The 114 member churches of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) have gathered at Novi Sad, Serbia, in order to talk about the future of Europe and of CEC itself.
The first full day of the CEC General Assembly in Novi Sad (meeting until 5 June) was devoted to hospitality, one of the three main topics in this general reflection on the future of Europe and the work of CEC and its member churches.
At the General Assembly’s opening press conference, Father Heikki Huttunen, CEC general secretary, had underlined the significance of the choice of Novi Sad: “At the geographic centre of the continent, and yet outside the European Union. This is one of those complex situations that we in CEC love, as it obliges us to listen to more than one version of history and to share multiple stories starting from different points of view.”
On the question of hospitality, the panel of speakers on the first morning made it possible to listen to these contrasting stories by giving the floor to church leaders from countries of both emigration and immigration. His Holiness Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, which is rooted in Syria and Iraq, and Rev. Meletis Meletiadis, from the Evangelical Church of Greece, both gave presentations from their angle. The day had been introduced by a Bible study by Rev. Luca Negro, president of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy.
Luca Negro challenged the Assembly on the basis of a biblical passage from the book of Genesis: “On what side do we want to stand as churches in Europe? On the side of xenophobia or on the side of love for the stranger? On the side of Abraham and Sarah, who welcomed strangers in their camp at the Oaks of Mamre or on the side of the inhabitants of Sodom, who rejected Lot and his family?” Rereading this biblical passage in the light of the famous icon by the Rublev Trinity, which illustrates this episode, he presented the question of hospitality not just as one Christian value among others but as a virtue at the heart of Christian faith. Aware that this initiative is only a drop in the “Mediterranean of the needs of Syrian migrants”, his Bible study mentioned the humanitarian corridors created by the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy and the Community of Sant’Egidio to offer safe pathways for migrants; they have already enabled over 1200 persons to enter Italy.
His Holiness Mor Ignatius Aphrem II also mentioned this divine dimension of hospitality, underlining that Jesus himself had lived the life of a refugee: “After his birth, his family was forced to flee to Egypt, and during his life ‘the Son of Man had no place to lay his head’.” The patriarch of a church situated in Iraq and in Syria, he underlined this obligation for Christians and European churches to get involved in reception and emergency assistance. He also urged the churches to encourage refugees to return to their countries of origin. “The departure of so many families from our countries is truly sad for me and it is bad for everyone: for the Christians, for the Muslims and for the countries themselves.”
Although the churches present seem to agree on showing this hospitality to refugees on the continent of Europe, they are still quite aware of the difficulties and the obstacles. “The refugees in the United Kingdom are often met with rejection, even treated with lack of dignity,” stated Fleur Houston, of the United Reformed Church of the United Kingdom at one of the workshops on the question. “And I must say that the Christians are not immune to this attitude of rejection.”
“Despite the weight that this represents for some of them, lots of churches are still very active in assisting refugees or setting up safe pathways for migration,” noted Jovana Savic, Europe coordinator of the Church World Service. A fact seconded by Souraya Bechealany, Secretary General of the Middle East Council of Churches, based in Lebanon: “60 % of our diaconal activity today concentrates on meeting the needs of Syrian refugees, in particular with respect to schooling for children. No other country does what we do.”
The General Assembly is the highest organ of the Conference of European Churches. It takes place every five years and is made up of delegates appointed by the Member Churches along with representatives of associate organisations and Partner Organisations. For further information on the history and activities of the General Assembly, please consult the CEC website.
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