Experts call for co-operation between religion, civil society


Civil society can help moderate voices in religious organisations develop a following that helps the region towards European integration.

By Enis Rexhepi and Ivana Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Pristina and Belgrade -- 20/08/13


Men pray at a mosque in Pristina on August 8th following the end of Ramadan. Experts are urging civil society groups to work closer with the religious communities to promote moderate voices and encourage co-operation. [AFP]

Some experts and politicians in the region are suggesting a closer working relationship between civil society and religious organisations as a way of promoting interfaith dialogue and moderate voices.

Sonia Roubini, editor-in-chief of the Interfaith Kosovo portal, told SETimes that religious groups are an essential part of civil society. The voices of these groups, as representatives of civil society, can greatly impact communities' commitment to dialogue as an essential component of building a society based on open dialogue.

She said civil society and NGOs shouldn't shy away from talking about public issues related to faith, or from taking on challenges such as the extreme interpretations of religion that can affect other issues, including women's rights.

"I have seen great potential among civil society organisations in promoting more dialogue and agendas of tolerance and directly affecting the more moderate religious voices," Roubini told SETimes.

Petrit Selimi, Kosovo's deputy foreign minister and member of the state commission for religious freedom, told SETimes that religious communities themselves are part of the civil society. Kosovo must promote diversity and tolerance in the old tradition of respect for each other's religion, he said.

"We as foreign minister believe that interfaith dialogue is an essential instrument of public diplomacy because it helps to break some prejudices in certain political quarters, helped by the propaganda of the Serbian political past. Such prejudices may hinder Kosovo's goals for NATO and EU integration," Selimi said.

Nikola Knezevic, CEO and founder of the Centre for the Study of Religion, Politics and Society and a teacher at the Protestant Theological Faculty in Novi Sad, told SETimes that the role of civil sector society is smaller than it should be.

"There are few reasons for this. Firstly, the number of organisations that deal with the religious sector is relatively small. Second reason is limited international funds since inter-religious dialogue is not in the focus of foundations. The third reason is that religious communities are usually having this dialogue separately, not within the civil non-government sector," Knezevic said.

Knezevic said the issue of inter-religious dialogue is strongly connected with the issue of ethnic relations and the reason is identification of religious and national segments. Because of this, religious dialogue is a question of normalisation and co-operation in the whole region and should be stimulated from both religious communities and the civil sector.

"One of the biggest challenges that civil society faces when trying to get more engagement in promotion of religious dialogue is distrust. Unfortunately, some religious communities and some prominent individuals used to have some kind of antagonism for NGO sector. The NGOs are, often, seen as liberal, pro-West agencies whose purpose is destroying and undermining the national consciousness and unity," Knezevic said.

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But Selimi is convinced that religion should have no role in politics. According to him, there is no compatibility between politics, the constitution, secularism and societal consensus of Kosovo as pro-NATO and pro-EU in one side, and the involvement of religious communities.

According to Knezevic, civil society organisations are sometimes divided on good and bad, which usually depend on their national sensibilities and interpretations of the past.

"These biases should be demolished and face all challenges with further and higher engagement and co-operation with religious communities because the civil society and religious communities are equally important for the functioning of modern democratic societies, so it is more important to work to establish their better co-operation," Knezevic said.

How should religious communities contribute toward civil society and ethnic co-operation? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.

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