Faith in religious pluralism

January 20, 2020

The Netherlands has a tradition of promoting religious pluralism, tolerant societies, the separation of religion and state and opposing extremism in any form. The government values religious freedom as one of the key elements of an overall human rights policy. In the upcoming years, the country plans to foster religious tolerance by promoting an inclusive exchange of best practices between practitioners, faith-based actors and people in the field.  As pointed out by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the country has best practices to share, but also wants to learn from others in order to improve its own policies. This is why, we are so excited to travel to Kyiv to formally launch a project “Faith in religious pluralism” funded by the Permanent Representation of the Netherlands to the OSCE. We want to contribute to the multilateral work by the Netherlands to mitigate intolerance on the European continent. We are happy that Ambassador Jos Douma, Special envoy on religion and belief, is joining us to learn more about the situation in Ukraine but also to share his unique view and experience on the subject. The project will highlight that freedom of religion must be protected as a cornerstone of a democratic and inclusive society.

Ukraine is a nation-state with a long history of mass violence and trauma, which has led to not speaking out about conflict. This has unfortunately resulted in a weak culture of dialogue among different groups in the society. With old wounds not being healed, stereotypes are easily revived. Armed conflict and the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation have led to an increasing level of polarisation in the society – with a shrinking space to stay ‘neutral’ or seek dialogue.

Many challenges

A weak social contract is another equally alarming obstacle for Ukraine to break free from its largely oppressive past. According to Gallup just 9% of residents of Ukraine had confidence in the national government in 2019, the lowest confidence level in the world for the second consecutive year. However, religious institutions continue to be among the most trusted (Razumkov Centre, 2019). In such fragile contexts, politicisation (and securitisation) of the religious sphere can become the tipping point for the shaky balance in the society. Russia’s policy to instrumentalize the Orthodox church in hybrid warfare (e.g. Ukraine, Balkans) complicates the picture even more. The rise of conservative/fundamentalist tendencies in the society, the weakening of religious pluralism and the rise of (religious) nationalism are threatening a pluralistic, tolerant and democratic transformation process. Ukraine is facing many of these challenges amidst ongoing armed conflict in a politically volatile international environment.

Social contract

Mark Twain used to say: “When ill luck begins, it does not come in sprinkles, but in showers.” Ukraine can hardly catch a break in recent years. The life of people is a constant roller coaster. Optimism with the election of new president  has been followed by an international scandal he is part of pertaining to the impeachment procedure of Donald Trump. 2020 began with another tragedy – Iran downing a Ukrainian plane. Yet, similarly to many local experts, we do not fall into despair and are ready to go to work to mobilize religion for peace and dialogue. What we have seen in PAX activities numerous times is that religious leaders and institutions can provide a platform for opposing sides to meet and use dialogue as a tool to deal with disagreements. In a context of weak public institutions (such as in Ukraine), religious leaders and their communities are often holding the social fabric together. Strong social contract is one of the ways to counter activities that exploit existing fault lines in society, by trying to deepen them through polarising narratives. The religious leaders and their institution can help in establishing an environment, where the social contract could be improved through enabling sides to meet and understand better their positions and expectations.

Religious leaders

On Tuesday 21st of January 2020, we will host religious leaders, parliamentarians, renowned experts, activists and representatives of international organizations at the Embassy of the Netherlands in Kyiv. Together we will embark on a thought-provoking exercise by answering how to mobilize the potential of the faith-based communities for the development of a peaceful and resilient society in Ukraine. We expect sometimes difficult but so much needed discussions between the key stakeholders. PAX is very much committed to help the religious leaders and their communities to anchor the freedom of religion and take an active part in promoting dialogue and peace in the country. Precisely to that end, we hope to create a neutral platform for interdisciplinary exchange on the highest level and share valuable lessons from the project implementation. We encourage you to follow our project closely.


Andriy Korniychuk, Programme Manager Eastern Europe

Dion van den Berg, Team lead Programme Europe

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