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21st Jan 2022

MEPs rage at choice of religious visits to the parliament

The visit of an Islamic cleric to the European Parliament has sparked outrage among MEPs questioning the presence of religious figures in the strictly political forum, as well as the complete absence of women on the guest list for future debates on religion in the EU.

Syria's grand mufti, the country's top religious authority, Sheik Ahmad Bader Hassoun, on Tuesday (14 January) was the first of a series of religious and state leaders to address MEPs in the context of the newly launched "European Year of Intercultural Dialogue".

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The aim of the programme is to create closer links between European cultures, languages, ethnic groups and religions.

In his speech, the Syrian cleric rejected the notion of a clash of civilizations between the West and the Islamic world, saying the real clash was between "culture and ignorance, terrorism and backwardness".

"Intercultural dialogue should be open and open-ended and based on mutual respect," Mr Hassoun said.

Speaking directly to journalists, the sheik accused the media of being responsible for unleashing a conflict over Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed two years ago. He said he disapproved of the drawings and condemned what he called disrespect for any sacred personality, "be it the Prophet Mohammed or Buddha".

"We have to respect the various cultures and not abuse the freedom of expression," the cleric said.

EP President Hans-Gert Pottering described the mufti as an advocate of an open and free society, and called for his help in building cultural bridges across the Mediterranean Sea.

But where are the women?

The European Parliament's draft guest list of speakers to the debates on religion, put together by the leaders of the seven political groups represented in the house, has caused outrage among MEPs, as not a single woman is to be found on the list.

So far, the list contains major religious figures such as pope Benedict XVI, the Dalai Lama and British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

The EP is also expected to invite the current president of the African Union, John Kufuor, UN Secretary General Ban Ki -Moon, Israeli President Shimon Perez and the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas.

Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld asked why in approving the list as part of the Year of Intercultural Dialogue, the group leaders had interpreted this exclusively as being an "inter-religious monologue".

"Could the list not be widened to include women and non-religious representatives?" Ms in 't Veld asked.

Reasoning along the same line, Swedish Green MEP Carl Schlyter told Euobserver: "It is absolutely scandalous that the European Parliament invites eight old men to discuss these topics, and not a single woman".

Other MEPs objected to bringing in religious leaders into European politics at all.

The parliament's "Party Working Group on the Separation of Religion and Politics" in a letter to Hans-Gert Pottering last year wrote: "It is unbecoming for any of the EU institutions to provide an exclusive platform to any particular grouping, including religions, in particular as the majority of European citizens are not religious or no longer practice their religion."

"Thus millions of individual citizens do not have a voice in the dialogue," the letter concluded.

Christians around Europe are increasingly led in worship by female priests, pastors and bishops, and according to a recent Eurobarometer survey, some 48 percent of European citizens claim to be non-confessional.

Replying to the criticism, the parliament's president, Hans-Gert Pottering, pointed out that the list of speakers had been approved by a majority of the Conference of Presidents, but that it was not final.

"With goodwill, the EP will be able to produce as balanced a list as possible", he said.

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