Opening Remarks by Minister Soini at the Seminar on Religious Freedom

Opening Remarks by Minister Soini at the Seminar on Religious Freedom

Opening Remarks by Mr. Timo Soini, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland. Seminar on Religious Freedom - Protecting Religious Minorities. Helsinki 21 May 2016.

Check against delivery

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear participants,

It is a great honor to open this event. I am pleased so many of you have been able to join us today.  I welcome His Eminence, Cardinal Peter Turkson, to Finland. We are honored that you will give a key note speech at this seminar today. I also welcome Archbishop Kari Mäkinen to this seminar.

Religion should be seen in a context of the larger social and political dynamics of societies. Here in Finland religion and church have traditionally played an important role in everyday life but also in public life.

Religious minorities have lived for a long time in our country. In recent decades the Finnish society has become increasingly diverse. Almost a century ago the Constitution Act of 1919 guaranteed all Finnish citizens the right to practice their religion in public and in private. So Finland is well placed to have a profile in interfaith dialogue between different religions.

When we speak about religion, we speak about something that is both very personal and at the same time something public. I have personally given a lot of thought to religion and my own faith. Being a catholic in Finland also gives me an insight to being a member of a religious minority in my own country.

We tend to fear the unknown. Therefore it is important to know each other and also each other’s religion and beliefs. In our secular society we also often forget how central role religion can have in a society.

We need to have a better understanding of religions and their meaning in societies in order to analyze also extremism and sectarian factions within religions. Religion needs to be considered also when we look for solutions to some of the extremely complicated conflicts of our time.

Today's discussion will focus on minority religions and rights to practice one’s own religion.

When looking at many current conflicts, it is difficult to avoid the discussion on religion's role in them. Ethnic and political considerations are too often mixed up with religious messages. Religion is often being used to hide the real reasons and to try falsely legitimize undemocratic and violent behavior, in most extreme cases even terrorism. The potential positive power of religions can in the worst case remain totally neglected.

I am deeply concerned about the increasing instances of religious intolerance, discrimination and violence in many countries. We have to continue actively promoting and protecting everyone’s freedom of religion or belief. It is positive that several significant declarations regarding freedom of religion or belief have been agreed upon in recent years. One step in this path is the Marrakesh Declaration, written in January 2016. This declaration was signed by 250 Muslim participants who agreed defending the rights of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries.

Human rights are universal and belong to everyone. We have rights and we also have to respect human rights of others.

Freedom of religion is a key human right that is solidly inscribed in many international agreements. It is crucially important to make sure that all persons – no matter where they live - can practice their religion or belief in peace.

It is essential that we political leaders and also religious leaders condemn loud and clear any kind of persecution of religious minorities around the world. Every state must fulfill her legal obligation to uphold the right to freedom of religion and belief. This right includes the freedom to change one’s religious conviction or not to have one at all.

Many studies clearly show that societies that guarantee religious freedom are generally more prosperous and stable.

In the essence, religions should rather be used to build bridges than to destroy them. True teachings of religions include forgiveness, justice and compassion. We must not treat each other as different or inferior. We have to aim at strengthening universally binding human rights for all. This creates enabling environment also for solving conflicts.

Religious leaders – by showing their example – can play an important role for their part to foster tolerance. When it comes to conflict resolution and mediation, religious and traditional leaders have until now not been fully utilized. They often have unique entry points to local communities and different sides of the conflict. They may also have access to parties that might not normally be seen as negotiating parties, but might have a crucial role to promote tolerance and understanding between communities in finding sustainable solutions - also in protecting religious freedom and religious minorities.

I was in Washington last week. There the United States and the Nordic countries confirmed our common intention to engage religious and traditional leaders in mediation efforts. I also had a chance to talk about the role of religions in conflict resolution. There is a lot going on in this field, for example in Syria there are projects which bring together different religious groups.

When involving religious and traditional leaders to mediation processes, it is important to stress the participation of women throughout the processes. Also participation of the youth must be kept in mind.

Mediation and support to dialogues between cultures and religions is one of my foreign policy priorities. Finland is one of the founders and the main donor of the global Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers. The network´s link to the United Nations and other international organizations is crucial. The Network has established itself well. For instance it has already supported national-level peace processes in selected countries, such as Central African Republic and South Sudan, and national to regional-level processes in Asia.

Another excellent example in Finland is the National Forum for Cooperation of Religions in Finland - CORE. It brings together three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The forum's purpose is to foster peace in the Finnish society in the spirit of strengthening religious freedom and through promotion of inter-religious dialogue, equality, mutual respect and cooperation. CORE aims to create an understanding of religions as a positive resource rather than a source of conflict in society.

We have to remember that any acts of peace - or acts of violence and hatred on the other hand - derive first from individual human beings. The task of upholding religious freedom does not fall to governments or major religions alone. Everybody has the responsibility to facilitate mutual understanding and tolerance, including through legislative measures. We should find ways to reach those who are most opposed to our kind of encounters.

I hope this seminar will bring you not only knowledge, but also inspiration and new ideas for your work as well as new professional networks. I wish you all interesting and inspiring discussions.