Palermo, 23 October 2017
(The authentic text is only the one actually delivered)
Mr. Mayor Leoluca Orlando,
Mr. President Salvatore Martinez,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to speak in front of so many young people today. First of all, I would like to thank all those who helped organize this important event:
-the Italian Network for Euro-Mediterranean Dialogue (RIDE-APS-Anna Lindh Foundation);
-the Observatory on religious minorities in the world and respect of religious freedom;
As you know, today and tomorrow Palermo is hosting more than 30 Government Representatives (Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Undersecretaries) and almost 300 delegates from the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe).
With its 57 member-States – in Europe, Asia and North America – the OSCE is the largest regional security organisation in the world. Its mandate covers an area that stretches from Vancouver to Vladivostok and includes over one billion people.
It will be two extremely busy days of work, aimed at strengthening the dialogue between the OSCE and the countries of the Southern Mediterranean shore, on shared and priority challenges: from the fight against terrorism to the migration crisis.
Italy is taking action to bring the two shores of the Mediterranean closer together: they are geographically close, but still too distant politically. Through dialogue, culture and the promotion of religious freedom, we want to build the ideal spans to support a sturdier diplomatic bridge between Europe and the Southern shore of the Mediterranean.
In addition to chairing the OSCE Conference, I have several bilateral meetings planned. Just this morning, I unveiled an ambitious cultural Program for the Mediterranean, which will include more than 500 events in 2018, the year in which Palermo will also be the “Italian Capital of Culture”.
Despite my busy schedule, when I was asked to speak at this Conference on “Youth, Community Identities and Religious Freedom in the Mediterranean”, I accepted wholeheartedly.
I accepted this knowing that security and stability in the Mediterranean – strategic OSCE targets – cannot be achieved without investing in young people, and without initiatives aimed at protecting fundamental freedoms, with religious freedom being first and foremost.
Religious freedom is an essential principle of human co-existence and a fundamental aspect in relations between States. Denying religious freedom undermines each person’s most basic rights; and if this aggression is perpetrated against entire communities, this triggers a wicked spiral that jeopardizes security and peace among nations.
Therefore, protecting religious freedom means safeguarding the essence of the law, which is founded on liberties that ensure peace, security and prosperity: if religious freedoms are protected by our legal systems, as well as in our daily lives, the rule of law can thrive and ensure security; if such protection is not provided, the result is conflict proliferation and protracted social and political instability.
As the Holy Father remarked: when religious freedom is transposed into laws and constitutions, and is translated into consistent behaviors, it favors the development of mutual respect between different Confessions, as well as their healthy cooperation with States and their political life.
Hence, religious freedom must be an integral part of foreign policy, since it fosters cooperation between States.
And yet religious freedom, meant as the “right to pray”, was born with mankind, long before States were established. It is an innate element of our identity, a natural right that States should not grant, but rather acknowledge as a founding element of all individuals and their membership in a community.
For this reason, I strongly reject the opinion of those who uphold religious freedom only as long as “it cannot be seen” and “is practiced inside the home”. It is a denial of democratic and liberal principles. Each person must be entitled to freely express their faith, not only when they worship, but also through their active participation in community life.
Therefore, faith is identity that nourishes our community spirit. And I would add that dialogue is more profound and fruitful, between different religions and civilizations, when it starts from well-established identity platforms. Strong identities do not hinder dialogue – they are not instruments to overpower other people’s identities – but strengthen the very reasons for dialogue.
Palermo is the perfect example of this. Its Emblem is the Quadrilingual Tombstone: a stone that is kept in the Zisa Castle, dating back to 1149, which displays the different dating systems of the world in Hebrew, Latin, Greek and Arabic. That emblem embodies the respect that all religions and peoples who lived in Sicily used to enjoy back then. In ancient times, the streets in central Palermo were also indicated in the languages spoken by the different communities. They are tangible symptoms of tolerance and co-existence between well-defined and deeply rooted peoples and religions, who have been able to engage in dialogue in Palermo.
A spirit of dialogue between different religious communities, with mutual respect and understanding, must inspire and shape foreign policy in this third millennium. Even if we live in a digital, technological and high-speed communication world, the most dire threats still come from archaic sectarian hatred and individuals who invoke God to justify the slaughter and killing of defenseless civilians.
Therefore, it is imperative to separate people who shoot from people who pray. We must pull out the roots that nourish the destructive fury of those who, far from professing their faith, actually want to hold one religion hostage; and, as people of good will know, God is love and peace. Hatred caused by terror can never be justified.
My thoughts go to Iraq in particular, where the fury of Isis has decimated the Christian population. In the Niniveh plains, Christians used to be the majority before 2003; now they are less than 20% of the overall population. Now, at last, Isis has been defeated in those lands, but the dividends of peace and reconciliation will not be reaped until dialogue between Christians, Yazidis, Shabak, Turkmen and Kurds is restored. A stronger Iraqi identity and nation can emerge from a respectful dialogue between all ethnic and religious elements in the country.
With this spirit of inclusion, I launched several new initiatives at the Italian Foreign Ministry, aimed at putting diplomacy at the service of religious freedom.
We decided to establish the Observatory on religious minorities in the world and respect of religious freedom, chaired by Prof. Salvatore Martinez. It was devised to be a monitoring and early-warning tool on violations and discrimination.
With our Embassies’ support, the Observatory has already reported the most remarkable cases and critical situations. In order to foster dialogue, the Observatory has organised meetings with the Muslim World League (Secretary-General Dr. Al-Issa), the Chaldeans (His Beatitude Louis Raphaël I Sako, Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon ), the Copts (His Beatitude Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria) and the Hindus (Hindu guru Dada P. J. Vaswani).
I would also like to mention the European Academy of Religion, sponsored by the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Sciences in Bologna, headed by Prof. Alberto Melloni, under the auspices of the Italian Foreign Ministry.
I am also pleased to announce the establishment – here in Palermo – of a Library and research center dedicated to the history and doctrines of Islam. This initiative comes from the joint efforts of the Foundation for Religious Sciences in Bologna and the Archdiocese of Palermo (with Archbishop Lorefice in the forefront). I was told that it might be dedicated to Giorgio La Pira, a Sicilian man who was in love with dialogue. La Pira’s words still ring true today: he used to define the Mediterranean as “a larger Lake Tiberias”. It is a small sea, a lake, around which the fate of world peace, security and freedom still play out.
For this reason, since our fate is in the Mediterranean, we also trust in the renewed efforts of the Italian Network for Euro-Mediterranean Dialogue, whose new leading organization in Italy is the Anna Lindh Foundation, headed by Mr. Enrico Molinaro.
I trust in all these wonderful expressions of our society and have great trust in you, young people: in your remarkable ability to dream, imagine, plan and build a better future; and to promote a culture of dialogue and co-existence that the international community sorely needs – now more than ever.