Athens, October 14, 2015/ Independent Balkan News Agency
By Spiros Sideris
Athens International Conference on the coexistence of religions / cultures in the Middle East (Athens, 18-20 October 2015)
When on February 9, 2015 the Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias put vigorously to the EU Foreign Ministers Council the need for concerted action to protect Christian populations, cultural heritage and multiculturalism in general in the Middle East from the deadly threat of the Islamic state, few could predict the impact and range the Greek initiative would have.
Yet, with the onset of the Greek initiative, the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs received at the same Council of Ministers the promise of the EU High Representative on foreign policy and defense, Ms. Federica Mogherini, for immediate examination of a program to protect Christian communities in the Middle East. In March of the same year, France took the matter to the UN Security Council and organized a ministerial conference in September in Paris on ethnic and religious violence in the Middle East.
Now, this first cycle of actions for the sensitization and mobilization of the international community on the major issue of the protection of multi religiousness and multiculturalism of the Middle East ends with an international conference where the initiative was born: in Athens.
“Another Conference,” some will say. Yet it is not so. Never before, simultaneously, have participants of such high level and quality from the political, religious and academic world and from civil society, sat around the same table to discuss this very critical issue.
Is this unprecedented versatility and the high quality of the composition of participants that give the International Conference in Athens its unique character.
It is also true that Greece is perhaps the only country that could have achieved this: utilizing historical and traditionally excellent ties with all the countries and peoples of the region, Athens dynamically intervenes in a thorny issue, offering good services and mediation in finding effective solutions to the problems faced by cultural and religious communities in the region.
It is no coincidence that the Greek Foreign Minister reiterated the policy statements of the government, on which it has insisted from the outset: “The country, despite its economic weakness, has an extremely good geopolitical location and a great historical and cultural heritage in which it enjoys much larger power than in the economy currently because the country has developed relationships of trust and good neighbourliness, because the country bases its foreign policy on three principles, three instruments: negotiation, consultation, arbitration … We help sides with different views or interests on the international scene to meet and discuss with our help. That, firstly, gives us a long expertise in the international system and second, makes us useful in this whole system. It makes us a part of the solution and not part of the problem. ”
The International Athens Conference exemplifies this strategy.
An International Conference that has managed to bring to the same table the Patriarchs and all the heads of Christian churches in the Middle East, with religious leaders and personalities of the Muslim and Jewish world as well as Foreign Ministers and distinguished representatives of international politics, academia and civil society of over 40 countries!
The list of participants is really impressive, both at ecclesiastical and political level. Indicatively, the following are mentioned: the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the leaders of the Patriarchates of Alexandria (Theodore), Antioch (John), Jerusalem (Theophilus), the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Hieronymus, the Archbishops of Cyprus (Chrysostom), Albania (Anastasios) and USA (Demetrios), Chief Rabbi Dr. David Rosen, the Grand Mufti of Egypt (Dr. Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam), the Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow, Metropolitan Hilarion, the Primate Patriarch of the Armenian Patriarchate of the Great House of Cilicia Aram Kishishian, “the Foreign Minister “- head of international relations of the Vatican, Paul Richard Gallagher, the Foreign Ministers of Iraq (Ibrahim al-Jaafari), Egypt (Sameh Shoukry), Cyprus (I.Kasoulidis), the Special Envoy of the Secretary General of the UN for Syria Staffan de Mistura, the Secretary-General of the World Muslim Youth Dr. Salih bin Sulaiman Awahibi, the Governor of the Kurdish regions of Iraq Farhad Atroushi etc.
The International Conference of Athens will first make an assessment of both the current tragic situation facing not only the Christian, but various religious, cultural and ethnic communities in many parts of the Middle East, and international initiatives for the protection of communities and their cultural heritage. Then the discussion will focus on the role religious leaders can play in conflict prevention and the consolidation of peaceful coexistence of communities by promoting the protection of pluralism and human and civil rights. Finally, the International Conference of Athens will examine ways of collective action by the international community in the future to protect all communities and build a sustainable development plan for the entire Middle East – especially in areas that are destroyed on a daily basis from the hatred of jihadism.
At the heart of all debates at the International Conference of Athens is the realization of a very great truth, directly connected with the refugee / immigration crisis: the final overcoming of the crisis in the Middle East requires the sustainable conservation of the presence of all communities there. And sustainable presence without acceptance by all of coexistence with everyone is not possible. This message, however obvious or simplistic as it sounds, unfortunately it is not. It needs to be cultivated persistently and systematically in all the peoples of the Middle East and the participants in the International Conference may be the best of multipliers.
All this might sound grand when weapons are talking at the same time together with untold violence and blind fanaticism. However, sustainable and peaceful coexistence in the Middle East tomorrow requires dialogue, “sprouts” of cooperation and collective movements starting today. Greece historically “counts” in the region and Athens is prepared to make the most of its very good name mediating where and when it can for peace and prosperity of the wider neighbourhood, serving both the national and the wider international interest.