For the first time since the new European Commission took office, European religious leaders met for an exchange of views today on the invitation of Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas. In the cabinet of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the Greek commissioner is responsible for the dialogue with churches, religious communities and philosophical and non-confessional organisations. The video conference brought Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders together primarily to discuss “the European way of life”, against the backdrop of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Islamist terror and the ongoing debate about a common asylum and migration policy. The Evangelical Church in Germany was represented by its Council chair, Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm.
At the meeting, the EKD Council chair underlined that the pandemic clearly showed us how vulnerable we all are. We needed to recognise, he said, that we cannot resolve all problems with our material and technological resources. Yet Christian faith strengthens us to meet the challenges of the coronavirus crisis, Bedford-Strohm added; our relationship to God and trust in Christ help us to overcome crippling fear. He noted that the economies of European Union member states are severely impacted by the pandemic, with social tensions and divisions threatening to deepen. In Bedford-Strohm’s view, the church is called to respond by engagement for social cohesion and, most importantly, to radiate “the healing love of God” in a society wounded by the pandemic.
Finally, Bedford-Strohm urged that, during the pandemic, Europe should not lose sight of those who are most vulnerable. Jesus sums it up in the Golden Rule, which makes sense to all people of good will, he said, and provides a good basis for solidarity with those most affected by the crisis: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.”
In the face of the terrible Islamist terror attacks of the recent past, the EKD Council chair emphasised “No religion can justify such cowardly attacks: Terror is blasphemy.” He underlined that the EKD supported its Muslim interlocutors in their manifold efforts to promote a peaceful Islam in Germany. The EKD itself would not flag in its commitment to integration, he added, also with the aim of preventing the development of extremism.
Furthermore, Bedford-Strohm welcomed the European Commission’s efforts - with its proposal for a New Pact on Migration and Asylum - to give new impetus to the stagnating debate in the EU member states about a common migration and asylum policy. He was critical, however, of a one-sided tendency to stress the deterrence of refugees. All asylum seekers had the right to an individual examination of their grounds for asylum, Bedford-Strohm asserted.
Aside from that, he welcomed the Commission’s focus on achieving stronger coordination among the member states on the issue of search and rescue (SAR) operations at sea and preventing the criminalising of non-governmental organisations. Nonetheless, a number of civil SAR vessels, among others “Sea Watch 4 – powered by United4Rescue”, were at present arbitrarily detained in European ports, he stated. “Exert the political influence of the European Commission on the member states to release these ships,” Bedford-Strohm requested in an appeal to the vice-president.
In this context, Katrin Hatzinger, director of the EKD’s Brussels representation, underlined that SAR was a responsibility for the state and, accordingly, the Commission was expected to advocate for resuming an intergovernmental SAR mission.
In order to underline the significance of the dialogue with the churches and religious communities, then Commission President José Manuel Barroso in 2005 first had the idea of inviting leading religious representatives in Europe to a “high-level meeting with religious leaders”. Since the Lisbon Treaty took effect, the dialogue with churches, religious communities and philosophical and non-confessional organisations has been part of EU primary law.
Hanover/Brussels, 27 November 2020
EKD Press Office