Dr. h.c. Nikolaus Schneider

Dr. h.c. Nikolaus Schneider
Chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) 

Address to commence the Second International Symposium on Religious Freedom:
"Tearing Down Walls: Achieving Religious Equality in Turkey",

Berlin, 4 December 2013

Your Eminences, Excellencies, dear brothers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a joy and honor for me to extend the warmest of greetings to you both personally and on behalf of the Evangelical Church in Germany Council.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, whom you serve as archons, is, as the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Germany and Central Europe, one of our church's most important ecumenical partners. Together, we have been conducting a bilateral theological dialogue, and we are already looking forward to welcoming His All Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch upon his visit to Germany in May 2014.

Your topic of "religious freedom" is close to the hearts of both our churches. It is one of the central tasks of the churches to advocate for the free practice of faith by Christians throughout the world. This has also led the Evangelical Church in Germany to work together with its Roman Catholic brothers and sisters on a report concerned with religious freedom around the world. The report documents how Christian congregations face discrimination or are persecuted in many countries – and often in countries whose governments have instituted Islam as the state religion. In Turkey as well, Orthodox churches, like their Catholic and Protestant brothers and sisters, are not fully able to freely live their faith.

A month and a half ago, the EKD joined with its Orthodox brothers and sisters in faith at a festive worship service in Trier to recall the Edict of Toleration issued 1700 years ago in Milan by Emperor Constantine. The edict did not indeed only signal an end to the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. It was in fact the first European legal act that institutionalized the positive freedom for the practice of all religions, stating: "that we might grant to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred … freely and openly, without molestation."

Constantine, whom you venerate as a saint, saw his edict as a contribution toward "the peace of our times", as he put it. Or as we might say today: toward social peace. And the edict did not leave it at mere words, but provided the material basis for the practice of this religious freedom through the return of confiscated buildings.

The guiding principle at the time was that positive religious freedom was beneficial to a society and beneficial to all of its members – an idea that is not less timely today than it was then. And this does not only apply for Central Europe but also for Turkey, whose largest city was founded by the author of this Edict of Tolerance, and which continues to be referred to as Constantinople in your own usage.

The Evangelical Church in Germany welcomed the recent decision of the Turkish government to return the Mor Gabriel Monastery's lands. We hope that this decision represents the beginning of a path toward freer religious pluralism and positive religious freedom. The advances in terms of justice that were confirmed by the European Commission in its last report on Turkey provides us with good reason to hope for a development, with regard to religious freedom, that will lead to greater openness for the spiritual life of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Moravian monthly text for December – the month in which the birth of Jesus is celebrated in our church – is "In him was life, and the life was the light of all people" (John 1:4).

It is the common task of all Christian churches to speak of this light to all people. We advocate together for the freedom to do this in words and deeds in all parts of the world. And we ask for political support for this as well.

I would like to wish all of conference the participants successful and fruitful meetings and God's blessings.