Religious leaders meet with EU to weigh situation in the Middle East

17 January, 2024

Photo: LWF/Albin Hillert
Photo: LWF/Albin Hillert

Religious leaders met with the EU on 19 December to discuss the war in the Middle East and its impact on the European Union.

Archbishop Emeritus Dr Antje Jackelén from the Church of Sweden represented the Conference of European Churches during the special high-level meeting.

Jackelén offered her reflections to the meeting, which drew Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders together with EU policymakers.

The vice president of the EU Commission, Margaritis Schinas, clearly underlined the importance of consulting with religious leaders. “There was a major concern related to Europe facing unprecedented levels of hate based on religion and racism—hate that has nothing to do with genuine religious belief but instead uses religion as a force,” explained Jackelén. “The EU position also emphasised the need to protect civilians.”

In addition, the EU prioritised the protection of holy sites as well as promoting peaceful coexistence and protection of traditions.

“Everybody around the table agreed that this is not a religious conflict in essence but that religion plays a role,” said Jackelén. “Generally the situation looks quite dark.”

Through its initiative Pathways to Peace, CEC is addressing the role of religion in conflict, with the aim to promote peace and reconciliation in the region.

Towards a positive discourse

During the meeting, EU leaders and religious leaders agreed that the current situation is worsened by the undermining of international law.

“There seems to be no short-term solution,” said Jackelén. “There was an appeal to European religious leaders to use the fact that they have some geographical distance from the area but also have links to the area, and using those links to play a role.” As a follow-up, a meeting gathering religious leaders from Europe and from the Middle East should be organised.

The EU urged religious leaders to go public with today’s positive discourse of religious tolerance and understanding.

“There was also a plea to address anti-Semitism and hatred of Islam simultaneously in Europe,” said Jackelén. “We know from history that demonisation of the other always leads to violence.”

“The topic of education resurfaced several times during the conversation,” said Jackelén. “The rise of hate in the EU is marked by growing polarisation of public opinion.”

At times, social media fosters a culture of polarisation and black-and-white thinking, she added. “It was mentioned that the EU must improve control of hate speech and we talked about what kinds of mechanisms they have in place, such as the Digital Services Act,” she said.

The consideration of human rights was key during discussions at the meeting, and remains a crucial question as the war in Gaza continues, said Jackelén.

“The question is out there: how many Palestinian lives are enough to avenge 1,200 Israeli lives?” she asked. “This is a decisive time for churches and for religious leaders, especially the Abrahamic religions.”

Jackelén believes that inter-religious relationships need to be visible in the public space. “If Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders can publicly talk together, if there are iconic pictures out there showing religious leaders together, working for peace and the common good, that would help toward bridging the divides. There are so many wonderful people out there who really stand up for humanitarian values.”

Dialogue with European Political Institutions

Pathways to Peace

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