High-level representatives of 33 traditional Christian communities of the former Soviet Union have called for closer co-operation among Christians.
The appeal was made by participants at a conference in Moscow, "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today and forever," (taken from Hebrews 13:8). The gathering was the third major event organized by the Christian Inter-confessional Consultative Committee.
The consultative committee, set up in 1994, is an informal grouping of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Baptist, and Lutheran churches, as well as Old Believers, Seventh-day Adventists and Pentecostals.
The meeting, held late in November, was the first such gathering since Russia adopted a new law on religion in 1997. Some minority churches have criticized the law, claiming it discriminates against them, and this has increased tension between churches.
"Joint initiatives of Christians, who are united in a desire to do good for people, are highly important," Patriarch Alexei II, head of the region's biggest religious organization, the Russian Orthodox Church, said in his speech at the opening of the conference on November 23 in the St Daniel Hotel. The hotel is part of a complex linked to Danielovsky Monastery, which houses the offices of the church's Moscow Patriarchate.
Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, read a message from Pope John Paul II, who was "greatly encouraged" by the inter-church initiative. International ecumenical organizations, such as the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches, as well as the Lutheran World Federation and several other major Christian organizations, sent representatives. During the three-day conference, participants discussed a range of issues including theology and mission, Christianity and morals, Christian co-operation in the political sphere, and "pseudo-religious phenomena."
"The very fact that we gathered [here] is proof of goodwill," said Metropolitan Kirill, a leading Russian Orthodox official and head of the Moscow Patriarchate's department of external church relations.
Metropolitan Kirill, who was co-chairman of the conference, said the church representatives were "realists" who understood that conferences alone "are not capable of solving the existing problems."
However, "this co-operation in itself improves the climate," he added.
Many participants praised the "fraternal spirit" in which the conference was conducted, a sharp contrast to the often tense atmosphere in inter-church relations in Russia.
"If church members see this they will also soften their hearts towards each other," Pyotr Konovalchik, president of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists and also a co-chairman of the conference, said.
Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the leader of European Russia's Roman Catholics, said that if the example of the conference were followed "at a local level, then this world would gradually change."
In a statement released at the end of the conference, participants vowed to "continue Christ's mission in the world," to help the third millennium become "not a post-Christian era, but a new Christian spring."
Looking back at the 70 years of official atheism and persecution of Christians under Communist rule, they stressed that "the voice of martyrs is stronger than the voice of divisions [among Christians]. The witness of martyrs, who belonged to different confessions, is our inheritance."
The final document condemned the use of religion to "ignite hatred and encourage violence." The document added that true moral values must be rooted in Christ. Without a religious core, such values were eroded in today's society.
The document condemned xenophobia and nationalism.
One of the most heated discussions was in a session devoted to the spread of religious sects. Hilarion Alfeyev, a senior Moscow Patriarchate official in charge of inter-Christian relations, told ENI after the conference that for the first time Christians of the former Soviet Union had jointly drawn up criteria to distinguish between Christian churches and sects.
The final document states that "pseudo-Christian sects" do not confess Jesus Christ as God and Savior, reject the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, distort the Holy Scriptures or replace them with other texts, reject baptism conducted in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, attempt to change the system of Christian values and destroy the Christian way of life. But many participants opposed the idea of drawing up a list of religious organizations that could be described as "sects."
"The activities [of sects] not only inflict irreparable damage to a person and society, but also discredit Christianity," the document declares.
But it also states that traditional faiths are partly responsible for the spread of sects because of "poor educational work" and inadequate pastoral care.
A permanent commission is likely to be set up under the auspices of the Christian Inter-Confessional Consultative Committee to research the activities of sects and new religious movements.
See our November 30 article, "Russia's minority churches welcome liberal ruling on religion law"
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