Report of the 2014 European Justice and Peace Conference by Grace Buckley
European Conference of Justice & Peace Commissions 2014
Day One – Athens – Opening Session
This year, the International Workshop & AGM were hosted by the Greek Commission. The first part took place in Athens and the second in Corinth. A total of 22 Commissions sent representatives, including Ukraine (notwithstanding the serious problems being faced in their country).
This was the last meeting for Bishop Kenney who has guided the European Conference through some difficult times to a position where a permanent secretariat has been achieved, and the way should be open for it to concentrate on the future. Bishop Kenney is succeeded by Archbishop Hollerich of Luxembourg. It was unfortunate that the Archbishop was unable to join us for the meeting, due to urgent business in his diocese. It had also been hoped that Cardinal Turkson would join us but he had to send his apologies, due to a Plenary Meeting of the Pontifical Council for Justice & Peace. He did however send a very supportive message (copy attached (2)).
Archbishop Edward Adams, the Papal Nuncio, was present to bring greetings from Pope Francis, encouraging our efforts to build a better world, and reminding us that we did so because of our faith in Jesus Christ, the only enduring foundation which enables us to believe in the dignity of the human being even when faced with human evil and weakness.
We were also given welcomes by Bishop Dimitrios Salachas (Apostolic Exarch of Catholics of the Byzantine Rite), who is President of Justice & Peace Commission Greece (copy of his welcome attached (1)), a representative of the Greek Orthodox Church (who presented each of us with a copy of a guide produced with the Government to the main religious sites in Greece), and finally a representative of the evangelical churches in Greece who was quite passionate in his challenge to be like St. Paul and see beyond human achievements to the realities of life, and to challenge injustice where it is found, to provide answers and be present to serve.
We then were given greetings on behalf of the New Democracy Party and the radical left-wing Syriza party. The latter clearly considered that their party had much in common with Justice & Peace in its approach to human dignity and putting the human person above profit, and he quoted Pope Francis in support of this.
The final session of the first evening was a very impressive presentation by Professor Karydis, deputy Ombudsman and Professor of Criminology. Professor Karydis explained the purpose of the Ombudsman - to mediate between the citizen and the government. It also has the mandate to act on equality issues and under the Convention against Torture.
He started with the comment that “human dignity” is now a legal concept, particularly since WW2. Both the UN & the European Human Rights Conventions are based on it, and it appears in many post- war constitutions, including the Greek one. However he suggested that when political morality becomes positive law, there can be problems regarding interpretation and implementation.
His office handles individual complaints and also makes recommendations on legislative changes, where it identifies underlying problems. It also can submit special reports e.g. In September it did one on measures against racial violence which was affecting both human rights and social cohesion. His office tries to be practical and make useful suggestions for solutions to complaints.
He identified that the main difficulty was in finding a way to move from theory to practice, particularly now at a time of economic crisis. Are human rights luxuries at such a time of austerity? He would say they were more necessary than ever. It was a question of balance and proportionality.
Professor Karydis believed it was still possible to state what was the basic core of human dignity:
A) the human being owns, in a sense, his/her human value
B) some forms of treatment are automatically wrong
C) state organisations have been created for people not the other way round.
Currently they have 200 employees, of whom 100 are investigative staff. He acknowledged that the current crisis is having a negative impact on social cohesion. There is a tendency to go against certain groups. Social and exclusion is deepening. People are being misled and are trying to have an 'a la carte' approach to human rights and obligations. On a question regarding use of the Social Chapter, he pointed out that states must opt in to this and few have. They prefer to take a voluntary approach but without legal obligation.
In answer to questions, he confirmed his office is experiencing more complaints, mainly to do with pensions, benefits and loss of services. Often issues are not ones for them to deal with but they try to identify alternative sources of help. Greeks view the European Court of Human Rights as having great benefits. His office has no power to impose penalties but this is beneficial as it means government departments are less likely to react defensively. They have investigated the centres where migrants are held and have published a report on the outcomes.
He described the present situation as more a "warfare state" than a "welfare state",
Day Two - Workshops
On Saturday, my group visited an NGO called Praxis which works with the homeless in Athens. We were introduced to its work and shown round its premises by Christos Eleutherakos, a psychologist employed by the NGO. The Centre is funded by the Niarchos Foundation and caters for those who are homeless, working on the principle of accepting anyone who comes to it, regardless of legal status. It employs c.25 people including social workers, psychologists and translators.
Number of clients per day is around 100-120. They operate 12 hours daily, 365 days a year. Clients include refugees and increasingly Greeks affected by the current crisis or with drug or mental health problems (mental hospitals are closing). The majority of clients are male but there are some families, usually refugees, and they have separate days for them.
The charity is very practical in its approach. The first step is to find out what the most urgent need is - usually somewhere to sleep- and then to address the other issues. They are counselling, help with accessing services, opportunities to wash or use the laundry facilities, haircuts, medical checks and clothing. They also provide snacks and film shows during the winter. There are separate play facilities for children.
The charity has street workers who check where people are sleeping rough - they are developing a statistical map from this information - and they also have a mobile unit for rapid HIV testing for drug users and prostitutes. They are seeing an increase in HIV. In the winter the street teams go out to provide emergency kits for those sleeping rough.
They try to help clients move on, providing newspapers and internet access for job searches and advertising vacancies, and they network with other organisations. The concerns we felt were regarding the sustainability of the operation- their funding runs out in August- and the need for long term solutions to their clients' problems which need political action.
In the evening after preparing our group reports, we went to the Areios Pagos for Mass and the symbolic action which is an important part of the International Workshops. (This year's liturgies, I have to say, were particularly memorable because of where they were held.). Our Mass was held in the open air at the foot of the Areios Pagos, with the Acropolis behind us. A small choir joined to provide the music. Much to the amusement if not bemusement of those present, we were also joined by a large shaggy dog, who lay down in front of the altar and stayed there peacefully until after the intercessions.
When the Mass finished, the joint declaration by Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Christodolos in May 2001 was read out in Greek and English, and an excerpt from Acts (St. Paul's sermon) was also read in both languages before a banner proclaiming its central message was unfurled. We had some time then to climb the Areios Pagos and see some of the Plaka before making our way to a local taverna for a typical Greek meal.
First thing next day we departed for Corinth by bus. We stopped at the site of ancient Corinth to celebrate Mass, conscious of walking, in a sense, in the footsteps of St.Paul, who had preached there. A block of marble formed our altar table and the congregation found seats where it could. Bishop Kenney confessed to some trepidation about preaching where St. Paul had preached but he took comfort from the fact that Paul had clearly not been wholly successful ( in Athens). We had some time to look round the archaeological site before heading to our hotel, and lunch.
The first session of the afternoon was a presentation by Bishop Salachas on the position of the Catholic Church in Greece (copy attached (3)). I think many of us were surprised by the fact that Greek Catholics are so few and that there were so many immigrants, which raised issues regarding how to respond to these 'new' Catholics.
In the question and answer session which followed, it became clear that the Greek Orthodox Church does not necessarily follow the lead of Constantinople on ecumenism; that Bishop Salachas felt that EU politicians were not interested in Church opinions; and that there are some difficulties working with immigrant Catholics particularly if they do not have legal status. The Exarchate has started to issue identity cards to its parishioners to help in dealing with the authorities.
The next session enabled all the workshop groups to report on their experience from their visits. The first group had visited Climaka ('Ladder'), a large charity with around 200 employees, funded mainly by the EU. It dealt initially with people with mental health problems, but now with anyone who is socially excluded. They have a large operation including soup kitchen, radio station and they do campaigning. They believe there are signs of hope in Greece as people are beginning to accept that Greeks are largely responsible for their own problems. The charity's main concern was to get people off the street quickly before they turned into long term homeless.
The next group reported on a visit to an EU funded detention centre for men. They are housed in barracks behind wire fences. Of the 280 employees at the centre, 240 were police and the remainder social workers and the like. The Director of the Centre believed they were offering many services and assistance in a humane way to the detainees, but some of the group spoke to detainees who gave a very different view. They are detained, away from everyone with little to do and no chance to get together - they even eat their meals on their beds because there is no dining room. They feel forgotten. The Conference members were concerned and asked the Greek Commission to follow this up with the Director and if the complaints were true, to ask for action to be taken to improve the situation.
Another group met with representatives of Siriza (Radical Left Coalition) which is now getting a significant percentage of votes in elections. Their central belief is people before profit. The party is anxious to be accepted by Greece's EU partners as a credible potential government. They set out their five key demands to the EU as:- solve the debt crisis; change the terms of the required changes in the labour laws in Greece; bring in new investment; work together better in tax issues.
I reported for our group (see my earlier notes).
The final group had been supposed to meet representatives of New Dawn but the party had cancelled for reasons which were not clear. So they went instead to a charity which cares for unaccompanied minors. It has 6 staff and a number of volunteers, and looks after boys, supporting them through their education with language classes etc. Some boys stay until they are ready to find a job. Clearly the current economic situation is a problem for the charity, with fewer jobs and less individual money donations. Government/EU funding is likely to end soon because the Greek government is unable to pay its share. The Conference felt there was a case for some leeway by the EU on co-funding, considering the circumstances.
The General Assembly began with Bishop Kenney's final report as President. There are around 25 active Commissions at present. The position of Poland and Romania is unclear. There has been no recent contact from Norway - Denmark and Sweden were asked to follow this up and report back. Hungary, which disbanded its Commission and replaced it with a Caritas in Veritate Commission, are still in discussions about rejoining the Conference. Activity by Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia is sporadic. However there is the likelihood that Cyprus will form a Commission and there was a representative at the meeting.
Bishop Kenney urged Commissions to be aware of what is really important rather than just considering what the media report. For example, Sudan is now largely ignored in the media but the situation is very serious there.
He has reported to COMECE on the work of J & PE and he had met with Archbishop Hollerich to discuss the work of the Conference and its constituent commissions
He returned again to the issue of funding requirements for the work of the Conference (which would be discussed more fully later) and he outlined the work done by Exco over the last year. Among the changes in operations, each member of Exco now has an obligation to keep in contact with allocated countries and act as a link for them (our link is Cecilia Taylor-Camara). At meetings there is a reflection on the spiritual signs of the times (on the web) and there have been a number of notes and one public statement produced.
Bishop Kenney finished this, his last report, with the challenge “Who shall we be?” and suggested 3 things to keep in mind: 1) we are a church organisation and therefore we need spirituality otherwise we will be just another NGO; 2) we have to be the voice of the voiceless; 3) we need to challenge both political and church leaders. The thing to remember is that it is better to do something and get it wrong, rather than to do nothing at all.
A discussion followed on various general points. The Belgian (Fr) Commission seemed exercised about the funding issue and what the Exco were doing about it. This brought up again the idea of a fixed tariff fee for members. Bishop Kenney made the point that the Exco have two years now to find ongoing funding and some possible trusts have been identified.
The Bishop then sprang a bit of a surprise by asking Scotland, Spain and Ukraine to give an update on the situation in their countries – I had been asked to mention something about the post-Referendum situation but thought it was to be as part of our general report! I reminded those present of the outcome of the voting and reflected that the concerns now were to get people to work together for the good of the country. The position had been made more complex and uncertain by the upcoming UK elections, the inclination of the SNP to talk about a further future Referendum, and the perceived reneging by the UK government on its promises, while certain parts of England were showing signs of wanting greater devolution.
In Spain, the Catalonian government had proposed a referendum on independence but the Spanish government had challenged this in court and it the court has upheld the challenge. It is not clear what will now happen.
In Ukraine, there are still many concerns. 4000 soldiers have been killed and around 400,000 people have had the homes destroyed. There is also an urgent need for a solution on energy supplies for the winter, and for military assistance to discourage further Russian action. The Churches are in solidarity with the Government, and many parishes are collecting food, material and money for the army.
The final day began with the handover of the Presidency. In the absence of Archbishop Hollerich, this was rather low-key. There was a further problem as Vice-President Ingeborg Gabriel would have to leave in the afternoon, so it was agreed that Henrik would chair the sessions after she left.
Bishop Kenney thanked everyone for their assistance to him and suggested that we should not be downhearted if things were not perfect. The church St.Paul had begun in Corinth had been pretty messy and riven often with conflicts, and this should seen as the sign of a church which was alive and engaged. He was presented with a book of memories (I have a copy to bring to office) and there was a sustained period of applause.
The next item of business was the draft final declaration text prepared by Nicola. There were a fair number of comments but it was not as difficult as in some previous years and Nicola took the draft away to revise.
There was a break then for the AGM of the legal entity which exists to enable the Conference to have a bank account etc. Accounts were tabled for the last year and a list of country contributions(copies attached (4)). Marie-Laure has demitted office and Stefan has taken over as Treasurer. There was some further discussion on contributions and one Commission made the valid point that the all-in-costs of being part of the Conference may be higher for countries which have higher travel costs. At the end of the meeting the Budget for 2014 was formally approved (it is give initial approval by the Secretaries General in March).
The draft text for the Concerted Action was the next item. I had given comments on an initial draft prepared by Stefan, as had one other Commission. (there had not been a drafting committee meeting, possibly because Stefan was still getting the measure of the work). There was an initial hold-up as the Swiss Commission felt the language was too “nice” and the draft should be scrapped! However a number of other Commissions liked the text and felt the Swiss objections could be handled by suitable changes. In the end there was a vote on this point and a substantial majority in favour of keeping the text.
There followed a lot of discussion on specific points – there was clearly concern about Stefan’s attempts to differentiate between acceptable identification with one’s country and unacceptable extremist nationalism. Stan will now reword in light of comments (which will be a challenge) and recirculate before it goes to the December meeting of the Exco. It was suggested that in future text should be circulated before the General Assembly and all comments submitted before the meeting so that discussion can be more focussed. Exco will provide a plan of action and circulate this as well.
What has happened means in one sense that the Concerted Action text will be cleared by Exco rather than the GA but Commissions did make their views clear and there is always latitude to adjust the text for use so long as we keep the “asks”.
Fr. Luis then gave us a report on the activities of the CCEE. They are planning a pilgrimage by the Roma to Rome next year for the 50th anniversary of the Pope’s visit to a Roma cam, and this will end with Mass in St. Peter’s Square. They have also started a study of the causes and consequences of poverty and political unrest in Europe, bringing together experts on the issues.
The next item was discussion of the proposed Working Group on EU External Relations (which I covered in my report last year). A paper had been circulated and a proposed membership. The membership was agreed and Stefan will circulated information on those members who are not J&PE members. The first meeting of the Working Group will be January 2015.
After lunch we broke into groups for the Open Spaces. All of the groups were in fact to discuss Gaudium et Spes (“G & S”) in light of its upcoming 50th Anniversary, and to come up with suggestions for concrete actions to mark the anniversary. I joined Roderick Agius of Malta to act as scribe and reporter.
There was general acceptance that the document is one of the main documents for Justice & Peace, and is still very relevant. There was a lot of discussion on whether the church would be identified with the opening lines of G & S now – was there a credibility issue. One robust reply to that was that we are the church and we should be getting on with things. We should also recognise that small simple actions give signs to our world. Our group’s suggestions and comments were: - a) we could translate the principles of G & S into modern terms for our schools and parishes – so many know nothing about it; b) the European Conference should prepare a basic document on the signs of the times for today; c) we could prepare documents setting out the main themes of CST documents with quotes under the various headings; d) the Albanian Commission will undertake a translation of G & S because it is one document which has never been translated for the Albanian church.
Suggestions from the other groups included: network for exchange of ideas and best practice; provide expertise on theological reflections; Exco could provide statement on climate summit (there is to be an ecumenical pilgrimage, linked with the Climate Summit, to Paris from Germany). At the end it was agreed that Exco would be invited to make concrete proposals for action, based on suggestions.
The next item on the agenda was Commission reports under 4 headings. As ever there is a great deal going on. Some things to highlight:-
In Sweden, the Commission has been asked to find out what hate crimes are happening in parish areas. Austria will have a conference on the economy and human dignity in Vienna in April. In Denmark Evangelii Gaudium has generated a lot of interest. In Germany, they are working on their Decent Work project with other organisations (including Caritas) and there is co-operation with the Spanish Commission. Spain had a March conference on the Dignity of Work. The Belgian (Fr) Commission is doing research on economic matters (economy at the service of society) and continuing work on use of natural resources.
A lot of Commissions are doing work on human trafficking and racism, the environment and international affairs. Ireland have produced resources for parishes on the environment and will send us a copy. Sweden is contributing to an ecumenical publication on peace. The German Commission has made the point to its Bishops’ Conference that Evangelii Gaudium supports the idea that Justice & Peace should be used as part of the new evangelisation.
The next item was the report from Jean-Bernard Marie on his work for us at the Council of Europe. He expressed concern that so few people really knew what the Council of Europe is and what it does. He urged everyone to go on the website and look at the documents and reports
Stefan now introduced the document on proposed Strategic Priorities for the Conference. The idea of returning to a three year theme was not favoured – things are changing too fast. Also the point was made that we need firmer commitments to action.
Dates for the next GA were agreed as 25-29 September in Copenhagen and Malmo. Glasgow of course is hosting the General Secretaries in February/March.
The final item was the signing off of the Final Declaration which Nicola had turned round with her customary skill. A copy of the revised document has been sent to us by email.
Our final Mass took place in the grounds of the hotel next to a tiny Orthodox chapel, which is in the hotel grounds!