The Highland News, November 2014
When visiting the Vatican in October 2013, European Parliament President Martin Schulz invited His Holiness Pope Francis to address MEPs during a formal sitting in Strasbourg during 2014. In welcoming the Pope to this month’s Strasbourg Plenary Mr Schulz stressed the “common goals” of the EU and the Catholic Church in promoting “the values of tolerance, respect, equality, solidarity and peace”.
Pope Francis was warmly applauded by MEPs after his 40-minute address to the plenary, the key theme of which was the safeguarding of human dignity. I was pleased that in his speech Pope Francis praised the promotion of human rights, both within the Union and in its relations with third countries and that he drew attention to the Parliament’s responsibility of keeping democracy alive. Democracies should not be allowed to “collapse under the pressure of multinational interests which are not universal” he stressed. I also welcomed his insistence that “the time has come to promote policies which create employment” and that “above all there is a need to restore dignity to labour by ensuring proper working conditions”.
Twenty six years ago, in October 1988, His Holiness Pope John Paul II was the first Pope to visit the European Parliament. He also addressed MEPs during a plenary session in the Strasbourg Chamber. Pope John Paul II is known for his fight against poverty, working with organisations like UNICEF, and for pursuing peace through his contribution to end communism in his native Poland. In his address the Pope described Europe as a “beacon of civilisation”. Some may remember, myself included, that the Pope’s discourse was unexpectedly interrupted when Northern Irish MEP, Ian Paisley, brandished a poster portraying the Pope as the Anti-Christ – a scene John Paul II observed with faint amusement before proceeding with his speech.
This visit, however, was not the first to the European Parliament by a spiritual leader. The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, visited the European Parliament in Strasbourg in June 1988, to plead for the cause of the Tibetan people, oppressed by the People’s Republic of China since 1949. This was however an unofficial meeting during which the Dalai Lama called for the withdrawal of Chinese troops from Tibet and urged for increased Tibetan representation in the regional government. It was only in October 2001 that the European Parliament finally officially welcomed the Dalai Lama for a formal sitting in Strasbourg. President Nicole Fontaine expressed her admiration for the Dalai Lama’s tireless peaceful fight for independence for the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama stressed the hopeless situation of the Tibetan people who he felt were living a life of repression and a systematic undermining of their culture.
Acting on a Commission proposal, the European Parliament declared 2008 the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. Under the motto ‘Together in diversity’, this initiative was aimed at raising awareness of the importance of dialogue within and between diverse cultures. Several spiritual and cultural leaders of different faiths have since visited the European Parliament, promoting intercultural diversity and dialogue.