by Marta Wozniak
When we arrived in Brussels, we were welcomed not only with tropical weather as part of the heatwave affecting Europe but also some rather interesting ironic cartoons in the magazines on the hotel’s coffee table. It was 1st of July and the DIMECCE team were meeting again, this time in Belgium, for the event organised by our non-academic partner The Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME). Our seminar ‘Middle Eastern Christians in Europe: Background, significance and policy implications’ had been planned for a long time as we wanted to reach out to stakeholders and ecumenical representatives based in Brussels.
Encouraged by the ever helpful Doris Peschke from CCME, Dr Fiona McCallum and myself met early in the morning in our hotel to polish a handout which was to be given to the event participants. Interestingly, the same piece of advice – to prepare a short and clear handout for policy makers – had been given by Neil Crompton, Director, Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, UK, during a plenary session we attended at the annual conference of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) in London the week before our Brussels trip. Following this approach, we tried to make our presentations as concise and intelligible as possible – not always an easy task for academics!
We took the short walk from our hotel to the CCME office – a pretty red brick townhouse. Our Danish partners – Dr Lise Paulsen Galal and Dr Sara Lei Sparre had already arrived having left Copenhagen early in the morning in order to fit in the event as a day trip from Denmark. I was pleased to meet Doris Peschke and Torsten Moritz again, both of whom represented CCME at the meeting and have attended various DIMECCE events over the project period. I was also happy to recognize Gunilla Moshi, a deacon from the Church of Sweden, who I interviewed as part of my fieldwork in Sweden – she had come from Stockholm just for our event. Then I noticed a neat pile of our DIMECCE booklets ‘Middle Eastern Christians in Europe: Histories, Cultures and Communities’ – fresh from print! Each of us grabbed a booklet and posed cheerfully – happy to present the fruit of our shared effort.
Hearing Arabic language, I approached a grey-haired man in a blue shirt. He turned out to be Yonadam Kanna, an Assyrian politician, member of the Iraqi National Assembly as well as a founder and Secretary General of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (Zowaa). After chatting for a while, he gave me a leather pennant of Zowaa and an invitation to Baghdad! He was accompanied by a journalist Essa Santa, an Assyrian based in Brussels, who has just returned from Iraq reporting on the status of Christians there. I asked her about the Assyrian community in Belgium and she was eager to give me information on its size and churches. Joined by Fr. Nektarios Ioannou from the Church of Cyprus, we enjoyed a light lunch organised by our hosts CCME. By the end of the lunch, the seminar room had filled up with guests representing various churches and institutions.
The programme commenced with Doris Peschke delivering some welcoming remarks and then I presented a short project overview publicising our booklet and speaking about planned publications. Lise and Sara talked about Middle Eastern Christians being transnational actors and Fiona discussed the different interactions Middle Eastern Christians have within UK, Denmark and Sweden. Together the three presentations took under an hour but were full of facts, quotes and analysis, which were appreciated by the listeners who congratulated us on a well-structured discourse later on.
After a very short break, Doris invited guests to ask questions. Rob van van Drimmelen, retired General Secretary of APRODEV (the Association of World Council of Churches related Development Organisations in Europe) inquired about support given to Middle Eastern Christians at the local level and about converts into Middle Eastern Christianity in Europe. He was given several examples of assistance in the three countries and informed that conversions occur although they are not numerous. Doris remarked that it is far more common for Middle Eastern Christians in Europe to attend churches of other denominations (especially when there is no church of their rite in the neighbourhood) than change denominational belonging.
Yonadam Kanna then asked for a possibility to speak. After thanking team members for raising awareness about Middle Eastern Christians in Europe, he spoke about the difficult Assyrian past and present including Seyfo, Simele, and the current situation in Iraq particularly the expansion of ISIS. He mentioned that Iraqi Christians are helping non-Christians – especially minorities such as Yazidis and Shabaks – sharing with them humanitarian relief, i.e. much needed clothes. Kanna stressed the importance of maintaining European values at a time when he perceived them to be under threat. He argued that Western countries often fuel conflicts in the Middle East and urged EU representatives to strengthen protection of Middle Eastern Christians in the region.
The last intervention came from Rev. Joseph Bosco Bangura from Word Communication Ministries, Brussels, who wanted to know how the extent of access to church premises influences the spiritual life of faith-based communities; in particular the DIMECCE case study ones. Fiona, whose presentation at the DIMECCE conference in St Andrews in May 2015 covered this topic, was happy to give a comprehensive answer on the situation in the UK and I followed with some remarks on Sweden.
There was some time for mingling and networking after the event. It felt strange saying goodbye to Lise and Sara – it was our last meeting before the project’s end in autumn – when we meet again, the DIMECCE project will be over – officially at least (hard to believe!). However, our job in Brussels wasn’t over yet. Led by Torsten, Fiona and I walked to the European Parliament building for an informal meeting with Catherine Stihler, a MEP for Scotland and the Rector of the University of St Andrews. Catherine’s assistant, Vanessa Ivanov, met us in front of the main entrance protected by stalwart guards and made sure that we were given visitors’ badge stickers – of course we had to give our personal information in advance – it is not so easy to enter the European Parliament!
Catherine Stihler, who has been a Member of the European Parliament for Scotland since 1999, was a warm, easy-going person as well as an experienced politician with broad knowledge of international relations – after all she had studied in the School of International Relations at St Andrews! She was interested in the project findings and took one of our booklets. We discussed several issues with her including the history of UK-Assyrian relations, the present situation in Syria and different options of assisting Middle Eastern Christians in their homelands. When the one hour meeting came to an end, Catherine asked Vanessa to show us around the parliament building as she had to attend another meeting.
Vanessa was a wonderful guide – we really enjoyed our tour inside the enormous European Parliament building. With its half floors accessible only for authorised officials, it reminded me of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter tales. The building was not boring at all – apart from vast auditorium rooms crowded with MEPs, there were art exhibitions and sculptures sent by member states. We even watched a Buddhist monk sandpainting a beautiful Mandala on a table in the main corridor – apparently he was part of a bigger delegation from Tibet.
After our tour came to an end, we thanked Vanessa, handed in our visitor badges and left the building. Returning to the hotel, we caught a quick glimpse of the European Commission windows reflecting the setting sun. We finished this long, fruitful and impressionable day with a typical Belgian dinner with Torsten in one of the many small Brussels streets, observing signboards and passers-by, thinking how multicultural the city is and reflecting on another successful DIMECCE event!