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Dutch churches accept guilt for slavery

OLD-DUTCH-CHURCH

AMSTERDAM–The call for an apology for slavery from the Dutch authorities got an unprecedented boost last Saturday, when the Council of Churches released a statement in which it acknowledged its involvement in the inhumane practice.

“As churches we know of our part in this blemished past and we have to acknowledge that theology was misused to justify slavery,” the statement said. The council said it regretted that it did not have these insights earlier.

“(Slavery) is a story of white Dutchmen, of Government and also of the church,” said Council chairman Klaas van de Kamp in a televised discussion on Friday. He said the church held a prominent place in the community back then, but systematically chose to look the other way. “We have a beautiful gospel, but we failed to apply it. Instead we chose to make money (from slavery),” Van de Kamp said. He said it is time the white Dutchman acknowledges his role in the “black holocaust.”

The extensive statement by the Council was presented to the Moravian Church on Saturday at a ceremony in the north Holland city of Amersfoort. It was addressed to the “churches and the descendants of people who were once traded and put to work as slaves.” The statement noted that descendants live in Suriname, Aruba, Curaçao, St. Maarten, the Dutch Caribbean and the Netherlands.

Moravion Church reverend Rhoinde Mijnals-Doth praised the courage of the Council. “Better late than never. The Council of Churches has taken an important step on the path to reconciliation. We hope others will follow suit,” she said.

The statement is indeed unprecedented for the Netherlands, which has so far only said it regrets that slavery took place, which many consider an affront.

The Dutch traded in slaves in their former colonies for more than three centuries, shipping an estimated one million Africans from their continent to slave on plantations in “the new world”. Slavery was officially abolished on July 1st 1863, but it has always remained a sour point that the Netherlands didn’t actually free the slaves out of humanity and never offered a formal apology to their descendants.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Social Affairs hinted in the Dutch press last month that Minister Lodewijck Assen will likely again express his Government’s “deeply rooted regret” regarding “this dark page in our history” when he speaks on July 1st in Amsterdam when the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery is marked.

Earlier this year Second Chamber member Harry van Bommel (SP), Amsterdam southeast city council chairman Tjeerd Herrema and the National Platform for Slavery Past urged the Dutch Government to formally apologize for slavery. The historic occasion of the crowning of King Willem Alexander was suggested as an appropriate consideration to do so in 2013.

In an addendum to its statement, the Council of Churches explained that it did not call it a “confession of guilt” in fear of appearing to be using cheap words too easily. “In today’s society the word ‘guilt’ has become too common; we say sorry and return to the order of the day. That is not the way this should transpire here. Confessing guilt requires measuring pain and that demands more than just a fleeting moment of sympathy,” the statement said.

The Council said it was aware that it is speaking too late. “Who can forgive what has been done to people who spent their days in slavery and are no longer here to take words in their mouths? Unfortunately we did not have these insights in time, but instead allowed a misguided urge for profit and abuse of power to lead us. It was a form of injustice that still effects the generations of today, because part of our community was built on the backs of others,” it said.

Council chairman Kamp said he hoped churches would allocate time for the topic of slavery and discrimination in their sermons on the last Sunday before the July 1st emancipation commemoration.