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Terrorism, migrations and ecumenism. Father Heikki Huttunen (CEC): “Europe is experiencing a solidarity crisis”

"The crisis we are experiencing in Europe today is a crisis in solidarity.” Interview with Father Heikki Huttunen, Secretary General of the Conference of European Churches (CEC), contacted by SIR in the Italian city of Torre Pellice, where he is attending the Synod of Methodist and Valdese Churches.  As regards the summoning of a fourth European Ecumenical Assembly (after the previous ones in Basil, Graz and Sibiu), Father Huttunen, said: "We need to apply ‘Pope Francis style’ – leading to what is concrete, that is near the people, open to the world, and at the same time rooted in Christian faith - in the realm of ecumenism”

Europe is going through a crisis. But its weakness depends neither on the threat of terrorism nor the challenge of migrations. “Europe is hit by a solidarity crisis.” The lack of solidarity among “EU Countries” left Italy, Greece and Spain to handle the inflow of migrants alone, while Countries hit by wars and poverty and left to plunge into their own tragedies, said Father Heikki Huttunen, from the Orthodox Church of Finland, Secretary General of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) gathered for their meeting in Torre Pellice – Italy – until August 25. Within this framework, the voice of Christian Churches is of utmost importance to help Europe remain true to its original project.

After Barcelona and Spain, terror striked against Finland, where several people were victims of a stabbing attack in the city of Turku. The terror threat in Europe is sowing fear and, most of all, it is leading us to see each other as enemies. How can we fend off this drift? It’s shocking to see terrorist attacks that sow destruction and death. And the fact that they cause fear and dismay is a normal thing. However, that is precisely the terrorists’ goal: to divide us, to spread suspicion across our societies, to destabilize our democracies, to undermine our openness. Thus I believe that the first thing that should be done to address this challenge is to

React by doing the exact opposite of what terrorists are leading us to do, namely, to strengthen our principles of tolerance, fraternity and democracy.

Within this climate of fear, Europe is addressing yet another challenge that is putting it into crisis, namely, the arrival of people fleeing from Middle Eastern countries struck by war, and from Africa. Some respond to this emergency situation by demanding border closures. Others live in a state of fear. What is the right answer? 
There are many aspects deserving greater emphasis. First of all it should be said that it’s normal for people to be on the move and that the refugee crisis should not only be seen from the European perspective but also from the standpoint of those who are fleeing. It’s their crisis, not ours. What we are missing in Europe is a clear vision of the situation. We should also reflect on the fact that for geographic reasons some Countries are receiving the largest migration flows, such as Italy, Greece, Malta, Spain. These Countries need the solidarity of other European Countries: this is our real crisis. The crisis we are living in Europe today is a solidarity crisis. The true figures of the arrivals show that the numbers are not so high as to represent a threat or make management procedures impossible.

Immigrant reception is possible if all Countries cooperate.

Considering the fact that the economies of certain Countries need the presence of young generations who will take care of us in the future, makes us realize that Europe actually needs immigrants.

So where did Europe go wrong in addressing the migration phenomenon?

It lacked a clear vision on what was happening and made a set of mistakes, leaving criminal organizations to handle the situation.

We have allowed people to pay high prices to criminals to cross the Mediterranean or follow other escape routes into Europe. We allowed people to die in those attempts, and let criminal networks grow stronger. If our governments had acted before to avoid all of this with concrete measures, if they had devised legal and safe entry routes for all, if they had coordinated rescue and reception operations, the situation today would be completely different. We are making another mistake with the migrants arriving into Europe who are living and working in our cities without legal papers. We are creating B-citizens in Europe: people forced to live with illegal status in the shadows, without security, without rights, without giving their children the possibility to go to school… Thus while we need to step up efforts on various fronts we are also called to ask ourselves what we are doing to help the population of Syria and Iraq live safely in their Countries; what we are doing to support the growth of African economies, thereby enabling people to stay in their home Countries and help the youths to have hope. I’m afraid we are not viewing European economic systems through sufficiently critical lenses.

Your words echo those of Pope Francis. He too has always addressed European leadership with strong words, expressing his dream of a “new European humanism” and the hope that Europe may recover its roots. What do you think of Pope Francis’ role? It’s a great contribution to Europe.

What we appreciate mostly of this Pope is that he speaks on behalf of all Christians.

Thus we are very grateful for his role as advocate of the poor, as defender of the environment, and as the voice calling for world justice. His is not a voice from on high. The Pope is a credible person: his lifestyle and his mode of action and commitment reflect his profound closeness to people. I think that this is precisely what all our Churches need. We need renewed credibility in people’s eyes, for, because of past mistakes, we have lost confidence and credibility. If we follow the example of Pope Francis and that of other Church leaders, such as Patriarch Bartholomew, the Church will return to be listened to.

In a Europe that appears to have lost its roots and its original humanism, there emerges the need to hear the voice of the Churches. In the past, European Ecumenical Assemblies were occasions for encounter and common action. The last one was held in Sibiu, Romania, in 2007. Do you think it is possible – and necessary – to promote a similar event in the near future? 
Yes, absolutely! It’s important, and you are not the only one to raise this question. We need the “style of Pope Francis” in ecumenism, which guides us to something concrete, close to the people, open to the world, whilst being deeply rooted in Christian faith. Being rooted in what we are and open to others. But we should also admit that the existing ecumenical bodies are weak. CEC, my organization, is not strong and can only count on a small budget.

We can only hope that Churches will cooperate to ensure its realization, but it requires creating a climate marked by enthusiasm for the project and by inspiration.

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