|Archbishop Demetrios of America addresses the speakers and participants at the European Parliament. (Photos by D. Panagos)|
An historic international religious freedom conference held at the European Parliament, November 16-17, focused on common issues of minorities living in Turkey. The Conference proposed solutions in the hopes that Turkey will ultimately do what is in its own best interest in order to gain accession to the European Union by dramatically improving its religious freedom policies towards the Ecumenical Patriarchate and other religious minorities.
The two-day symposium, entitled, “Religious Freedom: Turkey’s Bridge to the European Union,” brought together over thirty renowned scholars, religious freedom and human rights advocates, journalists, diplomats, parliamentarians, religious leaders, representatives of the Government of Turkey, lawyers and members of minority communities. They presented complex, diverse and contrasting viewpoints and perspectives on the status of religious freedom in Turkey to nearly two-hundred participants from across the United States, Turkey and Europe.
A welcoming reception held at the Conrad Brussels Hotel on Nov. 15 provided an opportunity for speakers and participants to become acquainted with one another. George C. Rockas, Esq., conference chairman, greeted speakers and participants and recognized all those whose efforts made the conference possible.
Remarks were also given by Pammakaristos Brotherhood President Odysseus Sassayiannis, saying, “The right of religious freedom, as a basic element of human rights, is more than tolerance. Any discrimination of people due to their religion, violates fundamental rights. Religious freedom doesn’t contradict the truth of religious conviction. It opens a peaceful way of living faith in our pluralistic world. Religious freedom doesn’t mean relativism or syncretism. It rather promotes relation and synergism. It underlines and recognizes the importance of religious faith for human existence and coexistence.” (Read the full remarks)
Christopher Stratakis, Esq., Archon Legal Counselor, introduced His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America as the Keynote speaker who delivered his address speaking about how this Conference can constitute an ‘open door’ for Turkey and can offer the example of St. Paul who at crucial times of his ministry was presented by God with an open door, explaining that “An open door is a new opportunity for entering into unknown areas of human experience, for discovering new possibilities for enhancing human relationships, for learning new ways of co-existence among religiously, culturally, and ethnically diversified people. An open door is an entryway into a new era of understanding and mutual respect between the religious minorities and the state in which they live. An open door can also be viewed as a new opportunity for eliminating the unacceptable limitations of religious freedom unfairly imposed upon the religious minorities in Turkey and specifically on the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Under this perspective, the present International Conference so carefully and methodically organized by the Archons of our Ecumenical Patriarchate constitutes the open door for Turkey to demonstrate her willingness to build the bridge of connection with the European Union.” (Read the full keynote address)Day one of the conference, entitled “The Bridge” commenced at the European Parliament, coordinated by Archon Rockas and assisted by Archon John Zavitsanos. Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, director of the Liaison Office of the Orthodox Church to the European Union, delivered the salutations of His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who emphasized that “for our part, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is committed to the cause of religious freedom for all peoples around the world, without exception and without prejudice. For if the freedom to express one’s faith in the Divine, even as respect for differing views is abrogated in any way, then we must assert that we are not truly free. Whether of the Abrahamic faiths or the other great traditions of the world’s religions, it is only in our free and fully human response to God that the possibility to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24) truly exists.” (Read the full Patriarchal Exhortation)
National Commander Anthony J. Limberakis, MD addressed participants explaining how “religious freedom is experienced in reality only by a small minority of the world’s population, while so many people take it for granted.” Limberakis quoted various examples where religious freedom is enshrined in the Torah, the Great Gospels and Epistles and the Qur’an. (Read the full welcoming address)
A series of speakers on a variety of topics relating to religious freedom and human rights ensued. Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, spoke about religious freedom as a fundamental human right stating, “the litmus test of democracy is how the majority treats the minority.” Several speakers presented an overview of the issues and concerns of the Religious minorities in Turkey. A panel discussion that followed featured representatives of the religious minorities of Alevi Muslims, Armenians, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Protestants and Syriacs in Turkey. Other topics included the Turkish legal system as it pertains to the rights of religious minorities, the obligations of Turkey under treaties and conventions, the U.S. Policy vis-à-vis religious freedom and a second panel discussion offering legal and humanitarian perspectives on the issues.
Among the speakers was Egemen Bağiş, Minister for European Union Affairs and Chief Negotiator of the Republic of Turkey. The Archons, commending him for his efforts on behalf of religious minorities in Turkey, presented him with a commemorative plaque.
The first day concluded with a VIP reception at the U.S. Embassy hosted by Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman and his wife. Day two of the conference entitled “Crossing Over,” was held at the Conrad Brussels Hotel and included views from the Turkish side, from the European Parliamentarian’s side and from the side of the European Court of Human Rights. It explored issues of interfaith understanding and of compatibility of religious freedom and the secular Turkish state. A final panel discussed all the questions previously raised and attempted to propose answers and a framework for the dialogue going forward.
National Commander Limberakis in his closing remarks said, “…it was an extraordinary event of lasting significance… a civil, respectful and spiritual discourse” noting the diversity of the religious communities included in the Conference. He concluded saying, “It seems only fitting that such bridges should be built, not merely over the Bosporus to join Europe and Asia, but between hearts and minds, between kindred and diverse spirits, beginning with us.” (Read the full closing remarks)
The conference concluded with a grand banquet at the Hilton Brussels Hotel. Archbishop Demetrios of America made a special presentation, on behalf of the Archons, to their Spiritual Advisor Fr. Alex Karloutsos on the occasion of his 40th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood, and also to His Eminence Metropolitan Panteleimon of Brussels, who hosted the conference in his diocese. Special recognition was given to His Grace Bishop Athenagoras of Sinope for leading participants to various places of historical significance in Bruges and Ghent.
The conference was sponsored by the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in America and the Pammakaristos Brotherhood of Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Europe, in cooperation with the Patriarchal Liaison Office of the Orthodox Church to the European Union.
Additional information including speeches, news, speaker biographies, photos, and a link to daily blog entries provided by the Orthodox Christian Network (OCN) can be found on the Archons website at: archons.org/conference