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Thursday, 27 June 2019 19:24

CRPME Special Report | No.5 | 2nd Athens International Conference on Religious and Cultural Pluralism & Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East

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crpme report 5Executive Summary

The objective of this report is to highlight the main themes featured in the speeches of the participants of the 2nd Athens International Conference on “Religious and Cultural Pluralism and Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East”, which took place from 30 to 31 October 2017. The conference aimed at overviewing main features and developments of religious pluralism in the Middle East in the past two years and proposed positive initiatives to promote religious coexistence and pluralism in the region.

Among the points raised were the following five:

1. Review of the Status of Religious Pluralism in the Middle East

The participants of the conference emphasized the fact that despite the Islamic State’s projected defeat, the situation for religious communities in the region remains volatile. It was stressed that religion is being exploited by certain groups in order to perpetrate violence. However, these actions have little to do with religion itself, but are rather a product of misguided understanding or the pursuit of political objectives. Christians and Yazidis have been especially affected by persecution. They have been victims of genocide and the destruction of their cultural and religious heritage. Nonetheless, the participants stressed the importance of equally taking into account the fate of the Baha’i, Jewish and Muslim communities, which have also experienced a massive uprooting from their homelands and taken to looking for refuge in Europe or elsewhere.

2. Counter-Radicalisation

Conditions and ideologies that gave rise to an expression of religious extremism such as the Islamic State are still very much in existence. Therefore, the participants of the conference agreed that it is of utmost importance to demonstrate a commitment to address the root causes of radicalisation and its underlying ideas and beliefs, by implementing suitable initiatives and policies. It has been noted that the focus should be placed on youth, and that education is at the core of effective counter-radicalisation strategies. More inclusive approaches to education, emphasizing universal human values and instilling the necessity for mutual respect in an interconnected world, should be employed. Alongside education, it is equally important to address socio-economic issues, due to the fact that a lack of prospects will render disenchanted youth in the region vulnerable to extremist ideas. Another point that has been raised in this context is the need for Western societies to re-evaluate their perception of the Middle East and the Muslim World in order to tackle islamophobia, which is an obstacle to mutual trust-building.

3. Media and Religious Discourse

Particular importance has been attributed to the question how hate speech and incitement to violence via the media can be combatted. The conference participants stressed the need for a responsible use of the media, especially of modern forms such as social media, in order to establish a pluralistic discourse and foster a culture of tolerance. It has been mentioned repeatedly that religious leaders play a pivotal role in this context. By proactively addressing hateful commentary, debunking inaccurate information about religious teachings, avoiding divisive rhetoric and cultivating a climate of tolerance, these issues can be effectively tackled. In terms of legislative measures, there has been a call for the imposition of penalties for inciting violence against religious groups and hate speech.

4. The Preservation of Cultural Heritage

In addition, the issue of the destruction and illegal trafficking of the cultural heritage of religious communities has been raised. The conference highlighted the need for initiatives aimed at rebuilding and restoring religious monuments and places of worship that have fallen victim to devastation. The significance of religious cultural heritage was identified as being essentially twofold: Firstly, the material cultural heritage associated with religious communities is a visible testament to their role in shaping the society of their countries of residence. Secondly, its preservation serves to welcome back those who have fled from persecution, for without the infrastructure to practice their faith the exodus of members of religious communities from certain areas is likely to be an irreversible one.

5. International Interfaith and Interreligious Endeavours

Intercultural and interreligious dialogue was identified by the conference participants as being the most appropriate means for the rapprochement between different religious communities and for bridge-building between them. It has been mentioned that religious leaders should actively take part in existing interfaith dialogue initiatives and the promotion of new ones, and that honest dialogue is the key to more extensive cooperation, the fostering of mutual understanding, the promotion of social cohesion and the prevention of religious extremism.


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