Kyiv, 23 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian Jews and Christians made an important step forward, as they came together for a conference aimed at breaking down barriers and discovering more about the common heritage between the major faiths.
The three-day event, which started last weekend, was entitled "The contribution of Jewish and Christian ethics into revival." It was the first conference of its kind in Ukraine, and drew more than 80 people from nine countries. Different religious groups in Ukraine were represented, including Orthodox and Reformed Jews, Greek and Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and individuals from Ukraine's three fractions of the Orthodox church.
The main goals of the conference were to begin dialogue between the two communities, and help foster cooperation in addressing issues such as human rights, women and youth, and education.
"We have common roots in the Bible, but we all have different traditions. It is very important to learn about our roots," said Dr. Martin Stohr, a German theology professor and President of the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ), one of the organizations sponsoring the event. "We want people to meet each other and know each other, not just on paper, but face to face."
In a country claiming the fourth largest Jewish population in the world, with half-a-million Jews, as well as 35-million Christians, there was a great need for dialogue, said Eduard Dolinsky, conference organizer and public relations director for the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, another event sponsor.
Historically, Jews and Christians in Ukraine have had little association with each other, and many times, such as during the Second World War, Christians supported anti-Semitic actions, he said. "We are entering the 21st century and we need to make a better future for our children," Dolinsky said. "We are not here to discuss our theological differences, but how we can work together to better society."
Most participants supported the idea of working together to help promote a stronger moral foundation in Ukraine. But, some were skeptical that it would be easy for the religious leaders to shed their differences that easily.
"If they follow their political agendas, then we'll have another Babylon. If they work with each other in love, then there can be some good that comes out of it," said American Martin Hoelzle, international director of Ezra International, a humanitarian organization that assists Jews in need with immigration to Israel.
Similar conferences have been conducted by ICCJ in other countries since the organization was formed in 1946 to assess the Holocaust and combat anti-Semitism.
According to Stohr, getting both Jews and Christians involved with such inter-confessional activities has not been easy. "There is a minority of all the communities that take part in this active dialogue," he said. "There isn't a lot of opposition against it. I just see a lot of indifference in both Western and Eastern societies." But, Dolinsky said that when planning the event in Ukraine, most people were very open to the conference's premise. "People are changing in Ukraine. They want to have dialogue. They are open to new ideas and want to have peace," he said. The conference resulted in the creation of a inter-confessional committee, consisting of about 20 people from various evangelical Christian, Jewish and Orthodox backgrounds. The group's main aim will be to continue the dialogue that was started during the conference, and expand it to encompass other religious groups, such as Muslims, said Dolinsky. "We are trying to increase dialogue not only with Christians and Jews, but any religious group in Ukraine. Any religion affects Ukraine," he said.
In addition to the individuals from various churches and religious organizations who attended the event, officials from Ukraine's government, as well as the German, Norwegian, Israeli, Belarusian, Finish and United States embassies also participated by giving brief introductory addresses, supporting the development of inter-confessional dialogue.
The Jewish Foundation of Ukraine and Ukraine's International Solomon University, the only Jewish university in Eastern Europe, also helped sponsor the event.