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Welcome everybody and thank you very much for being here.
For some of you I have to say thank you for being here, again, because we met a few months ago and I know you have been helping us in these last years – and I will say something about the process that has led us here. With many of you, we have worked hand in hand to shape this new initiative and this new project, that I am proud to launch today together.
There is a reason why we wanted to have you here today with us. If you look around the room, you will see one thing that strikes the most and that is an incredibly diverse group of people. With diversity of our societies, I think it is quite correct to manage to also represent diversity whenever we are shaping and launching an initiative like this.
Some of you work with NGOs, some are from governments and others represent religious communities and institutions. You have come from near and some of you have come from very far away, and all continents are represented in this room.
Most of you have an impressive and long-standing experience in this field. Some of you are probably not used to big international conferences like this one might be, or to engaging with governments and institutions. I want to thank you all for coming, and most of all, for trusting us and for engaging with us in this common work and challenge we have embarked upon.
Among you, there are secular and religious people, representatives of great organisations and very small – even tiny - NGOs, but all of you have something in common: you are all showing, with your daily work and lives, that coexistence is possible. It is what you want and what you live. You are all working to make our societies more inclusive and more just for all.
You heard it in the video. Religion has to be part of the solution. But most importantly: I believe in so many places around the world, religion is already part of the solution.
In all continents, there are people of faith who have chosen the path of respect and coexistence – not in spite of their faith, but because of their faith. Likewise, in all continents there are secular people who recognise and understand the need to engage with all dimensions of society - none excluded and that includes religion – in the same spirit of respect and as part of one human family. We need to connect as human beings first and foremost.
There is such immense human capital in all our societies. There are so many good stories that too often go unheard. Because clearly social media but also mainstream media tend to focus on the bad news. What makes the headline is when something goes wrong. But the good stories, the good news, the good people that around the world are working on a daily basis to improve things, hardly make the news and hardly make their voices heard. This is the silent majority that you just heard about.
The reason why we asked you to join us today, in the previous months and in the coming months and years, is that we want to amplify these voices and good stories. You hold the key to making your societies and our societies a better place. You are doing this already.
In some of your countries, there is a history of respect and coexistence that you are preserving and rediscovering, nourishing somehow. In other cases, you are exploring innovative ways of coming together and bridging all sorts of divides. It is true, we are living in times where divides seem to grow and become even more relevant in our societies.
Our job as European institutions is not to teach you how to do what you are already doing so amazingly. But we can invest in people like you. We can help you make your voices heard, and show the way to others who share your passion, your ideas, your values, your experiences.
Let me tell you something about the path that has led us to this conference today and to the launch of this programme most importantly. Because this is not just a conference, this is the beginning of a journey we are doing together. For me personally, it was an idea I had some three years ago. I was in Indonesia, in Jakarta. I had a meeting with civil society and religious communities working to preserve their own society as an inclusive and respectful place for everyone – no matter what religious or ethnic background they had.
I realised in that moment that there was so much to learn from those people and there was so much that could have been shared with not only people working in the institutions, but most importantly with people working on the same kind of challenges across the world. I am glad that some of them are here with us today – some of the very same people who I met three years ago in Indonesia.
It took us a bit of time to work on the project but finally we made it, also because it was a completely innovative field of action. Because normally you deal with religion in societies on the domestic side of policies, but mixing and matching that with our foreign policy has opened new doors, avenues and paths for our institutions as well.
In a difficult world like ours, I believe - and I realised that perfectly well three years ago - that we have the responsibility to invest and preserve these positive experiences, and when possible, to help these seeds grow into something bigger to allow others to have access to this wisdom and experience.
The idea was never to ask you to do something for us. But on the contrary, for once we have asked what we could do for you, what we could do to empower you even more.
This is why we started working with the Lokahi Foundation who have helped us go from theory to practice, also with the financial support of the Foreign Policy Instrument. I would like to thank the team for their amazing work. You have put together an incredible group of people from the most diverse backgrounds, who have helped us shape this new initiative that by being innovative was somehow experimenting new forms of working, already in the making of the project.
After over two years of work, we have come up with something that we, as the European Union, have never done before. This is the Global Exchange on Religion in Society. It is a sort of Erasmus for civil society actors and activists who are working on faith and social inclusion.
People like you will have the chance to visit a relevant country for a short period of time, learn from the reality on the ground first and foremost, and also learn from peers coming to join you from all around the world.
We have chosen to set up this new exchange for two reasons. First of all, we want to connect and empower people like you. We want to connect you because, as I heard from some of you a few months ago, you do not just share the same challenges in different countries. But sometimes you share the same approach to solutions to those challenges. Because it is so important to share ideas on how to solve issues that you see emerging in your societies. Because we know that all countries are different but there is so much that we all have in common as human beings.
Listening to each other's stories, understanding realities that might look far away, can also give us ideas on what we could do on the ground in our countries, all around the world. We want to connect the positive experiences inside Europe from those all around the world, knowing that all of you, all of us, have something to teach and something to learn. The more you share the more you get, and this is the principle at the basis of this programme. Coming together make you stronger and this is the sense of what we are embarking on.
We also want to empower you – connecting and empowering – in very practical ways that we discussed together with a group with some of you in June, to give you specific trainings, with new skills, and potentially with some assistance when you will go back to your countries and your daily work - ways in which we can support the work after the exchanges are finished.
The exchanges are actually never finished because as the Erasmus programme teaches us, an exchange last forever because the connexions you make during that time, creates connexions that last over decades and sometimes over your entire life. Connect and empower. The idea of such a Global Exchange is also something that touches deeper issues and elements of the times we are living in and the policies we want to put in place.
Because we live in a moment of the history of the world when coexistence and respect cannot be taken for granted any longer. Actually, if we look back in times, we can hardly remember a time when coexistence was to be given for granted. I do not think we have a golden age to go back to, but we have to find ways in which we can invest in coexistence and respect – I do not like that much the word "tolerance" that implies a negative sense – but I think that respect is the key to recognising differences without being afraid of them, and being open to accepting the others as he or she is.
How do we build coexistence and respect in the world of today?
Certain societies are becoming more diverse than they have ever been, and some people – some of them rightly so - do not have the instruments to deal with that, do not know how to cope with that. That becomes then a problem in society, sometime even a political problem. Other societies, with a longer history of diversity and coexistence, are experiencing today new tensions, new challenges, new divides. How can religion in society help bridging diversity, and help building coexistence?
It feels like we all need to relearn how to live together, accepting that we are somehow all different and equal, and respecting each other profoundly. There is no better way than learning from one another I believe, and from those of us who have a good story to tell in this respect.
Focusing on the good stories obviously is a not a way of denying that there are also problems and tensions. There are instruments we have put in pace, others have put in place, others will put in place to deal with the tensions and the problems. For once, let us try to focus on the positive that is already there, because sometimes this is also a way to prevent or to cope with the negative trends we see emerging or consolidating in society across the world.
Sometimes, not only in this field but also in proper foreign policy, I feel that we always focus on problems, not so much on the people that have already managed to solve the problems – maybe on a little scale but there is a powerful hope there that can be a source of inspiration. I believe we should invest more on the good stories, on the many people who are making their societies a better place – like people who are present in this room, like people who will benefit from this Exchange on Religion in Society.
With this new initiative, we want to invest in the good stories. We want to acknowledge the positive role that religion is already playing in some parts of the world, of our societies. We want to recognise the solutions that are coming from the grassroots, and from the core of our communities.
With the Global Exchange on Religion in Society, we focus on the peace-builders, on the change-makers, on the bridge-builders – from small communities to the world. We focus on you.
Thank you for joining us in this journey, I am extremely excited we are launching this today, and I am very much looking forward to the programme to be started and also to our discussion this morning.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-176966