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Speech by Patriarch Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch at the KAICIID Athens Conference: “Religion, Cultural Pluralism and Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East”

03 September 2015

Interreligious dialogue has the potential and power to transform our world. We Christians advance – as a principle of our faith and a way of life – the importance of communication with our fellow citizens of good will, of respect for each person without discrimination, and of support for freedom of religion and belief. The harmonious and long coexistence of the monotheistic religions in the region of the Middle East over many centuries is itself proof that love and understanding can overcome political and other problems, inasmuch as religion was never an obstacle to but only a means of promoting cross cultural development and enrichment.

Religion, then, is a perennial and even inevitable factor in both conflict and conflict resolution. To transform the conflicts that beset our world today, we need to uncover the various nuances of peace within the diverse religious and cultural traditions, while seeking a common ground among them. Our challenge is to honour the diversity of humanistic and spiritual traditions in the Middle East. The United Nations Declarations of 1981 and 1993 on Religious Intolerance are a solid guide on how to apply these values to the crisis that we face.

In promoting ideals and values held in the highest esteem, religion profoundly influences goal-seeking behaviour in conflict situations. Viewed from a religious perspective, conflicts are interpreted not only as ruptures in relationships among human beings, but also as ruptures in one’s vertical relationship with the divine. In the name of God, some groups commit horrible crimes, resulting in a vast humanitarian crisis, cultural and religious destruction, as well as a hatred that affects the image of religion.  The manipulation of religion in the name of terrorism is a tragic phenomenon that should be accurately labeled and studied.

Therefore, we call on religious leaders to establish an adequate “religion crisis management framework” in connection with the United Nations Resolutions. Otherwise, the lack of structures and mechanisms may favor terrorist organizations and support violence and religious fanaticism. When it comes to crises involving religion, the implementation of diplomacy must be handled with care and in cooperation with religious leaders. This is why we believe that interreligious and intercultural dialogue is the key to any crisis resolution. Dialogue helps common understanding and promotes solidarity.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate long ago established an Interreligious Dialogue with the other two monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam. In the preparation process for the Holy and Great Council, the First Pre-Conciliar Pan Orthodox Conference (1976) expressed its desire to collaborate in a spirit of mutual understanding with other religions in order to wipe out religious fanaticism and establish religious understanding. This was affirmed in the Declaration of the Third Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference (Chambésy, 1986) on “The contribution of the local Orthodox Churches to the realization of peace, justice, freedom, fraternity and love between nations, and the removal of racial and other discriminations.”

Thus, the Ecumenical Patriarchate firmly supports interreligious dialogue. From the Declaration of Athens this past September, adopted by the conference entitled “United Against Violence in the Name of Religion: Supporting the Citizenship Rights of Christians, Muslims, and Other Religious and Ethnic Groups in the Middle East,” which was co-organized by the intergovernmental KAICIID Dialogue Centre and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, we quote a distinctive paragraph:

The expanding conflict in the Middle East threatens religious and cultural diversity in this region. It also undermines peaceful coexistence among citizens of the region, including Christians, Muslims, and other religious and ethnic groups. Hundreds of thousands of Christians, Muslims and other religious and ethnic groups are subjected to brutal violence and horrific torment. … [Yet, all this] harms the image of our religions. These crimes destroy fellowship between the followers of diverse religions, and among followers of the same faith. Our religions call for peace and coexistence. These are core values of our religions.

Therefore, in addressing the Middle East and world political and religious leaders, we implore them to be involved in peaceful coexistence among the various religious traditions, and we declare our solidarity with the victims of discrimination and persecution – the innocent casualties of violence and war as well as the countless refugees obliged to leave their homes and nations.

Greece is the principal country that welcomes many of those refugees, going to great efforts to meet their growing needs. In total, some 750,000 refugees entered the European Union in the first nine months in 2015. The UN refugee agency said early this month that refugee and migrant arrivals in Greece are soon expected to reach 400,000. Greece remains by far the largest single entry point for refugees.

The continuing high rate of arrivals underlines the need for a swift and efficient implementation of Europe’s relocation programme, as well as the establishment of appropriate facilities to receive and register, as well as screen and assist these refugees. The presidents of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) and the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE) met in Munich last month (on September 18th) and reaffirmed the churches’ solidarity with those attempting to reach safety in Europe.


The plight of all those suffering in the Middle East, including the region’s embattled Christians remains at the forefront of both our prayers and our ongoing advocacy with the European Institutions. Those who enter Europe, must not be afraid to drown or suffocate. And they must get a fair asylum process. These are minimum standards, which must apply throughout Europe.

Our Church does not interfere in politics. Politics belongs to others. However, problems related to basic sociological principles cannot leave the Church indifferent, particularly when the dignity and freedom of human beings created “in the image of God” and the preservation of God’s creation are affected.

This point of protecting God’s creation tends to be undermined or overlooked under the pressure of the political, social and economic problems in the Middle East. Yet, such an attitude is incorrect and dangerous. For we believe that religion is directly linked to the protection of human life and the natural environment. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is deeply concerned about the ecological crisis and actively involved in environmental preservation. It is regrettable that people exploit whatever is financially valuable while expressing indifference for the spiritual value of creation.

During their Synaxis of 2011, the Primates of the Orthodox Churches of the area of the Middle East supported the proposal of the Ecumenical Patriarchate for the assembly of religious leaders in the region in order together to sign an ecological “Mediterranean Charter.” We would like once again to propose such a charter today so that religion may contribute to peaceful coexistence and cooperation of all people in the region, with the involvement and dialogue of all disciplines, including science and technology, law and economics, as well as ethics and politics.

Our hope is that the younger generation will overcome the problems of the past. Young religious leaders are more conciliatory and capable of working toward peace and religious tolerance. Our world is changing for the better and we are confident that a peaceful coexistence of religions will be achieved in the near future. Our world can no longer tolerate religious discrimination or religious violence.

The first and most important step in this process should be education. For education is the basis for the formation of the human personality; thus, it can literally change the world. Our schools can shape children’s appreciation and respect for human rights, religious freedom and freedom of thought.

Furthermore, the Middle East needs to be transformed through a continuous effort for mutual understanding. This communication can be achieved by modern technology, especially through social media. It is increasingly clear that the ever-growing dominance of social media is bringing religion back into the daily lives of people, while challenging religions to revise notions of communication.

It is worth referring to KAICIID’s Forum in Amman, Jordan, this past September to develop innovative strategies to counter extremism on social media. Participants from religious communities, civil society and interreligious organizations across the Middle East met last September 11-14, 2015, to develop new strategies for adopting social media to promote dialogue between diverse worldviews, cultures and religions. In this respect, we must place greater hope and confidence in the younger generation.

We are certain that the distinguished representatives and adherents of the world’s religions, who are participating in this Conference, strongly support peaceful coexistence and cooperation among religions of the Middle East. Our goal is not any syncretistic integration of faiths, but the cooperation of all believers as human beings.

We pray wholeheartedly that the peace of God may descend upon the hearts of all people. When this happens, then peace will emerge in our world and the purpose of this Conference will be fulfilled. May God’s peace touch and transform the whole world. Amen.