Prayers for the New Year
The New Testament readings in this week’s Revised Common Lectionary texts speak of the creation and reconciliation of all things, offering a look backwards and hope for what is to come. Instead of a regular prayer email for this week, we asked each member of our team to reflect on 2015 and look forward to 2016, with prayers for the coming year. This comes with all our hopes that 2016 will be a year of many blessings.
This year the flow of refugees into Europe has been at the forefront of public attention. This has inspired many positives in terms of response. Increasingly individuals, churches and communities have been seeking to find ways to respond to the refugees’ needs` in creative ways – offering their homes, their spare clothes, or a cooked meal. In Tuzla, Bosnia, a local Christian charity (Wave) started driving to the border areas to provide food and clothes for refugees waiting to cross. In Oxford Emmanuel Church (like many others) have been providing fun and friendship to refugees through a weekly football session and helping to furnish a home for a newly arrived Syrian family. Activity on a national level (such as the Home for Good fostering appeal) and international level (such as the ‘Safe Passage’ initiative by the Churches Commission for Migration in Europe, which monitors borders and coordinates advocacy work) has also contributed to a wonderful response of love and care for the stranger in our midst. There is much to be thankful for.
But despite increased attention to forced migration and the many efforts to provide and care for refugees, there is much more that needs to be done in the coming year, particularly in terms of political solutions. In Europe political efforts so far have focused on concerns such as EU border control, debates over relatively small numbers of resettlement places, and concerns over security, rather than a big picture view which seeks a long-term solution for what is a truly global problem. Aside from the current crisis in the Middle East, 25% of the world’s refugees are in Africa, displaced due to violence and persecution. Many South Americans continue to seek refuge in the USA from ongoing gang violence, and stateless Rohingya fleeing persecution in Burma continue to seek shelter in neighbouring countries, often ending up in the hands of human traffickers.
As we look to the year ahead here are some particular areas to pray for:
Even amongst the displaced and dispossessed, there can be factors which make individuals or groups more vulnerable. In September the Archbishop of Canterbury, amongst others, sought to bring attention to the plight of Christians in the Middle East who were unable to stay in official refugee camps run by the UN due to attacks by other refugees. Since official resettlement programmes run through these camps, Christians and others such as Yazidi have been less able to access resettlement despite arguably being amongst the most needy. Already US figures show that these groups are under-represented in US resettlements based on pre-war demographics. Campaigns such as Operation Safe Havens are having some success in finding ways of resettling those unable to access UN refugee camps, but ensuring the inclusion of minorities requires ongoing attention.
For other minority groups facing persecution such as the Rohingya Muslims, there can be political issues which prevent their situation being fully addressed. Talks this past Mayinvolving the UN and regional agencies seeking to address forced migration in Asia failed to address or name the particular issues of persecution of Rohingya at all.
Pray for persecuted minorities:
- for those refugees who continue to suffer persecution and discrimination
- that governments and other agencies dealing with refugees and migration issues will pay particular care and attention to those who are most vulnerable, persecuted and overlooked.
This year has seen a renewed spread of violence in Afghanistan, with the Taliban briefly seizing Kunduz in September. The long-term prospects for Afghanistan will require international cooperation, particularly from Pakistan, and opportunities for economic growth. There are some hopes that a new gas pipeline (TAPI) and work with Pakistan on tackling the Taliban may bear fruit in 2016. Already Afghanistan has been a significant contributor to recent increases in refugees (in 2012, for example, 25% of the world’s refugees were from Afghanistan). For the majority of these, living in Pakistan and Iran, there are further hardships such as lack of documentation, and discrimination in employment and in access to government services. Violence against Afghans in Pakistan has also increased dramatically this year. This has both forced many to return home despite the risks and also encouraged longer, more dangerous migration journeys to Europe.
Pray for Afghanistan:
- for its future prospects for a flourishing economy and peace
- for those who have been forced to leave the country and those refugees forced to return to a violent and unstable situation.
The past year has seen increasing concerns about instability in Burundi and the rising possibility of widespread civil conflict and ethnic cleansing. Since President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for office in April, an attempted coup in May, and Nkurunziza’s disputed election victory in July, clashes between government and opposition militias have seen 200 people killed. Others have been arbitrarily arrested, and around 150,000 people have fled the country. Many of those leaving Burundi are finding refuge in camps in neighbouring countries such as Nyuragusu camp in Tanzania. Here there are risks of heavy rains and cholera outbreaks. Amongst those now fleeing Burundi are some of the 50,000 people who have been living in Burundi as refugees from the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. For some, fleeing violence in the region has come to dominate their lives.
Pray for Burundi:
- that full civil conflict will not break out
- for those currently leaving the country and for those who have spent a life time fleeing violence in the region.
For me one of the high points of the past year was the adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals in September. They came into effect on 1 January 2016 and are, in the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon “our shared vision of humanity and a social contract between the world’s leaders and the people”.
Like the Paris COP21 climate agreement, the SDGs are not perfect – but they do establish a comprehensive framework for tackling poverty, which builds on their MDG predecessors and recognizes that poverty has multiple manifestations that interrelate – and that must be tackled together. Also like the Paris agreement, the SDGs are the product of years of negotiations (and therefore the result of the hard work of many dedicated people) and have been agreed by all the UN member nations, creating a sense of energy and new possibilities. I am particularly thankful for the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si, which seemed to capture people’s imaginations and breathe fire into the period leading up to both summits. Perhaps my perspective is skewed by having taken part in the Pilgrimage to Paris ahead of the climate summit, but I sense there has been a remarkable coming together this past year of the nations (through their leaders), international bodies and mechanisms, religiousleadership and ordinary people, which has shifted the paradigm and moved us all on – and that prayer has been a part of all of that. We could easily have been looking at failure in both the SDG and climate summits, but we are not – and that is something to be celebrated.
My own feeling that things can change is also based on the good news stories we have shared this past year, which relate to specific areas addressed by the SDGs. Examples include the dramatic decline in deaths from leprosy, measles and tetanus, the development of a highly effective vaccine against meningitis A for Africa, the free-of-charge availability of Mectizan to people suffering from elephantiasis and river blindness (October – can’t find on the CCOW website), and the significant, though insufficient, advances in the fields of education and maternal health.
Looking forward, there are clearly many areas that need our prayer. As with the Paris climate agreement, what has been “hard-won needs to be hard-wired” for the SDGs too (to quote the Director of Christian Aid, Loretta Minghella). Specific challenges will include having reliable data to monitor progress, integrating the SDGs into national policies and communicating the SDGs at local level. Then there are the specific areas addressed by the SDGs, all of which require ongoing work and prayer: the need to improve access to healthcare, quality education, good jobs, clean water and sanitation, to achieve gender equality, to end hunger, to build sustainable communities and peaceful societies, to protect habitats and ecosystems… and so much more.
Much of my (Maranda’s) time this year was spent working on climate change, whether through CCOW or through other prayer initiatives of which we were a part. So it’s no surprise that, as with Elizabeth, climate issues come to the fore here.
The Paris talks were clearly a main focus for 2015. Getting agreement at Paris was vital – both to provide the level of consensus necessary to galvanise climate action, and to offer a framework of cooperation within which to fit policies and programmes that tackle climate change at every level.
But in the end the significance of Paris wasn’t just in the agreement; it was also in aspects of the process of preparing for and steering the talks, and in the role that a wide range of actors played as part of that process. Three points are among my highlights for the year:
- Key leaders in charge of the talks invested prodigious amounts of time in relationship building before the conference, criss-crossing the globe to ensure that they understood countries’ priorities and built up trust. Their efforts, combined with their commitment to transparency and to delivering texts that were widely owned by the different countries, created an atmosphere where, while inequalities of wealth and power remained, countries generally felt their voices had been heard, and negotiation was possible.
- In the run-up to the conference, the UNFCCC secretariat and France created an enabling environment by convening meetings that involved and highlighted the role of non-state actors – businesses, local governments, financiers, NGOs, faith communities, and others – who are already doing good work on climate. This created a sense of momentum, moved the discussion beyond national interests, and reframed the call for climate action as a matter of seizing opportunities to create a better world.
- The depth and width of Christian theological engagement with environmental issues, together with Christian prayer and action for climate justice, offered valued and valuable messages and provided a powerful witness. Christian leaders’ interventions emphasised climate as requiring responses based on principles of love and justice, as well as those of science, and contributed to the reframing noted above. Laudato Si’ was particularly effective in this regard. It also communicated clearly that climate change is not an isolated issue – it is a manifestation of the brokenness in our relationships with God, our neighbour and the earth and requires the restoring of right relationships in all these areas.Words were accompanied by actions. Christians joined together in prayer, fasting and pilgrimage to place climate issues before God, trusting in God’s love and power. Churches and individuals engaged with wider divestment campaigns and a range of initiatives helping with practical action. They joined in advocacy with other groups through climate marches, petitions, and meetings with politicians. And individual Christians, in their professional capacity, witnessed to their faith through their work. The whole not only played a role in the talks – as seen in Christiana Figueres’ letter of gratitude and choice of this as her favourite COP21 photo – but helped to heal our internal divisions and to manifest something of God’s love for the world.
Why pick these aspects? Primarily because they offer hope for what is to come. And we need hope. The Paris Agreement’s actual value will be determined by its implementation and the rapidity with which the large economies, in particular, can increase the scale and scope of their commitments. Beyond climate change, as Pope Francis recently noted, 2016 brings a number of challenges that require nations and individuals “to show solidarity and to rise above self-interest, apathy and indifference in the face of critical situations.” Bethan and Elizabeth have outlined some. Other particularly contentious areas include efforts to bring peace to Syria and counter the Islamic State in its various global manifestations, moves towards tax reform, and work on international trade negotiations: one worrying trend of recent years is the quiet collapse of WTO negotiations amidst the proliferation of secretively negotiated regional and plurilateral deals, which inherently favour stronger negotiating powers and can be more easily influenced by vested interests.
A commitment to relationship building, transparency, and positive, open engagement with a broad range of constituencies could greatly enhance the possibility of just agreements in many of these areas. And there is quite a lot of scope for wider, deeper, cooperative Christian engagement, both in theology and praxis, with the issues involved … engagement that could help us learn to listen to God together more generally.