For the last week, I have been blessed with the opportunity to be in Sarajevo with a great group of young people from all over Europe. We gathered for a conference entitled Fundamentalist or Responsible Citizen? The Contribution of Religious Communities to the Formation of European Citizens. The sponsoring agencies included the Ecumenical Youth Council in Europe (EYCE, affiliated with the WCC), the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations (FEMYSO), and the Council of Europe. This summit marked the culmination of a three-year Campaign to Overcome Fundamentalism spearheaded by EYCE.
I should note that “youth” means something different here than in the U.S., as anyone involved in World Youth Day would be aware. At home, especially when speaking of “youth ministry”, we are talking of teens in middle school and high school, age 12-18 or so. Over here, “youth” means university age, in its broadest implications, so the participants ranged from 20 to 35. After almost a decade of involvement in National Workshops on Christian Unity and some NCC events in the States, it was striking to be one of the older people in the room rather than one of the youngest.
About 45 people were gathered, roughly twenty each were Christian or Muslim, and only four or five were Jewish. I think only four of us were Catholic, with Orthodox, Protestant and even pre-protestant communities represented (i.e., Moravians, Czech Brethren, and Waldensians). Most European states were represented, with the Iberian countries being the only noticeable absence. I was the only non-European, but for my European credentials I was ‘representing’ the Vatican as a pontifical university student – that is, quite unofficially.
The highlight of the week was the other participants. My roommate was a student from Lithuania. I spent time at a British pub called “Cheers” with a theologian-staffer to the Icelandic bishops’ national office, a protestant pastor’s kid from Northern Ireland living in the Republic, and a Romanian seminarian friend who lead the planning of the whole event (and just turned 22). One of my first conversations was with a Palestinian Briton about the situation in the Holy Land, and my experiences there with the Russell Berrie Fellowship. I shared shisha with a Turkish Muslim woman living in Cairo, and burek with two Albanians from Macedonia and a Latvian who has seen more of the world than I likely ever will! And the list goes on.
Despite having studied in Rome for the last year, this was the first time to really talk about Europe per se with Europeans – really to listen and observe as they discussed it themselves – especially on such a relevant issue as the role of religion and secularity in nation, state, and European society. (Most of my classmates are African, Asian, and some from the Americas and what Europeans there are mostly from the east, and a minority.)
While not an academic conference exactly, the presentations were on topic and promoted good discussion. We had a welcome from the Mufti of Sarajevo and President of the Interreligious Council (IRC), a panel with Muslim, Orthodox, and Catholic representatives of the Bosnian IRC, and presentations from Bashy Quarishy of Denmark, Hasan Patel and Imam Ajmal Masroor of the UK, and Dirk Thesenvitz of Germany. At the end of the week, a subcommittee of participants collated the week’s comments and discussion and drafted a Final Statement, which was signed by all the participants. As part of that committee, I wish we had had more time, as there were a few areas that we felt could have been better phrased, but considering the actual drafting was done in about three hours, by committee for approval by the whole, it seemed to come together rather well.