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The Challenge of Peace Today – Secular and Ecclesial Engagement in Dialogue

The challenge of peace today – secular and ecclesial engagement in dialogue

Ingeborg Gabriel, Vienna

Peace issues did not concern us so much since the end of the Cold War despite ongoing civil wars in different corners of the world. This is changing at an alarming speed. The following lines constitute a first reflection on my experience as a Special Representative in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on “Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination Focusing on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and Members of Other Religions” in 2017 (Austrian Presidency). The bulky title already indicates that it constituted the outcome of a compromise between the 57 states of the organization. It is one of three “religious” mandates, the other two being held by a Rabbi (now from the American Jewish Committee), and a Muslim professor from Turkey, which are directed to combatting antisemitism and discrimination against Muslims respectively. The third mandate differs in that it has a universalistic as well as a particularistic side, which in a fitting way mirrors the universalism proper to Christian ethics.

The primary goal of the OSCE which was founded by the Helsinki Conference in 1975 (the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) is to further peace through cooperation. It originally was to mitigate the East-West conflict its main focus being on European issues and states. However, the United States, Canada and the states of the former Soviet Union, mainly in Central Asia, are also members as are 11 partnership countries, mainly in the Middle East.

Its tools to enhance peace were and are the so called three baskets of the Helsinki agreement: economic (now also ecological), political and military cooperation, and the strengthening of human rights and democracy. Even though this “third basket” (now called third dimension) was regarded by the states of the Eastern bloc at the time of the foundation as a mere concession to get much needed economic knowhow it developed an astonishing dynamics of its own after 1975. In many Communist states Helsinki committees were founded (many of them still in existence) in which secular humanists and Christians worked together intensively as an avant-garde in the struggle for human rights and democracy. This au fin contributed decisively to the downfall of communism in 1989 (1991). It constitutes an inspiring example and testifies to the strength of a moral and legal idea which found its courageous and determined advocates and defenders who were ready to make the sacrifices required.

Though there always existed and exist conflicts in Europe, e. g. in the Balkans, in Central Asia and in Eastern Ukraine times became more quiet. However, the struggle for human rights and democracy continued. It is now institutionally located in the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in Warsaw, which runs among others extensive programmes to monitor local elections, watches the violations of freedom of speech, organizes programmes against human trafficking and furthers reconciliation in conflict regions. Offences against religious freedom are also of growing importance because of interethnic and interreligious pluralism. They ask for tools different from those required by a bipolar ideological system some 30-40 years ago.

Social ethics is concerned with questions of justice as incorporated in social and political structures, which are to be analysed and reflected on. Therefore, it has to be taken into account that the functioning of these structures and the degree of justice that can be realized through them depend on individual agents, their actions and engagement for peace and justice. In a globalized world structural justice thereby becomes more and more a question of the justice promoted by international political structures.

This being said I would like to name three points which constitute the gist of my experience of the past year.

Firstly: Despite the fact that globalization should lead to a growth in importance of international organizations right wing, nationalistic or religiously motivated bashing of these structures as well as the universalistic worldview underlying it seem to be everywhere on the rise. This is part of this political trend, which exists last but not least in the West. Worldwide structures are seen as being outdated, clumsy, an elite project, just devouring money and not producing visible results, as the critic goes. The indictments directed against democratic politics in general are even more pronounced against international politics. This view is very explicitly voiced in the nationalistic camp, often supported by religious groups.

This is most dangerous in a globalized world, where conflicts have to be solved through global engagement, in international forums and through carefully grafted compromise. We obviously do need more internationalism based on a universalistic worldview and not less. The structures have to be deepened and improved. They need serious personal engagement in those forums that exist, the OSCE, the United Nations (UN) with its many affiliations and others. This requires an eager sense for justice as well as tolerance and a global outlook.

Of course, in an organization like the OSCE which represents about 1.2 billion people the sometimes discouraging complexity of the world becomes tangible. Structures are fragmented, bureaucrats helpless and sometimes also disinterested. Most of them, however, I have experienced as highly motivated and very receptive with regard to ethical arguments. There is a lot of thinking done there on how to improve things. I found it rather rewarding during this year to speak to motivated individuals and groups about human rights and human rights ethics as their basis going beyond the high degree of technicality human rights issues have acquired.

Secondly: In the OSCE International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) play an important role (even more so than in the UN). They sit at the table with representatives of states, influence discussions, make proposals, e. g. they participate in the process of policy shaping. As I learned during this year, Catholic and mainstream Christian organisations are underrepresented (as in other international organisations located in Vienna). This at first seemed puzzling if one thinks of the number of Catholic and other Christians living in the OSCE region and the church structures that exist there; the Christian Churches being everywhere the largest civil society organizations. This scarcity of international engagement therefore seems to be the expression of two ecclesial trends during the past decades. The Catholic world for a long period prioritized engagement at the local parish level and – secondly – concentrated on a small range of ethical issues. These two focusses have left their mark. Engagement for justice and peace was (and still is) regarded as an agenda of the left, and not much appreciated. Some time ago, as director of Justice and Peace Austria, I wanted to engage in the OSCE. Then the person responsible from the Holy See, which is a full member as a state, told me NGOs there are not welcome and certainly no Catholic NGOs. As Michael O’Flaherty, now Director of the European Fundamental Rights Agency also based in Vienna, who is the former director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights (and a former priest) said at a recent conference on religions and human rights: I wanted to be a priest and a human rights activist. In the 1980s this seemed completely compatible. Later on this was no longer the case.

The bridges were drawn up accusing the modern world and with it international institutions of their lack of humanism (mainly with regard to genderism, abortion, euthanasia and bioethics). As much as a differentiated approach to these issues is needed, a wholesale anti-modern prejudice led to Catholic voices and social ethical reflections dying out (though there are, of course, some highly engaged individual Christians there).  

As in the times when the Helsinki Committees were founded, secular and faith based organisations supporting universal humanist positions need to be strongly represented in the international arena, and they should work together for the common good. When the Catholic Church as a large international actor stands up for human rights and religious freedom she can make a considerable difference. To effectively initiate processes, however, she needs to cooperate with partners, religious or non-religious, and be ready to dialogue with them on feasible solutions. This “method” has been broadly exposed by Pope Francis in Laudato si’ (mainly Chapter 5, 163-201). It calls for forging alliances to serve moral aims of peace and justice together with other agents, be it nationally or internationally. Interreligious dialogue plays an important role here, and has also become an issue in organisations such as the OSCE.

Thirdly: Christians need to stand up for others but also for their Christian brothers and sisters. This seems self-evident, experience shows, however, that it is not necessarily so. There is an inherent fear or hesitancy to speak up for Christians whose situation in many countries (mainly in the Middle East) is precarious and often life-threating. Problems exist with regard to conversions to Christianity as a ground for the granting of asylum. To send individuals back to home countries where they face outright persecution is a blunt violation of the right to religious freedom. This is often not regarded as serious an issue as it deserves. Thereby the political scenario is somewhat irritating. Governments, which may be called right wing or nationalistic, which have not particularly good records with human rights are generous with regard to Christians (e. g. Hungary, Russia, which both call themselves proudly illiberal democracies). Liberal democracies, by contrast, tend to turn away from a clear stance. To give but one example: An Iranian singer who had converted to Christianity in Iran was denied asylum by Sweden. She was then offered a refuge by the Hungarian government which also strongly supports the return of Christians in the plains of Niniveh after the IS has been overthrown there. As the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder put it: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?

The last question thereby seems to be of particular importance. Most of us have gotten used to the peaceful conditions that reigned in our lifetime. It seems to be the time to take up the issue again, social ethics being particularly called to reflect on the role of different international institutions and religions to promote peace and for the Churches to further engagement in this field.