A conference entitled “The Role of Churches in Social Reconciliation in East-Central Europe: Central Europe as a Model of Religious Diversity” was organised by the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Hungary (ECCH), the foundation called Reconciliation in South East Europe (RSEE), and the Budapest office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) between 10-12 March 2011. The conference was held within the framework of the “Healing of Memories” project, and is considered to be a special event of the Reformed Church of Hungary concerning the current Hungarian EU presidency. Participants of this ecumenical conference included the Hungarian so-called historical churches, Austrian, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak and Ukrainian churches as well as historians from the countries of the Carpathian basin. The aim of the event was to specify and strengthen the role of churches in East-Central European social reconciliation processes.
During the opening day of the conference, there were thematic greeting addresses related to Central European historical and cultural diversity as a challenge for society and churches, followed by a panel discussion of church leaders and guest politicians. “In the healing of memories, responsibility is always with those in a favourable position. In the countries of the Carpathian basin, the same denomination can be both in a minority and a majority role. If only the ‘big ones’ always spoke up in favour of smaller denominations or nations! When everyone is able to set aside their own convictions in order to achieve a higher good, there is hope for reconciliation. Europe, seeing that the politically correct ideal of multiculturalism is gradually vanishing, has to face the difficulties of co-existence without concealing differences. In this situation we need to rely on the sensible messages of the Gospel,” said Bishop Gusztáv Bölcskei, President for Religious Matters of the Reformed Church of Hungary.
“Europe is a continent of memories – of painful and sinful memories. The memories of the past need to be healed, existing tensions need to be resolved, both among denominations and nations,” pointed out Cristoph Klein, Bishop Emeritus of the Lutheran Church of the Transylvanian Saxons, President of the Reconciliation in South East Europe foundation. “Conflicts always have their own backgrounds, and solutions can only be found if these backgrounds are revealed. Reconciliation represents a further step beyond that. Similarly, reconciliation is impossible without being aware of the background,” said Dieter Brandes, former President of RSEE, representative of the World Council of Churches.
“It is on the foundations of Christian faith that Europe can be preserved. Equality in the eyes of God, brotherly love, solidarity and dignity cannot be interpreted without the Christian past of Europe,” stated Markus Meckel, former German Foreign Minister. “Each and every church needs to show more humility, for there is no Christian church that did not have its own share of generating conflicts. Churches need to be protected from the clerical temptation to change the ending of the Lord’s Prayer to say: the kingdom, the power, and the glory are mine. It is not the church that is going to change the world, as this can only be done by God. What we can do, however, is to provide assistance in the creation of a less evil world,” said Béla Harmati, Lutheran Bishop Emeritus.
“When we draw near to God, we can recall the manifold ways we have offended others. The same is true of churches. The behaviour most worthy of a Christian is to forgive the other. As followers of Christ, we have no other chance of giving witness to our faith than to find reconciliation,” suggested Imre Szebik, President of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Hungary, Lutheran Bishop Emeritus. “In the process of reconciliation we should remember never to reveal or boast about our own grievances, as each nation and denomination has plenty of these. The road to reconciliation means that we are finding the ways we have harmed the other, and ask for forgiveness,” remarked Péter Fülöp Kocsis, Greek Catholic Bishop.
“The ‘big ones’ need to pay attention to the ‘smaller ones.’ At present, we are in minority in Slovakia. That is why we do our best to pay attention to the ‘smaller ones’ within the church. We pay attention to Slovak communities, as they need to hear God’s Word in their own language before they can open up towards others,” said László Fazekas, Bishop of the Reformed Christian Church in Slovakia. “Anger is frequently the result of the fact that we identify with the community that we live in, as well as its problems. It is always up to the majority to initiate changes, the minority has no power to determine events. On the other hand, it is the responsibility of the minority not to bring out its own insecurities, but present its genuine problems to the majority,” said Béla Kató, Assistant Bishop of the Reformed District of Transylvania.
“Reconciliation is a constant struggle. Following the Second World War, the biggest question was what God meant in a post-Auschwitz world. For man, God is the only constant and stable reference point, the One who gave us life and the only One who can take it,” said Chief Rabbi Alfréd Schőner, Rector of the Jewish Theological Seminary – University of Jewish Studies.
“It would be hypocritical to say that everything is fine around us, as there are things to be remedied. As long as there are lies instead of truth, enmity instead of brotherly relations, there is a long way to go. Politics has more than once poisoned the relationships of nations, and now we need to co-operate to find healing,” said Attila Kocsis, Head of Office for Diaspora of the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice.
“Everybody knows that the underlying idea behind the four subtitles of the conference is Trianon. This is a sensitive issue in terms of politics, and it requires boldness to discuss it, still, I would like to say a few words about this topic, in the name of correctness,” said Professor Vasile Grajdian from Romania during the press conference following the first day of the event. He added, it is not by accident that it is Christian churches that have the courage to tackle such an issue: they are the only ones that can approach this problem with the attitude of faith. Vasile Grajdian pointed out: “If there is a solution, we believe it may come about thanks to the attitude of Christian faith.”
During the second day of the conference, the speakers reviewed the 20th-century political changes of Central- and South-East Europe, as well as the impacts of those changes on the life of churches. Participants included Professor Ion Zainea from Nagyvárad (Oradea) and Professor László Marjanucz from Szeged, and Magdolna Baráth, Head of Department of the Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security. László Marjanucz, Professor of the University of Szeged, pointed out that East-Central Europe has always been diverse in terms of ethnicity. As the mixture of various nationalities was extensive, it was impossible to draw ethnic-linguistic borders in a fair and just way.
Subsequently, talks were given by representatives of all participating churches, with the title “The Significance of 20th-Century Historical Events in the Life of Churches.” Alpár Hankó Nagy, Professor of Babeş-Bolyai University in Kolozsvár (Cluj) stated in his talk that the Hungarian Reformed community has to feel repentant because of their past actions against other nationalities. Throughout history, especially during the border and area modifications, there were unparalleled atrocities on both sides. These need to be revealed and discussed with the objectivity of a pathologist performing an autopsy, rather than with emotions running high.
The third day of the conference was opened by the Director of the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches. In his greeting address, Rüdiger Noll emphasised the significance of reconciliation with citing the example of the Danube Strategy of the Hungarian rotating EU presidency, which the churches are also contributing to. The German Reformed Pastor also pointed out that reconciliation will only become really fertile for churches if we do not only consider ourselves and our own past, but also concentrate on ways of serving others as a result of reconciliation.
After the opening address, the church historians of the participating countries continued the discussions in workshops. The aim of these workshops was to analyse the significance of 20th-century historical events regarding the identity and ecclesiology of churches, as well as their relations with other churches of the region.
The three-day conference was rounded off with a panel discussion on the co-existence of churches. In his opening talk, Sándor Fazakas, Rector of the Debrecen Reformed Theological University explained: “We live in an era of the conjuncture of memories, which is a part of identity politics, underlined by the media and the need for a ‘society of experiences.’ Remembering is not at all alien to churches, remembering and reminding others of the death and resurrection of Christ. This is worship as well, rather than the blessing and sanctification of national holidays, or the justification of the present state. History is open-ended. Therefore the problem is not when there is more than one interpretation of history, but when one of these interpretations is considered exclusive. The church perceives the past in the contexts of sin and grace, judgement and redemption.”
“Without honesty and the boldness of repentance, we will not be able to heal ourselves and others,” said Géza Erdélyi, former Reformed Bishop of Felvidék (Slovakia). “We must not oversimplify or generalise the complex situation of the region. Each and every nation, be it majority or minority, has wounds of some kind.” Géza Erdélyi went on to raise the question: Can healing happen when the diagnosis has not been carried out? “If we want to be understood, we need to put ourselves in the other’s shoes,” he added.
The participants of the conference summarised their observations gathered during the discussions in a final declaration, committing themselves to continue the reconciliation processes among different cultures, denominations, religions and ethnicities. They emphasised that this joint task needs to be continued and strengthened both within the church and in other sections of society. The diversity and variety of European identities is an advantage, rather than a source of detachment and conflicts. Therefore it is of great importance that within the framework of the Danube Strategy there are opportunities to develop good neighbourly relations that aim to enhance regional development, as well as an attitude that reaches beyond the borders of the EU.
The project entitled Healing of Memories (HoM) is a joint initiative of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) and the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe – Leuenberg Church Fellowship (CPCE), which aims to realise the goals set out by the CEC, the Council of Catholic Episcopal Conferences in Europe (CCEE) and the World Council of Churches (WCC) in the Charta Oecumenica drafted in 1998, in order to eradicate the still-existing misunderstandings and prejudices that have surfaced over the centuries between majority and minority churches. Within the framework of the programme, several conferences have been organised across the Carpathian Basin since 2004, with the co-operation of European partner churches, as well as training events for church employees, volunteers, pastoral counsellors in the areas of pastoral care, communication, mediation and group work. There has also been a local Healing of Memories scientific conference with the participation of all historical churches of the region.