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29 January - 6 February 2001
Potsdam, Germany

30 January 2001

Aram: Violence is evil
but may be necessary to restore justice

A week prior to the international launch in Berlin of the Decade to Overcome Violence, the moderator of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee expressed the view that violence for a just cause is justifiable.

With an eye toward the Palestinian uprising in the Middle East, His Holiness Aram I said "violence as a last resort" is an option that cannot be rejected.

"Violence is evil," His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of Cilicia of the Armenian Orthodox Church told the 158-person Central Committee in his opening remarks Monday morning (January 29). "Yet for some, living under conditions of injustice and oppression, where all means of non-violent actions are used up, violence remains an unavoidable alternative, a last resort."

"Surely," Aram I said, "we cannot legitimise violence under just any circumstances. Nor can we condemn violence when it is used as a ‘last resort’ for the cause of justice and dignity."

Aram I devoted the first part of his report to developing a scriptural and theological rationale for non-violence as a policy of the churches.

But he also pointed out that the Bible is "ambiguous about violence and non-violence" and he cited Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (Matthew 21:12) as well as Jesus’ admonition to "love your enemies".

He praised history’s non-violent resisters from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., and called upon member churches to build a "culture of peace."

Citing such modern examples as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Aram I said "violence generates violence, while non-violence uncovers the powerlessness of the powerful".

But Aram I also expressed doubt that violence is avoidable when efforts to restore justice fail. "Therefore, ‘limited and controlled’ violence aimed at changing social conditions and establishing justice for all is acceptable and even necessary," he said.

Peace is impossible without justice, Aram I said. "Yes, we must say, ‘no more violence, stop violence,’ but we must also cry out, ‘justice for all’. Peace is not just the absence of violence; it is the presence of justice."

In a press conference following the plenary session, Aram I conceded that "there are ambiguities, uncertainties" in the question of justifiable violence and at another point he described the issue as a "dilemma. I am not endorsing that position. We are living in different situations and we may have different perspectives."

"Non-violence pertains to the very being of the church," he told journalists. "Certain circumstances (may arise) when a person or community is forced to a situation where they may use violence for a good cause, this is acceptable."

In a plenary discussion session Monday afternoon, several delegates questioned whether the WCC should endorse a policy that violence may be justifiable.

Bishop Dr. Zacharias Mar Theophilus (Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, India) deflected his comments with a joke. "Your justifiable violence, I oppose it violently," Zacharias said.

He added: "Who decides when violence is used? I suggest we change our title from ‘violence as a last resort’ to ‘non-violence at any cost.’"

Photos from the Central Committee

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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.