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First Archon International Religious Freedom Conference Successfully Concludes in Brussels

Brussels – The Archons International Religious Freedom Conference held here in Brussels Nov. 16 and 17 concluded today in an upbeat and hopeful atmosphere resulting from the many sincere and enlightening contributions of speakers and participants alike.

This first International Religious Freedom Conference entitled “Religious Freedom: Turkey's Bridge to the European Union,” brought together many scholars, religious freedom and human rights advocates, journalists, diplomats, parliamentarians, religious leaders, representatives of the Government of Turkey, lawyers and members of minority communities who presented complex, diverse and contrasting viewpoints and perspectives on the status of religious freedom in Turkey.

The Conference began in the morning of Nov. 16 in the European Parliament. Dr. Anthony Limberakis, National Commander of the Order of St. Andrew welcomed the participants and Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, director of the Liaison Office of the Orthodox Church to the European Union read the Patriarchal Greeting.

Archbishop Demetrios of America in his opening keynote address, stated that “Freedom is not an abstract isolated word and concept. Freedom is integrally connected with two basic concepts and realities: truth and love. There is no way to develop any real and genuine freedom without a parallel effort to be truthful and to speak the truth.”

His Eminence also spoke about how this Conference can constitute an ‘open door’ for Turkey and offered the example of St. Paul who at crucial times of his ministry was presented by God with an open door, explaining that “An open door is a new opportunity for entering into unknown areas of human experience, for discovering new possibilities for enhancing human relationships, for learning new ways of co-existence among religiously, culturally, and ethnically diversified people. An open door is an entryway into a new era of understanding and mutual respect between the religious minorities and the state in which they live. An open door can also be viewed as a new opportunity for eliminating the unacceptable limitations of religious freedom unfairly imposed upon the religious minorities in Turkey and specifically on the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Under this perspective, the present International Conference so carefully and methodically organized by the Archons of our Ecumenical Patriarchate constitutes the open door for Turkey to demonstrate her willingness to build the bridge of connection with the European Union.” (see full text)

A series of speakers on a variety of topics relating to religious freedom and human rights ensued. Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation spoke about religious freedom as a fundamental human right and stated that “the litmus test of democracy is how the majority treats the minority.” Several speakers presented an overview of the issues and concerns of the Religious minorities in Turkey. A panel discussion that followed, featured representatives of the religious minorities of Alevi Muslims, Armenians, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Protestants and Syriacs in Turkey. Other topics included the Turkish legal system as it pertains to the rights of religious minorities, the obligations of Turkey under treaties and conventions, the U.S. Policy vis-à-vis religious freedom and a second panel discussion offering legal and humanitarian perspectives on the issues.

Among the speakers was Egemen Bağiş, Minister for European Union Affairs and Chief Negotiator of the Republic of Turkey. The Archons, commending him for his efforts on behalf of religious minorities in Turkey, presented him with a commemorative plaque.

The first day concluded with a reception at the U.S. Embassy hosted by Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman and his wife.

Day two of the conference entitled “Crossing Over,” was held at the Conrad Brussels Hotel and included views from the Turkish side, from the European Parliamentarian’s side and from the side of the European Court of Human Rights. It explored issues of interfaith understanding and of compatibility of religious freedom and the secular Turkish state. A final panel discussed all the questions previously raised and attempted to propose answers and a framework for the dialogue going forward.

Dr. Limberakis in his closing remarks said, “…it was an extraordinary event of lasting significance… a civil, respectful and spiritual discourse” noting the diversity of the religious communities included in the Conference.

Archon George C. Rockas of Boston, chaired the Conference and was assisted by Archon John Zavitsanos. The conference was sponsored by the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in America and the Pammakaristos Brotherhood of Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Europe, in cooperation with the Patriarchal Liaison Office of the Orthodox Church to the European Union.

Further information and photos can be found at the Archons website www.archons.org/conference