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I am delighted to inaugurate this event, and I wish to thank all the participants. Minister Nasser Judeh was so kind and generous as to agree to co-chair the meeting. Your availability, dear Nasser, further confirms Jordan’s sensitivity to the question of promoting tolerance and interreligious dialogue.
We have the honor to have with us three exceptionally authoritative and experienced keynote speakers: The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay; the Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova; and the United Nations Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect, Adama Dieng.
My warm greetings also to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Malta, Tonio Borg; the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Slovenia, Karl Erjavec; the Vice Chancellor and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria, Michael Spindelegger; the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Senegal, Alioune Badara Cissé; the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Croatia, Vesna Pusić; Senior Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and Minister of State for Faith and Communities of the United Kingdom, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi; and the Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland, Grazyna Maria Bernatowicz. My cordial welcome also to the other government representatives and parliamentary delegations: your assiduous collaboration and your constant encouragement are crucial to the success of our common action.
Today’s event is particularly important to me. I am reminded of the words of an Italian Catholic partisan, Primo Mazzolari, who rightly defined freedom as “the air that religion breathes.” Only in a free environment can true faith grow and prosper – regardless of how a person defines his or her personal relationship to God.
It is my hope that today’s meeting will kindle new ideas, and help to define a more effective strategy to raise standards of respect for human rights and freedom of belief. This is one of the reasons I am pleased to see so many authoritative representatives of civil society here today. The NGOs and Associations are the main protagonists of this event: without your wide-ranging work every day, it would be impossible to put into practice our programs and ideas.
Through today’s event we wish to strengthen the shared commitment of international organizations, governments, political forces and civil society to advance universal values of civility. It is a global necessity that regards not only specific areas of the world or single religious groups. This universal approach is reflected in the presence today of personalities and NGOs from a variety of geographic areas, representatives of different religions, and groups of secular and non-confessional inspiration.
Before giving the floor to Minister Judeh, allow me to outline some basic concepts:
1. History has taught us that the protection of freedom of religion and the spread of principles of tolerance are fundamental to safeguarding peace and security. When freedom of religion is forcibly oppressed, the premises are created for rebellion and instability. The unacceptable violations that have taken place in recent weeks in various parts of the world provide tragic confirmation of this. Raising tensions and igniting conflicts is the goal of those who offend religious sensitivities. But in so doing, they offend the peaceful principles of the same religious doctrines they claim as inspiration. Our commitment should thus be to unmask the falsehoods of fundamentalists and extremists. We can do this through increased efforts at dialogue and concrete responses, devised not only by governments but with the grassroots contribution of civil society and NGOs.
2. Intercultural communication: we need to build more advanced forms of coordination on human rights, starting at the United Nations. The European Union perceives this clearly, as demonstrated by the adoption of the Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy, the approval of a human rights action plan, and the appointment of a Special Representative on human rights.
3. The problems of religious minorities deserve our full attention. The theory based on the concept of freedom of religion as an individual right should be reconciled with the protection of religious communities as a whole. Individual members of these communities feel that they belong to a whole, follow the teachings of a spiritual guide, and ultimately consider themselves the prime victims of any attack on their community. I therefore hope the upcoming resolutions of the General Assembly will reflect this reality and strike the ideal balance between the resolution promoted by the European Union and the initiative of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as it did at the UNGA66.
4. Intolerance, hatred, and the ensuing conflicts are often rooted in ignorance. Human rights education and training to spread and promote the values of tolerance and peaceful coexistence are thus a decisive challenge, as the EU foreign ministers have recently reiterated. The future of humanity is built through training and education, areas in which non-governmental organizations and associations have an essential role to play, also through targeted forms of assistance to the most vulnerable categories. Governments must, however, guarantee the conditions for implementing training projects. This is why, last year, the General Assembly – at the proposal of some Countries, including Italy – approved the first United Nations Declaration on this subject, which sanctions fundamental principles that we hope will be reflected in a future Convention.
5. Intercultural dialogue, mutual understanding and coexistence between peoples, cultures and religions are not a utopia: they are a necessary policy in a globalized world as well as an essential instrument of preventive diplomacy. If we ignore this, we will be contributing to the development of unhealthy individualisms that are intolerant of diversity and will lead in the long term to the breakup of our societies.
6. Last but not least, the courage of government institutions. We are ready to generously help the neediest Countries, but we need to figure out how to incentivize those who are most committed to building democratic societies. Last December the General Assembly adopted an EU-proposed resolution on freedom of religion, recalling the duty of every state to exercise due vigilance in preventing and punishing discrimination and violence toward religious minorities. The same happened last March at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. But our memories are still fresh with the shocking images of atrocities committed by terrorists: massacres perpetuated against believers at their most holy places, against the faithful while they were gathered in prayer. This is why we must have the courage to link development assistance with respect for human rights, and convey to beneficiary Countries the message that the protection of religious freedom is an absolute, fundamental value in all our relations.
Allow me to conclude with a story told by the Noble Peace Laureate, Wangari Maathai. In one of her last interviews before dying, she recalled a traditional African fable I find very touching. The Lion King escapes from a forest fire, together with all the other animals. As he runs, he comes across a hummingbird flying in the opposite direction, toward the fire, and yells at him: “What do you think you’re doing?” And the hummingbird says, “I’m trying to put out the flames.” The Lion laughs at the bird and asks, “With a single drop of water in your beak?” Without stopping, the hummingbird replies, “I’m doing my part.”
In a world that is increasingly interdependent, taking responsibility for others, and for their specificity and freedom, is a global moral duty but also a vital necessity for peace and security. Each of us, in our own small way, is called upon to do our part, always and everywhere. And we are called on to do it here, today, through this event.
My best wishes for your work.