Taking faith to the 'new' front lines
In all the hot spots - yet rarely mentioned - military chaplains aresome of today's unsung heroes.
(Page 2 of 3)
"The council could be a very important body," says Chaplain Resnicoff, "advising commanders on religious sensitivity issues, working with Partnership for Peace nations [of the former Eastern bloc] struggling with the idea of democracy and human rights, helping each other understand how we can work together in our multinational operations."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Resnicoff says that along with the Bosnia experience, some of the inspiration for the idea came during his visit to a multinational chaplains group in Africa, which is tied to the 14-nation Southern African Development Community.
Maj. Gen. F.F. Gqiba, chaplain general for South Africa's National Defense Force, who formed the "religious desk" of the African National Congress during its years in exile, shared "the miracle" of the opening up of the NDF in 1994 to the "first human right - religious freedom." The development of the Southern African Military Chaplains Association followed. It promotes religion as a human right within the armed forces of the region.
The ANC was "born in the womb of Christianity," General Gqiba, an Anglican clergyman, says in an interview. "And throughout the struggle, religion was central." Since taking on the daunting challenge of helping transform the NDF, he has brought in chaplains from many religions, including the first Hindu.
The chaplains conference, held here in a famous spa town in wintry Austria, is sponsored by the US European Command and the host country's military. Now in its 10th year, the gathering includes representatives from NATO nations, central and eastern Europe, and, for the first time, South Africa and the Republic of Korea. Fostering cooperation across military services and among faiths within a given service, the conference is "on the frontier of ecumenism," says Monsignor Franco Troi of Italy. "We share the same problems, and we learn to substitute for one another."
"It's helped us understand one another's faiths and cultural standpoints," which has helped in peacekeeping operations, says the Rev. Claus Harms, chief chaplain of the Royal Danish Navy. Tiny Denmark has joined in missions in Gaza, Cyprus, Namibia, the Gulf war, Congo, former Yugoslavia, and Macedonia.
It gives support to those seeking to develop new chaplaincies. The Chaplain Corps of the Czech Republic is perhaps the world's newest, and Chief of Chaplains Tomas Holub got his start with a tour in Bosnia. He found it "very important to be able to share and pray with other chaplains." In an army still largely atheistic, says the Rev. Jaromir Dus, adviser to the Czech Ministry of Defense, a survey showed Lieutenant Holub had won the appreciation of Czech soldiers in Bosnia, who learned a minister was not like the "Red" political officer who sought to indoctrinate, but a friend who could help them and also keep confidences.
Ministers and priests in communist nations were often jailed. For today's chaplains from Slovakia, Poland, Romania, and Germany, encouraging hope and a more transcendent set of values is a priority under situations that often remain dire. Economic conditions are worse for many in their countries, they say, and there is disillusionment with capitalism and with some consequences of freedom.
When communism collapsed in the East, says Monsignor Walter Theis, Roman Catholic chaplain from Germany, the values of the West spread rapidly, bringing "more freedom but also a sophisticated, superficial" sense of values. For many, it "destroyed values more vigorously than communism had," he says. Some 67 percent of east Germans and 31 percent of west Germans call themselves atheists, he adds. In the Army, united since 1990, chaplains are in charge of "life counseling" on ethical issues for daily living, what he calls "sort of a preparatory course to a new attitude to life."
Teaching ethics across faiths