The speech of Deputy Chairman, Foundation ―Jewish Forum of Ukraine (Ukraine) – in the international conference in Vilnius (November 16, 2011) – “Tolerance and Totalitarianism. Chalenges to Freedom”.
The question of religious tolerance is one of the most difficult. It is more difficult than the question of political or ethnic tolerance. Hence I will begin my observations from a very important for me historical digression, when in 1991, during the bloody January Events, we, a small group of Ukrainian volunteers, were preparing to swear an oath in the Supreme Council’s building, which is now Seimas. We sat during the night together with Audrius Butkevičius, the then Minister of National Defence, translating the text of the oath into Ukrainian. The oath finished with a phrase: “May God help me”. It was discussed and we decided that only believers will say this phrase and non-believers will be able to swear without saying it. This filled me with awe and admiration. Just imagine the situation of those times: it was very likely that soon one would die beneath the tank tracks, experience the greatest challenges, and in spite of that, on the eve of possible death, while drafting the text of the oath, it was attempted not to hurt anyone’s feelings – neither believers, nor non-believers. Maybe today this does not seem strange, but for me, having grown up in soviet society, this has resulted in a real cultural shock at the time.
It has become commonplace to discuss religious tolerance in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL). While the GDL was tolerant of all religions, it was strong, expanding and multicultural state. Territories joined the Duchy by their own will. This was the case until Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth decided to become more Catholic than the Pope himself and started the attempts to consolidate a dominant ideology. Eventually, this strategy led to suffering not only in Lithuania, but also in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine.
I am going to risk saying that religious tolerance in the GDL arose due to weak faith. It was based on a conception of religion which was in essence pagan and according to which even persons who formally regard themselves as monotheists recognize that tribes living nearby can have their own faith and there is no sense in neglecting that. However, if we were to fully recognize only one monotheistic religion – Christianity, Judaism or Islam – we would have to admit that only one of them can be just. If only one of them is just, the others are wrong. They simply cannot coexist as different choices. Thus, here I want to point out a first dilemma related to religious tolerance: can we be both devoted believers and tolerant of other religions simultaneously?
The simplest model of religious tolerance is when each religious community lives its life and keeps out of the activities of those professing other faiths. In Europe of the Middle Ages, in the times of the GDL, such a model of forbearance was a great achievement; hence today historians rightly pay tribute to the GDL of those times. On the other hand, we have to ask if this forbearance and model of tolerance suffices also in the 21st century.
Let us not hasten to reply positively, as everything is not as simple as it seems at first glance. Here is an example: a group of radicals appears in one of religious communities. Should we tolerate it? Can we shut our eyes to what the representatives of some religious communities do to their children? For instance, Jehovah’s witnesses firmly oppose blood transfusion and some other contemporary medical treatments. If a child in Jehovah witness’ family gets sick and medical practices that are unacceptable to the parents need to be applied, do we have to respect parents’ religious beliefs and keep out?
On one hand, there is an inalienable right of parents to educate children according to their understanding and to teach them what is right and what is wrong, until the children become adults and can make their own choices. On the other hand, how should we react when parents’ right to educate children at their own discretion clashes with children’s rights or state’s interests, and what happens in a secular state where there is no official religion? This is a difficult question and no state has come up with a perfect answer.
Another dilemma is related to the classification of religious communities into traditional and non-traditional, when some are treated more favourably than others. To what extent this is reconciled with tolerance and the principle of equal rights? In my view, all religious communities should be treated as a club of people with common interests. All the citizens have a right to belong to a club they choose. Some religious clubs are large and strong, while others are small.
True, another question is also raised: can we ignore that a nation and state was formed according to a particular religious tradition? What should be done with religious heritage that is historically very important? Again, there is no one answer. For example, in my personal opinion the most appropriate view is that we have to consistently adhere to the principle of secular state and treat all religious communities in the same way, in spite of their historical merits or significance. There is also another possibility: to celebrate festivities and occasions related to a particular religion on a national level, recognizing that they are important even in a secular society, in view of their belonging to a tradition stretching through centuries. There is one more way, as seen in Iran, for example, where religious feasts and religion become an element unifying and organising different ethnicities.
While discussing tolerance, a concession is often made, according to which we should not tolerate intolerance and forbear what encourages it. This concession is particularly problematic while discussing religious sphere. As an example, let us take a group of believers who think that they profess the most righteous religion and only they live in a right way, while all the others are mistaken. Do we have to be tolerant and accept such a religious community and this way as if affirm its view? What impact does this have on the rights of other religious communities?
I understand that I have posed many more intricate questions than I have provided answers. It was important for me to emphasize that difficult dilemmas exist in religious field and that they should be considered. I have no doubt that forbearance and tolerance are very important values and we can be only glad that Lithuania has proved more than once in its history that it can teach others tolerance. However, we also have to admit that we are now facing the 21st century, with its own challenges and questions, and we have to be sensitive to them.