Gunnar Stålsett, the retired bishop of Oslo, spent much of his career championing peace and reconciliation, also as a member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. At an age of 83 he’s still promoting peace while traveling the globe, and feels he recently made some progress in Myanmar along with a large delegation from the New York-based organization Religions for Peace International.
“There has been, in a way, a breakthrough,” said the mild-mannered Stålsett during a wide-ranging interview at his home in Oslo last week. He was referring to an agreement recently struck between the government in Myanmar and the United Nations. Stålsett said it will allow UN officials to “participate fully” in the process of overseeing the return of any Muslim refugees willing to move back to Myanmar’s Rakhine State, which was the site of violent government crackdowns on their villages last year. Hundreds of thousands of destitute Rohingya refugees have since been living in squalid camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.
Stålsett was among those allowed to visit Rakhine State in May with the multi-religious delegation that saw hundreds of burned and destroyed Muslim villages from the air flying in. Does he think any of the Rohingya want to return to Myanmar, or dare to?
“Well, I have a rather dramatic perspective on that,” Stålsett said. “Seventy years ago, 700,000 Palestinians found themselves in refugee camps as well, and many are still in camps.” He hopes that won’t happen with the Rohingya: “I believe the international community has to show courage and perserverance to guide the return,” and then monitor their safety and development. He’s encouraged by transit centers set up by the government and waiting for returning refugees, who’ve also been promised some cash and material to build their own homes.
He’s skeptical, though, over whether returning Muslim refugees will have the energy needed to rebuild homes amidst what he detected as lingering “Islamophobia” based on passing and derogatory comments still being made by some of the Myanmar officials he met. “There’s a sub-text (in conversations) that’s quite frightening in a way,” Stålsett said. “When I asked ‘why build (reception facilities), why do all this,’ they said only, ‘because we have to.'” Not, perhaps, because they want to.
Yet Stålsett, who serves as “honorary president” of Religions for Peace International (RPI) and will make the long trip back to Myanmar himself later this year, isn’t giving up. That’s clearly not in his character, and he stresses how Rakhine earlier has been “a sort of food basket,” with natural resources and of strategic interest to China. It was positive, he feels, that local officials in Myanmar even received the delegation, which also met with Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her long struggle for democracy in Myanmar only to face criticism over her inability to make things right once she became part of the government. The military still has control, Stålsett noted, and her latitude for pushing for change is limited. “She has to be careful and safeguard the democratic options,” he said, “but some things are beyond compromise.”
Stålsett does think the vast majority of the large Buddhist population in Myanmar are in favour of peace and reconciliation. He said the RPI delegation, which included the Archbishop of Yangon and senior religious officials from Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and India, got a warm welcome and attracted local media coverage while in Myanmar. Stålsett said the delegation came with “a message where we apply the spiritual and moral resources to the actual challenges.”
From church to politics to church
It’s just the latest in a long string of international causes Stålsett has embraced since retiring as bishop of Oslo in 2005 but remaining active ever since. Stålsett, a theologian who also had a political career with Norway’s Center Party before devoting himself fully to the Norwegian Lutheran church, is perhaps best known in Norway for presiding over the wedding of Crown Prince Haakon and Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby, a single mother at the time with little formal education and a history of being active on the house party scene in the 1990s. In finding one another and deciding to marry, Stålsett told the young couple at the outset of his sermon in the Oslo Cathedral, “you did not choose the path of least resistance.”
Neither has he over the years, after growing up in Northern Norway in a family with roots in Finland that was all but prohibited from speaking Finnish or the ethnic form known as kvensk. They were subjected to fornorsking, a controversial practice of being forced into becoming Norwegian that was dominant at the time against ethnic groups and for which Norwegian authorities have since apologized.
Then Stålsett got involved in the farmer- and district-friendly Center Party in the 1970s, attracted by its opposition to joining the forerunner to the European Union that he still shares. He even rose to become Center Party leader from 1977 to 1979, and represented it both in Parliament and as a state secretary before “I had to make a choice: politics or the church.” The latter won out, even though he met resistance there as well, not least when he was chosen as bishop over Odd Bondevik, a relative of Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik at the time. Stålsett’s candidacy was controversial, not least because he supported the rights of homosexuals to marry long before that became the law in Norway. He was long an advocate of an open and inclusive Lutheran state church in Norway, a campaign in which he ultimately prevailed.
Championing ‘humane’ Christianity
Stålsett has also been hailed as someone who has championed, as newspaper Dagbladet put it several years ago, “the humane side of Christianity” and objected to its intolerant and fundmentalist side. Just after performing the royal wedding in 2001, Stålsett also made headlines for being adamantly opposed to then-US President George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which prompted around 100,000 other Norwegians to also take to the streets in protest during one of the country’s largest political demonstrations ever.
Stålsett became an envoy to Øst-Timor as well, and remains satisfied that conflict was largely resolved. In between all his years of public service, Stålsett also sat several periods as a member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, and caught both criticism and praise when, toward the end of his Nobel career, he went along with awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. He’d strongly opposed proposals for Norway to join the EU itself, and prevailed when the “no” vote won in both 1972 and 1994, but he agreed that the EU has been, as Labour Party veteran and former Nobel chairman Thorbjørn Jagland said, one of the world’s “greatest peace projects” since World War II.
When Stålsett retired in 2005, he told Norwegian media that he intended to keep working, on a more international stage. He’d already been involved in Religions for Peace International since 1999 and now had time to become more active. He also had more time to travel than when he was bishop, or earlier as a rising official of the state church at the time. He was not on the Nobel Committee when Aung San Suu Kyi won the Peace Prize in 1991, but he had a clandestine visit with her afterwards when she was still under house arrest and he was in then-Burma on a mission with Norwegian Church Aid. He had contacts in what was then the capital of Rangoon, was told to be at the guard post outside her home at 1pm and, in a classic case of someone looking the other way, he was allowed in and spent an hour with her, even recording a message from her to support the democracy movement. He was not wearing his pastor’s collar and he spirited the tape out of her home, and the country, to share with the rest of the world.
He said he’s been involved in many inter-faith efforts through the Lutheran Church and sees the Rohingya crisis as “a culmination of religious, ethnic, racial and nationalistic extremism.” He was recently in Budapest and claimed that religious leaders there are now “just as nervous” and employing self-censorship as they were during the Soviet era. He regards violent extremism as the worst threat facing humanity, while xenophobia is among the worst.
While RPI is his main platform at present, Stålsett is also active in the Interfaith Rain Forest Initiative that’s involving religion as a means to make progress in areas of Indonesia, Central Africa and the Amazon: “We see it as a structured cooperation involving faith, development and climate initiatives.” Indigenous groups are also involved and he’s part of planning a summit in 2019 of religious leaders, “probably in the Amazon,” in which he hopes to engage Pope Francis. “We just want to send the message that saving the rainforest is so important to humanity,” Stålsett said.
His travels continue. In January he spoke to a group in Los Alamos, New Mexico (home of the atom bomb), in February he was in Washington DC for a conference on the rights of minorities in Muslim-majority countries. He was in Myanmar in March to do groundwork for the delegation’s trip in May, then in Johannesburg in April for a meeting about cooperation between Norway and South Africa after the apartheid struggle. Then it was Budapest, then Myanmar again. There have also been a few trips to the Vatican in Rome but he’ll soon take some summer holiday, then will be back in Myanmar in October. He and RPI get some financial support from the Norwegian government, through the embasssy in Myanmar, for example, otherwise all the projects and financing rely on grants from various agencies and governments.
He thinks interfaith movements have a positive effect on the world’s crises: “We do not discuss whose God is greatest, but we ask how much are you part of the conflict, and what are you doing to find a solution?” And then, he says, the conversation can continue.