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Churches can use power in civil society for peace making, WCC Reformation panel notes

Churches can use power in civil society for peace making, WCC Reformation panel notes

© Peter Williams/WCC

04 November 2016

Churches are probably the most powerful global civil society group, and they need to live up to this responsibility in the quest for peace, says German bishop, Dr Heinrich Bedford-Strohm.

Bedford-Strohm, chairperson of the council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD, the umbrella for Reformed, Lutheran and United Protestant churches), was speaking at an event to promote peace in the Ecumenical Centre on 3 November.

Using the Reformation commemoration as an opportunity for a critical look at the present by reflecting on the past, key ecumenical figures used the 500th anniversary of the epoch event that changed Christianity and the world, for their discussion.

The event, linked with the role of Geneva as “peace capital” of the world, included seven panellists led by World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit. It was moderated by Jan Dirk Herbermann, president of the Association of Correspondents Accredited to the United Nations.

Some speakers emphasized churches need to be aware that they can be the instruments of conflict as well as being the peacemakers. One questioner also flagged the role churches can play in dealing with the armaments industry which often has strong interests in conflicts and fanning them.

Both prayer and communication are essential for promoting peace, said Bedford-Strohm noting that “churches are the born agents for global civil society…they have a common voice, a common motivation - the one Jesus Christ.”

He said he had just come back from the Holy Land and found it “unbelievable and depressing” to see how two people - the Israelis and the Palestinians -  “are not communicating”. Storytelling between different global churches is vital, he said.

Concept of a “just peace”

Tveit linked the ecumenical peace of the WCC to its “commitment to work for a just peace” noting it is an “alternative to the concept of a just war”. He said the WCC works on developing ways to build “peace from the bottom” in communities, in the marketplace and between nations as part of its pilgrimage for peace and justice.

Tveit said the WCC works with churches that find themselves in conflict, citing places such as South Sudan. There, he said, churches are the “most credible” peace brokers.

Another area of work for the churches in seeking peace is “interfaith relations where we have a strong and growing commitment”. Tveit noted that, in Nigeria, the WCC has opened a centre for “listening to stories of conflict”.

Marilena Viviani, director of the Geneva liaison office from the UNICEF Public Partnerships Division praised the partnership of the UN agency that protects children with the WCC.

She said UNICEF is “dealing with children in conflict zones. The number of children in conflicts is way too high,” Viviani asserted.

She believes that dealing with the psycho-social side can help heal children and she works on peace efforts with many groups including churches.

When UNICEF was working to forge an agreement with the WCC on how they could share their resources to work together on promoting children’s rights, Viviani said it was able to do this very quickly due to their shared commitments.

Philip Tanis, executive secretary for communications for the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) spoke of its peace work with churches in Colombia, the Middle East and on the Korean Peninsula.

Creating a platform of dialogue

One of the difficulties of working in the Korean arena is the “government of the North and the South don’t particularly like each other”. He said WCRC’s general secretary, Chris Ferguson, has said “creating a platform of dialogue is a first step”.

Tanis cited Syrian Pastor Mofid Karajili at the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon recently saying, “We know we can’t change the world, but we can make at least one right step towards a better life.”

Rev. Fr Isä Heikki Huttunen spoke of the role of the Conference of European Churches (CEC), an organization of 115 churches in Europe from the Channel Islands in the west to Vladivostok in the far east.

“In our organization peacebuilding has meant bridge building,” said Huttunen, from the Finnish Orthodox Church, saying that in the Cold War it worked for contact with Christians “behind the Iron Curtain”.

The Iron Curtain is down but today “we still see walls and differences”.

He said some people are trying to build a wall around Europe to keep others out, there is an economic wall between the North and South in Europe and will still need to build bridges “how to dealt with wounded memories and how to deal with them.”

The CEC is examining papers that see attempts to “militarize” the politics of Europe and it is engaged with minority churches.

Ralston Deffenbaugh, assistant general secretary for International Affairs and Human Rights, The Lutheran World Federation noted that the LWF is the largest faith-based partner in the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency. The LWF is strongly engaged with the UN on both the refugees and the rights’ side making submission on behalf of its members to the UN Human Rights Council.

It runs refugee camps that have most Muslim inhabitants. “We have a Christian faith-based group helping Muslim people in need….This a sign of peace,” said Deffenbaugh.

Sharan Srinivas, director of Research and Advocacy, Right Livelihood Award Foundation, explained that, as the foundation has witnessed over the past five years “the shrinking space of civil society” it has linked with the Church of Sweden, a WCC member church.

Each year the foundation issues what is seen as an “alternative Nobel Prize”. Its laureates are often regarded as courageous people or organizations offering exemplary solutions to the root causes of global problems.

“When we are linked with progressive churches we are strengthened,” said Srinivas. “True civil society includes faith-based organizations.”

High-resolution photos available free of charge.

Video recording of the panel

Read also:

Reformation anniversary opportunity for reflection on past and critical look at present, says WCC general secretary (WCC press release of 3 November 2016)

European Reformation roadmap starts in Geneva (WCC press release of 3 November 2016)

500 years of the Reformation – commencement of anniversary celebrations (WCC press release of 3 November 2016)