Reflections on a visit to countries bordering Russia and Ukraine

 

 

 

 

 

Tim Gee,

Friends World Committee for Consultation

When I close my eyes, whether to sleep, rest or pray I find my mind going to Central Europe, in particular to a ship docked in Estonia’s principal port, where 2000 Ukrainians, mostly women and children, wait to work out what’s next for them.

It wasn’t that the conditions were bad. It was clean, there was a playroom for the children, free food, free medicines and professional support to access the social system and to help find employment and accommodation.

It’s more that, it brought home to me, powerfully and symbolically, the long, tense wait that millions of people now face as they hope and pray for an end to the war in their home country.

I had spent the last week alongside Friends Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, Director of the Geneva Quaker United Nations Office, and Jeremy Routledge of Southern Africa Yearly Meeting, visiting Central Europe, where upwards of 375,000 soldiers stand “pre-positioned” for war. This is also a humanitarian frontline, which countless people have escaped to or through.   

Quakers in the region are sparse but spirited, and thanks to the generosity of Friends around the world donating money, a group nominated from the Central European Gathering has been able to distribute funds to places and projects where they know it will make a difference.

As part of a talk requested by Friends in Warsaw, Nozizwe quoted one of her Quaker United Nations Office predecessors, who helpfully summarises Friends’ peace testimony as the refusal to kill, relief of suffering and responding to the call to be peacemakers by building the institutions of peace and removing the causes of war. We saw every one of these being manifested in Central Europe.

Firstly, refusal to kill. There are not Quakers that we know of engaged in fighting on any side of this war.

The second part is relief of suffering. In Warsaw we met Friends who described feeling strengthened by Quaker meetings for worship and community to help with sign-language translation, provide pro-bono legal support and distribute hand-made toys made by Friends in North America. In Krakow, we met with staff from a charity assisting refugee families with special needs to access the support they need, supported financially by Quakers. In Estonia, Friends have been helping with distributing essentials to newcomers, with providing access to free activities like ice-skating, and helping establish new institutions to welcome people including a school.

We also heard some tragic stories highlighting fixable problems in European governmental systems for welcoming newcomers. Another set of sad stories concerned relations between newly arrived, traumatised Ukrainians, and ethnic Russians living in the bordering countries. 

Friends in Tallinn are already working with an established psychotherapeutic drama organisation, to organise local-level sessions promoting intercultural understanding, with the hope that this could be replicated elsewhere. On a small scale at least, this is part of building institutions of peace.

On a larger scale, our global Quaker peace institutions are oriented towards the UN. At the time of writing, direct negotiations between Russia and Ukraine have broken down. We have been asked though, by grassroots Friends to do what we can to encourage conversations about shared security between the states in the region, leading towards a settlement that meets each country’s needs.  

There are military routes to an end to the present fighting, but all would result in avoidable death. Quakers may be unusual in how consistently we have held to Jesus’ teachings of peace, but we are by no means alone in our concern for a just peace and the negotiated settlement of conflict.

There are about six Friends in Estonia, four in Latvia, even fewer in Lithuania and a few more in Poland and the other Central European states. Proportionate to their size the work the Central European Gathering is supporting is extraordinary. 

We went asking questions about our peace testimony, and returned certain that it is needed now as much as ever. How it manifests in this climate is still emerging. What is certain is that our vocation is to make peace, which the world sorely needs right now.

Tim Gee is General Secretary of the Friends World Committee for Consultation. Tim, Nozizwe and Jeremy visited Central Europe in August 2022, and the statement was drafted afterwards.

Statement on the Peace Testimony and Ukraine

Quakers are a people who follow after peace, love and unity. Our peace testimony is our witness to the Truth as we experience it.

Our testimony manifests as a cumulative set of actions, continually tested and added to over centuries. These actions are diverse in form, but have been broadly united by:

1. Refusal to kill
2. Relief of suffering,
3. Building the institutions of peace, and
4. Supporting peacebuilding and removing the causes of war.

At the onset of the full scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the Friends World Committee for Consultation issued a Christian Call for Peace, affirming that invasion and occupation are the opposite of Christ’s universal call to reconciliation and unity, and echoing church statements in many countries, including Ukraine, calling for an immediate ceasefire replaced by a peacemaking dialogue. This call would echo the Golden Rule (treat others as you would want to be treated) which is a foundational value of all major world religions, has the potential to eliminate violence, and helps us to recognize one another.

Almost by definition, peacemaking often involves engaging with people making war and understanding the reasons they do so. Nevertheless, our vocation as a peace church is to seek and make real the peaceful alternatives to armed conflict, which with God’s help, are possible, and to ensure that the long-lasting human costs of war are not forgotten or neglected.

We continue to uphold the right to refuse to kill. We stand with conscientious objectors on all sides of this conflict, with the people in Russia who stand up against their leaders’ belligerent actions, and the people in Ukraine employing creative forms of nonviolent civil resistance.

We continue to help relieve suffering and hold that all nations must radically improve their approach to welcoming refugees, to fully honour the United Nations’ Refugee Convention and ensure that all displaced people—no matter their origin—have access to civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. We will continue to press for this.

We continue to seek to build the institutions of peace. Justice with peace requires binding frameworks of international law and restorative justice, as well as global investment in violence prevention at the community level. We know that all of these have been insufficient to prevent the injustice in Ukraine, and must be strengthened to win peace.

And we continue to support peacebuilding measures. We call on the governments of Ukraine, Russia, neighbouring countries, the United States, NATO, and the European Union, to explore all avenues—whether public or private—for a renewed conversation to address the human security needs of all the peoples and countries in the region, to help provide the basis for long term peace.

Whichever way this war ends, we are realistic that healing and sustainable peacemaking will in all likelihood take more than a generation, and will only be possible through inclusive and sustainable processes from the international to the local. That process must begin now.

We are ready to play our part.

Signed by,

Timothy Gee
General Secretary, 
Friends World Committee for Consultation  

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge
Director, 
Quaker United Nations Office, Geneva

Sarah Clarke
Director, 
Quaker United Nations Office, New York

Bridget Moix
General Secretary, 
Friends Committee on National Legislation

Joyce Ajlouny
General Secretary, 
American Friends Service Committee

Jennifer Preston
General Secretary, 
Canadian Friends Service Committee

Tracey Martin
Director, 
Quaker Council on European Affairs

 Oliver Robertson
General Secretary, Quaker Peace and Social Witness 

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