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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 105 (Suppl.), December 2007



Dialogue in Airport Chaplaincies:

Towards a Response to Terrorism



Rev. Pastor Andrea Krasznai

Acting President, IACAC



In my presentation I will describe the nature of terrorism and the changes in its targets and objectives. I shall try to give a brief chronology, listing the most significant attacks against the aviation industry.

I was searching to understand the vital role the Christian Churches can play in fighting terrorism and dialoguing with Islam. I will approach this problem from the standpoint of bolstering European identity.

With my long experience as chaplain of Budapest Ferihegy Airport and seeing the barbarian destruction wreaked by international terrorism on the aviation industry and on innocent victims, I feel that the bell tolls hollow for them. 

I. The Most Significant Attacks against the Aviation Industry

The Nature and Aims of Terrorism

In the 1960 s, small nationalist groups came into being and used the weapons of terrorism to destroy capitalism, thus bringing to the attention of the world the hitherto unknown phenomenon of ‘international terrorism’.  In the ‘70’s it was Israel, which was the primary target of Palestinian terrorists, that burst onto the world stage. 

February 10, 1970: Three terrorists attacked El Al passengers in a bus at Munich Airport. One passenger was killed and 11 were injured.

In September 1970, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked four air planes.

In the 1980 s, Islamic extremists turned their attention to Western Europe and the United States of America. Terrorist acts were carried out involving ever-growing numbers of victims. Their goal became more and more apparent – pure destruction and death. Certain Middle-East countries turned to terror for foreign policy purposes. 

  June 14, 1985: A TWA passenger flight was hijacked en route to Rome from Athens. The crew and 145 passengers were held hostage for 17 days.

June 23, 1985: An Air India Boeing 747 was destroyed while flying over the Atlantic, killing 329 people on board. The attack was blamed on Sikhs and Kashmiris. In another incident involving Sikhs, a bomb exploded at Tokyo Airport killing two cargo handlers.

December 27, 1985: Eighteen people were killed and 120 were wounded during simultaneous terrorist attacks at airports in Rome and Vienna. Four Abu Nidal gunmen attacked the queue in the El Al and Trans World Airlines ticket counters at Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome. On the same day three other Abu Nidal gunmen opened fire on passengers queuing to check-in at El Al at Vienna’s Schwechat Airport, killing three persons and injuring 30.

December 21, 1988: A Pan Am 103 passenger plane crashed on to the town Lockerbie, Scotland. All 259 people aboard were killed. This attack showed the glaring deficiencies in airport security. “That particular attack caused enormous consternation and distress, partly because it was so unforeseen, partly because so many people were killed, people who appeared to have been selected for death quite by chance, and partly because it drew everyone’s attention once again to the vulnerability of air travel to attack and its consequent attraction for terrorists.”[1] After the Lockerbie attack, airports made big changes in security and defense.

In early March 1994, the IRA launched a series of mortar attacks on Heathrow airport, partially paralysing the capital's main air routes.

With Black Tuesday, 9/11, international terrorism entered a new phase that  reaches transatlantic and global dimensions. The suicidal terrorists used the plane as a terrorist weapon.

Terrorism has taken the place of the enemy of the bipolar, cold-war world, the Russians. With the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has made terrorism its enemy. An all-pervasive sense of fear that anything can happen any time to anyone has taken root in people’s hearts and minds.

I cite Bishop “DD” Hayes, head chaplain of the Dallas/Fort Worth Interfaith Chaplaincy in Texas, “Most Americans have never experienced any kind of catastrophe of this kind before. To see so many innocent people killed in one sweeping blow was more that the average person could handle. We – as chaplains – helped to assure them that we were in no immediate danger of attack. … A week later the airport was reopened, and we encountered a new set of concerns. Many of the employees were experiencing various financial situations. The attack on America was also an attack on its economy, which affected many people. So we did the best we could to accommodate these new areas of concern. There was not much we could do, except be present, listen to the concerns of American Airlines and United Airlines to ensure that they were getting along. For the next several weeks, our job as chaplains attained a high level of importance. I was also asked to come to various local and state agencies to conduct prayer meetings and speak words of consolation and comfort. This terrorist attack raised the bar for the necessity of airport chaplains… And finally airport chaplains, national and international, attended the IACAC Conference that was being held in Indianapolis. Almost all the chaplains from the United States attended, along with a great majority of chaplains from abroad. It was a moving conference and somber many ways. Each USA chaplain was asked to stand up and express himself about the tragedy. I believe that it was a great time of healing and a source of debriefing for the chaplains who took advantage of this endeavor.”

I was on duty on 9/11 and watched the news on CNN with the passengers at the airport. Shocked silence. Nobody wanted to believe his eyes. Lively Ferihegy Airport had never experienced anything like that.

After September 11, Interior Minister Sándor Pintér ordered that check-in counters be taken to the doors of the Departures’ Hall in Ferihegy Airport. Due to strict security regulations, only passengers and employees, not visitors, were allowed to enter the terminal building. These security measures were an overreaction compared to the actual threat to the airport. At that time I had to comfort and support the airport employees, who were overextended, both physically and spiritually.

I still have the words of deep concern, spoken by previous IACAC president, the Right Rev. Walter Meier of Zurich Airport, echoing in my mind when I recall our telephone conversation in that troubled period.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Swissair went bankrupt on October 2, 2001, leaving 9000 people unemployed. The terrorist attack gave the coup de grace to the company, which was grappling with enormous financial and economic difficulties.

Three weeks after the events of "Black Tuesday," as a member of a delegation, I was invited by the American Presbyterian Church to spend a month in the U.S. Smaller airports echoed with empty halls; so many people were reluctant to fly. Employees at the big airports, stressed out because of the 50-percent rate of dismissal and also of the new security regulations, tried in vain to keep up the front. The airport workers could barely manage to do their jobs in the extremely difficult conditions.

In October 2001, I conducted worship services several times in various churches, preaching words of healing. People were in tears. They were trying to search for the clue to what was happening to them.

In recent years, the name of Heathrow airport has been linked all too often to terrorist attacks.

In February 2003, 1,700 policemen and 4,500 troops were sent to Heathrow airport after an alleged Algerian plot to shoot down a plane was discovered.

August 11, 2006: A simultaneous terrorist attack was foiled when terrorists planned to blow up 10 jets en route to the U.S. from Britain.

January 9, 2007: A car bomb exploded in a parking garage next to the new terminal building, terminal 4, killing two people, at Madrid airport.

The need to monitor the movements and actions of terrorist groups and orgnisations, which are in contact with each other and “assist” each other, has made it more difficult to comply with the Schengen Agreement prescribing the opening of EU member states’ borders.[2] 

II. The Response of Churches and Airport Chaplaincies to Terrorism, from a European Perspective

There have been various attempts to eliminate terrorism (military, political, economic, and sociological…).  It is clear, however, that the military and political efforts to bring peace to our troubled world have failed.

As guardian and promoter of European and Christian values, the Church can play a unique role in communicating with Islam. It is an organisation without alternatives to promote the Gospel, with a mission to work for peace.  

Before we initiate an in-depth dialogue with Islam, however, we have to make a clear distinction between Islam and Islamism. We must make it clear that Islam is both a religion and a culture. Islamism is a political ideology. It is the over-politicised Islam. Islamism has two branches, one is structural which is peaceful; the other one is militant, jihadist, and terrorist. 

III. Promoting a European Identity

The Church, with its rich cultural heritage, has an important role to play in building European identity, and promoting and communicating European values. The strengthening of European unity is also a challenge for the citizens of Europe.  Europe seems to be suffering from collective amnesia about its own roots. The population of the old continent is characterised, to a worrisome extent, by a deficit in European identity, which generates a vacuum. 

Many Christian scholars are concerned that, with current trends, Europe, the bearer of a 2,000-year-old tradition, will become one day a museum of its rich heritage. And yet Europe and European consciousness is more than a mere geographic entity. European consciousness is also a community of deep-rooted values.

As European identity loses ground, European values become marginalised and the problems of integration grow, I have been shaken in my belief in the oft asserted capacity of Europe to bring multiplicity into unity.

In December, I met many people going on the Hajj who came to the chapel in Ferihegy to pray. To my surprise, one of the pilgrims who was Hungarian asked whether “it was not possible to take the cross from the altar.” “This is a Christian chapel and the cross cannot be removed,” I replied. 

Ethnic Hungarian Muslims are more radical. There are several reasons for this; one of these can perhaps be found in the motivation of Hungarians.  High expectations and the need to achieve and even over-achieve is a characteristic of Hungarians, which is rooted in our history. Naturally, I don’t mean to say that Hungarians have a monopoly on this characteristic.                       

Increasing numbers of young people can no longer be satisfied with the consumerism and licentiousness of our postmodern world. “This is a country without consequences,” can often be heard, referring to Hungary. Human beings search for deeper values, rules and laws, which they can take seriously. Islam seems to attract many young people, men with long beards, women all covered up, wearing not just headscarves.

The chapel has an important strategic importance in communicating European and Christian values.  We must pay special attention to preserve the Christian or interfaith character of our chapels. The opposite tendency is depressing. Let me give you an example.

“At JFK Airport we have a very unusual situation,” writes a rabbi. “From 1966 until 1988 the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey allowed each faith group to build chapels outside the main terminal. The Roman Catholics, Jews and Protestants each erected edifices for their worshippers. In 1988 the buildings were demolished to allow for the expansion of the terminal. For twelve years, the faith groups shared a single chapel, as in most airports. Four years ago when construction was completed, Port Authority made arrangements for space in the International Arrivals terminal. We now have within terminal 4 a Roman Catholic Church/Our Lady of the Skies Chapel/, Jewish Synagogue/International Synagogue/, and a Protestant Church /Christ for the World Chapel. The chapels are situated next door to each other projecting an ecumenical feeling. A fourth chapel was added and called ‘Multi-Faith Chapel’ for use by Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, etc. worshippers. However, since the majority of those using this room were of the Muslim faith, the room has now been decorated as a Mosque.

A surprising and unusual bit of news made the rounds of the international media concerning the prayer room of Ben-Gurion airport. “Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport is to construct an Islamic prayer room for the first time as part of efforts to improve relations with Muslim travelers. Ben-Gurion is determined to strengthen ties with the Arab sector… ‘We have received a number of requests from passengers and even members of parliament to allocate a small space (for prayer) with appropriate facilities’, airport spokesman Shmuel Hefetz said.”[3]

In our chapels we have the opportunity to meet passengers from all over the world.  Building bridges and establishing channels of communication with the Muslim world, however, is a big challenge in the fast-moving world of aviation. Passengers are usually pressed for time.

Most Muslims who come to chapel have peaceful intentions to fulfill their religious obligations. They don’t show much interest, in my experience, in communicating with the pastors and priests.

Militant jihadist elements come to airports obviously without any intention to dialogue. The Islamic Chaplain of Brussels International airport said, “I am filled with great sorrow and regret that the terrorists are giving Islam such a bad name.”

The words of Dema Liza Manningham-Buller, MI5’s General Director, were quoted on CNN, “The threat will be here with us for a generation.”[4] John Reid, Home Secretary, UK, gave a similar opinion to the BBC, “This is a generation’s struggle.” The fight against terror will go on “longer than a generation”[5].

In this overheated and dangerous atmosphere, Pope John Paul’s words weigh heavily, "May words from religions always be words of peace. … Peace is always possible!"  


That Europe is inclusive can often be heard in the European Parliament. Inclusive, however doesn't mean giving up what and who we are.

I am convinced that airport chapels can provide the right atmosphere for giving our testimony to all people, including Muslims. Christian and multi-faith chapels can be a place for communication and dialogue to promote peace.

Chapels can be a common ground for the sake of the common good in the fast-moving world of aviation. 


[1] Stella Rimington, Open Secret, p. 216. 

[2] The Benelux, France, and German Federal Republic agreed to end border control in Schengen, Luxemburg, in 1985. The Convention, after several changes, came into effect in 1995.  With the expansion of the EU, the Schengen Agreement countries (humorously called Schengenland) have also increased in number. 

[3] Reuters, December 21, 2006.

[4] CNN, January 9, 2007

[5] BBC News, December 10, 2006.