At the request of the leaders of the Reformed Church in Hungary (RCH), in co-operation with the Reformed Church in Transcarpathia (Ukraine), representatives of 15 denominations from Asia, North America, Europe and the Middle East, along with churches from neighbouring countries and organisations from Europe and further afield, came together in the Hungarian capital for a ‘partner consultation’.
Representing PCI at the conference was the Rev Uel Marrs, Secretary to the all-Ireland denomination’s Council for Global Mission. On his return to Belfast on Thursday, he said, “Through our partnership with the Hungarian Reformed Church, we have a long association with the Church and the community in the region. When the war began, Irish Presbyterians gave £1.5 million to the humanitarian relief effort through our Moderator’s Appeal. A third of that went directly to Hungarian Reformed Church Aid, with our then Moderator, Dr John Kirkpatrick, spending time in Hungary and Ukraine last October observing the relief effort while standing in solidarity with our Hungarian and Ukrainian brothers and sisters in Christ.”
The President of the Synod of the Reformed Church in Hungary, Bishop Zoltán Balog with Bishop Sándor Zán-Fábián, head of the Reformed Church in Transcarpathia (RCT) in Ukraine, initiated the consultation with trusted partners from various church communities across the world. The theme of the gathering was ‘Partner consultation on churches’ responsibility and opportunity to advance ‘just peace’ and to contribute to a prosperous future in Ukraine framed by a Christian vision and principles’.
“The four days were an opportunity to listen, discuss, worship and pray together, while affirming the principles of a ‘just peace’, while outlining opportunities for churches to support its advancement in Ukraine. Churches from our various diverse backgrounds were able to provide unique insights from experiences of conflict, peace and reconciliation, especially from the Middle East and South Korea, but also from our experience on these islands,” he explained.
Mr Marrs continued, “It also gave our colleagues in Transcarpathia and beyond, a platform to share their unique perspectives on the crisis, the impact on their community, and the possibility of reconciliation of all peoples in Ukraine.”
Given the history of that part of central and eastern Europe, the conference also had another dynamic for the Hungarian Reformed Church. As Mr Marrs explained, Ukraine is not only a neighbouring country for the conference hosts, but the ‘homeland’ of the Hungarian reformed community in western Ukraine. The Reformed Church in Transcarpathia has 60,000 members in over 100 parishes.
Speaking about his visit to Transcarpathia in western Ukraine, Mr Marrs said, “I was very encouraged by what I saw the Reformed Church in Transcarpathia doing. All its ministers and many of its elders had remained in the country to support the thousands of Internally Displaced People who had fled the fighting and the missile attacks, before going on to become refugees in neighbouring countries, and elsewhere. Providing accommodation, food and schooling, it was a well-organised and compassionate community response at congregational and institutional levels, especially given the challenges that they have faced as a minority in Ukraine over the years,” he said.
In a special church service in the Transcarpathian town of Nagydobrony, half an hour from the Hungary/Ukraine border, some 1000 local people joined the visitors to worship together. “For me this was probably the most moving and most powerful part of the four days,” Mr Marrs said.
“Bishop Sándor Zán-Fábián preached on Psalm 139, emphasising God’s presence with us. We then heard from the President of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, Rev Najla Kassab, who knew what it was to spend time in in bomb shelters during the Lebanese Civil War, and Rev Harout Seliman, President of the Armenian Protestant Community in Syria, who is based in Aleppo. Both spoke with empathy and power out of their personal experiences of war, encouraging their brothers and sisters in Christ with these words: ‘Do not be afraid, the Lord is with you.’
“This was their testament to God’s faithfulness in times of great trouble and hardship. Few other visiting leaders could have said that with the same conviction, passion, and meaning. Given where we were, it was greatly appreciated. As Najla Kassab added, the presence of us all from around the world also demonstrated ‘the power of showing up’, which should never be underestimated,” Mr Marrs said.
In a communique released by the conference organisers, they said that the participants had come together ‘to share their concerns for Ukraine in the face of the Russian Federation’s onslaught of violence and aggression. In addition to condemning the violence, the consultation acted as a unique forum, gathering diverse perspectives to generate a productive discussion on the churches’ role in pursuing peace-building efforts in Ukraine…’
It went on to state that, ‘Participants emphasised the need to listen to the experiences and expectations of the people of Ukraine, knowing that reconciliation cannot be imposed from the outside. While discussing the situation of minorities in Ukraine, participants underscored that the future of the country includes the wellbeing of all of its citizens. Participants [also] reaffirmed their commitment to journey in continued solidarity with the people of Ukraine.’
You can watch a video produced for the opening session of the conference by the Reformed Church in Transcarpathia, entitled '500 days in the shadow of war', on YouTube here.
Photos (1) Delegates, including Rev Uel Marrs, Secretary to PCI's Council for Global Mission, at the 'Ukraine Future Conference' held in Ráday House, Budapest, the headquarters of the Reformed Church in Hungary (2) Bishop Sándor Zán-Fábián, head of the Reformed Church in Transcarpathia, Ukraine, at the opening session of the 'Ukraine Future Conference' with Rev Balazs Odor, RCH's Ecumenical Officer who organised the conference (3) Rev Uel Marrs, (third from left) listening during the conference (4) President of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, Rev Najla Kassab, addressing the conference (5) and an informal shot of the conference delegates in Berehove, Transcarpathia, Ukraine.