Advocating Religious Freedom in the Helsinki Process

Advocating Religious Freedom in the Helsinki Process

Katharina Kunter, University of Helsinki; Stephanie Roulin, Université de Fribourg
Vom - Bis
14.10.2021 - 15.10.2021
Marie Snedker, Study of Religion, Aarhus University

In 2025, the Helsinki Final Act will celebrate its 50th jubilee. In order to focus more on the content of this anniversary, Katharina Kunter (Helsinki) and Stephanie Roulin (Fribourg) organised a joint digital workshop in a Finnish-Swiss cooperation. The focus of the workshop was the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE; 1973-75) with its Final Agreement of Helsinki. This is often described as one of the main diplomatic achievements of the détente era and marks a crucial milestone towards ending the Cold War. Yet not only diplomats took part in the process. Non-state actors and NGOs also did their part by lobbying CSCE staff and conference attendees for human rights and religious freedom violations behind the Iron Curtain. The online workshop aimed to further explore human rights activists involved in the Helsinki Process at the interface between the Dissent and the Western Public, and between state and other private networks. The focus was on religion, religious networks and actors, who advocated religious freedom and human rights in the Helsinki Process. The international workshop “Advocating Religious Freedom in the Helsinki Process” invited speakers from various fields of research along with eyewitnesses to broaden the understanding of the process.

In the first panel speakers from archival institutions stressed how different archives and new primary sources can support researchers in getting new research perspectives regarding events in the time of the Cold War and Helsinki Process. Through the presentations, it became clear that with the use of different archives, researchers can gain insight into collaboration and communication between actors, which offers a possibility of investigating their intentions and agendas. This topic initiated a lively discussion on how archives make way for different approaches and viewpoints, and how important archives and archival practice are to explore the field of human rights and religious freedom in the post-World War II and the Cold War period.

First on the panel was EVA MAURER (Schweizerische Osteuropabibliothek, SOB, Bern). She presented a first survey of the SOB holdings and of the Swiss Eastern Institute (SOI) archive collection. Both SOB and SOI were founded in the late 1950s by Peter Sager, one of Switzerland’s prominent cold warriors. Although the Institute’s focus was primarily on the military threat, the suppression of the liberal market economy and the Soviet activity in decolonised countries, the persecution and suppression of religious rights are extremely well documented in the Library books, Samizdat and newspaper collection. In addition to that, a “sneak peek” in the SOI archive for the year 1975 revealed brochures of the SOI on the topic, as well as highly interesting pieces of correspondence with related institutes, and with unaffiliated individuals denouncing “leftist tendencies” within the Churches at home and abroad. Further investigation on Sager’s activities and networks would provide a fuller and multifaceted picture of Swiss anti-communism.

ANNE-EMMANUELLE TANKAM (World Council of Churches, WCC) presented the WCC’s archive and library holdings, which form the institutional and historical memory of the World Council of Churches and the modern ecumenical movement. In the WCC´s archive are also the archives of the Conference of the European Churches (CEC). Next to the archive of the forerunner organisations such as Faith and Order, the collection of the WCC from 1938 are central for all research dealing with the Helsinki Process. Although the collections are in no way systematic, the papers of the Commission of the Churches for International Affairs (CCIA) are well organised in ten boxes containing documentation and reports on the Helsinki Acts and Process, as well as an abundance of correspondence with Churches and unaffiliated actors such as Glaube in der Zweiten Welt (G2W).

RÜDIGER NOLL, staff member of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) 2002-2013 [1], discussed the contributions of the CEC for the implementation of the Helsinki Acts. The CEC’s archive collection gives insight into the ecumenical movement in Europe, and especially into how the movement evolved throughout the Cold War period. The holdings of that time and of the CEC are nowadays in the Archive of the WCC, and is available online at WCC’s web page.[2]

Last on this panel was MARCELA ZARUBOVA (OSCE Documentation Centre), who as Senior Documentation and Information Assistant represented the OSCE Documentation Centre in Prague. Zarubova promoted the use of the institution’s advisory services and archives. They contain several collections and secondary sources on the topic. She encouraged researchers to make use of the content in the OSCE Documentation Centre to support further research and gain deeper insights on the topic. For secondary sources, Zarubova recommended looking at the book CSCE Testimonies: Causes and Consequences of Helsinki Final Act 1972–1989[3], which, as the title insinuates, gives an impression of the Helsinki Process from the perspective of CSCE.

The second panel discussed religious networks in support of the CSCE, Helsinki monitoring groups, religious freedom and anti-communism. All presentations gave insights on how networks of actors promoting anti-communism, human rights and religious freedom were established both east and west of the Iron Curtain, and how the governments, the religious elite and the public reacted to this.

VILLE JALOVAARA’s (Helsinki / Turku) presentation addressed the test of the latitude of Finnish religious freedom during the CSCE conference in Helsinki, where actors such as the charismatic Romanian Evangelical Lutheran priest and advocator of religious freedom Richard Wurmbrand challenged the Finnish tolerance towards freedom of speech. Jalovaara’s presentation initiated a lively discussion on Wurmbrand. Several participants in the workshop showed interest in further investigation of Wurmbrand as a controversial and transnational activist within the Western religious networks.

This made a smooth transition to the next speaker on the panel, NADEZDHA BELJAKOVA (Moscow). Her field of research is the history of religion in the Cold War. In her speech, Beljakova addressed the role of a Zurich-based Institute Glaube in der Zweiten Welt (G2W), in international networks for religious freedom behind the Iron Curtain. She discussed how information was shared among militants advocating for religious freedom and how this information escaped the communist regime. Regarding the international network of G2W, Beljakova mentioned several organisations and publishing houses, such as Interdoc in the Netherlands, and Possev-Verlag, along with actors such as Kardinal König in Austria.

IRENA VAIŠVILAITĖ (Vilnius) was last on this panel. Apart from an academic career in the field of history, Vaišvilaitė also carried a position as ambassador of Lithuania to the Holy See. Vaišvilaitė presented the Helsinki Committee and the human rights movement in Lithuania in the sequel of the Helsinki Act. Even though Lithuania had been under communist Soviet occupation, religious communities were able to establish communication channels behind the Iron Curtain, which is testified by e.g. the Lithuanian clergy in Rome.

In the last session of the workshop, the organisers had invited two eyewitnesses of the long Helsinki Process to give their testimonies and retrospect assessments. First in the panel was MARIANNE VON GRÜNIGEN (Retd. Swiss Diplomat and Ambassador). From 1989 to 1993, and again from 1997 to 2001, she was head of the Swiss delegation to the OSCE, and as such, she witnessed the Helsinki Process and the follow-up conferences first-hand. Von Grünigen accounted for the events first from the perspective of a Swiss diplomat until her retirement in 2001, and then from the perspective of an NGO actor, as president of the Swiss Helsinki Association from 2003 through 2016. She witnessed that religion was not an explicit topic of the Helsinki Process, and although the churches did play an important role in advocating religious freedom, the Agreement gave strong signs to civil society. This led to the creation of Helsinki monitoring groups not only in the East (e.g. Charta 1977), but also in the West. In their effort to organise on an international network, competition arose between the Austrian and the Swiss group (both neutral states) to claim the lead of the network. Her opinion was that the churches did support the liberal society and development of diversity in a broad sense.

Also in this panel was DWAIN EPPS (Retd. Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches). Epps presented his views on the churches’ role in international (political) affairs, especially the Helsinki Process. According to Epps, one of the aims for this series of meetings during the Helsinki Process was to develop open relationships between churches in North America and socialist countries in Europe. Epps found that the dialogue between churches for the first time became productive and did not lead to mutual condemnation, as often seen. This kind of dialogue had a great impact on governments on both sides.

Both speakers offered a nuanced view on the events and opened for new interpretations. The eyewitnesses’ sincerity offered an opportunity to develop a critical stance on the events and actors at the time before, during and after the Helsinki Acts.

Both the participants’ considerable engagement and the lively discussion confirmed the need for further investigation and collaboration on the topic. It was agreed that the networks of the Helsinki Committees deserved to be addressed in more details, as well as the “division of labour” between official ecumenical organisations and others. Other first-hand witnesses, such as journalists who reported on the process should also be taken into account. The organisers suggest a 2nd workshop to prepare for the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Act (1975-2025).

Conference Overview:

Katharina Kunter (Faculty of Theology, Helsinki University): Introduction

Panel I: New primary sources

Eva Maurer (Schweizerische Osteuropabibliothek): Does religion even matter? Religious actors and religious freedom in a Swiss anti-communist research centre. A look at the holdings of the Swiss Eastern Institute and the Swiss Library of Eastern Europe in Bern

Anne-Emmanuelle Tankam (World Council of Churches): The WCC Archive Holdings

Rüdiger Noll: The CEC Archive Holdings

Marcela Zarubova (OSCE Documentation Centre): The CSCE / OSCE Documentation centre

Panel II: Religious networks in support of the CSCE, Helsinki monitoring groups / Religious freedom and anti-communism

Ville Jalovaara (University of Helsinki, University of Turku): Test of religious freedom in Finland during CSCE conference

Nadezhda Beljakova (Russian Academy of Science): G2W in International Networks for Religious Freedom behind the Iron Curtain

Irena Vaišvilaitė (Vilnius University): Helsinki groups in Lithuania

Panel III: Religious actors and Helsinki monitoring groups and their perspectives

Marianne von Grünigen (retd. Swiss Diplomat and Ambassador)

Dwain Epps (Retd. Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches)

[1] Church and Society Commission of CEC, CEC and Europe on the Move. Annual Report 2013 of the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches, 17, (02.12.2021).
[2] Conference of European Churches (2016). Archives of CEC history available for study, (02.12.2021).
[3] Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (2020). CSCE Testimonies: Causes and Consequences of Helsinki Final Act 1972–1989, (02.12.2021).

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