Memorial service brings expats together in prayer

“One of my main thoughts is how lucky we are as Americans to be in Slovakia today,” said Gregory Orr, chargé d’affaires of the US embassy in Bratislava. “Just walk by the US embassy and look at the flowers and the candles. Someone’s even erected a wooden cross.”

Orr was speaking to a congregation of perhaps 70 people who came today just after noon Slovak time to remember the victims of terrorist attacks September 11 in the United States. The hour-long service was held in Bratislava’s Malý kostol (Little Church), an evangelical Lutheran church that offers English-language worship in the Slovak capital.

“I’m most impressed by the ordinary Slovak citizens who came to the Foreign Ministry to sign a book expressing condolences,” Orr continued in the service’s opening address. “All the terrorists have succeeded in doing is to bring us closer together.”

For the expatriate community in Slovakia, the Malý kostol service was the first official gathering of native English speakers in the wake of Tuesday’s aircraft hijacks. Organised by Jake Slegers, head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Slovakia, the ceremony interwove hymns, the singing of the anthem God Bless America, prayers and a cautionary sermon delivered by Malý kostol parson Paul Hanson.

“Such events can unify us for good or for evil,” he said. “I pray that it is in our capacity to remain civilised, not to identify a few terrorists with whole peoples, religions or races.”

The congregation appeared subdued, and most left quickly after the benediction, save a couple who embraced each other and wept in the aisle.

Outside the church, former US ambassador to Slovakia Ralph Johnson greeted current embassy staff as they moved on to their next appointments. Johnson, who now resides as a private citizen in Bratislava following a term in Sarajevo, said “I only wish we weren’t meeting under such circumstances,” as he made his way towards the television cameras of waiting Slovak journalists.

All afternoon, in front of the closed US embassy, knots of mourners stood and knelt in front of hundreds of candles and flower bouquets which had been propped against a 10-metre stretch of fencing.

Embassy officials said they expected to reopen on Monday, having been shut since September 12. The American chamber’s Slegers said no other official gatherings of expats had been planned, as he had been looking no further forward than today’s emotional memorial service.

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