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Leopoldo J. Niilus

A tribute to Leopoldo J. Niilus (1930 – 2015), WCC former director for Commission of the Churches on International Affairs by the WCC acting general secretary Rev. Dr Hielke Wolters.

10 February 2015

Leopoldo Niilus, former director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and mentor to a generation of ecumenical practitioners of international affairs, died in Geneva on 9 February 2015.

Born Leopold Johannes in Talinn, Estonia to Jaan Eduard Niilus and Meta Kiris, on 19 January 1930, Niilus left the land of his birth in 1944 and lived with his parents as refugees in Sweden before immigrating to Argentina where he became Leopoldo Juan Niilus. Following primary school in Estonia he attended secondary schools in Sweden and Argentina, gaining fluency in Swedish, German and Spanish to which he later added English and French. The son of an actor, he was especially interested in theatre as a young man and translated classical poetry and theatrical works from Swedish and Estonian into Spanish.

He studied law at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and practiced in that city where he met and married young architect Malle Reet Veerus in 1961. Together they traveled to Dallas, Texas, U.S.A., where he pursued graduate studies at the faculty of law of Southern Methodist University for a Master’s degree in Comparative Law.

Leopoldo, a Lutheran layman, was active in the Student Christian Movement in Argentina and became its president. His participation in the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) general committee meeting in Embalse Rio Tercero, Córdoba, Argentina in 1964 was a landmark experience that led him into ever widening and more demanding ecumenical engagements. He served as director of the Argentina section of the Christian Studies Center of the River Plate 1966-1967, and was elected general secretary of the continent-wide Church and Society Commission for Latin America (Iglesia y Sociedad en America Latina – ISAL) in 1968.

The following year WCC general secretary Eugene Carson Blake invited him to Geneva as the new director of the CCIA to succeed the venerable O. Frederick Nolde who had served in that post since the Commission was formed in 1946. Under his leadership the CCIA became ever more directly engaged in ecumenical advocacy in support of “Third World” churches in the fields of human rights; militarism, peace and disarmament; and conflict resolution. In recognition of his personal leadership in the negotiations that led to the 1972 Addis Ababa Sudan peace agreement, the new Sudanese government decorated him with its Order of Two Niles (First Grade).

After completing his term with the WCC, Niilus became Director for International Ecumenical Relations of the Middle East Council of Churches based in Geneva from 1982 to 1995, and simultaneously from 1988 to 1995 he served as consultant to the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in international affairs and human rights. In this latter capacity he played an active role in the negotiations to end the civil war in Guatemala and was a signatory as witness to the 1990 Oslo Peace Accords.

Leopoldo is survived by his wife Malle and daughter Sylvia, to whom the WCC extends its sincere condolences.

Rev. Dr Hielke Wolters
WCC acting general secretary