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Is the Conflict of Civilizations Unavoidable?

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev

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A speech by the Representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions at the Seventh Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and Members of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats) and European Democrats (Istanbul, October 17, 2003)

The Russian Orthodox Church takes great care to understand the problems of European integration. These problems are discussed in several official documents of the Moscow Patriarchate, particularly in a special statement concerning the work of the Convention 'On the Future of Europe'. I will not speak of these documents today since they have been published and are rather well-known. However, I would like to discuss one of the fundamental ideas which recur in these documents: the concept of 'multipolarity' and the world view that it stands for. What are the meaning and moral implications of this concept for us, the representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate?

Much is being written on the idea of a multipolar world. However, most writers who deal with this subject have political multipolarity in mind, for example the multipolarity which appeared in Europe after the First World War. The Westphalian model of nation-states did indeed establish a multipolar world, although this multipolarity existed only within the framework of Western European civilization and was founded upon the doctrine of national sovereignty and interests. After World War II the world became bipolar, built on the opposition of two ideologies: those of liberal democracy and communism. For the past twelve years the world has in fact become monopolar, since one of these ideologies has ceased to exist.

Does this mean that the domination of one ideology has been established in the world? Not at all. For besides political polarities there also exist polarities of civilization, the tension between which not only continues, but increases daily. The growth of Islamic fundamentalism over the past years is very much a reaction to the attempts at introducing liberal western standards of civilization into countries where the lifestyle does not correspond to them. All of this creates the foundations for the 'conflict of civilizations', of which so much is spoken and written in our times. But just how unavoidable is this conflict?

In my opinion, the conflict of civilizations is inevitable when only one model of civilization is given the right to exist. When only the liberal standards according to which the Western world lives are regarded as legitimate, while other standards based on other world views are deprived of recognition, the threat of a further escalation of tensions between liberalism and traditionalism (not between liberalism and fundamentalism!) can be expected, with unpredictable consequences.

Here it is necessary to point out the decisive role of religion in the formation of social consciousness in many regions of the world, where the liberal model has not yet been confirmed as something without alternative. The religious factor undoubtedly plays a key role in many Islamic countries. However, the Christian, Judaic, Buddhist and other religious traditions also continue to exert tremendous influence on the societies of those countries in which they are dominant.

Beginning with the Age of Enlightenment, the idea of religion as a private matter without any kind of social expression was formed in the West. The essence of this concept can be summarized in the following: you can either believe or not believe in God, you can belong to a religion of your choice or you can belong to none at all. Your choice, however, should not influence your life in society and your actions should not and cannot be religiously motivated. An entire ideology was formed which attempted to banish religion from society and simply turn it into a personal, 'private' matter of separate individuals.

It is dangerous indeed when religious values are placed at the foundations of a forcibly imposed ideology. But none the less dangerous is the exclusion of religion from the ideological foundation of society, since most religions, including Christianity, are characterized by an unequivocal missionary imperative which assumes the right to exert influence not just on individual persons, but also on social processes. Depriving religion of this right inevitably leads to confrontation between religious and secular standards, a situation just one step away from the 'conflict between civilizations'.

This is why it is so important now in Europe to recognize the legacies of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, alongside with that of secular humanism, in the future Constitution as the foundations of European identity and civilization. Religious motivation and the religious understanding of values, rights, liberties, duties and responsibilities should not be excluded from the life of society. Only then will a multipolarity of civilizations be established in Europe, which the Russian Orthodox Church calls for in its official documents.

At present much is spoken about the ever-increasing role of Islam in Europe, but little attention is given to the contribution which Orthodox Christianity can make in the formation of European civilization and its cultural identity. This is because most people have become accustomed to think of Europe as a territory divided into Catholic and Protestant spheres of influence.

With the expansion of the European Union, which until now included only one Orthodox member country -- Greece, the EU will soon overstep the boundaries of Western Europe, and other countries belonging to the Orthodox tradition will join. As part of western society, the Orthodox diasporas of these countries -- particularly Cypriots, Romanians and Bulgarians, have already participated in the European process, and now integration will bring their home countries into the Union. It is important that people in the West realize that the Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe have a right to make their significant cultural contribution to the building of a common European home. The specifics of the Orthodox world view should be reflected in the European project - only then will it become attractive for the Eastern Christian world as well.

Some people may ask: 'What relation does the Moscow Patriarchate have to the process of European integration if Russia is not a member of the European Union?' First of all, the Moscow Patriarchate is trans-national, and is not just the Church of Russia . Most Orthodox believers in the Republics of Moldova, Belarus, and Ukraine, in the Baltic States and in the countries of Central Asia belong to it. Secondly, as a result of several waves of emigration from Russia and other countries of the former Russian empire, parishes and entire dioceses of the Moscow Patriarchate were formed in Western Europe, which are now in the territory of the European Union. And with the joining of the Baltic countries to the EU the number of communities of the Moscow Patriarchate in its territory will significantly increase and will number in the many hundreds. We are concerned about the future of these communities and the place they will have in European society.

We are also concerned about the legal status of these communities in a united Europe. Thus, we support the efforts of the Patriarchate of Constantinople aimed at the regulation of the legal status of Orthodox Churches in the European Union. However, as Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, wrote in a letter to Metropolitan Meliton of Philadelphia, the Secretary of the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, we 'consider necessary the mentioning of, besides the Patriarchate of Constantinople, other Orthodox Churches represented in more than one member country of the European Union'. This comment was made in connection with point number seven of the final document project of our dialogue, which calls for the 'development of a special status for the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a legal entity of European as well as international interest'.

Returning to the topic of the dialogue between civilizations, I would like to point out that such a dialogue is an internal challenge for Europe, and not simply an element of external politics. The union of countries becomes a true union only if each nation can find the fulfillment of its hopes in the new European identity. For this it is necessary that not only the political, cultural or linguistic traditions of each nation be considered for its inclusion into the common European home, but also its religious tradition.

The Moscow Patriarchate is ready to participate in securing a harmonious co-existence of different religions in Europe and the creation of laws involving the status of religious organizations. This area of cooperation can assume the participation of Orthodox Churches in the discussion of legislation of fundamental importance. The Moscow Patriarchate is truly interested in cooperating with the European Union in a concrete manner. For example, our representatives are ready to offer their expertise and consulting, which we hope to carry out in conjunction with the European Commission, the European Parliament and other institutions of the EU.

In doing so the role of the Church must not be limited to participating only in the discussion of problems related to international and inter-religious matters. Church representatives should also participate in developing a European system of security as well as in the discussion of social problems, ethics concerned with modern technologies, immigration, etc. For this it is necessary to give competent Orthodox Church representatives access to various committees and expert groups of the European Commission.

The European Constitution will obviously mention the creation of a system of consulting between religious organizations and the Institutes of the European Union. In its vision of this dialogue, the Moscow Patriarchate bases itself on the principle of subsidiarity, a concept deeply rooted in Christian tradition and community life. Moreover, the idea of subsidiarity is included in the founding documents of the European Union as one of the basic principles of the EU regulating the division of powers between various levels of authority.

With this in mind we can see that the bilateral dialogue between Churches (in close cooperation with their representatives) and the Institutes of the European Union are of fundamental importance and should be given priority, since the creation of communitarian law and its implementation in the EU member states concerns the spiritual and national identities of those who belong to these Churches. Thus, Church-State relations on the national level essentially continue in the same form at the European level. Inter-Orthodox, Inter-Christian and inter-religious cooperation is necessary, but it will be effective only if there are common goals which can be realized together.

In conclusion I would like to sincerely thank the Ecumenical Patriarchate for organizing the Seventh Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and members of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats) and European Democrats, and wish God's help to all the participants of this event. May the Lord bless our common labours for the good of a united Europe.

Read this article on the Orthodox Europe website.



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