Ladies and Gentlemen Heads of State or their representatives,
Today, it is both a great joy and honour for me to speak to you on behalf of the President of the French Republic, Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy, who is also the current President of the European Union, and who mandated me to represent him at this United Nations General Assembly plenary meeting on interfaith dialogue.
On behalf of France, I would first like to thank His Majesty King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, who on several occasions in recent months took the commendable initiative of fostering dialogue between religions. The process which began in Mecca last June allows us today in New York at the United Nations General Assembly to exchange views on this crucial issue.
Through his initiative, His Majesty called upon believers to find common ground rather than divergence in their respective religions, and took an enlightened view of all beliefs, guided by mutual respect. We warmly welcome this initiative. Within the framework of an interfaith dialogue based on trust, the regular meeting of representatives from different religions encourages tolerance with a view to peace. This approach helps raise awareness of the ongoing problem of violent acts perpetrated in the name of faith, but which in reality bring shame on the religion they intend to exalt.
Interfaith dialogue should therefore help reduce misunderstandings between peoples and bridge the gap between civilizations whose religions can play a key role in their identity. France fully supports this dialogue:
– because of its own experience since the 1789 Revolution, in which it developed a concept of secularism solely aimed at organizing the peaceful coexistence of beliefs and non-beliefs within the national community. From a French standpoint, if interfaith dialogue does not retreat into exclusion, it is the useful and welcome international extension of a national asset which has the support of the vast majority of French people and of those who have made France their home.
– because one of the permanent goals of French diplomacy, especially since 9/11, is to prevent a series of factors from coming together which would give substance to the idea of a clash of civilizations. France formally challenges this idea, which has a self-fulfilling nature that could have disastrous consequences for international peace.
The European Union Member States on whose behalf I would now like to speak paid great attention to His Majestys initiative. Europeans, who have a long and often bloody history of religious wars and hatred, have decided to encourage intercultural and interfaith dialogue because it promotes human knowledge and understanding. The notions of tolerance, and building and consolidating peace lie at the heart of European identity, as they allow people to organize themselves into political collectives that respect the religious, spiritual and philosophical identities of one and all.
This is the message that Europe conveys within the Alliance of Civilisations initiated by Spain and Turkey, and Europe fully supports the objectives of this initiative.
Although Europeans believe that faith is a question of individual identity and choice, we are convinced that religious communities can play an important, if not essential, role in furthering dialogue, fraternity, solidarity and peace.
Such dialogue should obviously be as broad as possible. It must be able to reach out to representatives of all faiths and all existing spiritual, philosophical and humanistic traditions, in all their diversity and their many aspects.
As we prepare to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, compliance with the values and principles of these rights is a vital pillar on which this dialogue should be built and improved. The issue of recognizing unrestricted freedom of faith in all its forms, including the right to change faiths and develop a spiritual or humanistic approach outside of religious belief, is an essential part of this dialogue.
To engage in successful dialogue, parties must be prepared to face contrasting views and even criticism. Recognizing the right to express an opinion and accept differing opinions is also an essential part of dialogue. Freedom of religion cannot be achieved without freedom of speech, even if it is sometimes used to express derision. Freedom of speech is the essential condition for interfaith dialogue. The only limits on this freedom are international law and the spirit of responsibility which should be the guiding principle for all people who believe in the supreme interest of peace, whether it be the internal peace which each society requires, or peace between nations.
Lastly, this dialogue should be free from all political involvement. Interfaith dialogue is the responsibility of the religious authorities, believers, and representatives of spiritual, philosophical and humanistic traditions. No political movement, association or organization has the necessary legitimacy to shape debates or endorse the conclusions of any interfaith dialogue. The role of governmental or intergovernmental authorities should limit itself to fostering the necessary conditions for such dialogue to take place.
Returning now to my national capacity, I would like to emphasize that France is itself particularly committed to interfaith dialogue. Your Majesty is aware of the French President’s views on the matter, which he expressed at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, and reiterated in his speech on 14 January last before the Consultative Council in Riyadh: “The danger is not posed by religious sentiment in itself, but rather when this sentiment is used as a regressive political tool to commit barbarities. These excesses and abuses do not mean that we should condemn religion, as this would be tantamount to the cure being worse than the disease. Religious sentiment can no more be condemned because of fanaticism than national sentiment can be condemned because of nationalism.”
As everyone knows, in France, the Church and the State are separate entities. Regardless of their personal views, our national authorities do not express preference for one faith over another. They respect all faiths, and are committed to ensuring that each French citizen can freely choose whether to practise a faith or not, and that those who do can do so in a dignified manner. We respect those who believe just as much as those who do not, and we strive to ensure that each person, whether they be Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Baháí, atheist, agnostic, a freethinker, Freemason or rationalist, feels happy living in France, feels free, and that their beliefs, values and origins are respected.
It is these very principles which guide France’s work in the international arena and which guide my speech today. I am, of course, aware of the wide diversity of perspectives, cultures and beliefs around the world, but in my view, the best way to limit the conflict which arises between them is for authorities to deliberately avoid becoming involved in all matters to do with exercising individual freedom, while carefully ensuring that interfaith dialogue continues to be engaged in a spirit of mutual respect.
Thank you very much.