Representatives at the “Religions for a New Europe” conference believe Europe is facing a daunting crisis in the history of integration – one that needs the support of religious leaders if its democratic traditions are going to survive.

These are decisive moments for Europe, with questions that threaten the ethical and spiritual foundations of unification and politics – and, according to conference speakers, the very soul of the continent. “In the crisis that Europe, the world, and our societies are in, there is nothing more needed than a sense of spirituality – especially in Europe,” Ambassador Hans Winkler said at the Nov. 16 conference, hosted by the Forum for World Religions. “We seem to have lost this sense for tolerance, for respect, for human rights.” The event, held at the Diplomatic Academy, gathered leaders from a variety of faith communities to discuss the role of religion in integration and peace-keeping. Many of them fear that rising nationalism is fashioning a new kind of Europe. “This conference could not be more timely given the many problems and challenges that we face today in Europe and in the world,” Winkler said.

Mass terrorist attacks, Islamophobia, divisive elections in the West, a refugee crisis and Brexit were just a few of the recent turbulent events speakers mentioned as obstacles to successful integration. As racial and religious tension roils the West, they believe the European Union needs the cooperation of religious communities more than ever.

This is a concept which Dr. Norbert Klaes, professor emeritus at the University of Würzburg and chair for the mission and dialogue of religions, said is by no means new. The relationship and dialogue between the EU and religious communities has been mentioned in multiple treaties and charters. The Charter for the Fundamental Rights of the European Union also makes reference to the continent’s “spiritual and moral heritage.” According to Klaes, little is said on the specific expectations the EU has for its relationships with religious communities. Still, “The duties and commitment of religions of a new Europe cannot be underestimated.” Quoting Jacques Delors, former President of the European Commission, Klaes said, “For this Europe – on the way to unity – needs a memory and a soul. If there is not a stronger contribution from the European religious and philosophical traditions, Europe will continue to exist but without purpose.”

The so-called search for Europe’s soul as a necessary part of the common European identity, has been used in political and religious rhetoric for nearly a quarter century. Delors originally launched the “Soul for Europe“ initiative in the early 90’s and tasked it with giving ethical and spiritual dimension to the values of the EU. In 2007, Chancellor + Angela Merkel told the European Parliament that, “we must give a soul to Europe.” And in 2014 in Strasbourg, Pope Francis challenged that, “A Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life, is a Europe which risks slowly losing its own soul.” Yet despite the call throughout Europe to return to certain spiritual values, Klaes said, “It is unpredictable whether religion and religions will play any role in the future of Europe.“ This statement seemed to ring particularly true in the Festsaal of the Diplomatic Academy where attendance was sparse and the average age of the audience was well over 40.

In a sense, the audience represented the current religious map of our generations. Millennials – that generation which came to age around the year 2000 – have been called the least religious generation yet, according to a study conducted at San Diego State University. Today’s young adults have seemingly little interest in organized religion or traditional forms of spirituality. They are not the only ones. As Europe readies to celebrate the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation, interest in religious institutions is decreasing rapidly across the board. According to a 2015 Gallup International survey of 65 countries published in The Washington Post, Sweden and the Czech Republic ranked with China in the top 3 most non-religious countries. Other EU countries like the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany were not far behind.

Yet as the battle with intolerance and division rages on, Petrus Bsteh, head of the Forum for World Religions, believes religious communities are essential for the protection of democratic values. “To meet the imminent dangers of brute demagogic populisms,” Bsteh said, “all moral forces have to unite to promote mutual respect, interfaith dialogue, and to join for common actions promoting human rights, freedom of conscience, religious liberty, anti-racism, social justice and preservation of nature.” In this area, Bsteh, Klaes and the other religious leaders at the conference, be they Serbian Orthodox, Muslim or Jewish, agree. Concerns about the increase in intolerance, nationalism, and racism were chief among the listed threats to successful European integration. Human rights and social justice were offered as­­ fundamental values that every faith community can champion.

First, however, religious communities must find worth and respect for each other. Nedžad Grabus, Mufti of the Muslim community in Ljubljana, Slovenia, called for religious leaders to set an example in welcoming Muslims into their local communities. Muslims, he said, are an “integral part of the European mosaic.”

The need for successful multicultural integration to start in faith communities is an idea that has played out of late in popular culture as well. Amazon Prime’s current viral ad campaign features an inter-faith friendship between a Christian Vicar and a Muslim Imam. Over a shared cup of tea, both men wince and laugh over their stiff knees from praying. Later, they each order a pair of kneepads as a surprise gift for the other on Amazon Prime. The ad campaign has been praised for its positive message and has sparked dialogue across faith communities of how to combat Islamophobia and to be more inclusive of various religious traditions and cultures.

Putting aside religious differences is vital to uniting Europe, Klaes said. “In the light of unresolved problems of the survival of humankind, religions relativize their absolute claims and demands and devote themselves in full responsibility to the fostering of world peace in dialogue, in agreement and understanding with other religions.” He and Bsteh point out that democracy and religion are deeply tied together, with many of the fundamental freedoms of human worth and social justice shaped from spiritual beliefs.

The “sacrosanct dignity of every human being” is, according to Klaes, “a principle which is an essential part of every constitution of the world.” Early philosophers referenced certain inalienable rights, often divinely given from a Creator as the basis for democracy. Even Rosseau, Klaes said, had a natural religion which framed his ideas regarding the legitimacy of the state and its power. “Democracy in secular states is the fruit of longstanding processes with chiefly religious motivations and examples in Europe,” Bsteh adds. “We want to learn from history and to enhance genuine democratic values in humanist and religious solidarity today.”

Democratic traditions and successful integration do not contradict religion, according to Bsteh and Klaes, but rather find legitimacy and foundation in it. Religious communities could play an important role to sanction the human values of society,” Klaes said, “to provide the universally valid ethical fundament, which unites the people in their common and public actions, and which lays a foundation for the deepest identity and destiny of a country.”

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