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World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

7 September 2001

Media told: there’s a whole world of racism out there
Stephen Webb and Deanne Collins

The world’s media have been told to show more respect for the "invisible" victims of racism around the world and to stop making the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) a single-issue event.

The admonition came during a media conference in Durban, South Africa, on September 5 when Archbishop Desmond Tutu launched a statement by the Ecumenical Caucus.

At the packed press conference, Marilia Schüller from the World Council of Churches (WCC) said that "Every time a journalist comes to us and only wants to speak about Palestine and Israel, I think that is disrespectful to Indigenous people, to Dalits, to Africans and people of African descent." Ms Schüller was responding to a question about contentious references to Israel in the declaration from the NGO Forum that preceded the World Conference.

She said that the ecumenical family comes from diverse backgrounds, but came together at the WCAR with a common purpose. Pointing to the statement of the Ecumenical Caucus, she noted that the church delegation was composed of people actually affected by the situations described in the statement. She said that the WCC, as part of the Ecumenical Caucus, was in Durban to give space and recognition to the victims of racism. "We are here because this conference addresses the life of people."

Schüller was clear that "We absolutely are for self-determination, for a state of Palestine and for the people of Palestine, as we definitely are for the right of self-determination for many other peoples of this world." But the world is much larger than the Middle East, she said. "And this is the plea I want to make to you: if you want to contribute to the world and to an ethical concern about people’s lives, move beyond Israel and Palestine." Launching the Ecumenical Caucus statement, Desmond Tutu, archbishop emeritus in the (Anglican) Church of the Province of Southern Africa, said that "There are millions of people who are hurting, who have been sidelined, who are invisible in their own countries. These people look to this conference as a beacon of hope."

Lies will not prevail forever against the truth, and evil will not prevail forever against good, Archbishop Tutu said. "It is important for us here to go out and announce to the world that, yes, we are taking God seriously because God has a dream - that one day all of my children will realize that they are all members of one family."

"Let us celebrate our diversity. Because we discovered in this country that when you dehumanize another, inadvertently, whether you like it or not, you are dehumanized," Archbishop Tutu warned.

The Caucus statement calls racism a sin, "contrary to God’s will for love, peace, equality, justice and compassion for all. It is an affront to human dignity and a gross violation of human rights".

It says that racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerances all work, singularly and collectively, to diminish a common humanity. "These thrive within the intersections of race, caste, colour, age, gender, sexual orientation, class, landlessness, ethnicity, nationality, language and disability." "As people of faith, we call on all peoples, non-governmental organizations and governments to earnestly strive to break the cycles of racism and assist the oppressed to achieve self-determination and establish sustainable communities, without violating the rights of others."

The statement identifies ten priority issues to be put before the WCAR, as well as to churches, related ecumenical bodies and institutions.

The Ecumenical Caucus at the conference includes representatives of the WCC and nearly 20 other churches and church commissions, including the United Methodist Church (General Board of Church and Society and General Board of Global Ministries), the United Church of Christ/Disciples of Christ, the Lutheran World Federation, Church World Service and Witness/National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, the Diakonia Council of Churches (Durban), the Church of England, Sisters of Mercy, the Canadian Council of Churches, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Church of Christ in Thailand, Medical Mission Sisters, the Christian Reformed Church of Canada, and the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa.

Asked about the implications of the US leaving the conference and reports that the European Union (EU) was threatening to do the same, Archbishop Tutu said in refererence to NGO participants, "You have forgotten that there are Americans here." "We are people who represent important constituencies and we are people who vote."

Asked about the issue of compensation and reparation for victims of colonialism and slavery, he said it is important to realize that the language used is reparation, not compensation. "How do you compensate me for the loss of freedom? How do you compensate me for the loss of a loved one?" He said, "Reparation isn’t saying, ‘I am compensating you'[...] It is almost like a balm. There are wounds too deep to speak about[...] There are hurts that are sitting in the pit of the tummy which people need to bring out[...] and what we are talking about in this conference is: look, we want to open these wounds, we want to cleanse them, pour balm on them and hope they will heal."

"Reparation is saying sorry for what happened. And people don’t know how liberating confession is. It is not weak people, it is a strong person who says, ‘I am sorry, I was wrong.’" And there is surprising generosity in people who just want an acknowledgment, he said.

Archbishop Tutu said he hopes the World Conference is not finger-pointing, but saying, "We are in this together. How do we get out of it?"

Closing the media conference, South African Council of Churches President Bishop Mvumelwano Dandala, who is the leader of the WCC delegation to WCAR, said that "As churches right around the world, we want to recognize that what is being done at this conference is to set the climate and to draw the bottom line for what we believe will make the world a better place."

"We would love for governments of the world to commit themselves to these bottom lines. But we are here to say that we also recognize that it will take more than just governments and parliaments to make the world a different place."

Dandala said that the basic issues outlined in the Ecumenical Caucus statement were going to inform the priorities of the church throughout the world.

"We recognize that the church itself does not have entirely clean hands when it comes to the oppression of people around the world, and sometimes to the rationalization of the oppression of people. In this country, it was a part of the body of the church that gave a theological rationale for apartheid.

"And so when we speak like this, we are not doing so from a point of self righteousness. We are doing so first and foremost from a confessional position."

Dandala said that the church is committing itself to correcting its own perspectives and to continuing to help challenge the world to deal with the cancer of racism.

The text of the statement of the Ecumenical Caucus can be found at on this website

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