World Council of Churches Office of Communication
Press Release
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29 January - 6 February 2001
Potsdam, Germany

3 February 2001

Churches for Reconciliation, Truth and Justice
On the role of European churches in working for reconciliation

To make visitors from outside Europe more familiar with the historical experience of European Christians in the past century, the meeting of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Potsdam, Germany, held a plenary session on "Europe". It took the form of a panel discussion in which the Swedish journalist Conny Sjöberg interviewed Paul Oestreicher, an Englishman of German Jewish ancestry; Vladimir Fedorov from Russia; Joachim Gauck from Germany; Ana Raffai from Croatia; John Arnold from England; and Doris Peschke from Germany.

The panel members, who all belong to different churches, challenged the European churches to face up to their past and to take a stand for reconciliation in their own countries. Too often, they said, Christians have kept silent in the face of human rights violations and oppression, and thus become guilty of great wrongs. "The Orthodox Christians in Russia share in responsibility for the crimes of the Bolsheviks," declared Vladimir Fedorov, director of the Orthodox Research Institute for Mission Studies and Ecumenism in Russia. Paul Oestreicher, Canon emeritus of Coventry Cathedral in England, asked the critical question of whether the western churches had done enough to help those who were being persecuted in eastern Europe. And Joachim Gauck, former director of the archive known by his name which holds the documents of the former East German security service, "Stasi", said, "It is harmful to suppress the question of guilt," referring to German history between 1933 and 1945 which has yet to be reappraised.

Ana Raffai, a Roman Catholic, witnessed history being made in her country, Croatia. She is involved there in a peace education programme for Bosnia and Croatia, which she calls a "shalom service" since its aim is reconciliation. One thing her work has achieved is willingness to talk about the reasons for the civil war. "Now that the war is over, we are talking about ethnic and religious differences in our country which were taboo in the past," she reported in the plenary. Raffai was firmly opposed to NATO’s intervention in the war, saying, "It is not right for decisions regarding the citizens of a country to be made from outside that country." Doris Peschke, general secretary of the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe, agreed with her and pointed out the difficulties that arise when it comes to judging events: "On this topic, NATO and the European countries are now quarrelling about access to the relevant documents and their confidentiality, so that we cannot even examine them to see if the intervention was really justified."

The panel members expressed their sorrow about racist tendencies in their churches, and deplored the tendency of European states to deny entrance into Fortress Europe to persons seeking help. "After the boundaries within Europe were opened, the boundaries toward the outside were closed," said Peschke. "Christians must preserve a creative, critical solidarity with one another vis-à-vis their governments," said Oestreicher, and recalled the action taken by Christians in the German Democratic Republic which helped to overcome the division of Germany. Reappraising the past calls for a change of perspective, according to Ana Raffai: "Instead of asking who is going to ‘pay for the damage’, we should ask what each individual can do for peace."

In small groups, and later in a public discussion, the members of the Central Committee also spoke of their own, sometimes tragic experiences. Many of them called for more active involvement of Christian churches in opposing racism and violence, and in promoting tolerance, justice and peace.

Photos from the Central Committee

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.