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30 May 2001

Asia-Pacific conference presents action plan to combat racism: church representatives prepare for UN World Conference

cf. WCC Press Update, Up-01-13, of 18 May 2001
cf. WCC Press Feature, Feat-01-04, of 18 April 2001

Hard on the heels of a May meeting preparing input to the forthcoming United Nations (UN) World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, Asian church representatives began devising strategies to implement the meeting's plan of action to combat racism. The representatives are part of the World Council of Churches' (WCC) Urban and Rural Mission network in Asia, and the 17-19 May meeting in Bangkok was jointly organised by the WCC and the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA).

"I am extremely encouraged by the fact that the URM representatives in Asia got together immediately afterwards to plan follow-up," says WCC programme executive for combatting racism, Marilia Schüller from Brazil. Schüller hopes that churches in Asia will be sensitised and challenged by the issues that emerged during the Bangkok meeting.

At the meeting participants representing 16 Asian and Pacific countries urged the churches to form a regional network to share experiences and information, and asked the CCA and the Pacific Council of Churches (PCC) to facilitate an Asia-Pacific forum against racism and discrimination. They recommended that churches take the initiative to network with other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil societies in the region, promote inter-faith dialogue and focus on race issues. Further recommendations emphasised that churches need to create awareness of racism through Christian education and local media, and to encourage national governments to ratify the Convention for Elimination of Racial Discrimination and lobby against discriminatory legislation. One useful form of lobbying, they said, are political forums designed to give voice to minority rights at national and international levels.

Stories from Asia and the Pacific were presented during the meeting. Reflecting on racism and culture in Australia from a Pacific perspective, Peter Smith, an Indigenous man from Australia, said: "Two percent of the Australian population is Indigenous[...] We strongly promote rights for Indigenous Australians who[...] are at the bottom of every social indicator in Australia[...] They have been robbed of their land, culture and children, yet the government cannot even say 'sorry', let alone formulate a treaty or recognise land rights for Aboriginal peoples. We demand to stop extinguishment of native title rights for Indigenous lands, a treaty to enable reconciliation, an apology for stolen generations, and an end to Aboriginal deaths in police custody."

Z.C. Devadanam, a Dalit leader from India, said that in the Indian context, casteism is the same as racism. Describing the Dalit situation, he said: "Dalits constitute 30 percent of the country's population. India has[...] an admirable constitution which encourages indiscrimination and tolerance. Yet the caste system still exists strongly in India. Dalits[...] are the worst sufferers of this discrimination, both socially and economically. According to government statistics[...] the entire 30 percent Dalit population is below the poverty line." The meeting also heard of the struggle of the tribal (Adivasi) people in India.

Caste discrimination affects over 240 million people in South Asia. The Asian church representatives at the Bangkok meeting insisted on the inclusion of the issue of casteism on the agenda of the UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance which will take place in Durban, South Africa, from 31 August to 7 September.

Other participants told similar tales of racism and caste discrimination. In Pakistan, for example, discrimination is expressed mainly through a blasphemy law and through the requirement that religious minorities be represented in separate electorates - a kind of religious apartheid.

In Bangladesh, over 20 ethnic minorities, groups and communities suffer discrimination from the dominant Bangalee community, despite equality provisions contained in the constitution. In Indonesia, people of Chinese origin (three percent of the population), who used to dominate economic life, are held responsible for any social problems, while discrimination and violence against Christians is increasing. In Thailand and Malaysia, tribal groups are asserting their right to be recognised; migrant workers are discriminated against in Korea.

The close relationship between gender discrimination and the dynamics of racism received considerable attention during the meeting. Another major issue examined was the role religion plays in reinforcing conflict between races and ethnic groups.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, 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.