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18 April 2001

Churches called to repentance and confession
by Elias Massicame

Delegates and representatives of churches, national Christian councils and ecumenical organizations from 14 Central and West African countries, meeting in the city of Cotonou, Republic of Benin, have appealed to the churches on the African continent to repent and confess publicly to their acts of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

The regional seminar in Cotonou, which took place between 27 and 29 March this year, was organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) Programme to Combat Racism and the All African Conference of Churches (AACC). The aim was to provide an opportunity for Central and West African churches and ecumenical institutions to participate in the preparation, analysis and discussion of the issues to be examined during the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, to be held in Durban, South Africa between 31 August and 6 September this year. The Durban World Conference is being organized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights.

The 40 delegates, including men, women and young people of both sexes, declared that various manifestations of racism, tribalism and other forms of discrimination and intolerance have afflicted the peoples of Africa both in the past and in the present. Regrettably, the church in Africa has failed in its mission to preach and live the Good News of the Kingdom of God in a climate of peace, love, justice, reconciliation, fellowship and respect for human rights.

They maintained that, despite the official end to the slave trade, colonization, imperialism and the apartheid system, the African continent is unfortunately still witnessing manifestations of racism and discrimination on the grounds of race, skin colour, sex, tribe, ethnicity, level of education, social position, not only in the political, economic and cultural spheres of life, but also in the church.

The meeting declared that these practices constitute the main legacy of the colonial past and the missionary period, although the new world order, the structural readjustment programmes being implemented in most African countries, globalization and the role of the free market in countering the rule of law and emerging democracy, have added new forms of discrimination and oppression to this list.

Furthermore, participants in the Cotonou regional meeting felt that Christians in Africa have failed to "promote fellowship and solidarity" between ethnic groups belonging to the same community in their respective countries. "We repent for our sins and ask God and our brothers and sisters in our communities to forgive us," they confessed.

In addition to demanding public repentance and confession for acts of racism, oppression and other forms of discrimination and intolerance, the delegates and representatives of churches and Christian councils present in Cotonou called on churches in Africa, their sister churches overseas, missionary societies and agencies to compensate their victims for the harm done to them.

Among the victims are the poorest and most vulnerable people in society, namely women and young people of both sexes, people displaced by wars, migrants, and members of Indigenous communities and ethnic minorities.

Battu Jambawai of the AACC stressed that "We must bear in mind that women suffer two or three times more from the effects of these problems" of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Participants stated that there are still churches in Africa which perpetuate this discrimination against women because they do not allow women to be ordained. They recommended that the churches in Africa should pay special attention to women and young people in their education, training and development programmes.

The meeting appealed to churches and ecumenical institutions to begin to include issues or themes that condemn racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in their theological education, ministerial training, Bible studies and Sunday school curricula, and urged the AACC and the WCC to facilitate this process.

The WCC is currently completing an ecumenical study on racism, the results of which will be presented to its September 2002 Central Committee meeting. Pauline Muchina, who works on this issue for the WCC, appealed to the churches to become actively involved in this study, as well as in the preparation of the World Conference against racism in Durban.

WCC prepares for UN World Conference against Racism

Racism has been a concern of the ecumenical movement for at least 70 years. However there has been a special focus on the issue since 1968 when the WCC Central Committee set up the Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) that can be credited, among other things, with contributing to the fall of apartheid in South Africa. In 1998, during the Eighth Assembly in Harare, the WCC celebrated PCR's 30th anniversary.

In 1995 the WCC Central Committee noted that "Institutional racism and the ideology of racism, in their most pernicious forms, continue unabated in contemporary societies and still affect churches dramatically while ongoing social, political and economic trends are producing new forms of racism." In response to that challenge, the WCC's work on racism aims to engage and accompany the churches to recognise, to understand and attempt to overcome racism wherever it exists in their midst. Combatting racism is seen as a central part of the churches' life rather than a marginal activity.

Previous world conferences on racism were held in 1978 and 1983 and the UN has adopted programmes of action for three International Decades to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. A UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) will be held in Durban, South Africa, 31 August - 7 September 2001.The 2001 conference slogan is "United to Combat Racism: Equality, Justice, and Dignity". The aim is to ensure that international standards and instruments are applied in efforts to combat racism, and the conference could also formulate recommendations for futher action to combat bias and intolerance.

The WCC is helping prepare churches and partners, including Indigenous Peoples, people of African descent, ethnic minorities, Dalits and others for the UN World Conference. Preparations include regional and inter-regional meetings in Africa, Asia, North and South America to gather information on how churches and church-related organisations in each region understand and experience racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, and what they are doing in response.

This information will also be an important part of an ecumenical study on racism that aims to identify old and new manifestations of racism in society and in the church, including oppressive, racist theologies, and to understand the links, and distinctions, between racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, casteism and other "isms". The final document from the study ("Understanding Racism Today") will be completed in September 2002.

The regional consultations and the information gathered for the ecumenical study so far will provide basic data for a WCC ecumenical delegation to the World Conference.

A regional meeting held recently in West and Central Africa is part of the process leading to the World Conference. The above article by Elias Massicame covers that meeting. Further consultations preparing for the Conference include:
11-13 May: WCC North America regional meeting, Detroit, Michigan, USA
17-19 May: WCC Asia, Pacific and Middle East meeting, Bangkok, Thailand
21 May-1 June: UN WCR Preparatory Committee, Geneva, Switzerland
26-29 June: Consultation on Gender and Racism in Africa, Antananarivo, Madagascar

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.