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Conference on Edict of Milan looks at religious freedom

Belgrade, Serbia, 22 June 2013: Questions of religious freedom, church state relations and the search for a common Christian witness were under the spotlight on day three of a conference in Belgrade marking the 1700th anniversary of the Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan, which granted freedom of religion to all believers throughout the Roman empire. Vatican Radio’s Philippa Hitchen, who is in the Serbian capital, spoke to some of the participants about their personal experiences of struggles between church and state.

I found myself in a prison cell with 30 other people – Christians and Muslims – that’s when I felt the unity of the Church at its very best, said a South African speaker at the Belgrade conference. Reverend Edwin Arrison is general secretary of the Kairos Southern Africa movement, carrying forward the legacy of a 1985 theological document that directly challenged the brutal apartheid regime and the state of emergency it imposed.

As a young activist, Edwin was often out on the streets joining peaceful protests calling for the release of iconic leader Nelson Mandela. One fine morning his house was raided by gun-taunting police, arresting him and many others perceived as instigators of the protest movement.
So many civil society organisations had been banned at that time, he recalled, the Christian Church was the only organisation able to mobilise continued resistance to the racist regime. And the arrest of many church leaders simply served to fuel the spirit of resistance. He said his own mother spent Christmas Day in prison with her son, though she had never been politically active before. During his interrogation sessions, he would take his bible and begin by saying lengthy prayers, an action which may have helped him avoid the brutal beatings and torture handed out to so many other prisoners.

Edwin’s story of resistance to state sanctioned violence reflected the experience of others at the conference, from the Philippines, from Vietnam, from the former Soviet republics. The Greek word Kairos means ‘special moment’ and encapsulates the sense of urgency felt by members of the different South African churches, united in their efforts to end injustice and oppression.
Nearly 20 years after the end of apartheid, the ecumenical movement is also weaker, said Edwin and less able to provide a strong common witness in the fight against poverty, inequality and violence.
How can Christians in different countries today recapture that Kairos moment? How can they enter more effectively into the public discourse? How can they heal their own divisions to provide a united witness to peoples and nations in need of reconciliation? In a small but ambitious way, this meeting seeks to suggest some answers to those questions.Source: VR Eng


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