A Unitarian Pilgrimage to Transylvania

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Participants on a UUPCC pilgrimage to Transylvania. (Photo courtesy Rev. Saleska)

Reverend Kent Saleska, minister of the UU congregation in Wayzata, MN has provided terrific blogposts and photos from the UU Partner Church Council’s most recent pilgrimage to Transylvania.

…this religious pilgrimage moved and changed me.  First, I saw history come alive: I touched the rock that Francis David had stood upon and preached from in 1568; I stood in the ruined citadel where Francis David was imprisoned and died.  Secondly, not only did history come alive, but I no longer saw Transylvanian Unitarianism in a historic context where it was relegated to scholarly history texts, but alive in the people of the region today. So as we traveled east from Segesvár (Sighișoara) I felt as though we were moving into the living heart of Hungarian Unitarianism.

Visit Rev. Saleska’s blog: Tensile Strands and enjoy!

Appeal from Burundi Unitarians for Emergency Support

P1010585Since Sunday April 27th, the capital city of Burundi has been living in a difficult situation. Many areas of the city have seen people on the streets demonstrating against the third term of the current president.

Communes like Kanyosha, Musaga, Nyakabiga, Ngagara, Cibitoke and now Kinindo have joined the demonstrations by burning tires and pieces of wood blocking the streets to prevent people from moving from place to place and to prevent the police from coming to destabilize the demonstrators.

The behavior of the police was criticized by many because they acted against the demonstrators by using real bullets and excessive force, killing 5 people to date, arresting more than 400 people and leaving dozens wounded.

In Kanyosha, some people had to flee their homes out of fear that they will be attacked by the police or the ruling party militia. Some of our church members fled their homes, others decided to send children and women in places believed to be safer.

The church is seeking to arrange a temporarily shelter in a place where it is relatively safer for people to stay. The church will provide food, water, medicines for members in the shelter and those in other places.

 

The church is appealing for funds to cover these needs and the needs that will come up in the next few days and weeks.

We know we are not alone and thank you very much for your support.

(Note – Please see updates below)

Thank you.

Rev. Ndagijimana Fulgence

Minister of the Unitarian Church of Burundi

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To donate online, please use the link below to give using your credit card or PayPal account.

If you wish to donate by check, bank transfer or other means, please email development@icuu.net for more information.

It is expected all donations will be needed for this emergency effort, but any funds not needed for this purpose will be applied to the ICUU Global Fund for Unitarian Universalism for ICUU work in Africa.

CLICK THIS LINK TO DONATE ONLINE

BURUNDI UPDATE, POST FAILED COUP – May 15, 2015

Dear friends, after nearly 3 weeks of demonstrations in the streets of bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi, which pushed 50,000 people towards Tanzania, Rwanda and DR Congo , killed 25 people, there was an attempted coup on Wednesday May13th. The coup was defeated and showed a divided army and a police mostly behind the president. The reason people are on the streets is because the president is trying to run for an illegal third term after 10 years in office.

The attempted coup occurred when he was in a meeting in Tanzania. During the fighting between the military loyal to the president and those against him, 5 radio stations were attacked and cannot function now. The pressure to withdraw his candidacy came from all over the place to non avail. Donor countries have freezed the funding for elections, the cost of which was 80% donor funded. They all call for the withdrawal of the candidacy and fair , inclusive and transparent elections. The people had hoped for a conciliatory speech this afternoon but he was even more radical stating that peace prevails everywhere and he will deal with those against peace.

He promised to put a special elections tax since donors are not funding elections. The country may be on the bleak of a civil war once again . Regional and international efforts are being made by The UN, African Union, European union, USA so that peace is saved. The unitarian church has set up a shelter for members who have to leave their homes and forms of assistance as needed and available.

Thanks to a recent emergency grant, the church will extend this support to the larger community as well. The ICCU has set up an emergency appeal and we are grateful to those of you who are supporting our efforts and those who are able and willing to do so.

Neighboring unitarian churches in Rwanda and Uganda have offered our members to go stay with them as needed, and you from afar have offered prayers, thoughts, good wishes and financial support. It is a living testimony that we are not alone! Thank you very much. Rev. Fulgence (more…)

Warning of ’empathy gap,’ Ban urges faith leaders to speak up against injustice and brutality

UN Secretary General with Faith Leaders at the April 22, 2015 Session of the UN General Assembly

A recent UN press release informed us that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged faith leaders gathered in the General Assembly on April 22, 2015 to stand up for the collective good and amplify their voices in support of moderation and mutual understanding. He warned against an “empathy gap” that causes people to turn their eyes from injustice and numbing them to atrocities.

“At a time when we are seeing so much division and hatred, I wanted to bring people together under the banner of the United Nations to explore how best to respond,” the Secretary-General said on the second day of a gathering at Headquarters in New York of leaders representing diverse faiths, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, as well as ministers, academics, and spiritual teachers.

Mr. Ban said that he was deeply concerned as today communities rushed to point out an affront against themselves, but ignored or dismissed the legitimate grievances of others. “I am worried that a certain numbness and helplessness may be setting in as people witness atrocity after atrocity,” he said.

“Religion does not cause violence, people do,” the Secretary-General continued. “Today we turn to what you as men and women can and must do in this vital endeavour,” he told the High-Level Assembly meeting on Promoting Tolerance and Reconciliation, Fostering Peaceful, Inclusive Societies and Countering Violent Extremism.

“The dignity and worth of the human person, the equal rights of men and women, tolerance and living together in harmony…these principles are our bedrock and they are what this organization defends,” he emphasized. (more…)

2015 Spring Seminar Recap

For the last 48 years, the Unitarian-Universalist United Nations Office has hosted annual Spring Seminars on pressing social, economic, and political issues. Participants in these seminars learn about a topic and are also asked to consider their own connections to the issue and develop the capacity to take action on behalf of meaningful change. This year’s seminar, “International Criminal Justice: From Punitive to Restorative,” detailed the myriad flaws of the punitive model of criminal justice and called on all attendees to work for a more just system. In this post we hope to share some of what we learned and experienced during the seminar.

UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts opened the seminar with a stirring invocation of the memory of Unitarian-Universalist civil rights martyr Viola Liuzzo, who was killed while fighting for equal voting rights by members of the Klu Klux Klan. America no longer has laws that take away rights on an explicitly racial basis, but it does have a criminal justice system that in more ways than one emulates the infamous Jim Crow system of oppression. By remembering the strength and courage of those who have fought for civil rights, while drawing upon our own conviction and determination we can help make the “New Jim Crow” history.


UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts kicks off the seminar

(more…)

Breakthrough in Nuclear Diplomacy – Time to Mobilize!

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The news about the breakthrough in nuclear diplomacy with Iran is immensely important, and the work that lies ahead to avoid an expanding nuclear arms race, or violent confrontation, is more important still.

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Join with UUs from around the US in the Peace & Planet mobilization that will take place in New York City from April 24-26 culminating in a Rally and Festival.  The mobilization will take place just prior to the beginning of the UN’s 2015 Review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  It will be a great opportunity to join with a broad coalition of people declaring their commitment to a Nuclear-Free, Peaceful, Just and Sustainable World.

Unitarian Universalists planning to attend can network ahead of time using the “UUs Attending the P&P Mobilization” Facebook group.  And, look for the UU banner at the Rally to join together as a faith community on Sunday, April 26.

See you in New York City!

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The UU-UNO’s contribution to the Commission on the Status of Women

This week is the start of the 59th annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Every year, delegates from all over the world come to New York to discuss the challenges that women worldwide face. After discussing these issues, they come up with concrete plans of action to raise the status of women worldwide. 2015 is a particularly meaningful year for the movement, as it is the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, also known as the Beijing Conference. That conference featured a memorable speech by Hillary Clinton declaring that “women’s rights are human rights” and ended with a groundbreaking declaration that set the agenda on women’s rights for years to come.

As an NGO, one of our key missions is to educate delegates and members of other NGOs. On Tuesday March 9th I had the pleasure of attending a panel organized by our Women’s Initiative Intern, Nazli Boroshan. The panel was moderated by UU-UNO chair Bruce Knotts and featured two wonderful speakers, Dr. Marciana Popescu and Jomana Qaddour talking about of the effect of humanitarian crises on women’s reproductive and mental health.

Dr. Popescu is a professor of social work at Fordham University who specializes in international social work and protecting women in unsettled environments against violence. Her remarks focused on the trips she made to Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake and the conclusions she drew from this first-hand experience. Throughout her remarks, she emphasized the paramount importance of ensuring that women feel safe and secure. Even when women have equality under the law, they may not be able to exercise their rights or receive benefits they are legitimately entitled to for fear of sexual or physical violence. She recounted the problem of refugee camps in Haiti where supplies were adequate, but violence against women was so rampant that women had difficulty making use of them. Bruce underscored the importance this point with an example from his own experience- during his time in the State Department, as a regional [something] in West Africa in he received reports of male teachers sexual harassing female students in USAID funded schools . In this case, the basic right to education was under attack not from lack of access, but from a lack of security. Dr. Popescu also made the important point that the disaster in Haiti did not begin with the earthquake, rather the foundations for it were laid by years of political unrest and unresolved societal conflict.

The other panelist, Jomana Qaddour is a former patent attorney born in Syria who co-founded the Syria Relief & Development charity with her father in 2011. Her work has brought her onto the front lines of one of the most acute humanitarian crises in the world today and given her a strong perspective on the struggles of women in a country turned upside down by a brutal civil war. Ms. Qaddour brought up many timely issues, one of the most striking of which was the use of women as a weapon of war. Though women rarely participate in pitched battles, both sides in the civil war have made extensive use of violence against women (or the threat thereof) to achieve their objectives. As a result of this violence, it has become very difficult for women to put their trust in institutions that could provide them with assistance and support. The percentage of Syrian women receiving medical care has dropped dramatically since the start of the war, not just because of the massive exodus of doctors, but also because women face the threat of violence when they leave their homes.


A packed house

Every Child is Our Child: Supporting Local Solutions to a Global Crisis

My name is Jonathan, and I am the Every Child is Our Child (ECOC) intern here at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO). In this post I will outline the mission of this program and highlight its role in bringing about development and empowerment.

During the past decade, the world has made massive strides in confronting the HIV/AIDS crisis. New infections have fallen by 33% since 2001, new infections in children have fallen by more than 50%, access to anti-retrovirals has increased by 40-fold and yearly HIV/AIDS related deaths have fallen by more than a quarter in the last ten years. Though there are still more than a million new cases every year, the combined initiative of governments, NGOs, and countless individuals has prevented millions of infections.

Despite this heartening progress, HIV/AIDS remains an inescapable reality for millions of people, many of whom already suffer from or are at risk of severe economic deprivation. More than fifteen million children have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS and many of those children are HIV positive themselves. The UU-UNO’s Every Child is Our Child program to support the education of children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS is our response to this crisis. It began with the realization that the the AIDS crisis has many dimensions and is grounded in the principle that co-operation with grassroots organizations is essential to bringing about lasting positive change.

Providing medical treatment to those suffering from HIV/AIDS is a necessity, but it is also only a first step. A HIV positive child whose parents have died can be given anti-retroviral drugs, but their road to mental wellness and personal development will often be littered with obstacles. The ECOC program is based on a partnership between the UU-UNO and the Manya Krobo Queen Mothers Association. Manya Krobo is one of Ghana’s poorest provinces and also one of the hardest hit by HIV/AIDS.  The Queen Mothers are traditional female community leaders who have taken on the responsibility of supporting children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. While many aid programs work in top-down fashion, ECOC is meant to support the existing goals and initiatives of the Queen Mothers. By providing the supplies needed for children attend school, it furthers the Queen Mothers’ stated goal of improving local society through education. On a larger scale, the program reflects the Unitarian-Universalist commitment to addressing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Formulated in 2000 by the UN, the MDGs consist of eight ambitious development goals. By providing access to education for vulnerable children ECOC is meant to work toward the goals of achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, and combating HIV/AIDs.

Supporting gender equality . In Manya Krobo, as in many poor areas, girls are far more likely to drop out of school than boys. The negative effects of this are deep and broad, as not only are girls without education are less likely to find meaningful jobs later in life, they are also more likely to be forced into exploitative relationships with older men. These relationships often lead to them contracting HIV, which makes finding regular employment even more difficult, thus leading to further dependency. To have any chance of breaking this vicious cycle it is essential to start at the beginning by ensuring that girls have the opportunity to become financially and socially independent women.
Maria, Bruce, Joseph and Children holding up postcards

Former UU-UNO Intern Mario Militano and UU-UNO program director Bruce Knotts making a site visit in February 2014

When it started in 2004, the program supported 20 students. Today, thanks to the support of many donors, it provides for the expenses of 120 students. To learn more about the program you can visit our website. You can help these students and give other children the opportunity to participate in this program by making a generous donation.

Standing on the Side of Love in Australia

Rev. Rob MacPherson, minister of the Unitarian Church of South Australia (UCSA), and his congregation are advocating on behalf of the rights of Australia’s asylum-seekers.

At a recent street protest outside the Adelaide offices of the federal Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, UCSA members witnessed on the side of love in demand of human rights. He writes:

Recent Australian governments (of both major parties) have orchestrated and conducted a cruel and illegal policy of mandatory offshore detention of vulnerable people fleeing persecution in the region.

 

Those detained are often held for years in squalid camps in nearby countries who are themselves unable to resist the coercion of this larger more powerful nation.
The conditions in these camps have been confirmed as squalid and dehumanizing by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and many other international bodies.

 

There have been deaths, riots, hunger strikes, and physical violence visited upon asylum-seekers by locally hired agents of private security firms. Children in these camps (yes, children are incarcerated too) are suffering from acute anxiety and depression and other psychological developmental issues.

 

Cognizant of our UU first principle, many in our church find we cannot be silent about this. Hence, our fund-raising and sponsoring of the Refugee Portrait Exhibition, which has traveled the state. Hence also, our on-going direct action at rallies, such as the one depicted (in the photos above).

Last April, Rev. MacPherson gave a talk at the congregation related to this ongoing issue, which you can hear below:

UCSApodcast

 

Committee on Teaching About the United Nations (CTAUN) Conference: Perspectives from Two UU-UNO Interns

On Friday, January 30th, 2015, two interns from the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office attended the Committee on Teaching About the United Nations at the UN Secretariat. Danning Zhang and Brieanna Scolaro, both who are graduate social work students, were excited to attend the conference and share their thoughts and reflections below with you.

 

 

   Committee on Teaching About the United Nations    

 

Danning Zhang:

Having interned for five months at the United Nations Church Center, right across the street from the UN Headquarters, I never considered myself well educated about the UN’s history, structure and its functions. When I receive comments like, “The UN is just a bunch of people doing nothing but having meetings all day,” I never knew the most effective response. Sometimes I would say things such as, “We need to come to solutions to the world’s problems by engaging in dialogues”, or “Things take time to change.” However, things have changed since my attendance to the Committee on Teaching about the United Nations on January 30, 2015. I can now give a better, more comprehensive answer to the question, “How does the UN work?”

United Nations is a change agency itself. For developing countries such as Sri Lanka and Palau whose resources and technology may be limited at times to fully promote the social welfare of their citizens, the UN comes to help them implement programs to increase the literacy rate, reduce infant mortality, and provide support for disaster relief. With the collaborative effort of different sectors of the UN and many non-profit organizations that are affiliated with the UN, school lunch programs are implemented so that less school children are hungry; teachers are sent to the most impoverished areas of the world so that children living in poverty can have a brighter future through education; protocols on reducing carbon emission are signed so that people can breathe clearer air.

The United Nations is not only a symbol for peace, but a meaningful message to be carried on from generation to generation. A central theme of the CTAUN conference included the idea that in order to reach peace, we need to teach peace. Many schools and teachers are building peace by carrying the UN’s spirit of peace in their daily curriculum to their young students. Two teachers at the United Nations International School, who won the “Best Practice Award”, implement daily peace and mindfulness activities with their students. Two PS 119 teachers, the other winners of the “Best Practice Award”, create a culture of peace that their students live in, by facilitating peace marches, peace games, and other forms of activities that promote the message of peace – a seed planed early can grow big and wide.

The United Nations is a mission. Kenneth Payumo, Chief of Peacekeeping Operations Support Section in the UN Department of Safety and Security, is a peacekeeper in South Sudan that risked his life to protect thousands of innocent civilians that would have otherwise been harmed by armed forces during political riots. Others, like Pamela Falk, UN Resident Correspondent, fight continuously for freedom of expression and justice for journalists who have been killed. Individuals such as Payumo and Falk continue to inspire individuals in the community, such as myself. Inspired by the CTAUN conference, I now have developed a better idea of who I am and what I want to do with my future peace building career. More importantly, I am certain that regardless of what I do with my life and how I want to achieve my career goals, I will always bare the peace building mission in my mind.

 

    CTAUN - Brie and Danning

 

Brieanna Scolaro: 

For me, the most intriguing part of the CTAUN conference was the opening discussion of the United Nations history. Bob Clark, Deputy Director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, provided us great insight into how the UN came to be a result of the passion and values of FDR. Similar to Danning, I had never fully understood the roots of the UN – how it relates to the League of Nations, how other presidents have attempted some sort of international diplomacy effort but were not supported by the citizens. I was never aware that only two weeks before the first UN meeting, FDR had passed away, leaving Eleanor Roosevelt to bring FDR’s dream to reality. It is interesting that everyone doubted Eleanor and did not know exactly what to do with her – despite this, she became a champion of change. Eleanor’s efforts and passions are something that we all need to keep in mind when considering and advocating for the role of women in developing a sustainable world.

I felt excited to be in a room full of teachers, current and past, that so directly connect with our youth on a daily basis. I agree that in order to have a peaceful world, we need to teach and practice peace. How can we build peace if we cannot sit with ourselves and find inner peace? The conference reminds us to look inside ourselves, explore ourselves, find similarities with others, and to celebrate diversity in the world. The UN explores issues such as women’s rights, freedom of speech, the role of social media in development, nuclear disarmament – they have been working towards the The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which are the world’s time-bound and quantified targets for addressing extreme poverty in its many dimensions, and are currently developing the next set of goals, the Post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. I challenge you, the reader, to ask yourself what world you want to live in. What should be at the forefront of our world’s next set of priorities? In addition, I would challenge those of you who already engage in social justice and global human rights to consider how we can continue to act locally but think globally.

Religious Property Ownership Threatened in Transylvania

 by Rimager, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   Image by  Rimager 

 

For the last 25 years, the Historic Hungarian-speaking Churches of Transylvania have expected the government of Romania to return their illegally confiscated properties. In a process that has been fraught with complication and delays, victories in favor of progress have been slowly underway. Until now.

Religious repression and the practice of nationalizing what was once considered private property was the policy under Communist rule, broadly and especially in Romania from 1947-1989.

During those decades of Communist rule in Romania, church real estate was wrested from all denominations, including the four traditional Hungarian-speaking churches in the country: Roman Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, and Unitarian. From these denominations, 2,140 properties were taken and nationalized by force.

In 1989, as Communist rule came to an end, democratization and the restoration of forcibly confiscated property began at a glacial pace. As of December 2012, half of those confiscated properties had been restored to their rightful owners; of that half, only a third have been granted usage rights.

In other words, over 1,700 properties across the denominations that comprise the Historic Hungarian-speaking Churches of Transylvania have still not been fully restored, despite government ordinances, two laws, international outcry, and countless ignored deadlines by the Romanian government.

Those few and far between success stories in all of this could at least be held up as signs of progress and signals to all that there is still hope to exercise their constitutional right to “sanctity of private and community property.” However, in November 2014, a profoundly concerning legal precedent was set when one of these restored properties was suddenly re-nationalized.

On November 26th, a Romanian appellate court ruled to renationalize the Székely Mikó Reformed High School, a property that was confiscated under Communist rule and restituted to its legal owner, the Reformed Church, over a decade ago.

The illegal verdict sent shockwaves throughout the religious community, conveying a troubling message that threatens the future of all of the already restituted properties – not to mention those that still hang in limbo. In a region that is less than 20% Hungarian, this move boldly signifies discrimination against minorities in Romania.

The Hungarian Unitarian Church shared the following statement in response to the ruling:

Kolozsvár, 27 November 2014
STATEMENT on the recent developments regarding the Székely Mikó Reformed High School

 

The Executive Committee of the Consistory of the Hungarian Unitarian Church noted with profound indignation the court decision on the restitution of the Székely Mikó Reformed High School in Sfântu Gheorghe (Hungarian: Sepsiszentgyörgy), Romania.

 

The legally binding verdict of the Court in Ploiesti de facto re-nationalized the Székely Mikó Reformed High School, which was confiscated (nationalized) by the Communist dictatorship in 1948, and restituted to its legal owner, the Reformed Church, in 2002.

 

This verdict is illegal, and it sends a humiliating and outrageous message not only towards the members of the Reformed Church, but also to the entire Hungarian minority in Romania, irrespective of religious denomination.

 

Since the 1989 fall of Communist dictatorship in Romania, the Hungarian-speaking minority churches in Romania have relentlessly struggled to obtain the restitution of their confiscated church properties (or compensation in justified cases).

 

For these 25 years, the restitution process has been controversial and painfully slow; until this moment however, our churches could have hoped for our constitutional right – i.e., “sanctity of private and community property” – for legal remedy, but this alarming court decision is a direct threat against our already restituted properties, which might be similarly re-nationalized at any moment.

 

Besides expressing hereby our solidarity with the Reformed Church in Romania, we are devoted to continue protesting in front of lay political forums and commence international lobbying, as well as to join forces with our Transylvanian Hungarian sister churches until justice prevails, and our confiscated properties are returned.

 

The Executive Committee of the Consistory
of the Hungarian Unitarian Church

At the request of the Hungarian Unitarian Church, we are sharing this news.  And, as further opportunities to support the public witness and protest arise, we’ll share them here.

During the winter holidays, let us keep our Unitarian brothers and sisters in Transylvania in our hearts during a challenging time in their country’s history, where democracy is fragile and the future of all Hungarian-speaking churches and other religious minorities of Romania hangs in uncertainty.