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Kirill (Gundyaev), patr. Human rights and religious principles (Address to the regional meeting of the representatives of Christian churches and communities of the CIS countries and the Baltic States preparatory to the 3rd European Ecumenical Assembly ‘Modern Europe: God, Man and
HUMAN RIGHTS AND RELIGIOUS
Address to the regional meeting of the representatives of Christian churches
and communities of the CIS countries and the Baltic States preparatory to
the 3rd European Ecumenical Assembly: ‘Modern Europe: God, Man and
Society. Human Rights and Moral Determination’,Moscow, February 27, 2007
Modern Europe is characterized by a renewed interest in religious traditions. In part this reflects the strengthening of the position of Islam, but not that alone. More and more people in Europe, including those who do not generally associate themselves with the Christian tradition, are becoming more serious, I would say, about traditional Christianity and its role in shaping the European culture and identity. This brings joy to Christians. However, we find ourselves confronted here with an conflict, one we cannot get round or ignore, between two outlooks - secular and religious - in areas such as human rights and human freedom, including the freedom to hold a religious worldview.
How do we react as Christians to this? Our meeting is intended to help answer this question. When talking about human rights and the religious worldview, we often encounter the stereotype that these two categories are mutually incompatible, a stereotype maintained equally by the supporters of the secular understanding of human rights, and by those holding religious worldviews. This stereotype, rooted in the public consciousness, divides society into those who ardently defend the idea of human rights, and those
who consciously chose religious values as their yardstick in life and perceive human rights as a purely secular category. Not permitting mutual understanding, this stereotype is the source of distrust and frequent conflict. Not to mention the difficult situation in which persons who, on one hand, are guided by religious values and, on the other hand, consider the idea of human rights as an important standard of social development, find themselves.
The existence of the above-mentioned stereotype and the ensuing social tension had become a cause of concern for the Russian Orthodox Church. This led it to initiate discussion of the idea of human rights in a religious context. Although this idea had been discussed in our society for a long time, it is the first time it has been handled in a religious context. It brought about a lively reaction at various levels of our society, one that we in particular had not expected. First, we did not expect that a discussion initiated by the Church would achieve such resonance, also in circles seemingly very far from it. Secondly, the public reaction was surprisingly positive. Frankly speaking, in launching the discussion we took a certain risk of being misunderstood both by our secular counterparts, particularly among human rights defenders, and by our own flock. From both of them we expected questions as to what the Church was doing in a field where secular values traditionally hold sway. The had expected the former to perceive the Church as an institution alien to this sphere, and the latter to view the sphere of human rights as alien to the Church. However, our fears with respect to both circles fortunately proved unfounded. Except for a few voices of dissent, the Church’s position on this issue was supported both by those who have traditionally treated church initiatives with suspicion, and by our church community, which has treated human rights activities with the same misgivings.
The success of the Church initiative was largely determined by the platform chosen for this purpose. This was the World Russian People’s Council, an important public forum that has existed for more than ten years. It is a platform for a dialogue between various non-governmental organizations, political parties, representatives
of the cultural and scientific intelligentsia and the Church. That is, from the very beginning the discussion of human rights involved broad strata of our society.
The fruit of the discussion was the Declaration on Human Rights and Dignity as approved by the Council. In developing the Declaration, the Council took the path of synthesis, seeking to unite the values traditional to the religious worldview and the axiology of the human-rights movement.We are talking here about a synthesis, rather than about a mechanical unification of two value systems. This synthesis is intended both as a setting out of the religious and theological presuppositions of the human-rights idea, and the inclusion in this area of those rights which are an integral part of the religious worldview.
Reading the text of the Declaration, we can see, on one hand, the approval of the absolute value of every human personality: ‘Man as the image of God has a special value which cannot be taken away. It must be respected by each of us, by society and by the state,’ as I quote from the text of the Declaration. However, once again I read from the text of the Declaration: ‘There are values that are no less important than human rights. These are the values of faith, morality, sacredness, and the Fatherland. When these values and the implementation of human rights come into conflict, society, the state and law must harmoniously unite both. Not to be tolerated are situations in which the exercise of human rights suppresses faith and moral tradition, insults religious and national feelings which are held sacred, and threatens the existence of the Fatherland.’
An important component of the synthesis achieved during the preparation of the Declaration was the unification of the idea of the right of the individual to certain liberties with the idea of moral and civic responsibility. The text of the Declaration contains the following statement: ‘Rights and freedoms are inextricably linked to human duties and responsibilities. The individual in achieving his interests, is called to correlating these with the interests of his neighbour, the family, local community, people and of humanity as a whole.’ Only with this correlation of rights is the idea of hu-
man rights rid of those negative connotations which it sometimes acquires when considered separate from the general ethical context.
The synthesis of the ideas achieved in the Declaration is very important for further dialogue between the Church and secular society. It turned out that the idea of human rights can be, not a disuniting but a unifying basis of such dialogue. Additionally, thanks to this synthesis, the Church can and should use the idea of human rights to defend its own interests in society and the State, to protect the right of each individual member of the Church and of the Church in general, to express certain worldview and a certain system of values. The things stated by the World Russian People’s Council are important not only for Russia, but also for the CIS countries, where the situation recalls that of Russia, as well as for Europe. It was in Europe that our initiative aroused considerable interest from both ecclesiastical and socio-political organizations. As an example it is enough to mention the conference ‘Give a Soul to Europe,’ held by us together with the Pontifical Council for Culture in Vienna in May of last year. The conference has shown that our positions on human rights largely coincide with those of the Roman Catholic Church.
Given the increased interest in this subject by the Christian churches and certain secular public institutions in Europe, it seems to me that it’s important to raise this issue at the forthcoming 3rd European Ecumenical Assembly. In Europe we are seeing a revival of interest in religion, linked to both the quantitative growth of the Muslim community, and the wake-up of the Christian churches. In this context, a new discussion on which values which should form the basis of European civilization seems inevitable. Perhaps the synthesis achieved in the Declaration on Human Rights and Dignity will be useful for the Europe-wide discussion of this issue.
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