-- Translation of advance text --
My dear colleague, Anne Sipiläinen,
Ladies and gentlemen,
What an impressive sight! We welcome people from all over the world every day here at the Federal Foreign Office, but even in this cosmopolitan place, we do not often see such great diversity and so many different religious robes and habits.
I am delighted to welcome you to the Federal Foreign Office today. Thank you very much indeed for making the long journey to Berlin – be it from India, China, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia or Bangladesh. We are deeply honoured by the trust you have shown in us by coming here.
I am particularly happy that we are holding this international conference with our friends from Finland. Anna Sipiläinen, Undersecretary of State for Foreign and Security Policy, Europe; Russia and Central Asia, is here with us today. Many thanks for coming here, Ms Sipiläinen!
Your approach for quite some time now in Finland has been to work closely with religious representatives. Your experience and expertise were very important to us when we were planning this event. This conference shows that we can and must learn from and with each other in Europe – and in doing so, that we can take new paths together.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We see great diversity represented here in this room, but we are united by a major shared goal – to create peace.
At least I am not aware of any religion that does not aspire to foster peace and to spread values such as reconciliation, humanity and justice.
At the same time, we are witnessing how religion is being used to justify terror, violence and oppression all over the world. We all know this dark side of religion when religious strength turns into blind fanaticism and faith becomes delusional. We all know how religion is exploited by some to incite political conflicts and to demean, marginalise and persecute other religions or ethnicities.
Looking at the headlines from around the world, one is almost tempted to ask whether religion really fosters peace or is more a source of division in our societies.
I am certain that the answer is obvious to all of us in this room. We all firmly believe that religions, regardless of which god we believe in, have a very special responsibility for promoting peaceful coexistence, social justice, respect and tolerance.
Eighty percent of the world’s population belongs to a religion. Religions shape the lives of individuals and societies, and their message reaches many people across national and continental borders. Religious representatives often enjoy great respect and trust. They are highly influential in their societies. We want to use, promote and expand this positive side of religions, this valuable gift of peace. And that is why religions are crucial strategic partners for us as foreign ministries in our efforts to foster peace.
I am also saying this from a profound personal conviction, as I myself am religious and have worked for many years in the church council of the Protestant Church in my native region of northern Hesse. When you are appointed Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office, you don’t simply leave your faith at the door the way you leave a coat in the cloakroom. As a politician, I continue to be responsible for my church.
That doesn’t mean that I practise politics with the Bible in my hand. In Germany, the state has traditionally taken a neutral stance as regards world views. The separation of church and state has been laid down in our constitution since 1919. The state and church are separate areas, but they work together and are responsible for each other. And that brings us back to the conference topic!
The second cornerstone of our model is freedom of religion, which is protected by our Basic Law. The freedom to believe or not believe, to change one’s religion, or not to belong to any religion is of fundamental importance to us. No one has the right to force others to practise a certain religion or way of life.
But for us here in Germany, it is also clear that if people deny others’ humanity in the name of a religion or incite other followers of their religion to violence, hatred and intolerance, then the state cannot, indeed may not, remain neutral. No religion can be above our laws and constitution.
There is no room for anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of discrimination and marginalisation in our open and liberal society – and not in the name of any religion either. Religion must never be allowed to be a smoke screen for fanaticism.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We here in this room firmly believe in the power of religions to foster peace. And that is why we want to talk and work with you. That doesn’t mean there is no scope for criticism. Far from it. As the German and Finnish foreign ministries, we are keen to have you as constructive and reliable long-term partners.
In May 2017, we held the first international conference here at the Federal Foreign Office for religious representatives from North and West Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
In December 2017, we held an event in New York with the United Nations and Religions for Peace on the peace process in Colombia and the role of the Catholic Church in the country.
Today, we are expanding our horizons even further to take in South, Southeast and East Asia. While the Abrahamic religions were primarily represented at our first conference last year, this group has now been fundamentally expanded to include Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism and Taoism. This conference is a big step for us. Your ways of thinking and acting may well be new and unusual for many of us. That is why we are very interested to hear what you have to say!
The huge continent of Asia, which comprises a large number of nations, is not only unique because of the very wide range of religions to which it has been home for so long, but also because of the long-standing tradition of peaceful coexistence and interfaith tolerance in many Asian countries.
However, we have also seen recently how religion is increasingly being exploited in Asia, as in other parts of the world. Peaceful and moderate Islam is coming under ever greater pressure in Southeast Asia. Religious representatives have even been calling for violence. Religiously motivated violence against religious minorities is on the rise. Just recently, Christians were attacked by Muslim extremists during a church service in Indonesia.
The German Government condemns this misuse of religion in the strongest possible terms. These are serious violations of human rights.
In Myanmar, for example, the situation in Rakhine is being exploited by ultranationalist monks under the pretext of religion, and side by side with the powerful military, to sow hatred between the different ethnic groups. There will be an event on this topic tomorrow afternoon at the German Council on Foreign Relations with some of our guests from the region.
Asia certainly provides enough material for discussion, so this conference comes at the right time. We need to look – not look away. We want to empower those who work for peaceful coexistence between all religions, treat members of other religions with respect and actively seek to foster interfaith dialogue. We also want to encourage you to use your respective religious backgrounds to build bridges and serve as ambassadors for peace.
We invite you to address four topics over the next three days – topics we believe are particularly important and worth discussing.
The first topic is mediation by religious representatives. One example of this work is Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Myanmar, who unfortunately cannot be here with us today. He is one of the best-known activists for human rights, freedom of religion, interfaith harmony and peace. Last year, he organised the first interfaith peace conference in Yangon. Over 200 religious representatives, members of political parties, diplomats and staff from local organisations attended this event to discuss religions’ endeavours to foster peace.
The second topic is religion and the media. In Malaysia, the International Forum on Buddhist-Muslim Relations has set itself the goal of serving as a platform for initiatives to improve coexistence. It wants to focus on social media, with the aim of spreading positive messages and promoting coexistence. We will discuss these and other examples in a working group on religion in the media and public discourse.
The third topic is peace education. Once again, I would like to mention just one example of many, the Walpola Rahula Institute for Buddhist Studies in Sri Lanka, which supports critical discourses and practices on the basis of Buddha’s teachings, with the aim of bringing about a non-violent society. It organises training and education programmes based on Buddhist approaches to conflict resolution.
Religious and peace education are key areas in which many of the participants of our conference are role models. For this reason, today and tomorrow we will explore how religions and peace education can work together.
Fourthly, and finally, a recent study showed that the chance of lasting peace rises significantly in societies when women are actively involved in the peace process. Organisations such as Religions for Peace seek to bring about equal opportunities and gender equality for women in Asia. We also want to address this topic during the conference.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I hope that this will be a successful conference for you and us all. I hope it will inspire and encourage us and lay the foundations for relations based on mutual trust and future cooperation. Our aims are to provide a space for constructive and critical exchange, to hear your views and to learn about the projects you are working on. It would be fantastic if you could talk with one another and return home safely with many good ideas. May our meeting in Berlin reflect the spirit of tolerance, respect and reconciliation! Thank you for your trust.
And once again, a warm welcome to Berlin!