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European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]

José Manuel Durão Barroso

President of the European Commission

Remarks by President Barroso at the 10th High Level meeting of religious leaders

Press conference

Brussels, 10 June 2014

Good afternoon,

Today, I am delighted to meet for the 10th time - together with European Council President Van Rompuy and Vice President Surján of the European Parliament - eminent religious leaders here at the Commission headquarters.

We have with us distinguished dignitaries from the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Mormon churches and communities.

Let me start by making two important announcements:

Today, all participants have agreed a joint statement on the case of Ms Meriam Yahya Ibrahim in Sudan, a Christian woman who has been sentenced to death on charges of apostasy and adultery. We call upon the responsible Sudanese authorities and appeal courts to revoke this inhumane verdict and release Ms Meriam with the utmost urgency.

We welcome the fact that the Court of Appeal has meanwhile accepted the appeal and demand the government to repeal any legal provisions that penalize or discriminate against individuals for having or changing a religion or belief or for inducing others to change a religion or belief.

Freedom of religion and belief is a universal human right that needs to be protected everywhere and for everyone. Freedom of religion includes the right to have a religion, to change it and not to adhere to any religion.

To reiterate our strong commitment, the European Union in June 2013 adopted Guidelines on freedom of religion and belief.

I also would like to inform you that this morning we observed a minute of silence paying tribute to the victims of the recent murderous attack in the Jewish museum here in Brussels.

Churches and religious communities have an important contribution to make to ensure that the dignity of the human being is respected and promoted. They can help to reach out to each-other, show solidarity and avoid that differences turn into hatred, murder and conflict.

And they inspire political action that helps to improve the lives of our citizens. I am convinced: the active involvement of Churches and religious communities can contribute decisively to the ongoing reflections on the future of Europe. That is why I initiated these high-level meetings ten years ago, even before the Lisbon Treaty established the obligation for the European institutions to engage with religious communities, and I trust they will be a welcome and fruitful platform in the future.

Debating about the future of Europe was precisely the aim of today's meeting. We cannot yet draw conclusions, as our meeting will continue after this press moment through a working lunch, so what I am going to say can't be seen as conclusions. By the way, we want to keep these meetings quite informal, where we can, apart from formal declarations like the one I've already mentioned, keep a plurality of views, but let me, very spontaneously, tell you about some of the points we already discussed this morning regarding Europe:

Firstly, all of us are convinced that we are in a very important point now. Many participants discussed also the outcome of the European elections. And most of the participants linked these elections to the current moments of difficulties that Europe is now experiencing, namely from an economic and social point of view.

And in most comments it was underlined the importance of values. Values like peace – of course, it is a foundation principle of our union - but also of social cohesion, solidarity and justice. And this was highlighted as one of the most important issues to which the European Union should not only respond but be appearing as responding, because that was certainly one of the most important concerns in our public.

We have also seen – at least most of those who spoke – how important it is at the same time to fight extremism, be it religious intégrisme or fundamentalism but also racism. And we have highlighted the importance to be vigilant to all attempts to come to extremist positions against each other and namely against the values that are so important in the European Union. We took stock of the recent tendencies that we are seeing in some parts of our societies and that in fact are putting in question relations between people, where the other is perceived as the enemy, and precisely the need to combat with firmness all forms of discrimination against, for instance, the Jewish communities - the recent attacks here in Brussels demonstrate how serious the situation is - but also against all kinds of discrimination, and the link between political extremism and fanaticism - points made by you in this debate.

Some of you also mention the difficulties in our neighbourhood. Ukraine came also in discussion. And we also made a point on how to engage for Europe, engaging for the values that are so important since the founding of the European Union.

So I believe the meeting today confirmed a strong sense of common purpose: We need to maintain and strengthen Europe as a project of peace, but also of solidarity and democracy. European integration and democratic legitimacy have to advance in parallel, bridging the distance between the European institutions and the citizens is critically important.

Apart from these discussions about Europe that we are going to pursue, we also discussed the role of the religious communities and the dimension that this can bring in Europe and in the world. Some of us, including myself, mentioned how important it was the meeting for prayer between Pope Francis, President Shimon Peres and President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday. That appears as a stark symbol that leadership and courage are required to find peace today and that the religious message can also be a contribution for peace. The religious communities play a very important role in the European societies and we believe that that role can indeed match some of the concerns that are expressed by our societies.

So in a very impressionist view, because these are still discussions in progress, I think I have presented to you some of the points that we have started discussing today. After these ten years of these high-level meetings of the religious leaders with the European institutions I can tell you that this debate has proven very useful. I'm sure that whatever the format that will be decided in the future, I think we laid down here a very important platform. We, the European institutions, the European Parliament, the European Council and the European Commission.

And of course the dialogue is not only at this level. It's very important to know that it goes at other levels. We have services that make it, we have networks of contacts. That was highlighted by one of the interventions today, that we need to intensify this kind of dialogue at all levels, namely at the local level, recognising the principle of subsidiarity. But at this level and in this format it is certainly a contribution to deepen the reflection and I hope that our successors will continue this tradition because it has been proven very useful. All those that have participated until now have precisely highlighted the benefits that can derive from this open, sincere debate.

I give now the floor to the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy.

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