(This article is reposted from the United Methodist News Service and written by Linda Bloom, a UMNS writer.)
Two United Methodists planted the seed for a peace initiative in the European nation of Macedonia that continues to grow to this day.
One was the late Boris Trajkovski, recipient of the 2002 World Methodist Peace Award, who as Macedonia’s president had succeeded in uniting a divided country when he died in a 2004 plane crash in Bosnia.
The other was the Rev. Paul Mojzes, currently professor of religious studies at Rosemount College in Pennsylvania and a native of the former Yugoslavia. His mother, the Rev. Paula Mojzes, was the first woman to be ordained a United Methodist pastor in Europe.
They befriended each other in 1992 in Louisville, Ky., during the meeting of General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body. After Trajkovski’s election as president in 1999, he asked Mojzes — who has decades of experience in international Christian-Muslim-Jewish dialogue — for assistance as he sought to build bridges among religious and ethnic groups in Macedonia.
One of the legacies of that relationship, and of Trajkovski’s leadership at a time when his country was on the brink of civil war, was the May 6-9 Second World Conference on Inter-Religious and Inter-Civilization Dialogue in the city of Ohrid.
The meeting was sponsored by Macedonia’s Ministry of Culture, UNESCO, the government of Spain and a Jewish anti-Holocaust organization.
Bishop Heinrich Bolleter, Geneva, secretary of the World Methodist Council, led a delegation of 15 United Methodists, which included Mojzes and Vilna Trajkovska, the late president’s widow.
The Macedonian government, the bishop noted, has made it clear the conferences are a legacy of Trajkovski’s vision.
The United Methodist Church is small in Macedonia, but the denomination and its influence claimed such devotion from Trajkovski that he continued serving as president of his church council in Skopje even after being elected to national office.
“The Methodists have always played their role in trying to make things happen,” Bolleter said.
Other religious groups also are becoming part of the national picture. Under a new law in 2008, 13 groups, including The United Methodist Church, Roman Catholics, Islamic and Jewish communities, registered with and are officially recognized by the Republic of Macedonia.
“To me, the meaning of these conferences is primarily symbolic,” Mojzes said. “It indicates willingness on part of the larger religious communities to be present at a conference with each other and with the smaller religious communities, for which, in the past, they had no tolerance.”
As president, Trajkovsi was able to help defuse fighting between the Slavic Macedonian majority and ethnic Albanians and bring about a NATO-enforced peace treaty. He wanted to change the focus of the religious groups representing these ethnic communities from war to the building of trust.
Mojzes got a call from Trajkovski. “He said, ‘We need dialogue, but we don’t know what it is.’”
Officials at the United States Institute of Peace asked what they could do to help after Trajkovski spoke there in 2001. Mojzes and a Roman Catholic colleague were dispatched to Macedonia and found the religious communities to be “willing but reluctant” to participate in interreligious dialogue.
Trajkovski made sure the first forum for interreligious and intercultural dialogue in Macedonia in 2003 received a lot of media attention. Nikola Gruevski, who became prime minister after his death, “basically spearheaded the next conference” in 2007, Mojzes said, with the financial support of UNESCO.
‘Culture of Indignation’
At this year’s event, Bolleter urged participants to deal with the “culture of indignation” that prohibits people from dealing with cultural and religious differences or political decisions that are not in tune with their own convictions.
“Indignation is often a reaction, when we see people not being able, or even not willing, to adapt to the predominant culture where they are living,” he said in his address.
“A culture of trust and understanding begins with the human dignity of the individual,” Bolleter told the gathering. “The identity of the ‘other’ person must be respected.”
His appeal for a climate of trust, respect and hope was reflected in the lengthy declaration adopted by conference participants. The declaration makes a commitment to regular dialogue as a way to promote peace and cooperation; encourages the promotion of tolerance and coexistence; respects the public display of religious symbols and supports the need for a free media to foster tolerance.
Mojzes believes the conference is an important way for religious groups to be recognized by the Macedonian government. “They (religious leaders) are thrilled to receive any evidence that they are now important in society,” he said.
Although the schedule, dominated by speeches and presentations, did not allow for small-group discussion, such events do provide opportunities for people who do not normally relate to each other to rub shoulders. “Here at least, they sit together prominently in the front row,” he pointed out. “They are seen on TV together. I think that in itself plays a very positive role.”
Mojzes will continue to promote peace and religious interaction in Macedonia. He is part of the International Preparatory Committee for the 2013 conference, along with the Rev. Michael Nausner, a United Methodist professor of systematic theology, currently working at Reutlingen School of Theology in Germany.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.