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Ecumenical Church Days, Turku 19 May 2017
Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s speech at the seminar “Religions, peace and integration”

Government Communications Department 19.5.2017 16.40
Speech

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The Church has had great significance in my own life. The Church now also has a growing role as a participant and actor in social debate. At the same time, I want to recognise the presence of representatives of other religions. It is important to engage in dialogue together.

I will speak today on three themes. Firstly on religion’s role in the origin of conflicts, secondly on its role in achieving peace, and thirdly on Finland’s immigration policy.

For years, it was thought that the role of religion in societies was declining. It was thought that there was no need to take religion into consideration in how decisions are prepared and implemented. The events of recent years have shown that this was wrong.

Isak Svensson of the Uppsala University has shown that in 1975 only 3% of conflicts at that time could be classified as religious to some extent. This figure had risen by 1989 to 18%, and in 2008 the figure was 49%.

Extremist movements drawn from religions are seen within all of the largest world religions. Religion is used to stir up confrontation and legitimise hatred. The power of religious leaders or organisations has been insufficient power to halt this trend. Mistrust in different ways towards believers has increased all over the world.

Here I will discuss three issues: tools for peace- and state-building; the struggle within religions against extremist ideology; and the deterioration of the humanitarian situation.

Firstly, it was long considered that the democratic nation-state represents the best model by which the affairs of groups of people can be promoted and disagreements resolved. The UN’s mission has been to help warring parties to return to the negotiating table, to rebuild a state together. It was hoped that the UN would bring agreement and regulation to multinational issues. The UN now faces many conflicting pressures. Its efforts to resolve conflicts by re-creating state structures often do not seem to yield results. Either the parties cannot be brought to the table to reach agreement or the institutions created are weak in terms of their legitimacy. It is not enough for a state to have a constitution, government, parliament and head of state – the people must be able to trust it and experience it as their own. Such situations are vulnerable to the incitement of mistrust between groups of people and religions.

Extremist movements can easily undermine the stability of a fragile state. We have also seen attempts by many states to expand their own influence by funding closely aligned religious groups. This has led to a deepening and prolongation of conflicts, as in Syria, Yemen and Libya. Religious leaders alone are scarcely able to halt this trend. It is high time that states that support violence recognise their mistake. Instead of external interference, local warring parties need space to build cooperation.

The incitement into violence of disagreements between religious groups may also reach Europe. Would all European states be able to distinguish the difference between parties who incite violence and the ordinary members of the group in question? It is therefore in everyone’s interest to prevent matters from drifting in the wrong direction.

An understanding of religion, links with religious communities and support for cooperation between them are therefore required in all European states and in the EU. I also believe that all European religions, including Islam, should stand on their own feet.

Secondly, I would like to touch on the struggle under way within religions about the message that each religion or denomination transmits to the outside world. This is an area in which religious leaders and communities can do a lot.

Religions typically emphasise their own special characteristics. It is very important to highlight how they differ from those who believe otherwise. Violence increases in an atmosphere in which people consider themselves better than others. My adviser Antti Pentikäinen has drawn attention to the fact that religious communities that spend more time on external behaviour than on internal growth more easily end up coercing their own members, and thereby the difference between mental and physical violence also becomes blurred. In such a growth medium, violence and its legitimacy towards those who believe and act otherwise is reinforced. This struggle is taking place within all religions.

In Asia, Buddhist nationalists have attacked Muslims. Conditions have become difficult for Christians in the Middle East. Fear of Muslims has been fomented among both Christian and Jewish groups. It is clear that these attitudes reflect the policies of certain states. It is important for me as a Christian that Jesus renounced violence of any kind.

Thirdly, there are grounds for stating that the world is growing more troubled. Through climate change, living conditions are deteriorating. In today’s war-torn areas, people are increasingly out of the reach of humanitarian assistance. Because of this, people have no alternative but to start moving.

Within our society, too, fear and confrontation have increased. In these conditions, incitement to fear may become a self-perpetuating prophecy. Even so, it is increasingly the case that fears are incited in the name of protecting one’s own religion.

In Finland’s foreign policy, peace mediation is one of our main goals. The Government implements this in cooperation with various actors. One instrument is the peace mediation network of religious and traditional actors maintained by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in cooperation with Finn Church Aid. Its aim is to reform the UN’s way of operating with religious and tribal communities in war situations.

Even so, we still need more expertise and investment in peace mediation. Conflicts are increasingly complex. It is difficult to bring warring parties, such as terrorist organisations, to the negotiating table and to agree common ground rules. That is why the UN often needs to call upon the assistance of local tribes and religious actors.

National and UN diplomats need training in the role of religion in conflicts. More and better research is also needed. I would like to express my thanks to the Church for its investment in these areas. It’s excellent that the various actors of Finnish society take responsibility for solving and preventing crises.

Finland is looking for pragmatic solutions in these matters. We must boldly show our expertise with the UN and other actors. This must be done, because war is the worst catastrophe that can befall a nation. We Finns have opportunities and skills to help end conflicts. This also involves strengthening our support for the role of the religious community.

Here in Finland, too, the contribution of all religious groups is important in building security. The public authorities have increased their cooperation with religious communities. We recognise that religious and local communities are often the most effective of all in preventive action. Similarly, they are needed when those who have joined extremist movements return and, after possible criminal proceedings, must be restored to society.

It is important that you do this work together. At the same time, this work cannot only be done by a small group of like-minded people. You need to seek answers to why, within each religion, fear and suspicion of each other are increasing and extremist thinking is spreading – and you must be able to reverse this trend together. I urge at the same time that the Church also increase its own contribution to the promotion of peace. The religions have their own indispensable role in strengthening conciliation and forgiveness. 40% of all peace agreements collapse during the first two years. I urge you to find the means to do more to strengthen expertise in fostering conciliation.

Immigration is currently a hot topic of debate. When we ask, based on Christian values, what our hearts say about this issue, I believe that many of you think the same way as I do. People fleeing from war and persecution must be helped. We must share a meal with them and offer them accommodation. In 2015, 32,000 asylum seekers arrived in Finland. Many of them will also be granted asylum in Finland. Not all of them who came here, however, fulfil the conditions of international protection. Some of them have also been radicalised in their country of origin. This tiny fraction of asylum seekers influence, to some extent, the security of our society.

In addition to legislation, human rights agreements and international commitments guide the Finnish authorities’ asylum decisions. For Finland, it is a matter of honour and existence to comply with them. If a decision is perceived to be wrong, it is possible to appeal it under the rule of law.

Those fleeing from war will be helped. We have not returned people to Syria for example. Of those who arrived during the 2015 refugee crisis, around 10,000 people have been granted asylum. When comparing different European countries, it can be said that Finland has borne its responsibilities well.

Finland complies with the same EU legislation and international agreements as the other EU member states. The Government’s main policy guideline has been to harmonise criteria and asylum policy with the level of other EU countries. Finland’s policy has been consistent with the EU countries. For example, our authorities closely monitor how Sweden assesses the situation in different areas of Afghanistan. If there is a change in Sweden’s assessment, Finland takes this change into account when making its own country assessment. An assessment of the security situations of countries of origin is made in connection with every asylum application.

The Finnish Immigration Service adheres to our legislation and to prohibition on return in accordance with human rights agreements. No-one is returned to an area where there is risk of the death penalty, torture, persecution or degrading treatment. I have also checked the treatment in Finland of asylum seekers who converted to Christianity. Religion in itself cannot be a criterion for granting asylum, but it may be that a person is at risk of death in the country of origin due to religion. I consider practices and resourcing to be very professional and well founded.

This country must be built on law and heart. I trust in the Finnish authorities and the rule of law. The authorities make decisions with a big heart, care, high work morale, and adhering to laws and agreements. Confidence in the authorities and the effective rule of law are the basis for the stability of our society. They must therefore be maintained. They must therefore be respected.

Now people are wandering through Europe along dangerous routes without knowing whether asylum is possible. At European forums, Finland has sought solutions to enable people to be assisted where there is distress. Similarly, the root causes should be addressed.

We should help people close to their homes. The European Union, together with the UN Refugee Agency, should build more humane conditions for refugees who have left their homes. We could take quota refugees directly from these areas. Personally, I would be willing to increase the number of quota refugees, if we succeed in agreeing an overall solution in Europe.

I will gladly discuss Finland’s asylum policy with representatives of the Church and other religions. We are united by respect for human dignity. Human value is sacred. We are all images of God. One of the main tasks of the Church is to support the weakest. This has also been my own conviction.

As Prime Minister, I have deep concern and responsibility to ensure that everyone fleeing from war and persecution receives help. At the same time, I feel a great responsibility to ensure that we respect the law as well as decisions made by Finnish officials with high work morale. I also firmly believe that if and when errors sometimes arise, they are put right through the due process of law.

I encourage the Church and its members to participate actively in the integration of immigrants and in Finnish society. The fact that you open your homes and otherwise help immigrants’ everyday lives and integration into Finnish society is extremely valuable civic engagement. The traditions and values of century-old Finland oblige all of us to do so.