The Council of Europe and inter-convictional dialogue

The Revd James Barnett, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative at the European Institutions and currently representative at the Council of Europe of the Inter-European Commission on Church and School has kindly contributed the following guest post on inter-religious dialogue in the European Institutions.


Issues related to religion come before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. They include religiously-specific dress in the public space, crucifixes in schools (in Italy), or a new course on Norwegian culture that included knowledge of religious practice and history. These judgments involve a balance between religious freedom, the neutrality of the state and not infringing the rights of one party to the benefit of another.

In the course of history differences related to religion have led to intolerance, conflict in society or even to wars. Fortunately, the “new” Europe and its jurisprudence emphasise “living together” in a context of diversity as well as freedom of religion, conscience and belief. In countries where there is a tradition of laïcité or absolute separation of religion and the state, like France, the space in which people are free to practise their convictions is a basic principle.

The forty-seven member states of the Council of Europe, twenty-four of which have become members since the collapse of Communism in 1989, are bound by treaty to accept the judgments of the Court of Human Rights. Nevertheless, the Council of Europe and the Court do not take a position on doctrinal issues and the Council of Europe does not know and must not know whether or not God exists. The task is to ensure that citizens are free to have their own views, to manifest those views and to practise their religion if they have one.

The relevant text of the European Convention on Human Rights is Article 9 on freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Paragraph 1  states that:

“1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance”.

A second paragraph guarantees freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs

“… subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.

Moreover, the Article concerns thought and conscience as well as religion.Nevertheless, when I represented the Archbishop of Canterbury in Strasbourg nearly twenty years ago there was not much discussion of religion in the Council of Europe, even though Churches hoped that their interests could be made known or even represented in the European Institutions.

Today things are different. Alvaro Gil Robles, who was Commissioner for Human Rights from 2000 to 2006, initiated a number of colloquies related to the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue. This activity has continued with annual meetings in different member states. Participants represent not just religion, but also nonreligious positions or convictions. Personal acquaintance and friendship lead to useful discussion of both religion and conscientious convictions in contemporary society.

The same principle applies in the European Union. The Treaty of Lisbon commits the Union to dialogue with communities of faith and philosophical conviction by an amalgamation of Article 11 of the Treaty on the European Union and Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union:

Article 11 (TEU)

“1. The institutions shall, by appropriate means, give citizens and representative associations the opportunity to make known and publicly exchange their views in all areas of Union action.

2. The institutions shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society”.

Article 17 (TFEU)

“1. The Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities in the Member States.

2. The Union equally respects the status under national law of philosophical and non-confessional organisations.

3. Recognising their identity and their specific contribution, the Union shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with these churches and organisations”.

The Treaty is arguably even-handed and there are appropriate forms of consultation with religious and non religious organisations. But questions or even misgivings exist because political debate is like that!

In the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe the first sentence of the de Puig Report on State, religion, secularity and human rights begins like this:

“While noting that religion is an important feature of European society, where it has become a central issue of debate, the Assembly reaffirms the principle of separation of church and state as one of Europe’s shared values”.

This is not simple in a country like Great Britain, where the Monarch is “Head” of the Church of England and where the Coronation includes a promise to defend the Church of Scotland – or indeed in Norway where the Monarch is a member of the Norwegian Lutheran Church. Nevertheless, the equal treatment of every citizen is guaranteed and plurality is a fact of life. Mutual knowledge and understanding across cultures and religions are essential. Religious differences go beyond the frontiers of countries. Religions influence culture – by which they are influenced in turn.

The Council of Europe encourages inter-religious, inter-confessional or even intra-religious dialogue: see Chapter 3.5 (The religious dimension) of the Council’s White Paper on intercultural dialogue, Living Together as Equals in Dignity (2007). In addition, the range of participation in specialist working groups and colloquies covers the diversity of civil society, which goes beyond religion to involve the inter-convictional dialogue mentioned in the White Paper: see, for example, the Parliamentary Assembly’s Colloquy on Questions related to State and Religion (2007).

Indeed, a person with no convictions would be incomplete, though not all convictions are religious. It follows that comprehensive debate about freedom of religion, conscience and conviction involves requires and equally comprehensive dialogue across in which non-restrictive participation by religion is an essential aspect of European convictional plurality.

In this context, the G3i is an international, intercultural and inter-convictional group whose members include adherents of the major monotheist religious traditions, a non-theistic Buddhist tradition and humanist involvement at a number of levels. (The word “humanist” is subtly different in French because “les humanistes” often refers to religious believers who use common humanity as a starting-point for their debate and reflection.)

Members of the G3i include people involved with International Non-Governmental Organisations represented at the European Institutions. Their role is important because about 400 INGOs have participative status at the Council of Europe and the INGO Conference is a legal entity. It is also a meeting place for people of the whole range of religious and nonreligious conviction. I have been “president” of an INGO group of which the report on The Religious Dimension of Intercultural Dialogue should be available in the summer. The group is inter-convictional and contributions include “non-confessional” information about different traditions and religious practice. This work is related to legal developments in contemporary Europe, but its contribution to mutual interest, life together and civil society in Europe is equally important.

The G3i’s recent Klingenthal Appeal calls for an inter-convictional approach to structured and open dialogue and the development of participative and representative democracy. Further information is available in English at and in French at

One thought on “The Council of Europe and inter-convictional dialogue

  1. I was engaged as a consultant to assist with the factual part of the drafting of State, religion, secularity and human rights. Unfortunately, the statement at the beginning of the final version of the Report as published about “the principle of separation of church and state as one of Europe’s shared values” is just plain wrong on the facts (and absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with me, Guv).

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