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Assembly invites churches around the world
to promote Decade to Overcome Violence

Marking the midpoint of the World Council of Churches’ Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV), participants at the 9th Assembly wondered if churches were abandoning people in Northern Uganda and if church leaders were engaging in “sterile” debates about when violence is permissible.

Tale Hungnes Lucas

“Since the decade started in 2001,” said Tale Hungnes Lucas, a leader in the Church of Norway, “Sept. 11 and the war on terror arose, creating a new context.”

Speakers at a press conference and the plenary on the decade raised challenges and questions for churches worldwide.

“When adults wage war, children pay the highest price,” asserted Olara Otunnu of Uganda, former United Nations undersecretary general and representative for the UN’s Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC). 

He said children are both targets and instruments of war—killed, maimed, orphaned, abducted, deprived of education and health care, left with deep emotional scars and trauma, recruited as soldiers, uprooted from homes, sexually exploited and indoctrinated by terrorist entrepreneurs.

Olara Otunnu

“The worst place to be a child today is in Northern Uganda where society has broken down,” Olara said.  “Where are the people of God when a population is being decimated by a genocide?  With the enormity and nature of the humanitarian crisis, churches must intervene.

“In 20 years of war and 10 years of concentration camps, about 2 million people—80 percent women and children—have been herded like animals to live in squalor, disease, despair, humiliation, overcrowding and malnutrition in about 200 concentration camps.

Infant mortality is twice that in Darfur. About 1,000 children die each week because of conditions. HIV/AIDS is used as a weapon.  HIV-positive soldiers are sent to camps to infect women and children,” Olara said.

“The situation requires prophetic action,” he said. 

For several years, he led the UN’s CAAC campaign to mobilize international action on behalf of children exposed to war, promoting their protection during war, and their healing and social reintegration after war.

Olara said the Children and Armed Conflict Campaign requires 1) awareness and advocacy, 2) concrete action and responses, 3) naming and shaming offenders, and 4) formal monitoring and reporting.

He asked the WCC assembly to become “Friends of 1612,” a UN Security Council resolution on children and armed conflict that holds accountable those who violate the basic rights of children. 

He also appealed to the WCC to be a “prophetic voice” in Uganda, where he said people are victims of genocide.

Center promotes peaceful ties

Alfred Rock

Alfred Rock, a Catholic Palestinian refugee and law student in Bethlehem, sees how violence in his region undermines the future for youth.

Through the Wi’Am (Cordial Relationships) Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center, part of the DOV Peace to the Cities program, he trains youth from 18 to 25 in nonviolence to counter violence in the region.

“A two-hour trip from Bethlehem to Jerusalem takes nine hours, with checkpoints every five minutes.  It’s a humiliating and frightening trip,” Alfred said.  “The Palestinian community would like a tribunal to resolve such conflicts, bringing both sides together to reduce violence.”

To create hope, he dissuades children from considering violence a solution to conflicts. 

“Children are traumatized by the violence in their daily lives,” he said. “We need to show them how to break chains of violence with nonviolence and peace.”

Stories communicate options

Janice Love

Janice Love, a leader with the DOV, hopes the decade will communicate stories to demonstrate how Christians, out of their faith, engage in peace and justice.

She wonders what circumstances might make churches shift from “sterile debates” on when violence is permitted to a theology and examples of Christians proactively intervening to promote peace, giving life and hope in the midst of brutality.

Janice said for world leaders to argue that there is no alternative to war “is a profound failure of imagination,” because there are always alternative ways to pressure parties to change behaviors in conflicts so they do not resort to weapons.

“Rather than thinkers debating what conditions justify going to war, I would like Christians to shift attention from what would make people commit violence to what would make people devote their lives to peace and justice. 

“We need to train church leaders to move beyond judging if an act of violence justifies a violent response,” Janice said.  “It’s about moving religious communities from blessing violence.”

Janice, executive for the U.S. United Methodist Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries, said the Decade to Overcome Violence also builds on the Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women and is responsible to address violence against women—pervasive worldwide and also often justified by churches.

“Women say, ‘No more!’ to violence against women.  Training programs and theology are creating intolerance to violence.  Our mission is to exchange stories,” said Janice, who seeks to create networks and empowerment.

Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu joined in peace rally and march celebrating Latin American participation in the Decade to Overcome Violence.

She is also heartened that the WCC’s decade coincides with the United Nations Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non Violence.

Muslim leader calls for peace

In the plenary, several speakers called for reconciliation.

Indonesian Muslim leader Hasyim Muzadi conveyed “a message of peace” to the Assembly and expressed regret about the Danish cartoon that opened the door to religious violence.

In Indonesia, the Communion of Churches, with Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Muslims and followers of Confucius, is forming an interfaith movement to overcome violent response to crises.

Hasyim believes all religions need to cleanse their names and symbols from misuse by people who promote violence.

On the cartoon about Muhammad and similar incidents, he recommends: 1) seeing political and economic roots of religious conflicts; 2) knowing that poverty and ethnicity often lead to violence, 3) having religions be in relationship, so they understand their similarities and differences; 4) having national policies to protect all religions in a country, and 5) inviting religious leaders to join efforts to prevent conflicts among nations.

Peace March
Brazilian mother and child join in peace march in Porto Alegre.

Labor leader seeks justice

Juan Somavia of the International Labor Organization said the ILO works to create a world in which work creates just relationships, resources and respect, so people can earn incomes sufficient to support their families. 

The ILO is educating youth to overcome violence, recognizing that child labor interferes with their innate creativity. 

“People can overcome poverty by having decent work that gives them dignity,” he said.

U.S. leaders apologize

The Very Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, moderator of the U.S. Conference for the WCC, read a letter to the Assembly from U.S. church leaders, confessing their lack of success in turning American policy from pre-emptive war in Iraq, in stopping environmental pollution and in ending economic injustice.

The Rev. John Thomas and the Very Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky

The confession acknowledged their shame about abuses done in their name and their failure to raise “a prophetic voice loud enough and persistent enough to deter our leaders from the path of pre-emptive war, and to call our nation to be responsible for creation and to seek just economic structures so sharing by all means scarcity for none.

“From a place seduced by the lure of empire, we come in penitence, eager for grace to transform spirits grown weary from the violence, degradation and poverty our nation has sown, grace ssufficient to transform the world.”

Sharon Watkins
The Rev. Sharon Watkins

In a press conference on the confession, the Rev. Sharon Watkins, president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), said that in coming to the assembly, she was aware that along with parents, family and neighbors who honor sons and daughters in the U.S. military, there would be, in the global gathering, parents, family and neighbors of other sons and daughters whose lives are also torn by war.

Aware of “internal anguish and division” on the war, Father Leonid, also the ecumenical officer of the Orthodox Church in America, hopes churches will wrestle with the statement in coming weeks and months.

He said the White House has not welcomed the voice of these religious leaders.

Media reports of some Christian voices have given people around the world the impression that most U.S. Christians support the war in Iraq and U.S. policies.

“In the ecumenical family we need to be aware of the struggle in churches,” he said.

The Rev. John Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ, said the church leaders chose to confess their complicity because they pay taxes, vote and consume.

Visiting partners in churches around the world, he finds that many consider the United States dangerous because of its pre-emptive war policy. He said the U.S. Conference of the WCC is aware of conflicts within churches, but felt responsible to bring “a prophetic and pastoral word.”

John said the confession is not one part of any strategy beyond what churches already do—prophetic statements, public witness, civil disobedience, pastoral care and education. 

“Our hope is that the statement will provide a healthy context for leaders around the world to discuss violence, environment and poverty,” he said.