30th Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities – 22 to 24 March 2016

Rising to the challenges of creating intercultural societies at local level

Bert Bouwmeester (Netherlands, ILDG) co-rapporteurs

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Dear Chairman, dear colleagues,

Our societies are becoming increasingly polarised. Radicalisation, violent extremism and sectarianism within our cities continue to gain ground.

It might appear at first glance that the question of intercultural and interreligious dialogue, the subject of the present report, does not fit in the Congress strategy to combat radicalisation. Yet, religion plays a key role in public life in the 21st century. It is often an important aspect of people’s identity.

In our increasingly pluralist societies, interreligious dialogue and cooperation are essential to avoid, forestall or settle conflicts. The open and respectful exchange of views between individuals and groups belonging to different cultures or religions allow us to break down prejudices and strengthen our "living together" in diversity. It is therefore one of the most effective tools in the fight against intolerance and radicalisation.

The Congress and the other organs of the Council of Europe and have taken a particular concern and interest in this matter over the past ten years. The many recommendations, publications and conferences on this issue are evidence of the prominence given to it by this organisation.

In 2008 the Congress adopted its Recommendation on “Intercultural and interreligious dialogue”. This was followed – in 2011 - by a resolution on “Meeting the challenge of interfaith and intercultural tensions at local level”.

These texts address society as a whole, regardless of whether they are believers or non-believers. They invite individuals and groups to listen to, understand and talk to each other about living together.

Just two month ago, the Congress expressed its willingness to participate in a Platform of dialogue between the Council of Europe and high representatives of religions and non-confessional organisations soon to be launched by the Parliamentary Assembly. 

It is no secret that the recent attacks in Europe, heavily influenced by the rise of religious fundamentalist extremism have been a major factor in the decision to return to this issue and to prepare this report.

The situation in Europe today is also being exacerbated by the refugee crisis that we are currently facing.  If one thing is clear, it is that integration of so many newcomers is not going to be easy on any front, but the acceptance by the public of people from other religious backgrounds will probably be one of the more challenging aspects of this process.

Dear colleagues,

Intercultural and interreligious dialogue between the different groups that make up our communities is crucial for conflict prevention and for building cohesive and inclusive societies. Local and regional elected representatives can play a decisive role in this respect.

Even though it is not up them to conduct this dialogue, since our democracies are governed by the principle of secularism, they can play a useful and instrumental role in contributing to the development of a counter narrative to radical and fundamentalist religious discourse.

Through their activities of awareness-raising, prevention and education, local and regional authorities can contribute to conflict resolution in everyday encounters in neighbourhoods.

It is not enough to talk about "living together" and dialogue in abstract terms. Local authorities must play their part of bring together people from different cultures and religions. Whether it is an intercultural festival, shared neighbourhood meals or exhibitions, all kinds of events bringing people together deserve to be supported.

From opening up spaces for local groups to get together and disseminating the information about such encounters, from enabling education and training institutions to address these issues to supporting local leaders who are pro-dialogue, the possibilities opened to local authorities constitute a broad panoply of action.

There are numerous initiatives all over Europe that are going exciting work in this respect.  We need to raise awareness among local authorities about these initiatives, to show those local authorities which feel that they are not equipped to organise intercultural or interreligious dialogue that there are many cities and local associations that have valuable experience in such projects which they can draw on.