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Member of the European Commission responsible for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth

Protecting the sacred places of the Mediterranean

European Commission Seminar on "Protecting the sacred places of the Mediterranean: a contribution to intercultural dialogue"

Brussels, 6 March 2012

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very honoured to open this seminar, alongside the Great Chancellor of the Order of Malta, and before such a distinguished audience.

At the same time, I feel humbled by the task and the complex mix of issues that you raise by coupling the protection of sacred places with the aim of intercultural dialogue.

I believe that the best way for me to start is by looking into why the European Union supports inter-cultural dialogue. To do this, we have to look back at the origins of the EU itself.

At the end of the Second World War, Europe was in ruins. Millions of people were homeless, the economy had collapsed and most of the industrial infrastructure had been destroyed.

But in the midst of this desolation, people who had been at war came together to rebuild Europe. They did it with the realisation that the only way forward was peace, and that peace was only possible through reconciliation, which paved the way for the European project and for integration.

To this day, we in Europe support intercultural dialogue, because it is an instrument for peace and stability and because it nurtures mutual understanding and respect. And because we know the price exacted by the absence of dialogue, by hatred and intolerance.

We also attach great importance to the protection of our diverse heritage, both our physical cultural heritage and the intangible heritage of traditions and cultural practices. Europe also embodies an important lesson: that it is possible to progress from an appreciation of the uniqueness of one's own heritage to an interest in and respect for the heritage of others.

Valuing what is distinctive about the different countries, regions, languages and peoples of Europe co-exists with the appreciation of what we share. Unity in diversity is more than a motto for the European Union, it is a vital foundation on which the mutual understanding needed to make the EU work is based.

I'm delighted that today we have the opportunity to discuss the concept of heritage protection and its contribution to intercultural dialogue, in the light of the specific case of the sacred places of the Mediterranean.

The Mediterranean – it is often said – is the cradle of civilization. Along its shores today one can find 20 countries and territories, more than 20 languages, and all three monotheistic religions. If there is a place in the world where inter-cultural dialogue matters enormously, it is the Mediterranean. This region has a cultural richness unparalleled in the world; but it has also paid a high price for the privileged position it occupies in history.

A map of the Mediterranean that sought to trace the layers of different civilizations that have marked it, to show all the fault lines of history, all the ancient and modern battlefields that have scarred this region, would be unreadable – there have been too many of them to be counted.

But it is also possible to draw a different map, one that shows the region as a network of international and regional pilgrimage centres, monumental temples, shrines, synagogues, churches and mosques. There is a sacred geography of the Mediterranean that inspires a sense of deep awe and reverence in all but the most distracted traveller.

This map is also part of our shared history; unfortunately, it sometimes coincides with the map that shows the battles and the scars of the region.

Coming as I do from Cyprus, I am personally very familiar with the extraordinary cultural and spiritual riches created by the many civilizations and communities that have long lived in close quarters in this region of the world. So much cultural wealth was born of that closeness. But I am also familiar, of course, with the conflict and tragedy that such closeness has brought. It is precisely this strong sense of richness and conflict, so striking in my native Cyprus, which causes me to proclaim the importance of intercultural dialogue.

And it is in such a spirit of intercultural dialogue that we should approach the protection of our religious heritage, not as a means to assert the superiority of one group over another but as a means to understand shared histories and shared values.

As a process, intercultural dialogue is not easy to launch. It cannot be built on declarations and speeches alone. But bringing people together to cooperate on specific projects or activities can be a real stimulus from which it can grow.

Of course this supposes that people have the tools they need to engage in dialogue. A necessary pre-condition is to provide people with the intercultural skills they need to understand one another better. And education plays a central role in the development of such skills.

"Cultural awareness and expression" is one of the eight "key competences" identified at EU level as building blocks of our education and lifelong learning systems. It refers to the understanding of culture as a bridge between the past and the future, and of the deep links between culture and society.

We consider it an essential outcome of a European education that a young person should acquire the capacity for cultural awareness and expression.

Also important in this context is, specifically, heritage education. It teaches people to respect heritage and to be more aware of the reasons and rules for protecting it.

The European Commission places particular emphasis on raising public awareness of our cultural heritage. And we work closely with the Member States to ensure its preservation and protection.

In fact, a substantial part of the funds of the EU's Culture Programme is used to stimulate cultural cooperation in the cultural heritage sector; since 2007, we have supported some ninety projects.

The European Union also supports cultural heritage networks such as Europa Nostra, and we co-fund the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage which promotes high standards and high-quality skills in conservation practice.

Last year we established the European Heritage Label. The new European Heritage Label will be awarded to sites which have a strong symbolic value for the European Union. The Label highlights and symbolises European history, the building of the European Union and the shared values and human rights that underpin the process of European integration. The aim is to bring citizens, especially young people, closer to the European Union.

There are other programmes and schemes at EU level which can be harnessed to help protect heritage, but I will not mention them now, because I would like instead to return to the main point of reflection that I believe is crucial.

Our heritage should not be seen as a legacy that excludes certain communities. We must stop viewing our shared history as a legacy of competing claims. Rather, we must consider it a process of successive adoptions, one in which stratified layers have been laid down by the people and societies that have gone before us. We have a responsibility to preserve and to interpret the heritage we find around us, irrespective of whether it was placed there by those we consider our direct ancestors or not.

It is not an easy process. But adopting the heritage of others, in an act of mutual recognition, makes it possible to give that heritage a universal dimension. And it does not imply making cultures uniform; it is the diversity to be found within our shared heritage which makes the Mediterranean so thrilling.

Understanding this process of successive adoptions is vital for intercultural dialogue.

It means learning to practice respect as something that is offered, before it is demanded.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Intercultural dialogue remains an urgent necessity, and it is a sine qua non to peace and progress in the Mediterranean.

And the great richness of cultural heritage in the region can indeed be a crucial element of socio-economic development. We support the heritage economy directly through a succession of programmes: Euromed Heritage IV began in 2008 and will end this year, has been building on the achievements of three similar programmes.

We try to apply the principles I have outlined earlier. We support diverse aspects of cultural heritage that range from ancient theatre, to manuscripts, traditional architecture, Phoenician maritime routes; and heritage education, of course.

One point which has emerged clearly from the work of Euromed Heritage is that local communities must learn to appropriate their own cultural heritage – which is often richer, more ancient and more marked by the traces of other cultures than they themselves believe.

We believe this is an essential step towards intercultural dialogue.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have already referred to how unity in diversity lies at the heart of the European project, because in the European Union respect for diversity is the glue that binds us together. Intercultural dialogue enables us to appreciate that diversity.

The sacred places of the Mediterranean are an important part of our identity.

And they can help us to understand that our own identity is richer than we thought and that it is not something which can be limited within political or administrative borders.

Today's seminar is an opportunity for all of us to examine this topic from different angles. I look forward to the fruitful discussions that await us.

Thank you for your attention.

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