EUROPE: Churches mark assembly that symbolized end of Iron Curtain

May 14, 2009

Christians in Europe are marking 20 years since a gathering of virtually all of the continent's churches in Switzerland that they say became a symbol of overcoming a crumbling Iron Curtain.

"In 1989, Europe was changing," said Archdeacon Colin Williams, general secretary of the Conference of European Churches, in a statement to mark the anniversary of the European Ecumenical Assembly, which met in Basel May 15-21, 1989. The theme was, "Peace with Justice."

The assembly was organized by CEC -- which gathers most of Europe's Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox Churches -- and the Council of European (Roman Catholic) Bishops' Conferences (CCEE). With 700 delegates, the 1989 meeting was the first large-scale gathering of Europe's main Christian churches since the 16th-century Reformation.

The inspiration for the assembly came from a call by the World Council of Churches to its members to take action to promote justice, peace and the integrity of creation.

"In Basel, the churches, with their determination to work together for a renewed commitment to peace and justice, not only caught the mood of the times, but also helped create the atmosphere for change and renewal," noted Williams.

A month before the 1989 assembly opened, Poland's then-communist rulers announced the legalization of the opposition trade union movement, Solidarity. Shortly afterwards, Hungary started dismantling its section of the Iron Curtain on the border to Austria.

Alongside the decision-making part of the assembly, representatives of grassroots groups from throughout Europe working on issues linked to justice, peace and the environment were invited to "a workshop on the future of Europe."

In what was seen as an unprecedented move, East Germany allowed 24 independent peace and human rights activists to attend the workshop. Less than six months later, many of these activists had become leaders in what was dubbed East Germany's peaceful revolution. This led to the collapse of the territory's communist regime, and, ultimately to German unification in 1990.

"In no church assembly before or since Basel has the ecumenical agenda been so affected by and linked to the dynamic of political changes in Europe," said Joachim Garstecki, a Catholic theologian who served as an advisor on peace issues to East Germany's Protestant churches, and who traveled with the 24 activists to the Swiss city.

He recalled that even at the last minute the East German authorities attempted to deny exit visas to some of the activists. "But the group had already agreed an 'all or nobody' strategy and it had the backing of the Council of Christian Churches. In the end everyone was allowed to travel," Garstecki noted.

Jean Fischer, who in 1989 was CEC's general secretary, noted how the Basel assembly, "gathered together representatives of all God’s people: leadership and grass-roots, clergy and laity, women and men, activists for peace, justice and the environment".

All were motivated, Fischer said, "to achieve reconciliation between churches and to affirm that Europe could be reunited across its walls".

Churches and Christians in Europe were invited to co-operate with all those who worked for justice and peace, no matter what their religion or conviction, said Fischer. "This challenge is still with us today. Now, as 20 years ago, let us raise signs of hope in a tough, unjust and threatened world. Shall we too say: 'Yes, we can?'"

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