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Europe: Increasingly Diverse Continent Poses New Challenges For Cultural Convention

Fifty years ago, Europe's leaders had the idea to use culture to help heal the scars and prevent future conflict on a continent recovering from a devastating war. The divisions left in the wake of World War II -- and new splits caused by the Cold War -- are now largely over. Dignitaries and experts from across Europe have been gathering in Poland to celebrate the European Cultural Convention's contributions to this effort -- and to hear about new challenges in an increasingly multicultural Europe.

Wroclaw, Poland; 10 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It's one of the world's lesser-known international agreements.

But over the past half century, proponents say the European Cultural Convention has quietly promoted mutual understanding through culture -- and helped overcome old divisions in the process.

"The vision of the Cultural Convention was of an undivided Europe," said Terry Davis, secretary-general of the pan-European democracy and human rights body that drew it up -- the Council of Europe. "It became a sort of passage through the Iron Curtain, a steppingstone for full membership in the Council of Europe."

The idea was to encourage Europeans to safeguard their own cultures and to learn about others.
"Cultural rhetoric fuels terrorism and violence. It is crucial to realize that as the Council of Europe mobilizes to meet these challenges, our work in the field of culture remains fundamental."

And it's not just a matter of art exhibitions and taking care of "old stones," as one delegate put it.

Proponents say the convention has helped remove bias from history teaching; set standards for conserving heritage; promoted language teaching; and ushered in international agreements to fight doping and violence in sport.

The old divisions are now gone. But Europe faces new challenges.

Simon Mundy, a British writer and arts policy adviser, said the most inflammatory issues in Europe in recent years have been attempts to curb cultural expression.

"Whether it has been in Ireland, Spain, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and now the Caucasus, it has been the failure of agreement over whose version of history deserves respect, whose language is heard most, and who held the keys to civilization that has become the cause for turmoil," Mundy said.

Culture, Mundy said, is "not the stuff of entertainment. It has the power to foment societies to irrational fury."

Increasingly, the new fault lines are in religion, with signs of tension between Europe's growing Muslim community and its non-Muslim majority.

But Davis said art and the sharing of heritage can be effective at breaking down new barriers.

"Cultural and religious identity is sometimes used in Europe as a justification of interethnic tension, racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic acts, and even armed conflict," Davis said. "Cultural rhetoric fuels terrorism and violence. It is crucial to realize that as the Council of Europe mobilizes to meet these challenges, our work in the field of culture remains fundamental."

Davis said he'd like greater cultural contacts with the Islamic world, in particular the Maghreb states of North Africa.

Other delegates brought up religion as a challenge for the future within Europe.

"It is more important than ever before that such an institution like the Council of Europe should really be involved in the question which we have before the public now -- what [kind of] religion we must have in a society which is not a religious society, not a Christian, not a Jewish, not an Islamic [society], but is a free and open society?" said professor Olaf Schwenke, president of the German Cultural Foundation. "[Religion] has to stick to human rights. That is the most important fact for religion in Europe, having as a framework human rights."

The conference ends today, with delegates adopting a declaration urging, among other things, greater interreligious dialogue.