Parliamentarians Addresses Growing Role of Religion in European Policy; Experts Cite Rise of Religious Intolerance

First seminar of its kind joins members of parliament with international experts to explore impact of religious diversity on policy making in an enlarged EU
--Call for re-examination of role of Holy See at the United Nations--

For Immediate Release

October 15, 2002

Media Contact: Roxanne Evans

(+1) 202-986-6093

At the first seminar of its kind held with Swedish parliamentarians, members met today with international experts to explore the role of religion in international policy making. The dialogue takes place at a time when religious institutions are increasingly interested in participating in policy debates within Europe-even as the positions of some religious institutions are at odds with the values that form a European consensus on critical social issues. This is particularly relevant for women's rights, gay rights, sexuality and reproductive rights.

After September 11, and the subsequent rise in religious intolerance, no one will deny the importance of religion in international politics, planners said. With the upcoming enlargement of the European Union, diversity will increase and so will the impact of religious differences on the debate. It is high time there was an open discussion about these issues, organizers explained.

The need for such a meeting became even clearer when leaders of the Roman Catholic church leveled harsh criticism at the Charter of Fundamental Rights adopted by the European Union. At the time, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, a close aide to the pope, said the charter failed to take adequate account of the "historical and cultural roots of Europe, in particular Christianity, which represents Europe's soul and which still today can inspire Europe's mission and identity." Cardinal Ratzinger, the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that it was regrettable that "God and our responsibility before God" had not been "anchored in the European constitution."

Catholics for a Free Choice and The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU), who jointly organized the meeting, are part of The "See Change" Campaign in which women's and human rights groups from around the globe are calling for a review of the Holy See's Non-member State Permanent Observer status at the United Nations. From opposing the use of condoms to halt the spread of AIDS to decrying the provision of emergency contraception for refugee victims of rape, the Holy See misuses its special status to build real obstacles to the promotion of women's health and well-being, the groups said.

"In connection with a trip to Zambia and Uganda I became aware about CFFC's "See Change" Campaign. I learned that there are Catholic advocates who are pro-choice, pro-everyone's right to efficient contraceptives and who actively work against problems concerning sexual and reproductive health. It's with great interest that I follow a Catholic organisation working to change the Vatican's status at the UN. Meeting with CFFC's advocates and other key persons gives us a very important opportunity to improve our political work in the Swedish parliament," said the Swedish parliamentarian Ulla Hoffmann.

"While the Roman Catholic church has made many positive contributions to peace and justice at the UN and the European Union, neither these contributions nor the negative stands the Holy See has taken on women's rights and reproductive health are the heart of the matter," said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. "The heart of the matter is the fact that the Holy See is not a state, but the government of the Roman Catholic church. To grant state status and special privileges to this religion over all others is simply unfair. The "See Change" Campaign seeks a level playing field in the UN for all religions," said Kissling, a key speaker at the event.

The group noted, having experienced the desire of the Holy See for a privileged place in the United Nations, we are increasingly concerned that the Vatican is seeking similar privileges and power within the European Union. Before that happens, members of parliament both nationally and at the European Union level need to consider developing guidelines for the appropriate role of religious institutions within the European Union. This seminar serves as a starting point for the development of these policies. The legal status of the Holy See as a nation-state is questionable. It does not meet the same criteria of nationhood as the other nations that are participating in the UN, organizers said.

Other speakers included:

Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) is a non-governmental organization with special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations. Catholics for a Free Choice is also the initiator of The "See Change" Campaign-the international campaign calling on the United Nations secretary-general to review the current status of the Holy See at the United Nations. The campaign has gained significant international support, with more than 700 organizations worldwide. A signature-gathering drive is currently underway to garner individual support.