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Speech of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, N. Kotzias, at the opening of the proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on “Religious and Cultural Pluralism and Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East” (Athens, 30-31 October 2017)
Mr. President of the Hellenic Republic,
Your All Holiness,
Your Excellencies Political Leaders,
Dear University Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I thank all of you for accepting our invitation and coming to Athens again, in order to discuss what has happened over the past two years and what we can do to protect, support, and contribute to the defence and development of cultural and religious pluralism in the region of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.
1. In the two years that have passed since our first conference, we have been able to expand the audience and actions concerning this issue. More and more fora, institutions and specialized organizations have turned their attention to this topic. But in all frankness, I must note that major organizations active in the region have yet to take action and have not shown sufficient willingness to intervene to protect the cultural and religious communities in the aforementioned regions. As a rule, even when they take one action or another for the protection of one community or another, the most important thing escapes them: the trend towards loss of the pluralism in the region.
The UN is making certain efforts, but it has not yet formulated and adopted a comprehensive plan. The EU approach is even more problematic. Human rights issues are getting more and more attention from the EU, and there are repeated references to and interventions on this issue. But as a rule, this is happening with regard to certain selected states and specific persons and minorities, rather than with regard to the whole of the region and, specifically, the religious and cultural communities. It isn’t that the EU isn’t interested in human rights, but that this specific issue that we are addressing here has fallen off its radar.
So I propose that, in 2018, we submit a special resolution to the UN and to the Commission on Human Rights, and that we introduce into EU texts the topics we will be looking at today and tomorrow.
I also propose that, with your assistance, we further strengthen the “Centre for Religious Pluralism in the Middle East,” our observatory, which is headed by the distinguished Arabist professor Sotiris Roussos. The purpose of the CRPME is to examine the communities we are referring to at our conference – as to their living conditions, the conditions under which they perform their religious duties, and their cultural freedoms – to disseminate information through a special portal, to publish the observatory’s quarterly reports, which I hope everyone is receiving in digital form – otherwise you can submit email addresses where the materials can be sent – and to carry on the spirit of our conference; that is, osmosis and better mutual understanding among the political and religious leaders, the academic communities and NGOs active in the region, through regular meetings and joint actions.
2. Between the previous and present phase, the Greek side proposed the co-hosting of the international conference with other states, such as Austria and the United Arab Emirates. Some steps were taken in the effort towards joint preparation of the conference, but I wouldn’t say they were sufficient. I hope that this initiative will gain interest and that will take on a more standardized nature. Any proposal or request is welcome.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Respected Leaders,
3. Much has happened since our previous meeting that we need to bear in mind. Acts of violence against smaller and less secure communities in the Middle East have multiplied over the past two years. But at the same time positive reports are increasing. The so-called Caliphate has lost its territory and its state-like institutional manifestations. It lost regions where arms were produced and gathered, many training camps, multiple sources of revenue, especially from the sale of raw materials, energy and cultural assets that are part of the heritage of the peoples of the region and of all humanity. Of course, along with this positive development, all indications are that the rivalries in the region, between powers who live in it and, more so, powers outside the region are increasing.
Today the conflicts in the region no longer concern just Israeli-Palestinian relations, the need to safeguard the security of the former and create a Palestinian state, but also the relations between a number of other states. This fact underscores the need for positive, creative and pacifist initiatives in our region, against fanaticism and a mindset that, rather than using history as a school, looks on history exclusively as a prison.
4. During the period that has elapsed since our last meeting, human endurance has been taken to its limits. In the war in Syria alone, we had over 450,000 dead and 12 to 13 million people who lost their homes. Wars that were started in the name of human rights destroyed human lives. That is why we, the Greeks, underscore at every international meeting that two very interesting elements can be seen in the wars in Syria and Iraq:
a) One group of people is deciding to go to war, and others are paying for these wars. One group of people is carrying out the bombings, and others are the victims: the refugees, the countries and regions struggling to deal with the refugee issue, and the millions of migrants.
We are talking about a region that must be relieved of fear and insecurity. The feeling that there is no future in that region, especially for the younger generations.
b) and more importantly, in order to defend human rights, one must first of all – and above all – safeguard human life. Without human life, you cannot have human rights. Safeguarding the former takes precedence over the latter. The former is a higher creation from which the latter derives.
With this in mind, in the spring of 2016 we moved ahead towards the shaping of a security and stability structure for the Eastern Mediterranean, and we are preparing for the third meeting in the summer of 2018. A structure in which 12 Arab states, two international Arab organizations and seven European states are participating: A conference of 21. At this conference we are promoting joint actions based on a positive agenda for creating networks and cooperation systems in all sectors. Don’t forget that the south-east European space and today’s Arab world have been a space of common culture and economy, trade and actions for 5,000 years now. One has only to visit the new museum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to ascertain this.
The region of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East is not a region that has known only violence, wars and harsh conflicts, as has been the case during our lives, but, on the contrary, it was a region that gave birth to great civilizations and all of the major monotheistic religions of the western world. Of the nine states participating in the Ancient Civilizations Forum, states whose civilizations and cultures are still resonant today and have great influence, five are from this region of south-east Europe and the Middle East. This region was the birthplace of great civilizations, such as those of Mesopotamia, Iran, Egypt, the Greek and Roman civilizations, as well as those of Byzantium and the Arab world in general. It is in this region that writing systems were developed and the beginnings of the science and culture of the Western World were preserved.
Many have tried to eradicate this history. Most barbarically of all, the jihadists who did not respect humanity’s cultural heritage. The destruction of this heritage was on the front line of their ideology, and illegal sale of this heritage their first practice of choice. We are being called upon to defend this heritage and ensure that, together with the people, it returns to where it was born and reproduced.
5. Culture and religion tell us and teach us what cannot be put into words. What is in the soul, deep in people’s conscious and unconscious minds. They endeavour to bring humankind close to goodness and to protect them from barbarity and evil. Fanatics tried to use culture and religion to rescue evil and destroy human achievements. This was based on the invocation of the divine. But fanaticism itself was presented as divine. The effort to transform the church and religion from something through which humanity endeavours to seek and communicate with the transcendent, into a broadsword for committing crimes against those who do not accept the fanatics as having the monopoly on the voice of their lord.
6. The extremists in the region perpetrated crimes against humanity. Against religious communities. Against our common cultural heritage. They violated values and rights, they destroyed historical memories and historic monuments. But, as I often say, history will respond to them in a decisive manner. Crimes against humanity must not be forgiven, and nor will they be forgiven.
In our region, we must fight for respect for difference, especially with regard to the various religious groups. We need to plan how their return to their homes will be secured, and not how, in the name of the social machine, certain groups will be excluded based on religious and cultural criteria. We need to defend the diversity of our region, which has achieved the pluralism that many in the west dream of, as a goal of modernity, for thousands of years now.
We need to support those forces that, following the defeat of the jihadists, are not looking to settle accounts or replace geopolitical spheres of influence with spheres of influence in churches and cultural communities. We need to support the efforts of the Iraqi government, and in particular those of Egypt in favour of the Coptic Christians, based on the policy of its president and the provisions of the country’s constitution. Communities’ property and historical places of worship need to be respected in other countries – particularly the property and places of worship of the Palestinians, the Jews, the Alevis, and of the many Christian communities that have existed since antiquity. There needs to be respect for who built which place of worship, which monument expresses one or another culture, as well as multiple cultures. Religions and cultures must live in peace, as a starting point for ensuring a permanent and creative peaceful relationship among everyone. The necessary new projects for repairing and extending infrastructure, large and small, must be carried out.
It is also urgent that we talk about how we will protect the monuments in the Middle East. How we will organize their return and care. How we will avert their being bought and sold in third countries. We need to explain to all of humanity that the destruction of so many religious and cultural monuments, and even more so of so many communities, is an irremediable loss for all of humanity.
7. In this context, we have formulated and propose two workshops at our international conference.
- The first concerns the role of leaders, of religious leaders in particular, in reintegrating the refugees, migrants and displaced groups returning to their homes, even if those homes have been destroyed. It concerns their role in the reconstruction of these homes with the help of political leaders and the international community.
- The second concerns the cooperation of leaders and religious and cultural communities with the mass media and social media.
8. Greece has taken on an important role in the region. It is the country with the strongest historical and cultural ties with the region. A beacon of security and stability. Its five trilateral initiatives in the region, together with Cyprus, the “Spirit of Rhodes” for the new security structures, the global initiative for the living/vibrant ancient civilizations, and the present initiative, as well as the cooperation of the seven Euromed states, are the cornerstone of our policy in the region.
Greece was and is the country that has for thousands of years supported respect for difference, tolerance among religions and cultures, creative exchange of their achievements, one’s teaching the other.
I would like to thank all of the present leaders and representatives of governments, cultures and churches, and first of all His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece. I am greatly honoured by the presence of the leading figures of the Catholic Church, Judaism, the Muslim world – in particular the Grand Mufti of Cairo. They have my heartfelt thanks.
Our very warm thanks, from those of us at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to the President of the Hellenic Republic, who always takes care of us and takes us under the wings of his great patriotic personage. We thank him.
And I want to express special thanks to the country’s Prime Minister for the support he gives, generously and in a creative spirit, to Greek foreign policy, as well as for the fact that he will attend our dinner this evening.
Special thanks to the president of the Hellenic Parliament for the luncheon he is hosting for us.
Last but not least, I thank the team at my office and that of the Deputy Minister, Mr. Amanatidis, the Protocol Department and the Directorate for Arab Countries and the Middle East for the major project they once again carried out with success.
I thank everyone and bow to you.