Earlier this week, I found myself in a strange place.
For one thing, it was in Luxembourg – an astonishingly beautiful former fortress city turned sleepy capital of the metals-rich Great Duchy, a country of around half a million people who speak three languages – Lëtzebuergesh, French and German.
Secondly, the event was taking place in the former Neumünster Abbey. As a reminder of the dramatic story of European secularization, we were told that the monks had been “chased out” (killed?) during the French Revolution, then Napoleon instituted there a prison, which was later turned into Prussian barracks and then back into prison that functioned until Nazi times. In recent decades, it was turned into a cultural and conference center.
The event itself had a long name. Clearly, the people who coined it had never worked for a newspaper, let alone a news website. Or, perhaps, the diplomats from the Council of Europe had to satisfy many conflicting interests in the elaboration process, as is always the case with international organizations.
So, the two-day gathering was called – brace up --“2011 Council of Europe Exchange on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue. Media, Beliefs and Religions – The role of the media in fostering intercultural dialogue, tolerance and mutual understanding: freedom of expression of the media and respect towards cultural and religious diversity.”
Sigh… I have to admit, I have mixed feelings about the event.
On the one hand, the meeting was as verbose as its title, with courtesy formulas and ideological proclamations by far outweighing the concrete thoughts and proposals. It was hardly a dialogue: people usually had something to say but in most cases did not appear to be listening. Convened to discuss the role of media, it had very few journalists present and not a single major European media institution – be it the BBC, Reuters,. Le Monde, ARD, The International Herald Tribune, or Frankfuter Allgemeine Zeitung, all of which, I am certain, have very professional religion reporters and editors, was there. Twitter, Google or Facebook, for that matter, were also absent.
The theme of Islam in Europe was the elephant in the room, but there were very few Muslims among the one hundred or so participants. The ones who were there were not the types who usually create problems for other religious communities or society at large. In the English-speaking discussion group where I ended up sitting, a colorful British rabbi who coordinates a Jewish-Muslim group in his country assumed the role of a spokesman for Muslim concerns. An ultra-modern female Muslim religion scholar from France, at the same time, was picked as women’s rights advocate.
On the other hand, some notable things were said and, I am sure, everybody left with some sort of a new experience of meeting the others. There was an excellent report by a French lawyer who reviewed the cases in the European Court of Human Rights examining the clashes between the freedom of expression and freedom of religion. It was fascinating to learn that, contrary to the common perception in the traditionalist religious circles, who see the human rights establishment as a threat to their integrity, the European Court of Human Rights has passed more verdicts in favor of freedom of religion than in favor of freedom of expression. A lecture on new media was pretty useful for everybody. And the discussion, once it took off, was quite lively. The clash was – and was meant to be -- not among various religions, but between the religious and secularist minds. The human rights ideology was meant to serve as the basis for dialogue. But it too showed the signs of a religion in the minds and hearts of the believers. “I believe in human rights,” proclaimed as her creed a pretty young diplomat from Poland.
We, the invited experts, were asked how the Council of Europe could help improve the media coverage of religious matters. My suggestion was quite obvious: training workshops on religious diversity that would be organized for journalists by media professionals – not by religious establishment, but that would include visits to various houses of worship and have representatives of religious communities as guest speakers. Istanbul would have been a great place for such workshops. Hegumen Philip Ryabykh, the Moscow Patriarchate representative with the Council of Europe, suggested drawing up an ethical code for media coverage of religion. Tamara Chergoleishvili, editor of Tabula Magazine from Tbilisi, Georgia, proposed that the Council of Europe creates a sort of press complaints commission and lists publications deemed bigots.
Where it is ultimately going to lead, is an open question. Old timers say that the very existence of this forum – the Exchange on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue – is a huge move in the policy of the Council of Europe, the organization of 47 countries promoting human rights and democracy. But the bureaucracy is rigid. “Just several years ago, the Council of Europe was against such a dialogue, because it stood on the extreme secularist position,” Hegumen Ryabykh said. “It is difficult to make it work; it requires a serious change of approach.” Yet for four years now, this mechanism, which brings together the top Council of Europe officials, religious leaders and experts from around Europe, functions, however grudgingly. “We are still a bunch of monologues,” one ambassador to the Council of Europe told me in a private conversation. “We are far from being a real dialogue or a polylogue yet. But we are moving in that direction.”
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