By Msgr. George Frendo*, Archbishop of Tirana-Durrës, Albania & Head of Albania Interreligious Council
Can we still speak of religion in a secularized society? Without entering into a discussion about the difference between secularizationsecularizationand secularismsecularismand about the different definitions attributed to either of them, I merely want to point out the way in which the process of secularism is usually defined: it is that process by which God is gradually excluded first from public life, then from family life and finally also from personal life.
But can we state that in actual fact we are living in a world in which God, or belief in God, is excluded? Many sociologists of religion, like Peter Berger, Francis Fukuyama and Grace Davie, argue that this is not the case. It is true that religious practice is dwindling in many western countries, but that does not mean that contemporary man has become a non-believer. At the most we can say that this is a non-practising society, but not a non-believing society. Grace Davie, who first used the phrase “believing without belonging” to depict the religious situation of contemporary Europe, illustrates her point by referring to two events: the 11th September in New York, and the sinking of the Baltic ferry Estonia off the shores of Sweden. In both cases, where did the people go? “Straight to their churches”. Sweden is supposedly the most secular society in Europe. Yet the people went to the churches; “they expected the Archbishop to articulate on their behalf the meaning of that terrible event”..
When, about thirty years ago, Jacques Delors spoke of the need “to give a soul to Europe”, and when, about fifteen years ago Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister for the Interior in France, in his interesting book La République, les Religions, l’Espérance spoke of religion as furnishing man with that spiritual hope which the State cannot give, they were both, in my opinion, expressing man’s unquenchable thirst for God and man’s basic need to enter into communion with God. No one and nothing, not even Enver Hoxha’s militant anti-theism, can eradicate man’s spiritual yearning for God. Man cannot deny God without, at the same time, denying himself. St Augustine described this yearning for God in that famous expression of his: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our heart is restless, until it rests in you”.
2. Religious Tolerance
Pope John XXIII, in his Encyclical Letter Pacem in terris published in 1963 (shortly before his death) considered religious freedom as one of the fundamental human rights, which is based on the dignity of the human person. The Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom goes on to explain that this freedom means that nobody is forced to act against his convictions in religious matters in private or in public. Moreover, it states that “this right of the human person to religious freedom must be given such recognition in the constitutional order of society as will make it a civil right” (n. 2). The Declaration also welcomed the fact that “religious freedom has already been declared a civil right in most constitutions and has been given solemn recognition in international documents” (n. 15).
Is it still necessary to speak of religious freedom and tolerance in the post-modern and post-1989 pluralistic world? Is religious intolerance compatible with a pluralistic society? Can we imagine a pluralistic society which, at the same time, displays religious intolerance?
I think that until 75 years ago (that is, until the end of World War II; and some would say even until 1960) a definition of society necessarily included a community of ideas. And this community of ideas included common religious beliefs and moral standards. Religious non-conformity was allowed only so long as it was private. This is still the case today with some countries.
But the new epoch of post-modernism brought with it what we now call “pluralism”, not only political, but also cultural, religious, etc. So long as this means tolerance in the face of political, cultural, and religious differences, that is well and good. But there are many side-effects of pluralism. I shall refer to only two of them.
First, pluralism tends to relativize moral principles and the very concept of religion itself. This eventually leads to a neutral attitude in the face of values. But this is a misunderstanding of tolerance. Tolerance and peaceful cohabitation do not mean sacrificing moral absolutes and religious beliefs.
A second side-effect of pluralism is what I consider as the great paradox or irony of pluralism: the birth of new forms of conflicts and intolerance. Jonathan Sacks, ex-Chief Rabbi of the Hebrew communities of the British Commonwealth, in his book The Persistence of Faithmakes this observation: “Pluralism leads us to expect a growth of tolerance, while in fact it lays the ground for new forms of intolerance. By dismantling and privatising the concept of a common good, it means that no one position is forced to come to terms with the reality of any other. It is no accident that as pluralism has gained ground, there has been a sharp increase in racial tension and anti-Semitism”. And as a matter of fact, we have seen this happen in many ex-communist, but also in some western European countries, where new forms of fundamentalisms, dangerous nationalisms, racisms and Nazism have emerged.
Can religions be sources of conflicts and intolerance? John Lennon’s popular song Imagine dreams of a world where there will be no religion, and this, he says, will lead to a peaceful life. As if religion is the sole or main stumbling block for a peaceful society!
The ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Dr George Carey affirmed that religion “is often a potent binding agent for societies and cultures, part of their fundamental sense of self. And in situations where conflicts arise between communities so defined, politicians and others will often use religion as a way of justifying and even sharpening the conflict.”
And in our own times we have witnessed the truth of this statement. Just think of the conflicts in the Balkans, where religion has been instrumentalised by politicians who have given a religious physiognomy to the wars they were waging, as if these were conflicts between Muslims and Orthodox Christians. Or the conflicts in Northern Ireland, where conflicts between pro-Britain and pro-Ireland assumed the form of conflicts between Protestants and Catholics.
Prince El Hassan bin Talal was certainly right when he affirmed, in the general assembly of the World Conference on Religion and Peace held in Amman, Jordan, in November 1999: “What are described as ‘religious conflicts’ usually have little to do with religion and even less to do with religious doctrine”. And in a similar vein Bodo Hombach, in an address given in Budapest just one year after the conflict in Kosovo, at the time when he was Special Co-Ordinator of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, made this bold statement: “Peace and reconciliation are key religious themes of our times. But we should be conscious that very recently, and not at all far from here, cynical and greedy people instrumentalised religion to help fan the flames of conflict to achieve their brutal ends”.
Religions are for peace, because religions are expressions of belief in and communion with God, creator of all mankind. And this lays the basis for true brotherhood and genuine peace. If in certain circumstances it would seem that this is not true, then we must admit that there is a misconception or instrumentalization of religion and of God himself. No war can ever be waged in the name of God.
3. Beyond Tolerance
Albania has always boasted of its tradition of peaceful inter-religious coexistence, and rightly so. Prior to his visit to Albania, on the 25th April 1993, Pope John Paul II said: “I earnestly desire that this visit will serve to strengthen the traditional bonds of fraternal cohabitation which have characterized the relations among the different religions in your country.” And the former President of the Republic, Alfred Moisiu, in his address to Albanian Ambassadors serving in different countries, on the 30th August 2002 made this comment: “We cannot ignore the existence of different religions in our country, rather we appreciate their role for the creation of an atmosphere of tolerance in our society. Albania can boast of the harmonious co-existence among religious communities. A fundamental characteristic of Albanian civilization is its religious tolerance, and this leaves no room for fundamentalists of any religion whatsoever.”
One might ask what is the reason for this tradition of peaceful inter-religious cohabitation in Albania. Quite often Albanians themselves answer this question by referring to a renowned Albanian author, Pashko Vasa, who said that the religion of the Albanians is “Albanianism”: religion, they say, is secondary to Albanians, so long as there is their national identity that unites them. Personally I do not agree with such a statement.
Why, then, have different faiths not been the subject of conflict in Albania? In my opinion, Albania can boast of its peaceful inter-religious cohabitation because in its political history there has been no leaders who made use of religion for political aims.
But to what extent are we giving witness of a peaceful co-existence that goes beyond mere tolerance? Tolerance is the bare minimum required for a peaceful coexistence. I’m ok, you’re ok; I mind my own business, and you mind yours. But religion demands more than that. It is not enough just to have a drink together with the Orthodox, Muslims, and Bektashians on the occasion of Easter or Bajram (Eid, fest of Muslims).
I here refer to a Russian Orthodox theologian, Olivier Clément, who coined the phrase prophetic partnership.In other words, we must make a common effort to discover the common prophetic role of our religions.
In addition, here we need to stress the importance of an inter-religious dialogue, and by “dialogue”, I do not mean a road to relativism, ideological or doctrinal compromise, or syncretism, nor just finding a way towards a passive acceptance of our “being different”, modus vivendi, nor even just a peaceful co-existence. As Joseph Ellul has duly observed: “Inter-religious dialogue is based on mutual respect, but also upon sincerity and frankness, Its role is not that of suppressing differences, but at looking at them as a means for creating mutual understanding, respect and enrichment. It implies maintaining one’s religious identity while respecting that of the other, it demands listening as well as speaking. It is an ongoing challenge to deepen one’s own faith while appreciating that of the other”..
Discovering our common prophetic role demands first of all an act of faith in the one true and living God who is love; an act of faith in our common dignity as human beings created by God in his own image; and an act of faith in our common vocation to know God, to love him and to know he loves us and so to enter into communion with him and listen to him. In his message for the World Day of Peace, 1st January 2002, Pope John Paul II emphasized the specific responsibility of religious leaders, whether Christian or non-Christian. He said that they must collaborate to eradicate the social and cultural causes of terrorism as they teach the dignity of the human person and to jointly engage themselves in the promotion of peace.
I would like to conclude this talk by quoting from the final message of the Inter-religious Assembly held in the Vatican City in October 1999: “We appeal to religious leaders to promote the spirit of dialogue within their respective communities and to be ready to engage in dialogue themselves with civil society at all levels. We appeal to all the leaders of the world, whatever their field of influence, to refuse to allow religion to be used to incite hatred and violence; to refuse to allow religion to be used to justify discrimination; to respect the role of religion in society at international, national and local levels; to eradicate poverty and strive for social and economic justice”.
I think that these words provide us with an excellent programme for further inter-religious dialogue and collaboration.
* A talk given in Strasbourg at the headquarters of the European Parliament in 2008.
 The significance of the Religious Factor in the Construction of a Humane and Democratic Europe, in a symposium on The Role of the Communities of Faith and Co-operation for a Common European Future, Brussels 12-13 November 2001.
 Witnessing in a Secularized Society, në: George Lemopoulos (Bot.), Your Will be Done: Orthodoxy in mission, WCC, Geneva 1989, p. 112.
 Secularism, Pluralism and the Rediscovery of Religion.