It is difficult to make many generalizations regarding secularization or religion in Eastern Europe. Local situations are quite different, but churches are still are in a period of adjustment to new environments, reported several papers delivered at a day-long meeting of Christians Associated for Relationship with Eastern Europe (CAREE), which took place in Washington on Nov. 17, before the AAR conference.
The focus of this year’s CAREE meeting, attended by RW, were inter-church and inter-religious tensions in Eastern Europe, as well as the possible role of Americans as reconcilers. In Georgia, explained Paul Crego (Library of Congress), the Orthodox Church does not always feel comfortable with a political Western orientation and efforts to build a European identity, especially since the current regime does not play the Orthodox card as much as the previous ones. Concerns about the West can also be observed in other Eastern European countries, such as Serbia, where Americans are often associated with the newer religious communities. Generally, relations with the Orthodox Church have become more difficult than during the communist period, observed a Mennonite participant, Walter Sawatsky.
Despite good intentions, missionary activities by Christian groups from the West have done nothing to reduce suspicions of proselytism, especially since they often showed little sensitivity to local circumstances, explained CAREE Executive Secretary, James Payton (Redeemer College, Ontario). Another participant, Angela Ilic, who reported on developments in Hungary, mentioned that many foreign missionaries in Budapest tended to live in an expatriate community rather than to get in touch with local realities.
But there have also been signs of improvement in recent years, and more cooperation with local churches. There are instances of newly-launched ecumenical dialogue, such as the Lutheran-Orthodox dialogue in Serbia, which was well-covered in the media, explained Luka Ilic, a Protestant pastor in Serbia and currently a doctoral student in Philadelphia. However, similar to the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, such initiatives take place at the highest level, never at the grassroots.
Sawatsky offered the sobering view that Russia and Eastern Europe had been seen as a new challenge for missions, but turned out to be some of the most secular and post-Christian areas of Europe. There are exceptions, well-illustrated by Krystyna Gorniak-Kocikowska (Southern Connecticut State University) on the case of Poland, where a number of politicians today take the task of going into Europe in order to turn back the tide of secularism very seriously. However, she warns that, due to the unexpectedly high level of emigration of Polish young people into Western Europe, nobody knows if their Catholicism will become stronger or decrease. In the long-run, a Quebec-style scenario of a “quiet revolution” in religious affairs cannot be ruled out.
Several participants felt that Americans are welcome if they come to serve, to listen and as partners – not as people eager to impose their views. There will probably be a need for a new generation of Christian American scholars to rebuild relations with Eastern Europe on a new basis (Sawatsky). It is however by no means sure this will be easy at a time when several institutes specializing in Eastern European studies have been closed down.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer