Cyprus: Freedom of Religion and its Cultural Heritage

Cyprus: Freedom of Religion and its Cultural Heritage.

European Parliament 10 November 2015

By Metropolitan Athanasios of Achaia

Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of the experiment to build and secure peace in the world. That is because religious faith is not merely a matter of “toleration” or tolerance, but is understood to be the exercise of “inherent natural rights.”

The contemporary model of religious freedom in the EU takes a clear positive view of religious practice, both private and public. This does not mean that anything and everything done in the name of religious freedom is not subject to the rule of law. In fact it does mean that the law ought to make as much room as possible for the practice of religious faith and freedom of speech. Far from privatizing religion, it assumes that religious believers and institutions will take active roles in society, including engaging in politics and policy-making and helping form the public’s moral consensus. This is the meaning of article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty which encourages the dialogue between European Institutions on the one hand and Churches and communities of faith on the other. In fact, this article considered religious engagement in shaping a society with common principles and values.

As for cultural heritage, today as in the past, it continues to perform its irreplaceable role as a vector of meaning and identity for communities and individuals. However, it is striking how far the very definition of what constitutes the cultural heritage, in both its tangible and intangible forms, has evolved within the scientific community over recent decades to include an increasingly large section of the environment and human forms of expression.

The tangible cultural heritage today is no longer limited to great monuments and iconic archaeological sites, but also encompasses a much larger array of culturally significant places, such as historic cities, living rural areas and seascapes, gardens or forests and mountains, industrial areas, and even sites associated with painful memories and war.

The intangible cultural heritage gained greater recognition and a more formal status following the adoption by UNESCO of a Convention for its safeguarding in 2003. According to this Convention the intangible cultural heritage includes oral traditions, the performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, and knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

In political science and public discourse, an attempt has been made to separate religion from culture. Part of the consequences of religion’s “deculturation” is that both religious believers and their critics view religion as something that makes sense and can be understood outside of its cultural context. Today’s seminar may prove to be useful in better understanding how closely the cultural heritage is linked to the lives of communities and is fully integrated into religious, social, economic and environmental processes, making it an integral part of people’s daily experience, a significant manifestation of people’s inherent natural rights.

An alarming reality is that war and conflict often wreak havoc on cultural heritage. Iconoclasm, or “image breaking,” is particularly devastating because it involves the deliberate destruction of another culture’s images, icons or monuments to demoralize that cultural group and establish political or religious superiority over it.

Looting is an age-old threat and continues to be a problem in the 21st century in all countries, but it is often exacerbated in developing nations by an enforcement vacuum resulting from war and conflict or when law enforcement is still weak or non-existent. Economic desperation, a common side effect of sanctions and war, can also lead to widespread looting as people seek any means to support their families.

Globalization, urbanization and climate change can threaten the cultural heritage and weaken cultural diversity.

With these introductory thoughts I would like to welcome our distinguished guests and members of this panel who will share with us their experience about religious freedom in Cyprus and the condition of cultural heritage.

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