Written by Claudia Touceira Da Silva
See also the related publication: Les relations entre le Saint-Siège et les institutions européennes : un dialogue ouvert
When visiting the Vatican in October 2013, European Parliament President Martin Schulz invited His Holiness Pope Francis to address Members during a formal sitting in Strasbourg on 25 November 2014. According to Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, this visit is not to be seen as a pastoral visit to France, but rather an official visit to the European Parliament. The visit also contributes to the dialogue between the European institutions and the religious, philosophical and non-confessional community*.
This visit is, however, not the first to the European Parliament by a spiritual leader.
Twenty six years ago, in October 1988, His Holiness Pope John Paul II was the first Pope to honour the European Parliament with a visit, at which he addressed the Members during a plenary session in the Strasbourg Chamber. Indeed, the Holy Father had already visited the European institutions in May 1985 as a part of his pastoral visit to the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium. The Presidents of the three institutions – Pierre Pflimlin, Jacques Delors and Giulio Andreotti – received His Holiness in Brussels on 20 May 1985 in the Berlaymont building. Pope John Paul II was, and still is, known for his fight against poverty, working with organisations like UNICEF, and for pursuing peace through his contribution to end communism in his native Poland and eventually in Europe. During a formal sitting, the Pope addressed the Members of Parliament, describing Europe as a ‘beacon of civilisation’. He also defended the role of Christianity in public life, stating that the Holy Seat had always encouraged the construction of the European Union. The Pope’s discourse was, rather unexpectedly, interrupted when then-Member of Parliament, Ian Paisley (NI) brandished a poster portraying the Pope as the Anti-Christ – a scene John Paul II observed with faint amusement before proceeding with his speech.
Spiritual leaders of other confessions have also chosen the European Parliament to convey messages of peace and mutual respect.
The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, visited the European Parliament in Strasbourg in June 1988, to plead for the cause of the Tibetan people, oppressed by the People’s Republic of China since 1949. The Chinese government made their opposition to such visits very clear. The Dalai Lama therefore met with members of the EP privately, at the invitation of Baroness Elles MEP. The President at the time, Lord Plumb, declared that ‘[the Dalai Lama] will not officially be received by me or be recognised in the Plenary. I have no power, of course, to stop private visits taking place, nor would I like such powers’. During this unofficial meeting in Brussels, the Dalai Lama called for the withdrawal of Chinese troops from Tibet and urged for increased Tibetan representation in the regional government. In October 1996 the Dalai Lama, joined an extraordinary joint meeting of Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Security and Defence Policy, the Committee on External Economic Relations and the Committee on Development and Cooperation, where he called for a free and independent Tibet and the preservation of its cultural identity, whilst addressing other issues concerning humanity and conveying a message of peace and tolerance. It was only in October 2001 that the European Parliament finally officially welcomed the Dalai Lama for a formal sitting in Strasbourg. President Nicole Fontaine expressed her admiration for the Dalai Lama’s tireless peaceful fight for independence for the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama stressed the hopeless situation of the Tibetan people who he felt were living a life of repression and a systematic undermining of their culture.
The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomeus I, first visited the European Parliament in April 1994. President Egon Klepsch introduced Bartholomeus to the plenary as a committed representative of social justice, fighting peacefully for reconciliation and tolerance. He also mentioned the Patriarch’s great interest in environmental preservation and protection, a cause for which he is renowned and which earned him the nickname ‘the Green Patriarch’. Bartholomeus spoke of the lack of communication between people and religions. He specifically named events in former Yugoslavia as an example of the ‘urgent need for principles of humanity and a spirit of dialogue’.
Acting on a Commission proposal, the European Parliament declared 2008 the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. Under the motto ‘Together in diversity’, this initiative was aimed at raising awareness of the importance of dialogue within and between diverse cultures. Several spiritual and cultural leaders of different faiths visited the European Parliament as a result, promoting intercultural diversity and dialogue.
In January 2008, His Eminence Ahmad Badr El Din El Hassoun, Grand Mufti of Syria, was the first to engage in a discourse of mutual respect and tolerance. Symbolising the Grand Mufti’s commitment to inter-faith dialogue, he was accompanied by Bishop Antoine Audo, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Syria. In his speech, the Grand Mufti stressed the value of culture as a unifying force, emphasising the importance of human dignity and peace between religions. Defining all religions as being one single religion, he stated that ‘there is no holy war, because a war can never be holy: it is peace that is holy’.
In September 2008, Bartholomeus I visited the Parliament once more, also in the framework of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. The Patriarch promoted the positive effects of fostering intercultural dialogues and highlighted the most important characteristic for peaceful coexistence, ‘respect for the rights of the minority within every majority’, adding that ‘when and where the rights of the minority are observed, the society will for the most part be just and tolerant’.
A couple of months later, in November 2008, Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, also visited the European Parliament. During the formal sitting the Chief Rabbi repeatedly referred to certain biblical texts, while connecting them to the political and social position of Europe. Sir Jonathan mentioned God’s call for dialogue and mutual understanding, while adding that History had proven that ‘where dialogue ends, violence begins’. He also insisted on Europe’s need for a covenant, distinguishing it from a contract, and highlighting that a covenant is a bond of loyalty, trust and collective belonging, calling it the ‘covenant of hope’.
Finally, in December 2008, the Dalai Lama once again visited the Parliament to share his views on religions and cultures. Speaking about mutual tolerance and respect, and stating that ‘every human being has a right to happiness’, he also underlined the difficulties faced by Tibetans, who are unable to live according to their culture and faith.
The European Year of Intercultural Dialogue did not bring visits from spiritual leaders alone, however.
In June 2008, Dr Asma Jahangir, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, was the first woman to address the European Parliament on religious matters. She encouraged intercultural and interreligious dialogue with the aim of promoting tolerance, respect and understanding. Dr Jahangir emphasised the need for cooperation between governments and citizens to guarantee effective interaction among religions and stated that ‘universal values should serve as a bridge between different religions and beliefs’.
If you would like more information on this topic you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.* Article 17 of the TFEU 1. The Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities in the Member States. 2. The Union equally respects the status under national law of philosophical and non-confessional organisations. 3. Recognising their identity and their specific contribution, the Union shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with these churches and organisations.