The former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches apologized for the ecumenical organization’s inaction to support the dissident movements in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War, during a conference held in Imshausen Germany on the Christian church and 20th century dictatorships, July 16-18, 2004.
“While being aware of the situation and basically sympathetic to their struggle, the WCC gave priority attention to the struggles against racism and for justice and liberation in the southern countries,” said Konrad Raiser, the ecumenical leader who served on the WCC board until 1993.
“In retrospect, it would appear that the ecumenical organizations have not sufficiently recognized — at least at the official level — the historic legitimacy and the political potential of the dissident movements in the Communist countries,” said Raiser, during the conference which coincided with the 60th anniversary of an attempt by dissident German army officers to kill Adolf Hitler of July 20, 2004.
Raiser added that groups such as the WCC and the Conference of European Churches should have been more supportive of dissident groups like Solidarity in Poland and Charter 77 in the former Czechoslovakia – both groups that opposed the Communist regimes.
“We tried to break through the Iron Curtain and to include the churches in Communist countries in the ecumenical movement,” he said, but “in place of prophetic protest, the ecumenical movement concentrated on bridge-building and cooperation.”
The former president of the Conference of European Churches, the Rev. John Arnold of England, agreed with Raiser, saying more could’ve been done on the parts of the Ecumenical groups.
“I prefer to say simply, ‘No, we did not do enough,” said Arnold.
For church leaders in Eastern Europe, Arnold said, the ecumenical movement was “a lifeline and oxygen supply combined, and the only means of engaging in public issues other than by simply supporting the ‘peace policies’ of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”
However, Arnold added that the addition of major Orthodox churches from Eastern Europe after 1961 did “radically change the ethos of the Council,” and changed the focus from Eastern European churches suffering under the communist rule to third world countries.
“Its focus of concern shifted away from Europe to the Third World, and this was skillfully exploited by representatives of the ROC (Russian Orthodox Church) to sideline or at least ‘relativize’ the concern felt in many western European churches for persecuted Christians and dissidents,” said Arnold. “Official contacts were used to press particular cases, though that could not be made public. ... The lesson we learnt was that effective action is scarcely possible without the active involvement of the local church. At the world level, there was a painful contrast with the churches in the United States and South Africa, which were ready, willing and able to criticize their own governments.”
Meanwhile, also on July 18, the leader of German’s main Protestant group – the Lutheran church – paid tribute to the dissident officers who plotted a coup against Hitler 60 years ago.
"Our society, and also our church, struggled for a long time to honor the plans and the daring" of the Nazi resistance, Lutheran Bishop Wolfgang Huber said at the Berlin Cathedral. "Those who sacrificed their lives during those days did not die in vain. Their example lives on."
On July 20, 1944, the Col. Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg and other high-ranking officers from the German aristocracy plotted a briefcase bomb against Hitler. Sadly, the bomb missed the target – although it killed 5 others – and the dictator immediately executed Stauffenberg and the officers the next day.
Huber said Germany should be proud of the "men and women of July 20" because they stood up for universal values.
"They saw: Where remaining idle would result in complicity, resistance is an ethical duty," he said. "All of them, in their own way, took a stand in the cause of human dignity."