On the occasion of the launch of the Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field programme, let me begin by sending my warmest greetings to Commissioner-General Paul Breyne; representatives of the Federal and Flemish Governments; the Governor of West Flanders; representatives of the European Union; Ambassadors and representatives of the Diplomatic Corp; the Mayor of Messines, Mr Sandy Evrard; representatives of the United Nations, UNESCO, the Belgium Churches; the Royal Belgium Football League and various national and international sporting bodies; the representatives of our partner cities: Comines-Warneton and Armentières; the Island of Ireland Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field Project; and the Board of the Flanders Peace Field organisation, including the President, Mr. Dirk van der Maelen.
One of my favourite quotations, though it happened during a much smaller Truce in 1915, is from a German soldier named Richard Schirrmann. He wrote:
When the Christmas bells sounded… something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities… and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over.
Schirrmann pondered over this incident and wondered whether “thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other.” He went on to found the German and International Youth Hostelling Movement.
It is indeed wonderful that we are now at a point where we can begin to launch a carefully planned programme of activities to commemorate the miracle of the 1914 Christmas Truce. The Christmas Truce is, as the British Historian, Piers Brendon, so eloquently reminds us: “a moment of humanity in a time of carnage… what must be the most extraordinary celebration of Christmas since those notable goings-on in Bethlehem.’
There has been a lot of hard work that has gone into reaching this day. It began on the 28 August 2008 when my friend from Ireland, Don Mullan, travelled to Flanders to see if he could find the field where the famous game of football took place on the first Christmas Day of WWI. What he found was a much richer tapestry which we are all now invited to weave.
The first official meeting of the Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field Project was held in Dublin in February 2009 which I presided over. It was hosted by the Gaelic Athletic Association of Ireland at Croke Park Stadium. The meeting involved representatives of the Irish Government, the European Union, Churches, Sporting Bodies, Schools and NGOs. I was particularly delighted to welcome representatives of the Messines Peace Village.
At that meeting Don set out his vision for an ambitious project that included the creation of the Flanders Peace Field. And at that meeting I called for support for this initiative which Don had begun to develop in close association with the Mayor and city of Messines, the Parish of St. Nicholas and the Messines Peace Village, and later with key diplomatic missions, the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace, UNESCO and representatives of the United States Congress. And given the background out of which this wonderful initiative has emerged, I have already described it in a letter to the Mayor of Messines – and do so again today – as a gift of the Island of Ireland Peace Process to the European Project and World Peace. For that is what it is! I am heartened by the generous response of Belgian people to partner with this wonderful initiative and to help carry it to success. Thank you.
I commend the Federal and Flemish Governments, the Governments of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly for their support to date. It requires much more support and, as patron of the Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field Project, along with my Brazilian colleague, the great Pelé, we are now appealing to all of the diplomatic missions present today, to ask your Governments to join us in creating what has the potential to be the jewel in the crown of WWI legacy projects – a truly life-giving Peace Memorial.
The world has too many War Memorials. We need life-affirming memorials that inspire our young people to become peacemakers, reconcilers and, what we in Southern Africa call UBUNTU – a universal truth through which human beings are imbued and motivated by a sense of our common humanity. And that’s what those ordinary soldiers of WWI who participated in the Christmas Truce discovered. Through sharing tea and coffee, beer and wine, exchanging gifts and showing photographs of their loved ones, and kicking footballs up and down No Man’s Land, they realized they were fellow human beings, trapped in a seemingly unstoppable vortex of violence in which the vice grip of higher command gave them little option beyond – kill or be killed. It was a moment that echoed the tweet sent by Pope Francis on 10th January 2014, when war stopped ‘before the Child of Bethlehem’, and ordinary soldiers allowed ‘the tenderness of God to warm our hearts’.
It is my hope that the United Nations and UNESCO will become more closely associated with the Flanders Peace Field initiative, for the Flanders Peace Field, inspired by the 1914 Christmas Truce, must become part of the cultural patrimony of humanity.
I am deeply honoured to have been invited by Commissioner-General Paul Breyne to be the convenor of a gathering of multi-faith leaders at the Flanders Peace Field, Messines, on 6 December 2014. This will be a very important gathering of world leaders and I am conscious that we have the responsibility to help set the tone for the four years of WWI commemorations and to ensure that the commemorations are not about the glorification of war, but rather, the glorification of International Peace – Peace that must be founded on global Justice and Human Rights for all.
In memory of the 1914 Christmas Truce may I suggest we choose as our motto the words of PresidentNelson Mandela who was born during the closing months of WWI. Let the Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field Project be inspired by the words of this great prophet of reconciliation and forgiveness:
No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
I look forward, with God’s help, to seeing you in Messines on St. Nicholas Day 2014. Meantime, let’s continue to work hard, in unity and solidarity, and with generosity, to see the success of this wonderful and imaginative project.
God Bless You All.