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Dutch ecumenical leader wants churches to examine slavery history

September 27, 2012

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands

An ecumenical leader in the Netherlands has called on the country’s churches to examine their role in the history of slavery, ahead of next year’s 150th anniversary of the Dutch abolition of slavery.

Churches should be “honest about our past,” said Klaas van der Kamp, general secretary of the Council of Churches in the Netherlands.

He was addressing a meeting on Sept. 17 here about the legacy of slavery and the underlying prejudices still rife in Dutch society. The meeting was organized by the Guide Network, an ecumenical organization that reaches out to leaders in all sectors of Dutch society.

“As churches in the Netherlands ... we want to reflect on this subject and critically look at ourselves in the mirror,” Van der Kamp told the meeting. “We ask the churches that do this locally, to put something about their experiences on paper and send this to us, so that it can be given a place in the celebration of the abolition of slavery, in the Koningskerk (King's Church) in Amsterdam on 1 July 2013.”

“It is not difficult to draft a letter of apology on behalf of all churches, in which guilt is admitted with regard to the slavery of the past,” said Van der Kamp. “The skill is how to get church members to have feelings as to what this is about.”

“As churches, we have never declared our guilt with regard to slavery,” Van der Kamp pointed out. “With our theology and our clergy we played a supportive role.”

“As so often, we white Netherlanders tend to act the vicar, the priest to those abroad. The further away, the more we moralize. But the closer to home, the more we condone ... How long did it take before we admitted guilt about the police actions in Indonesia? For how long did Reformed theologians defend apartheid in South Africa?” he said.

The so-called ‘police actions’ were two major military offensives undertaken by the Netherlands in the mid-1940s during the struggle for independence in Indonesia, then known as the Dutch East Indies. Apartheid was the former system of racial segregation in South Africa.

Several participants at the Sept. 17 meeting said that they still experience discrimination, both from the white Dutch population as well as in the values that they themselves apply. The ideal of beauty among black and colored people is still “the lighter, the better,” some said.

Christian Democrat parliamentarian Kathleen Ferrier, who is a person of color, told the meeting of her efforts to facilitate worship space for immigrant churches in the Netherlands. Local white churches often did not live up to their promises to help or tried to fob the immigrant churches off.

Ferrier stressed the importance of discussing slavery. “If you do not know the shared past, you cannot work together for the future. The past always comes back to the fore, so it is important to put it into words.”

Ferrier is the daughter of a former president of Suriname and was the first general secretary of SKIN, the national platform of immigrant churches in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands had a leading role in the slave trade during the 17th century. The Dutch West India Company shipped some 450,000 slaves from the West African coast, mainly to the plantations in the Dutch colonies of the Caribbean region, the Antilles and Suriname.

The Dutch government abolished slavery in its colonies on July 1, 1863, 30 years after Great Britain did so in 1833.

The setting free of slaves is celebrated in Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles each year on July 1 as Keti Koti, which means “the chains are broken” in Sranan, the language of the Creole population.

Keti Koti is also celebrated in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, one in ten residents is of Surinamese origin and the city is the location of the National Monument of Slavery and its Legacy, which was unveiled in 2002. The National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy is also based in Amsterdam.

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