CONFERENCE ON PEACE IN TIRANA, ALBANIA

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Introductory note by Metropolitan Athanasios of Achaia

moderating a panel on “Religion and Violence” in Tirana, Albania,

at an international meeting on Peace organized by the Community of Sant’ Egidio,

September 7, 2015.

First, allow me to congratulate the organizers of this meeting for bringing together religious leaders to let their voice sound an alarm about hatred and violent acts committed in the name of religion. This international meeting organized by the Community of Sant’ Egidio is a plausible element of the international initiative to promote peace and reconciliation in the world. For many consecutive years it gives religious and other leaders the opportunity to get to know each other and to express their collective support for peaceful, inclusive societies. It is a cause of great importance today to build bridges of understanding and cooperation among communities. It is the noble mission of religious leaders to encourage others to open their hearts to those of different backgrounds or beliefs and to commit themselves to safeguarding the rights of all religious communities, in particular minority communities. This meeting makes manifest the will of many to strive for dialogue, mutual respect and a life of dignity for all.  

I would like to underscore that it is a challenge for religious leaders to formulate their arguments around a firm will to encourage all to go beyond the notion of tolerance or simply acknowledging or abiding the existence of the other.  No one wants to be merely tolerated, as if there is something wrong with them. Tolerance must be more active and dynamic. It means reaching out to those who are different from us.  It means recognizing that we can teach by learning from one another.  We can gain by sharing with one another. By seeking to know more about others, we grow more ourselves. It is of urgent importance to convince as many as possible that by welcoming communities and ideas into our own, through exchange and enrichment, societies become greater than the sum of their parts.

At this point, let me refer to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s address to the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions which met in Astana, Kazakhstan, on June 10, 2015. That meeting had as a theme: “Promoting Dialogue for Peace and Prosperity in Turbulent Times”. On that occasion the UN Secretary General reiterated the affirmation that “crimes committed in the name of religion are crimes against religion”. He also remarked that “it is not religion that causes violence.  It is individuals who choose to espouse violence, wrongfully and cynically invoking faith in doing so”.

On this particular point, it is worth mentioning that almost a year ago Karen Armstrong published a book entitled “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (Deckle Edge, October 28, 2014).The well-known scholar noted that the slaughter of the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars, the American civil war, the opium wars, the first world war, the Armenian genocide, Stalin's great purge, the second world war and the Holocaust had little to do with religion. Indeed, much of it was explicitly antireligious. So, she asks, how on earth have we ended up with the idea in, for example, the comments readers leave on news websites – that religion above all is to blame for human violence? In her bookKaren Armstrong sets out to discover the truth about religion and violence in each of the world’s great traditions, taking us on a journey from prehistoric times to the present.At a certain point in her bookArmstrong refers to the atrocities committed by the Islamic State. She acknowledges the fact that theology motivates its actions. That theology derives from the Qur'an. Surely, in a narrow sense, this is religious violence. However, Armstrong argues, it represents a grossly mutated version of a doctrine that survives in much of the world in its original form as a stabilizing, communitarian practice. She notes that environmental stress accelerates mutation in the natural world. The faith communities subjected to the most stress over the past two centuries are those of Middle Eastern and sub-continental Islam. Armstrong sets out in grim detail that its members have endured colonization, the expropriation of land, authoritarian rule and military occupation. However, none of these facts is to excuse the revolting acts of Islamic State fanatics. It is true that the tendency for attempts to explain and understand atrocious acts of violence cannot be taken as acts of apology. Such attempts would be deeply frustrating. But it is also important to abide by the facts taught by history. The urge to blame others is strong, and old. The first step towards extirpating evil is to acknowledge it. In this practice it is important to cultivate and preserve a spirit of sensitive understanding.

The global security landscape continues to shift dramatically. A diffused feeling of fear and insecurity seems to be growing. The scourge of violence in the name of religion calls for concerted action by Governments, religious communities, responsible individuals, civil society and the media.  Women and men, older or younger, often bear the brunt of violent ideologies. They are subject to systemic abuse, killing, rape and kidnapping.  We must ask and explore:  how can religious leaders inspire and build a stronger platform as a means of advancing respect for the human person, changing mindsets and shifting global consciousness? In times of turmoil, religious leaders can provide a values-based glue to hold communities together and provide common ground for peacemaking and problem solving. They can do so by fostering dialogue; by using spiritual authority to encourage individuals to act humanely; and by promoting shared values as reflected in the teachings of all world religions. Their noble mission is to teach their followers the true meaning of reconciliation, understanding and mutual respect. Religious leaders have an obligation to speak out when so-called adherents of their faith commit crimes in its name.

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