Opening remarks - Teaching for Tolerance
Opening remarks at the Global Meeting of Experts, September 2-5 2004 in Oslo
Bishop Gunnar Stålsett:
Teaching for Tolerance, respect and recognition in relation with religion and belief
Minister of Development, excellencies. Ladies and gentlemen.
It is a true joy for me as President of the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or belief to:
Welcome you to Oslo. As bishop of the diocese of Oslo, I also greet you on behalf of The Church of Norway. I recall with gratitude the Madrid conference in November 2001, marking the 20-ieth anniversary of "The Declaration on elimination of all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or beliefs." I take this opportunity of once again thanking the Spanish hosts of that conference and express my pleasure to greet you here in Oslo.
Let me also express my respect to Mr. Abdelfattah Amor, chair of the UN Human Rights Committee, and former Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, who has brought the work of the Madrid Conference forward to this day.
It is of great significance that not only the non-governmental forces for tolerance and cooperation between religions and beliefs are engaged in this conference but also the United Nations, UNESCO through the presence of Ms. Rosa Guerreiro, the Spanish Government thorugh the prescence of Mr. Joaquin Mantecon and the Norwegian Government through the presence of Minister Hilde Frafjord Johnson. Each one of you have in various ways contributed to the progress of tolerance, respect and recognition on the European and global level between peoples and faiths, between religion and belief. I salute Ingvill Plesner, director of this program for her dedicated leadership.
The participation of experts from so many countries around the world and from every continent and major faiths is to me a sign that the work for tolerance moving forward.
That education is the focus of this conference, I believe is an indication of deep awareness of the need to begin with the children if we want to change the way we act towards each other in a world which even today experiences horrendous act of hatred based on- or at least interpreted in the context of religion.
In these hours the world is witnessing how terrorist acts are inflicting the life of innocent children in northern Ossetia. This cruel act must be universally condemned, and we pray for the lives of all affected by this tragedy.
Terrorism in the name of God is an act of terrorism against God. It violates the spirit of every holy book when it is used to inspire act of hatred. Teaching of tolerance on every level in the educational system is of highest importance to day. Only then can we halt the waves of antisemmitism which continues to plague Europe. Only then can we stop the expressions of hatred against muslims adds to an inherent xenophobia which is well known also in this country.
The exploitation of fear of immigrants and asylumseekers for political gains which we from time to time see in different countries in Europe, including Norway, is a sad backdrop for this conference. Teaching for tolerance is therefore a means of defending democratic and human rights values in a critical political environment on a local, national and international basis.
One of the areas where need for tolerance and for respect for the human dignity intrinsic to every human being is the global plague of HIV/Aids. At the global conference HIV/Aids which took place in Bankok earlier this summer made this abundantly clear. Three parallel preconferences, one for Buddhist, one Muslims and one for Christians, all underscored the importance for religious leaders and teachers to address issues of traditional taboos and to overcome the effect of stigmatization which so often stems from lack of tolerance and respect. On the final day of these preconferences, we met all together to share insights and to listen to each others reflections on the role of religion in addressing this threat to individuals and societies on every continent. In this meeting we discovered that disagreements as often appeared within each faith group as between us.
On the level of the golden rule people of faith and people of non religious belief can struggle for the common good. To do unto others what you want them to do for you is known in its positive or negative form in all cultures.
The three Abrahamitic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – share the importance of what in Christian terminology is called the great commandment:
To love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbors – which means our fellow human beings – regardless of race, religion, gender, cultural background as we love our selves.
Here the ethical foundation is anchored in the transcendental belief in God. But it is expressed in such human terms and duties which we share with people of non religious or non theistic faiths and beliefs. Without this human dimension the first part of the command, love of God by all your soul and mind, might easily become a source for fanaticism and fundamentalism. To love your fellow beings as your self is a validation of self respect which is so fundamental for the freedom of every human being.
Ladies and gentlemen. The significance of this conference is underscored by the fact that this opening ceremony takes place here in the Nobel Peace Prize Institute. We are surrounded by the memories of women and men who in different ways have contributed to peace, justice and human rights in words and deeds. We continue in the Spirit of this legacy as we address root causes of alienation and enmity and seek for peace and reconciliation. And we seek the inspiration of men and women who by their dedication to the greater human cause have changed history.
In the word of John Hume (1998)
"All conflict is about differences; whether the difference is race, religion, or nationality the European visionaries decided that difference is not a threat, difference is natural. Difference is of the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace: respect for diversity"
So this is the task before us, to contribute in some small but significant way to the changing of history. I wish all blessings for that noble cause.
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