fearsome of enemies.

Let us face it: the road of culture is much stronger than the road of hatred and the road of peace is much more exacting than the road of violence. Terrorism can assault churches, mosques or synagogues, kill unarmed women and children united in prayer in a moment of vulnerability but it will never be able to defeat Mankind’s deepest-rooted and established values of dialogue and peace. Italy counters the “bad teachers”, who teach extremism and indifference, with a civilisation based on dialogue and culture.    

Religion is faith but, by involving Man and his relationship with God and with society, it is also culture. It is with this conviction that we defend the world’s cultural and religious heritage, as it is an extraordinary legacy to be handed down to younger generations. We cannot allow fanatics to destroy the architectural and artistic expressions of human heritage.  

In this spirit, this year Italy and France had the UN Security Council unanimously pass a Resolution on the protection of the cultural and religious heritage in areas of crisis. In that moment, I was moved at recalling the story of Khaled al-Asaad, the great archaeologist and custodian of the monuments of Palmyra who was slaughtered by Daesh.

Dear friends,

Italy, also in view of its geographical location in the middle of the Mediterranean, has an ancient vocation towards establishing a dialogue with different cultures and religions, without ever falling prey to self-referencing or sermoning others. Sicily, my homeland, got rich through important Jewish, Islamic and Christian influences that vested it with a spiritual legacy that still survives in the very traits of Mediterranean humanism.  

Our present initiative is based on these strong values, which we share with the Vatican diplomacy. And we are convinced that, in this way, we contribute to building a safer and more tolerant world. Because defending the freedom of religion means to build peace and to promote the culture of dialogue and coexistence that the international community desperately needs, now more than ever before.

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