number 5, december 9, 1998

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They work for peace in cities

Seven cities of the world are involved in the World Council of Churches Program to Overcome Violence (POV), and the experiences were shared yesterday at a Padare session.

The two year campaign provided inspiration and challenges in Belfast, Bethlehem, Boston, Colombo, Durban, Kingston, Rio de Janeiro and Suva.

Sri Lanka`s National Peace Council advocated for peace to end the conflict between the majority Sinhalese based Sri Lanka National Army and the revolutionary Tamil Tigers. The council sought to build bridges among the warring factions and bring them together.

Ms Priyanka Mendis, a WCC president, said that the lack of equal rights among the minority groups in her country led to the 15 year armed struggle. Thousands of lives were lost during the struggle sometimes in just one day. Despite this, the local press would censor the news and Colombians would only the reports of the massacres on international channels.

Although the conflicting sides in Colombo have agreed to talk, Ms Mendis said that the people are sceptical. Sri Lanka is multi-religious, with Buddhists, Muslims and Christians.

The two former religions run along ethnic lines and only Christianity has both Sinhalese and Tamil followers. As such, the church could be used as an agent for change from violence and it has carried out several projects.

It has been involved in relief work, reconciliation, political action, peace education in schools and cooperation in initiating peace.

Ms Mendis said that in dealing with violence and conflict situations, it is important for the church not to adopt a self-righteous attitude and demonise those involved but to seek to bring about understanding. The challenge for churches in the fight against violence is the need to work with other organizations.

The situation in the Northern Ireland was shared by the Rev. Dr Johnston McMaster, from Belfast. He said seven months after the signing of the peace agreement, a framework exists for peace building. "In Northern Ireland, we have turned a crucial corners and there is no going back, we all hope.

"We have begun to reconstruct our society and the agreement has begun to redefine our structures and the search for equality. Now begins the messy business of conflict resolution."

A grassroots program has been started to foster forgiveness and reconciliation, said Johnston. They are also teaching the importance of building a just and peaceful society through reading the Bible in its proper context. The Belfast Agreement has raised confidence enough for steps to be taken to have an inter-church forum.

Already a Catholic parish in Belfast is working on a community relations audit and they are working with Protestant churches. "This would not have been possible 12 months ago," said Johnston. "The road is long but the journey has begun."

In Boston, in the USA, the Rev. Eugene Rivers of the TenPoint Leadership Foundation, said that God had been very good to them. God has enabled them to move from being a drug ridden community with violence to a better community in the inner cities.

The Foundation’s goals are to mobilise churches to assist children to avoid violence; assist people in acquiring literacy, and run development programs to provide young people with employment.

Rivers said that there was death of faith and hope in young black people who could not envision the future. The children involved in the violence had a hunger for Jesus, but the churches wanted to be relevant to their normal structures and to be politically correct. They failed to reach out to the children.

Through a partnership among church fellowships, law enforcement agencies and communities, efforts have been aimed at addressing the fundamental causes of the violence. Greater emphasis has been put on the relationship between peace, justice And personal morality.

Rivers said there is a need to view the sexual promiscuity that is leading to the explosion of AIDS, especially in Zimbabwe, to a biological need in the defenceless children around the world, some of whom are dying in their own blood.

He noted that the United Nations has called for a Decade for Children. He urged the WCC to support the suggestion for a Decade for children to boost the efforts of those working to improve the lives of children.

During the session recognition of the coordinators of the campaign also took place as representatives from the seven countries were given souvenirs as a token of the gratitude for the work that the organizations had done.

Salpy Eskidjian, WCC coordinator of the campaign said the two year campaign had been a revelation. "I have worked with people who were not in despair even though they were living with violence. They had hope that they would find peace."

Eskidjian said the WCC had sown the seeds of building a peace movement from a wide spectrum involving churches, gangs, community hierarchy. The council has been challenged to listen to the voice on the ground.

The Rev. Mike Vorster, a representative of the Diakonia Council of Churches which was coordinating the peace campaign in Durban, South Africa, said since the program started, they had seen a considerable reduction in political violence. But the situation has been reversed in anticipation of the elections next year.

He said there was a need to address the youth who had been traumatised by violence in their country and were failing to adapt to the current situation.

"It is all very well to speak about stopping violence but one of the key challenges for the church in South Africa is to ensure that government policies take into account economic justice and the creation of jobs," he said.

The campaign has shown that everyone can do something about the violence that has pervaded some of our societies today. Participants heard that people need to take hope in the ending of apartheid in South Africa and the signing of the Belfast Agreement in Northern Ireland. These showed that even the worst violence can come to an end.

From Durban in South Africa to Kingston in Jamaica, communities had become polarized through gang warfare, drug abuse, political conflict.

Bambaye, a squatter settlement in Durban was locked in fierce fighting from the mid 1990s as members of the Inkatha Freedom Party fought members of the ruling African National Congress sometimes using homemade guns. Various churches organized fellow Christians to stop the carnage. They targeted the youth to encourage them to develop their community together and avoid the violence.

In Suva, Fiji, conflict was politically motivated and revolved around the differences between the Indo-Fijians and the ethnic Fijians after the former won the 1987 elections. The army staged a coup and several thousands of Indo-Fijians were massacred.

Christians from both sides got together to mobilize for peace despite their different backgrounds, cultures and religion.

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Read other articles in this issue:

Help create fair world -- Mugabe
Evangelicals liken WCC to a polygamist husband
They work for peace in cities
Churches should defend the voiceless
Received by the President
Human chain to cancel debt
Indian delegates retrace footsteps of St Thomas
Making peace possible
Mugabe's liberty bell cracked

8th Assembly and 50th Anniversary

copyright 1998 World Council of Churches. Remarks to webeditor