“We pledge to be bridge builders through the transformational power of faith” and through renewed commitment on three fronts: witness, justice, hospitality. After 9 full days of debates on the challenges that today’s Europe is called to face, the European Churches present in our continent – Orthodox, Protestant, Old Catholic Churches – established their joint mission for the future, illustrated in the final message released upon the conclusion of the XV General Assembly of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) held in Novi Sad, Serbia, from May 31st to June 6, which brought together 450 delegates representing 116 Churches of various Christians denominations.
Europe, beyond EU borders. One the one side it is grappling with election campaigns increasingly marked by populist and nationalistic drives, on the other, it is the destination of a continuous, unavoidable migratory pressure from African countries caused by hunger, poverty, environmental degradation and endless wars. “We gathered at a time of uncertainty for Europe”, states the message from the CEC Assembly, “where many experience a loss of dignity, exploitation, destitution and the abuse of power.” Significantly, it was decided to hold the Assembly on the shores of the Danube in Novi Sad, the city where bridges were destroyed during a conflict and rebuilt as a result of the peace process. For 9 days, men and women took the floor, all united by the heartfelt yearning to look at this land to sow hope, to build bridges of dialogue, to promote the creation of places for encounter. “We brought our thirst for justice; our deep concern for people, our continent and our world”, they state in the message.
Each gave their contribution and shared their points of view. Notably, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, from “Brexit land”, said: “It is the fear of the other that makes us build walls, spiritual and physical alike. It is the fear of the other that leads to divisions and probably also to the fall of civilizations.” Luca Negro, President of the Evangelical Churches Federation in Italy, made a provocative question, giving voice to a Church, that of Italy, that is deeply committed in providing assistance to migrants in the Mediterrean. “On what side do we want to stand? On the side of xenophobia or on the side of love for the stranger?”
In a heart-rending testimony His Holiness Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, Patriarch of the Syrian-Orthodox Church brought the voice of Syria’s Christian population to Novi Sad. He thanked European Churches for the hospitality given to refugees and migrants and made an appeal to help Christians in the Middle East continue living in their homeland that needs Christians, and Christians need not to be uprooted from their ancient Eastern traditions. “It is much better for you and for us to help people remain where they are, in their homeland, instead of wanting them to live in your Countries.”
The CEC Assembly was also an occasion to re-elect the Presidency. Rev Christian Krieger is the new President of the Ecumenical body. Rev Krieger, 54, from France, is the president of the Reformed Protestant Church of Alsace and Lorraine and vice president of the Protestant Federation of France. The General Assembly also appointed two vice presidents: Metropolitan Cleopas Strongylis (Ecumenical Patriarchate) and Rev. Gulnar Francis-Dehqani (Church of England). In an increasingly plural society – Krieger said speaking to journalists – Churches and religions are expected to have a peacemaker role in our societies.”
In fact in their final message the Churches highlight their commitment to be “an inclusive community”, to seek “reconciliation and the peaceful resolution of conflicts”, to stand with and listen to “those who find themselves silenced or in the margins of our churches, our communities and our world.” After Novi Sad, now a new, demanding challenge lies ahead. Krieger mentioned it during the press conference: the idea is to promote – on the wake of the Ecumenical Assemblies in Basel, Graz and Sibiu – a “Convention of Christians in Europe.” The initiative is already taking shape as an “ecumenical meeting” that is not promoted by “institutions”, namely not by the representatives of the Churches and of the European ecumenical bodies that represent them, but by “Christians in Europe. And CEC – the new President pointed out – is a partner of this project.”