BEIJING—To combat ongoing hatred, violence, and greed, collective Christian awareness of moral and spiritual values, mutual understanding, and socio-political advancement are necessary counter forces. Such was the core message of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs’ (CCIA) 51st meeting, which convened from June 9 through 16, 2012 in Shanghai and Nanjing, China. The CCIA is a specialized advisory board under the umbrella of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the largest fellowship of churches in the world whose overall goal is to achieve Christian Unity. The CCIA deals primarily with advising the WCC on public policy and advocacy, counseling WCC leaders on issues that underlie injustice and social transformation, promoting a peaceful and reconciling role of religion in conflicts and promoting inter-religious dialogue. Vanna Kitsinian Der Ohanessian, Esq., a commissioner from Los Angeles, participated in this meeting on behalf of the Holy See of Cilicia.
The meeting was hosted by the China Christian Council. The church in China is unique considering it has emerged in a communist ruled regime. It is in this context that one can appreciate the relevance of the CCIA’s meeting in China, which was historic because it was the very first official ecumenical meeting taking place in the country. The meeting was also symbolic because it was the last meeting of this particular commission, whose representatives serve for a period of seven years. In recent years, the CCIA has made a deliberate effort to meet in countries that have experienced a re-growth in Christian identity following either years of suppression under communist rule or in a post-communist era, including Cuba and Albania.
Freedom of Religion
Since its inception, the CCIA has taken a keen interest in the subject of freedom of religion. In fact, the WCC through the CCIA made valuable contributions in the drafting of the provisions of Article 18 on Religious Freedom and Liberty in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations). Bringing her active participation to this meeting, Der Ohanessian presented her working group’s position on issues related to freedom of religion and inter-religious dialogue. Der Ohanessian recommended that the WCC formulate a Public Issues Statement on Freedom of Religion, particularly in light of the fact that the last official WCC statement on this matter was issued in 1981. The contents of this statement, it was suggested, should be rooted in Christian theology, but must be an inclusive document that is applicable to protect the rights of all religions. Furthermore, Der Ohanessian presented what the priorities of the CCIA should be in the next seven years, calling for a special emphasis on religious freedom in the Middle East, and a focus on the rise of religious fundamentalism, whether it is Islamic, Christian, or any other religion. Such fundamentalism is aggressive in nature, and disturbs the peace within a community and within the wider Church. Lastly, Der Ohanessian recommended that the succeeding CCIA initiate a program which focuses on the politicization of religion, a growing reality in various parts of the world, including the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia, to name a few.
Religious Intolerance in Turkey
Following the last meeting in Albania, the CCIA organized an International Study Consultation on Freedom of Religion and the Rights of Religious Minorities, which was held in Istanbul, Turkey in late 2011. That study aimed at identifying hardships faced by religious groups in Turkey. While acknowledging Turkey’s longstanding track record of religious intolerance and in spite of these realities, some commissioners raised the point that Turkey can at the same time be viewed as a model state, among others in the region, which has been able to combine the pillars of democracy with Islam. Objecting to this characterization and advocating on behalf of the Armenian Church, Der Ohanessian cautioned her fellow commissioners not to accept at face value Turkey’s propaganda to appear as a country that promotes religious freedom and one that respects the rights of its religious minorities. Der Ohanessian referenced the 2011 Report on Religious Freedom and the Rights of Religious Minorities generated by the WCC, which is filled with numerous examples of Turkey’s intolerance for religious freedom against several religious minority groups, including Armenians. The report describes how Christians in Turkey, as well as other places throughout the Middle East, have suffered years of tragic abuse and violation of rights, which often goes neglected by the international community. Der Ohanessian stated that violent attacks, including the murder of Christians, have been witnessed in Turkey in recent years.
Further elaborating on this point, Der Ohanessian referenced parts of the report that establish that though Turkey is a secular state which claims to guarantee freedom of thought and faith in its constitution and in international agreements which it has become a party to, it does not have a comprehensive and consistent policy on beliefs. The principle of secularism, in the way it is commonly addressed and implemented in Turkey seems considerably far from being a democratic principle that can be used as a base in matters related to religious freedom and in governing state-religious relations. As the report states, one of the most important points which emerged from the study is that the relation between the state and the various belief groups in Turkey are not institutionalized and there is a lack of legal grounds which regulates those relations. Therefore, relations that are structured in this way are proof of the fact that Turkey does not possess a belief policy which relies on democratic institution and legal grounds.
Global Advocacy Work
As part of the CCIA’s ongoing global advocacy work, the CCIA also analyzed a report regarding an exploratory visit by several commissioners to Dubai and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates on the Rights of Migrant Workers in the Arabian Gulf region and Stateless People around the world.