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G. Terzi – M. Spindelegger: “Freedom of religion, defending the community” (Avvenire)

Defending freedom of religion is at the heart of the defence of human rights, and central to the values of the European Union. A defence that will be strengthened by the Nobel Peace Prize received yesterday and which will be at the centre of the new guidelines on freedom of belief that the EU’s diplomatic service, working on behalf of the 27 member states, is currently drafting.

A crucial topic that was the focus of a conference in Brussels entitled “Conflict Prevention and Human Rights. What role for the new EU Guidelines on freedom of religion or belief?” organised by the Austrian Foreign Ministry and a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Key participants were Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi and his colleague, the Austrian Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor, Michael Spindelegger (People’s Party).

Italy plays a leading role in defending religious freedom the world over, and is keeping a close watch on the massacres of Christians in Nigeria and Kenya, the ethnic-religious conflicts in the Indian sub-continent, and the difficult situation in Pakistan and Egypt. Austria is one of our country’s closest allies; indeed a new centre for inter-faith dialogue has just been opened in Vienna. Avvenire interviewed both ministers, along with the Viennese newspaper Der Standard.

“The Nobel Prize”, said Terzi, “is an extraordinary recognition of the EU’s relevance, at the global level, and its contribution to peace and security. I would say that human rights are not just an essential pillar of the EU’s foreign and security policy, they are also a fundamental value for public opinion – not just for governments. And when we speak of human rights, we are also speaking of the question of religious freedom, which is an essential component of those rights. The Nobel Prize represents a commitment for the EU to redouble its efforts in defence of these rights throughout the world”.

“I agree”, added Spindelegger. “The Nobel gives us the motivation, and the mandate, to be even more active in this sphere”.

What is the reason for this focus on freedom of religion?

Terzi: “It’s clear. What’s at stake is the protection of the individual in terms of what they think, believe or do not believe, a protection that is a cornerstone of any legislation on human rights. Italy is pressing for the concept of protecting freedom of belief to be extended to that of community. In other words: when a church, a mosque, a synagogue or a building belonging to any other religion is set alight, an entire community feels endangered, as does each of its members”.

What are the principal fronts on which the EU must act?

Terzi: “In Africa, certainly. North Africa, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent too. The places, in other words, with the highest number of inter-ethnic clashes, often triggered on religious grounds. Here, we’re convinced that the steps already taken by Italy – a rapid alert mechanism and an extensive data-collection system – should also be applied at EU level”.

Given that we’re talking of “guidelines”, what type of actions do you view as most important?

Terzi: “Here it is European foreign policy itself that comes into play. I can assure you that there is not one single meeting, one single high-level political discussion – especially in the countries that are shaping their new institutions, and their new constitutions, for example the countries of the Arab Spring – where my European colleagues and I do not raise the question of human rights and freedom of belief. It is a constant, and one that must be strengthened”.

Spindelegger: “I’d like to add the importance of promoting and supporting inter-faith dialogue. In the new centre for inter-faith dialogue in Vienna, I have invited the Archbishop of Abuja and the Sultan of Sokoto (ed. note: Nigerian) to discuss their different points of view. That’s what we need to do. If we then speak about these experiences when we visit other countries, we’ll attract much more attention, and lead people to reflect on the best way forward”.

More and more believers are saying, even in Europe, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to live their faith in public…

Terzi: “You’re right, and here we can see how some of the EU’s efforts must take the form, even in Europe itself, of a campaign to defend religious freedom, as well as freedom in general. A campaign where not just governments, but the media and major think tanks, must also play a key role. Because the fact that many believers in Europe are afraid to profess their beliefs in public is a highly negative factor for our societies – one that ends up affecting human rights and the fundamental freedoms”.

Spindelegger: “In Europe, we’re losing our awareness that religion is a very important element of people’s lives, even here in our own ‘home’. It is an element that we must, rather, re-discover”.