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November 28, 2001

First seminar of its kind brings Members of Parliament together with international experts to explore impact of religious diversity on policy making in an enlarged EU.

BRUSSELS—At the first seminar of its kind held at the European Parliament, Members of Parliament met today with international experts to explore the role of religion in international policy making.  The dialogue takes place at a time when religious institutions are increasingly interested in participating in policy debates within Europe even as the positions of some religious institutions are at odds with the values that form a European consensus on critical issues.  This is particularly relevant for women’ s rights, gay rights, sexuality and reproduction.

“After September 11th, and the subsequent rise in religious intolerance, no one will deny the importance of religion in international politics,” stated Lousewies van der Laan, Member of Parliament for The Netherlands and a host of the meeting.  “With the upcoming enlargement of the European Union, diversity will increase and so will the impact of religious differences on the debate.  It is high time we had an open discussion about these issues.”

The need for such a meeting became even clearer when leaders of the Roman Catholic church leveled harsh criticism at the Charter of Fundamental Rights adopted by the European Union last December.  At the time, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, a close aide to the pope, said the charter failed to take adequate account of the “historical and cultural roots of Europe, in particular Christianity, which represents Europe’s soul and which still today can inspire Europe’s mission and identity.”  In March of this year, Cardinal Ratzinger, the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that it was regrettable that “God and our responsibility before God” had not been “anchored in the European constitution.”

A key speaker at the event, Frances Kissling, President of Catholics for a Free Choice, stated, “Having experienced the desire of the Holy See for a privileged place in the United Nations, we are increasingly concerned that the Vatican is seeking similar privileges and power within the European Union.  Before that happens, Members of Parliament need to consider developing guidelines for the appropriate role of religious institutions within the European Union.  This seminar serves as a starting point for the development of these policies.”  Representatives of the Vatican were invited to participate in the seminar but, unfortunately, no one was able to attend.

Other speakers who described religion’s impact on policy and people’s lives included Anissa Helie, Director, Women Living under Muslim Law, who has said:

In the vanguard of repression are so-called “religious fundamentalists.” But in the Women Living Under Muslim Laws Network, we maintain that “fundamentalism” is not a return to the ‘fundamentals’ of any given religion. We believe that “fundamentalists” are extreme-right political forces seeking to obtain or maintain political power through manipulation of religion and religious beliefs, as well as other ethnic, culturally-based identities. And the rise of “fundamentalism” is a global phenomenon, which affects not just Islam but all major religions.  

Cecile Richards, former Director of the Texas Interfaith Network, discussed the effectiveness of the Christian Right in the United States, raising the question if these same tactics can be used within the enlarged EU.

Imma Battaglia, President of the Italian Gay Rights Movement and organizer of Rome World Gay Pride, 2000, spoke of Vatican opposition to gay and lesbian rights.  The Vatican has claimed the European Charter of Fundamental Rights would cause moral and social harm by sanctioning homosexual couples.  Cardinal Ratzinger was quoted as saying that the European Charter, by promoting the rights of homosexuals, had “departed from the beaten track followed by the moral history of humanity,” and that he believes the “West is injuring itself and this can only be classified as pathological.”

The seminar was particularly timely given current debate in the European Parliament over these and other compelling issues.  A co-host of the seminar, MEP Sarah Ludford from the United Kingdom, stated that “since I believe in secular politics, I believe that religious organizations should keep to the private sphere and should not have an institutional role in public decision-making. I particularly oppose the efforts of religious groups to control moral issues at the European level, such as stem cell research and euthanasia.”

“The main question is:  Do we want ‘true believers’ of any religion to use the power of the state to force their ideas and prejudices on others?” asked Joke Swiebel, MEP from the Netherlands and a host of the seminar.

Along with MEPs van der Laan and Swiebel, Elly Plooij-van Gorsel, MEP from the Netherlands, was a host of the event.  Co-hosts represented nearly every party at the European Parliament and included:  Emma Bonino, Radicals, Italy; Ozan Ceyhun, PSE, Germany; Cecilia Malmström, ELDR, Sweden; Anna Karamanou, PSE,Greece; Sarah Ludford, ELDR, United Kingdom; Heide Rühle, VERTS-ALE, Germany; Gianfranco Dell’Alba, Radicals, Italy; Kathleen van Brempt, PSE, Belgium.

The organizing of the seminar has already inspired continuing activities that will focus on the role of religion in European politics.  A report on the seminar will be produced and disseminated to all interested parties.  Members of Parliament plan to establish a network to deal with the role of religious institutions within the EU.  A similar network of NGOs will also be established.  In addition, Muslim colleagues in the Parliament and other NGOs are planning to organize an open discussion about the role of Islam in international policy.

Emma Bonino, MEP from Italy and a co-host of the event, concluded that, “The secularization of politics is the only way to build a tolerant world where everyone can co-exist peacefully.”