The European Commission today hosted a high-level meeting with eight prominent European religious leaders. Convened by Commissioner Margaritis Schinas, the meeting heard faith perspectives on “the impact of the war in Ukraine on the European way of life”, as each of the eight leaders were invited to speak on the issue.

Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER), the sole Jewish representative, reflected on his personal experiences from the conflict, having had to flee Moscow, the city where he served for our 30 years as the Chief Rabbi, because he refused to support Putin’s illegal invasion.

He remarked how, due to the war, he believed that “taking a moral stance is of vital importance and is the role of any faith leader to do, even if it compromises their very role.”

“As the Chief Rabbi in Moscow for over three decades,” he explained, “I focused on what many here would consider the role of a faith leader to be. I served as a pastoral guide to the Jewish community of Moscow, issued rabbinic rulings, lead services, and gave sermons… Yet, in the weeks after 24th February 2022, I learnt most starkly another role of a faith leader… During those days, mounting pressure was put on community leaders to support Putin’s invasion and I refused to do so.”

Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt also spoke of the need to remember and reflect upon the past, particularly International Holocaust Memorial Day, which was the same day as the meeting. He cited a recent survey conducted by the Claims Conference, that nearly a quarter of Dutch people born after 1980 believe the Holocaust was a myth or that the number of its victims was greatly exaggerated, and elaborated on the importance of active remembrance.

He concluded with this need, again, of recognising the history, reflecting on Russian antisemitism, which seems to be returning again. Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt remarked, “when we look back over Russian history, whenever the political system began to shake and a crisis took hold, the government tried to redirect the anger and discontent of the masses by channelling it towards the Jewish community. We saw this in Tsarist times and at the end of the Stalinist regime… Now, we are witnessing this again, with the rise in antisemitism across Russia. Step by step, the iron curtain is coming down once again, and hatred towards the Jewish community is rising. We must not only remember and reflect on the past, but also stare down the future head on and be prepared, as faith leaders, to take a moral stance.”

Vice-President of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas, delivered the opening address, on how the war has changed the face of Europe. Othmar Karas, First Vice-President, European Parliament and Frans van Daele, Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief Outside the EU both then spoke of how the war has damaged faith communities in Eastern Europe.

The meeting was held in Berlaymont building, which houses the headquarters of the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union (EU). Amongst those other faith leaders attending were Dr. Bernhard Felmberg, Protestant Bishop for the Bundeswehr, Protestant Church of Germany (EKD), Archbishop Antoine Herouard, Archbishop of Dijon, President of the Commission on Social Affairs of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), Rev Christian Krieger, President of the Reformed Protestant Church of France, President of the Conference of European Churches (CEC), and Bishop Åsa Nystrom, Bishop of Luleå, Church of Sweden, as well as others from across Europe.