Holocaust Memorial Day, Homeless Sunday, Short Notes: 22 Jan 2017

In this week’s prayer email:

  • Holocaust Memorial Day (27 January)
  • Homeless Sunday Prayer
  • Short Notes: US Climate Policy, The Gambia, Brazil, Hope in the Middle East

Christ is the world’s light – the promised one who will drive away darkness and lead us in paths of peace. That’s a core message in this week’s Revised Common Lectionary texts
… as is the call for us to be “un
ited in the same mind and the same purpose.” Are we ready to turn towards the light and follow in the way Christ reveals? And are we prepared to seek unity through and in Christ?

Holocaust Memorial Day (27 January)

The theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “How can life go on?” and is inspired by a quote from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel:

“For the survivor death is not the problem. Death was an everyday occurrence. We learned to live with Death. The problem is to adjust to life, to living. You must teach us about living.”

The theme is deliberately framed as a question, asking us to engage with a variety of issues faced by survivors of genocide, wherever it occurs. The question not only speaks to the experiences of those in the past, but also shines a light on some contemporary issues, including the issues faced by people caught up in and displaced by ethnic cleansing and large-scale conflict, and the capacity of false information to shape public opinion and potentially disastrously shift the political landscape.

The first questions the Holocaust Memorial Day materials invite us to think about surround the trauma experienced by survivors of genocide and how they come to terms with the past. How can people rebuild their lives after such unimaginable suffering? “Many of those who survive suffer post-traumatic stress and depression, while the smallest of reminders such as scenes in films, smells, tastes or certain clothes can trigger memories of what happened.”

Chanrithy Him, a survivor of the genocide in Cambodia says, “The sight of someone dressed entirely in black would trigger a memory – the uniforms of the Khmer Rouge. And for a moment it would paralyse me as if I was under a spell… Memories seep back to me in ways I hadn’t imagined.”

For survivors, the question of how life can go on is closely linked to the question of where it goes on. Tens of thousands, even millions, of survivors find themselves dislocated when the genocide itself ends, and for many the aftermath of genocide, rather than bringing relief, brings fresh suffering, adding to their trauma.

Kitty Hart-Moxon, a survivor of the Holocaust, recalled, “When they came to collect us from Dover one of the first things my uncle said to me was ‘I don’t want you to talk about anything that happened to you. I don’t want my girls upset’. It was a huge disappointment that nobody wanted to know, it was horrific. I was really, really angry, not only about what happened, but the reaction from other people.”

Blanka Rothschild recalls her return to her family home in Poland at the end of World War II. Blanka, the child of non-observant Jews, had spent the first four years in the Lodz ghetto. She was then deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp and subsequently transferred to forced labour in an aeroplane factory, where the beatings she received left her spine permanently damaged. The advancing Russian army brought liberation, but of a confusing and uncertain kind: escape and food was juxtaposed with some of the escapees being shot and others raped. When the war in Europe was finally over it was difficult for survivors to know where to go. Eventually Blanka joined a group of men and women making their way back to Poland on foot. She recalls what happened when she finally made it back to Lodz:

“Our house was still standing. And the so-called superintendent was still the same one. And when he saw me, he thought that he… that he saw a ghost! He said in Polish, ‘How come I survived? Why did I come back?’ This was the greeting I received. When I wanted to go upstairs to our place, our apartment, a large place, the people wouldn’t let me in… My Poland was not my Poland any more”.

Blanka felt so unwelcome in Poland that she left, eventually making her way to a new life in America where she was taken in at first by her great uncle and his wife. “[She] was the most wonderful, wonderful lady who made me feel good, warm. She hugged me. She kissed me. And that’s what I needed. That’s what I needed. I didn’t need material things. I just wanted to be loved, to belong. And that was the beginning.”

The waves of trauma experienced by Holocaust and genocide survivors like Blanka have strong resonance in the current refugee crises. People escaping horror, oppression and conflict do not necessarily find sanctuary and security; their presence does not necessarily evoke compassion but scepticism and hostility. This has been all too evident in both mainstream and social media coverage of migration and refugee resettlement in mainland Europe and the UK in recent months.

Even people who resettle through official channels describe feeling uncertain of their welcome. In her article, “I’m a refugee who escaped war and genocide in Bosnia. If you think resettlement is easy, read this”, Arnesa Buljusmic Kustura writes, “To be a refugee these days means to wake up almost each morning and witness anti-refugee sentiment plastered on the news and social media.” She describes the almost four-year process she had to go through before she was allowed to settle in the US: “Interview after interview was conducted by UN Refugee Agency official to ensure that my family and I were speaking the truth. The process of telling our story of trauma lasted a couple of years. Each interview conducted meant reliving the trauma of being under siege in Sarajevo, of being held in concentration camps in Visegrad… In 2002, when we finally settled in America we assumed our journey towards emotional safety had finally been reached. However, as refugees we continued to be subjected to interviews by government officials, medical and psychological exams, biometric testing, and visits from Immigration and Department of Human Services Case Managers.” Despite these experiences, Arnesa is grateful for “the privilege of coming to build a life in America” and reflects, “Since then, as a way of giving back thanks, I became involved in activism, volunteering, and continuous community engagement. Choosing to give back, as much as I could, rather than take,” but adds, “To the pundits that share anti-refugee sentiment, however, none of this matters.”

A second equally pertinent question the Holocaust Memorial Day resources invite us to explore concerns the denial and trivialisation of the Holocaust and other genocides. “Denial,” they note,” is the final stage of genocide.” It is not just the Holocaust that is the target of denial. This article, “Denying Genocide in the Face of Science”, catalogues the denial in Bosnia of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995.

This year, Holocaust Memorial Day sees the release of the film Denial, which tells the story of the legal battle for historical truth between Deborah Lipstadt and David Irving, who sued her for libel when she described him as a Holocaust denier. Lipstadt won the case.

In the light of all the historical record, photographic evidence, personal testimony – and indeed the outcome of the trial – it seems almost inconceivable that Holocaust denial and trivialisation can continue today, especially when information sharing through social media can so easily take people to reliable, factual information. And yet, not only does denial continue, but social media aids and abets it. David Irving today claims a large and growing following and still says, “History evolves. The truth about the Holocaust is gradually coming out. And this is thanks to the internet. It’s how this new generation finds me. There’s a general belief among people out there that they are being misled.”

David Hare, who wrote the screenplay for Denial has written about how and why he took on the task. His reflections lucidly set out the broader significance of the trial – and the phenomenon of Holocaust denial – for us today. He discusses his decision to “stick rigidly to the exact words used inside [the court]. I could not allow any neo-fascist critic later to claim that I had re-written the testimony” and he reflects on the role of the social media. “In an internet age it is, at first glance, democratic to say that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. That is surely true. It is however a fatal step to then claim that all opinions are equal. Some opinions are backed by fact. Others are not. And those that are not backed by fact are worth considerably less than those that are.”

He continues, “There are some subjects about which two points of view are not equally valid. We are entering, in politics especially, a post-factual era in which it is apparently permissible for public figures to assert things without evidence, and then to justify their assertions by adding “Well, that’s my opinion” – as though that in itself was some kind of justification. It isn’t.”

“Post-truth” was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The word saw a massive increase in usage from mid May last year. This environment has been accompanied by the growing phenomenon of fake news – raising challenging and serious questions about how and where we source our information. Deliberate lies and appeals to emotion led to the vilification and murder of millions of Jews in the last century. Commemorating the Holocaust is not simply an important act of remembering its victims. Reflecting on its origins, and allowing our exploration to inform our response to our own times both honours those who died and those who survived and might provide us with much-needed insight into where continued care is always necessary.

This Holocaust memorial day please pray…

  • For the survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides – that they would find strength, courage and support to rebuild their lives and come to terms, as far as it’s possible, with their experiences
  • For all people displaced by genocide, conflict and other traumatic causes – that they might find understanding and sanctuary, and an end to their suffering rather than further suffering
  • For the people in the places to which survivors come – that they might be willing to understand, have empathy and be supportive both emotionally and practically.
  • For us all as we try to reject what is false and stand up for what is good – that we may be vigilant, wise and discerning and strive always to act and react with integrity and love.

Homeless Sunday Prayer

Earlier this month we provided a link to the Homeless Sunday resources. One of the main ones is this prayer – might you use it in your Sunday service or at another point in the coming week?

Loving God, in your house there is room for everyone.
Help us as we strive for a world where everyone has a home that truly meets their needs.
Give us the grace to welcome strangers and refugees.
Give us the insight to see where inequality hurts.
Fill us with courage to do our part.
Save us from being overwhelmed by the scale of the housing crisis,
and show us, O Lord, where to begin.

Amen


Short Notes: US Climate Policy, The Gambia, Brazil, Hope in the Middle East

US Climate Policy

We’ll be looking over the next weeks at what the new Trump presidency may mean for US policy in various areas. In the meantime, you might want to look at two useful items the John Ray Initiative has produced on Trump and climate change – a short post by John Weaver and a briefing paper by Martin Hodson. Pray, with respect to environmental policy, for wisdom for the new administration, whose initial policy statements – put up on the White House website within minutes of the inauguration – are not unencouraging. Pray also in thanksgiving for the numerous people at state and local level for whom care for creation is a vital part of policymaking, whatever happens at the federal level. On the day of the inauguration, for example, California announced its plan to cut its emission by 40% by 2030 – and California’s economy is so large that its decisions have ramifications beyond its borders.

The Gambia

Pray for the people and incoming government of The Gambia. In December of last year, former President Yahya Jammeh, who ruled for twenty-two years, initially accepted – and then rejected – the results of an election which he lost. His attempts to remain in power have now ended following the swearing-in of his successor in Senegal and the deployment of troops from surrounding states. Jammeh has agreed to leave The Gambia (his full statement is here). His successor, President Adam Barrow, has already indicated that he intends to make significant changes, including setting up a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate past government abuses and rejoining the Commonwealth and International Criminal Court – and there is a sense of optimism among many in the capital.

Tens of thousands of Gambians had fled for fear of fighting in the country. Pray that they will return safely, that the new president and those assisting him will govern justly and well, and that the country will enjoy peace, justice and stability.

Brazil

Brazilian Supreme Court Judge Teori Zavascki was killed on Thursday in a small plane crash. Zavascki was a leading figure in Brazil’s ‘Lava-Jato’ (Operation Car Wash) anti-corruption investigations.

The Supreme Court was due shortly to analyse plea-bargain agreements relating to one part of the investigations. It had been thought that this might involve releasing testimony relating to these agreements to the public – and that the testimony could be explosive, with allegations against some of the country’s highest ranking politicians, including the President.

The government has declared three days of national mourning – but the implications of the judge’s death will be far longer lasting: it’s unclear how the Lava-Jato process will move forward, and how a new rapporteur will be appointed. The concerns many have surrounding the death (the judge’s son noted that ‘many people would have celebrated’ the death – though he hoped it was simply a fatality and not a murder) are also likely to be resolved quickly, although an investigation into the incident has been started.

Please pray for consolation for family, friends and colleagues of all who were killed in the crash; for a swift, full and transparent investigation of its circumstances; for the appointment of someone of rigourous ethics as the new rapporteur for Lava-Jato; and for the continued efforts to promote justice and transparency in the Brazilian political system.

Hope in the Middle East

We’ve been at several meetings recently where people working with Middle Eastern agencies and churches have spoken about under-the-radar efforts to bring hope and healing to people and areas that have suffered because of the region’s conflicts. Many of these efforts can’t be reported – though some can: if you speak French or Arabic, do take a look at this film which shows how different groups, including Fair Trade Lebanon, are helping to integrate and assist both Syrian refugees and their host communities. Fair Trade Lebanon, for example, is helping people in six communities – especially women – to work together in food production. They’re  bringing together Syrian and Lebanese women to share their knowledge and recipes as they produce products for sale. “If I weren’t working [here],” one Syrian woman says, “I’d be staying at home. My mother’s sick, and she can’t work. My sister and I help our father to ensure that our household has an income.” “The cooperation is very important for both our communities,” adds a Lebanese woman. “It would be good if there could be a centre like this in every village, [enabling people] to cooperate and to help each other at the same time.”

It’s worth knowing as we hear wave on wave of bleak news that positive things are happening. Please pray for agencies like Fair Trade Lebanon, as they seek to offer people dignity and work for peace. And pray especially for churches in the region. Give thanks for the ways that God is at work in and through them and pray that the worldwide body of Christ may give them support through prayer and material sustenance in ways that enable them to bring hope and healing within their own communities and to others.

 

Photograph: Homelessness 028, by fio.PSD comunicazione, used under Creative Commons License

Peace Sunday, Christian Unity, Haiti – 15 Jan 2016

In this week’s prayer email:

  • Peace Sunday
  • Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity
  • Short Notes: Haiti

Openness to God … an understanding that God seeks our love and obedience, not just material sacrifices … a willingness to trust that faithfulness to God will be rewarded, whatever trials it involves … a readiness to witness publicly to God’s goodness. These are positive character traits evident in this week’s Revised Common Lectionary texts. As we examine our lives, in which areas do we need to pray that God will strengthen us?

Peace Sunday

In his message for this year’s Peace Sunday (January 15th) Pope Francis contrasts the violence of the last century (two deadly World Wars, the threat of nuclear war and a great number of other conflicts) with the “piecemeal” violence of this: “wars in different countries and continents; terrorism, organized crime and unforeseen acts of violence; the abuses suffered by migrants and victims of human trafficking; and the devastation of the environment”. Both the violence itself and the diversion of resources it entails “can lead to the death, physical and spiritual, of many people, if not of all”, he writes.

In the face of such a bleak appraisal of widespread and overwhelming violence, can ordinary individuals play any role in peace making? Is this not the preserve of governments and specialised bodies? Pope Francis argues not only that individuals can be peacemakers but that they are also the principal hope for peace. “Everyone”, he writes, “can be an artisan of peace”. How?

First, there is the need to recognise and respect “the image and likeness of God in each person [which] will enable us to acknowledge one another as sacred gifts endowed with immense dignity”. Second, we need to choose to “make active nonviolence our way of life”. He explains, “I ask God to help all of us to cultivate nonviolence in our most personal thoughts and values. May charity and nonviolence govern how we treat each other as individuals, within society and in international life… In the most local and ordinary situations and in the international order, may nonviolence become the hallmark of our decisions, our relationships and our actions…”

But what does “active non-violence” actually mean? The idea is explored in more depth in some of the accompanying materials for Peace Sunday, in particular the video, the Peace Sunday booklet and the worksheets Exploring Gospel Nonviolence. Thus the nonviolence of Jesus is not passive, meek and mild or defeatist, but is a positive force for healing, restoration and the assertion of human dignity, which exposes hypocrisy, speaks truth to power and resists exploitation – but which rejects retaliation and the temptation to respond to violence in kind. A visual aid, “the two hands of active non violence” graphically explains the concept. Two hands are placed at ninety degrees to each other, touching at the wrists, one upright, the other outstretched. The upright hand says ‘Stop’ to the person involved in the injustice or violence; it shows a refusal to cooperate in that violence or injustice. But the outstretched hand says, ‘We need to talk… I will not reject you’ and makes it clear that change and the opportunity to work things out together is being sought.

In her video message, Pax Christi International’s Marie Dennis says, “Mobilizing courageous and creative people-power, nonviolence doesn’t escape conflict but actively and powerful engages and transforms it”. She describes a conference held in Rome last year where many of the 85 participants were from war-torn or violent countries including Iraq, Sri Lanka, Colombia, South Sudan, the DR Congo and Afghanistan. “Their testimony was extremely powerful”, she says. She quotes Dominican Sister Nazek Matty whose community was expelled from Mosul by ISIS, who said, “We can’t respond to violence with worse violence. In order to kill five violent men, we have to create 10 violent men to kill them. . . . It’s like a dragon with seven heads. You cut one and two others come up.” Marie Dennis continues, “Many of the conference participants highlighted a deep yearning for just peace, especially in war zones around the world, and an amazing persistence in the pursuit of peace even in the most difficult circumstances. Courageous people in local communities living with unimaginable danger said, ‘Stop the militarization, stop bombing, stop the proliferation of weapons. Rely on nonviolent strategies to transform conflict’.” And she goes on to describe the involvement of the church in non-violent peace-building strategies, working in some extremely dangerous places to bring a just and lasting peace. The Pax Christi materials for Peace Sunday cite other examples of non violence in action

Perhaps this Peace Sunday we might pray using this prayer from Pax Christi USA (reproduced with kind permission):

Recognising the violence in my own heart,
yet trusting in the goodness and mercy of God, I seek to practice the nonviolence of Jesus: by striving for peace within myself and seeking to be a peacemaker in my daily life; by refusing to retaliate in the face of provocation and violence;
by living conscientiously and simply so that I do not deprive others of the means to live;
by actively resisting evil and working nonviolently to abolish war and the causes of war from my own heart and from the face of the earth.
God, I trust in your sustaining love and believe that you will give me the grace to live out this prayer.

Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity

The message for Peace Sunday beautifully complements this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the theme of which is “Reconciliation – the love of Christ compels us”, based on 2 Corinthians 5:14-20.

The materials for the week of prayer are themselves a remarkable achievement and worthy of engagement and celebration for their provenance alone. The resources have been created by the Council of Churches in Germany (ACK) in the context of the 500th  anniversary of the Reformation. They are the result of an ecumenical project and have been long in the making.

The theme for the week emerged from the broader discussions that have been going on in Germany over the past few years about how the churches in Germany might commemorate the Reformation ecumenically. “After extensive, and sometimes difficult, discussions, the churches in Germany agreed that the way to commemorate ecumenically this Reformation event should be with a Christusfest – a celebration of Christ. If the emphasis were to be placed on Christ and his work of reconciliation as the center of Christian faith, then all the ecumenical partners of the EKD – the Evangelical Church in Germany – ([EKD’s partners include] Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite and others) could participate in the anniversary festivities. Given the fact that the history of the Reformation was marked by painful division, this is a very remarkable achievement.”

The materials for the week have two main “accents”: first is the celebration of God’s love and grace, reflecting the great theme of Martin Luther’s Reformation of ‘justification by faith alone’. Second is the recognition of the pain and division that subsequently afflicted the church. The resources “openly name the guilt and offer an opportunity to take steps towards reconciliation”.

It is also noteworthy that the resources were being written in 2015 against the backdrop of the huge influx of refugees to Germany from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and elsewhere, in which many individuals and churches actively practised reconciliation by offering hospitality. “The practical help and powerful actions against hatred of the foreigner were a clear witness to reconciliation for the German population”.

There are two main components to the materials: a worship service outline and eight daily reflections (for individual reflection or church use). Both have been adapted, as intended, by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland for use in a UK context and can be found here.

The worship service incorporates a powerful symbolic action of constructing and then tearing down a wall. The stones or bricks each represent a sin that divides (for example, lack of love, abuse of power, discrimination, etc). As each sin is named, the brick is brought forward to build a dividing wall. Forgiveness for each sin is sought. Later in the service, a prayer of reconciliation is offered and the wall is dismantled – the bricks being rearranged into the form of the cross. This symbolic act is given added poignancy by its inspiration: the Berlin Wall and its fall in 1989 – “a symbol of hope for any situation in which a division seems insurmountable”. The whole service, focused on reconciliation, is a profoundly helpful liturgy that would be useful in a variety of situations where acknowledgement of conflict and reconciliation are needed.

Please pray:

  • In thanksgiving for the work that has gone into creating the resources for the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity – for the individuals involved, for their determination, faithfulness and witness.
  • In thanksgiving for situations where reconciliation has happened against the odds, including in Germany.
  • For situations of conflict where reconciliation seems impossible – for strength and resilience for those who strive to keep the hope of peace alive.
  • That the materials will inspire and lead others in situations of conflict towards reconciliation and healing.

Short Notes: Haiti

Haiti

“So many absences. So many rifts still present in our wounded hearts. Painful memories. Are hopes permitted?”

With these words, independent journalist Gotson Pierre reflected on the 7th anniversary of the Haitian earthquake. Looking at materials put together by Haitians to commemorate the event, and coverage from the time (NYT – also very hard to watch), one is again stunned by the scale of the destruction. We mourn as a society – and rightly – when events occur which kill people in their dozens: how can we begin to comprehend an event which killed such a large proportion of the population that its equivalent in the UK* would be something that killed between 325,000 and 2 million people? It is beyond imagining.

The time since the earthquake has been marked by well-publicised political difficulties, issues around aid (especially controversies caused by the way aid was channelled to foreign agencies and by the decisions [cf here and here] of external bodies), and the addition of other crises, such as the introduction of cholera by UN peacekeepers and the destruction caused by Hurricane Matthew . It’s also been marked by less-well-publicised – but important – small-scale successes in rebuilding (cf here, here and here)

As the New Year begins, many Haitians are seeking to look forward, using the memory of what has happened in the past to inspire future action. They are also awaiting a new government. On the 3rd of January, Jovenel Moise was confirmed as the new president-elect of the country, having received over 55% of the vote in the first round of presidential elections held in November. He will take office on 7 February. He has promised to focus on curbing corruption and growing food security.

Please pray:

  • for all whose hearts remain wounded by the events of 12 January 2010
  • for all who are still seeking to rebuild, that they may rebuild well and in a way that meets the needs of the most vulnerable … and for all who have had further losses since the earthquake
  • that national and local government leaders may have clear vision, an ability to prioritise, and the capacity to accomplish what is most necessary. Pray especially for the new president and those he will ask to help govern.
  • for justice for Haitians who have suffered because of the decisions made by international actors. Pray especially for proper funding of efforts to fight cholera, including efforts by the UN to fund their new plan.
  • that aid organisations will continue to learn from the experiences of Haiti and the impact of their work on the state there

*figures based on the full range of estimates for the death toll – see discussion here

Epiphany and Refugees, Upcoming Dates, Events – 8 January 2016

In this week’s prayer email:

  • Lord, you were once a refugee”
  • Coming up – Special Days in January
  • Coming up – Actions and Events

The Gospel in this week’s Revised Common Lectionary texts tells the story of the Magi’s visit to Herod, which sets the scene for the jealous king to massacre the young boys of Bethlehem as he seeks to destroy a threat to his power. The Psalm reminds us that the king whom he seeks to destroy is in fact one who will exemplify not the kind of ‘hard power’ Herod craves, but who will usher in righteousness and justice, peace and deliverance. Your Kingdom come, O Lord! ___________________________________________________________________________

Lord, you were once a refugee”

The quote above comes from a prayer released by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland at Christmas. As we recall this week the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, we pray for those who have fled their homes in today’s world because of conflict, persecution, or conditions that make survival difficult … and we pray for political leaders – and each of us – to respond to their situations with love and wisdom

We’re aware that listing seven groups of people to pray for may feel overwhelming – but felt it important to acknowledge – if only in part – the scale of refugee needs beyond those that directly affect us and regularly make the headlines. You might wish to read about and pray for a different group each day. We’ve also included action points. Some of these involve campaigning. Many involve donating, as the number of simultaneous humanitarian crises is putting a strain on aid agency resources. Clearly no one person can give to everything, and we suspect that our readers are already giving generously – but if you can give even a little more to one of the options below, it could make a real difference.

Please pray for refugees, asylum seekers and other displaced persons:

  • in the Greek Islands, Greece, the Balkans and Hungary, especially those who are living in conditions that are unsafe. These areas have seen very cold and snowy weather, and refugees living in tents or on the streets are at risk. Pray not only for them and their health, but for steps to improve provision (there have been some improvements in Greece itself in recent weeks) and to resolve the wider EU impasse on refugee relocation that has left so many people stranded: UNHCR has noted that of the 66,400 refugees whom the EU agreed in 2015 to relocate to other EU countries within two years, by 4 January 2017 only 7,760 had left Greece or were scheduled to do so. Give thanks for all who are seeking to offer refugees hope and hospitality, including many church organisations. Pray for wisdom for local church leaders and congregations who seek to address refugees’ needs, asking God to guide them in their relationships with refugees themselves and with the host communities and politicians.Action points: could you contribute to funds for refugees in Europe? You can donate through, among others, CAFOD, Christian Aid, MSF, and USPG. (Links here and in all cases go directly to the appropriate donations page).Could you help to support refugees in the UK and/or write to your MP, asking them to ask the Government to expand the numbers of refugees the UK will accept? While accepting refugees does have resource implications, in view of the huge numbers of refugees who have found safe haven in countries with far fewer resources than ours, one cannot help but feel we could do more.
  • within Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, as they face dangerous situations and difficult winter conditions. Give thanks for all who are showing hospitality to them and pray also for the well-being of host communities. (If you can understand French or Arabic, do watch this video about work to integrate Syrians and host communities in Lebanon – a source of encouragement!) Pray especially for churches and church organisations that are (eg this one) reaching out to show hospitality, thanking God for their work and the way that God is resourcing them materially and spiritually.Action points: could you contribute to help fund work by churches and church organisations to support refugees in the Middle East? This has the dual effect of helping to support refugees and reminding Christians in the Middle East that they do not stand alone. You can donate through, among others, All We Can, BMS World Mission, CAFOD, Christian Aid, Embrace the Middle East, International Orthodox Christian Charities*, Jesuit Refugee Service, Tearfund.
  • in Sudan, South Sudan, and the surrounding countries. Since the outbreak of conflict in December 2013, increasing numbers of South Sudanese have had to flee their homes: at present UNHCR estimates that there are almost 1.3 million refugees and asylum seekers from the country, many of them unaccompanied minors. Almost 600,000 people are estimated to have fled to Uganda, where refugee rations for those who arrived before July 2015 were halved (for lack of funds) in Autumn 2016, and over 300,000 to Ethiopia, where inter-communal tensions have risen.In addition years of conflict and economic crisis have had a huge impact on agriculture and left almost 40% of South Sudan’s population at risk of acute hunger. CMS trustee Jane Shaw writes: “Scarcity continues, and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network … warns that South Sudan will experience ‘acute food insecurity’ within the first half of 2017. This is due partly to a drop in production, partly to volatile trade conditions and partly to high prices. Low pay for many employees, including civil servants, is compounded by salaries not being paid, sometimes for months. Pray for all those experiencing hunger, especially for parents unable to feed their children.”Please pray for:
    •  peace with justice in South Sudan – and that the international community will exert effective pressure on those who are encouraging or engaging in violence
    • the safety and spiritual and material wellbeing of all who are fleeing because of violence or the inability to find adequate means to live where they are.
    • those who are working with host communities and for the host communities themselves.
    • for Christian churches as they work for peace amidst the conflict and witness  to Christ’s love through the spiritual and material care they provide
    • an end to inter-ethnic tensions in the country and in places which should be safe, such as refugee camps, and a strengthening of the effectiveness of the
      UN peacekeeping mission.
    • all who are hungry and all who are working to alleviate hunger now and for the future
    • in thankgiving for those who, like the churches and the bookseller of Malakal, are offering hope amidst the crises

Action Point: Could you donate to South Sudan appeals? You can donate via CAFOD,
Christian Aid, MSF, Tearfund , the World Food Programme, and World Vision among
others. And in a week when aid in the form of cash transfers has been much pilloried
in the popular press, it might be worth looking at this story on World Food
Program cash transfers to Sudanese refugees in Uganda and the way cash empowers
people to make choices. More broadly, it’s worth looking at how UK AID (and aid
from the US and others) is enabling people to access food, health care and other
necessities..

  • in Burundi and the countries around it. According to the UN, more than 325,000 Burundians have fled since the country’s political crisis began about two years ago: about half of these have gone to Tanzania, with almost 90,000 people in Rwanda and substantial numbers also in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some feel that the political crisis is increasingly taking on ethnic overtones, which is a cause for further concern.UNICEF notes: “While the socio-political situation in Burundi remains tense and unpredictable, cross-border influxes are expected to continue: the Burundian refugee population in the region is projected to exceed 524,000 by the end of 2017. Although governments and partner assistance continues, transit facilities and camps are overcrowded. Children are bearing the brunt of the crisis, with overstretched health and nutrition facilities and water and sanitation shortages increasing the risk of disease outbreaks. Protection concerns such as sexual and gender-based violence are significant. Inadequate numbers of schools and limited education supplies are making it difficult for children to access quality education.”Adapting the words of an Anglican prayer for Burundi:
    • for all who are grieving or suffering trauma because of the violence, we ask for healing.
    • “For all people who are living in fear and dread, afraid of the unknown and the uncertain, we ask for hope.”
    •  following the killing of a government minister at Christmas, we pray that this act of violence does not lead to more intense violence
    • “For those fleeing in Burundi or abroad, we pray for safety, freedom from disease and famine and the security that they may return home.” We pray also for all who are working to provide refugees with security and access to goods and services that supply their needs.
    • “For the surrounding countries [ we pray] that they may remain at peace, act justly and broker a just settlement” and that the communities within which refugees are present may be welcoming and may themselves find flourishing.
    • “For those seeking the way of violence, [we pray] that they would instead seek reconciliation between all parties.”
    • For the work that churches and others are doing to meet people’s spiritual and material needs and to counter violence (including gender-based violence), we give thanks to God.
  • in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin. Overall there are about 2.2 million displaced people in the region. The largest number come from Nigeria: because of conflict with Boko Haram, there are an estimated 1.77 million displaced people in Nigeria and over 200,000 Nigerian refugees  in other countries in the area.  Many of the host countries for Nigerian refugees – places like Chad, Cameroon (which also hosts refugees from the Central African Republic) and Niger – are themselves very poor,  but communities are doing their best to support people fleeing violence, using their own resources and/or with support from the international community.A primary concern in the area is hunger: it is hard to find out what is happening in some areas that are not readily accessible, but it seems likely that there has been and may still be a full-blown famine in at least part of Northeast Nigeria, and many parts of the area are suffering a food crisis or food emergency. One estimate is that more than half of under fives in parts of Northeast Nigeria are suffering from malnutrition.There is some good news: while the needs are huge, work by its humanitarian partners, including the Nigerian government, has recently enabled the World Food Programme to scale up its work in the region. In December alone, it assisted more than one million people, and it hopes to reach 2.5 million by April of this year.

    Please pray:

    • for an end to Boko Haram’s campaign of violence – that God will turn towards peace the hearts of those who encourage and engage in violence
    • for all who have suffered because of the violence, that they will know God’s healing presence and receive comfort
    • for all who are displaced and all who are hungry, that they will have their material and spiritual needs met
    • for the government of Nigeria, regional governments, UN agencies and civil society groups who are working to alleviate poverty in the region
    • for the churches in the area, asking God to give them courage and strength to stand firm in difficult times and to show the love of God through their words and actions
    • for host communities, that they too may find the means they need to flourish

Action Points: Donate to the World Food Programme’s general emergencies fund.

  • among minorities in Myanmar and those who have fled to other countries. We wrote recently about the violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar and the way the  government often blocks aid from reaching them. This collection of stories gives a chance to hear from Rohingya who have sought asylum in India: they tell the stories of why they left their homes, how they made their way to India and what they are doing there. Many people from other religious and ethnic minorities in Myanmar, including the largely Christian Kachin, have also faced oppression. Some are in camps for displaced people; some have fled to other countries.One of the difficulties that Myanmar’s refugees in Thailand, in particular, face is that they are completely dependent on external sources to meet their basic needs. With broad recognition of Myanmar’s new government, though, it’s getting harder to find funds for their support – despite the fact that Myanmar’s minorities continue to have very real grounds for fearing persecution.Please pray:
    • that the government of Myanmar will recognise the right of all communities, whatever their ethnic background, to live in peace
    • that the international community will hold the government of Myanmar accountable for violations of human rights and will avoid doing anything which results in ill treatment of minorities or seizure of their assets **
    • for safety for refugees from Myanmar and the families they have left behind.
    • that those who are ‘in limbo’ in refugee camps or settlements will be given the freedom and the means to make new lives for themselves and their families
    • for healing and comfort for those who have suffered violence.

Action Points: Could you join Christian Solidarity Worldwide in demanding an end to
blocks on aid to the Rohingya minorities in Myanmar? Could you donate to MSF‘s
work with minority and underserved communities in Myanmar?

  • facing return to potentially unsafe situations in Afghanistan and Somalia. According to the 2015 UNHCR review, Afghanistan and Somalia were 2nd and 3rd in the lists of countries of origin for refugees: as of that point, there were 2.7 million refugees from Afghanistan and 1.1 million from Somalia.In recent months, there has been increasing concern about the number of Afghan and Somali refugees who are being returned to potentially unsafe situations. European countries, including the UK, have deemed Afghanistan safe enough to accept deportations, and, as part of their negotiations before the latest aid conference, have signed an agreement with Afghanistan that allows them to deport an unlimited number of asylum seekers, whom Afghanistan must accept. Pakistan has also deported Afghans who were illegally in the country. While some of the other returns are theoretically ‘voluntary’ they are often the result of pressure: Afghan refugees in Pakistan have experienced harrassment and been denied access to services; Kenya has threatened to close the huge Dadaab refugee camp, leaving residents afraid that if they do not take the ‘voluntary’ UN repatriation package, they will be forcibly repatriated at a later date. The UN and human rights agencies have expressed grave worries about the situation of returnees in Afghanistan in particular, as has the Afghan government.Please pray for people facing returns to unsafe situations. Pray that they will find safety and security amidst the danger and will be able to protect those who depend on them. Pray for an end to the deportation of vulnerable people into situations of danger, and especially the deportation of those who have spent their childhood outside their countries of origin, only to be returned to a country they no longer know when they reach adulthood. 

*IOCC does not specify areas where donations will be used, but does a significant portion of its work in the Middle East.


Coming up – Special Days in January
15 Jan 2017 Peace Sunday
Theme:’Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace’ Materials for Peace Sunday from Pax Christi. Some further peace-related materials: Anglican Pacifist FellowshipBaptist Peace Fellowship, Catholic Worker Movement, Christian International Peace ServiceFellowship of Reconciliation, Mennonite Peace & Justice Support NetworkMethodist Peace Fellowship, National Justice and Peace Network, Orthodox Peace Fellowship, Oxpeace, Quakers in Britain.

17 to 24 Jan 2017 – Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity
Int’l theme: ‘Reconciliation – the love of Christ compels us’ Materials: World Council of Churches. UK theme: ‘Crossing Barriers’ Materials: CTBI

22 Jan 2017 – Homeless Sunday

Resources for worship and prayer cards

25 January – Conversion of St Paul

On the 25th of January, some churches remember Saul/Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Could you use the day as an opportunity to pray for God to turn the hearts of those who currently persecute Christians for their faith? To pray for Syria & the Syrian church?

27 January – Holocaust Memorial Day

Theme: ‘How can life go on?’ Materials from CTBI/CCJ and Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

29 Jan 2017 – World Leprosy Day

Also observed on 30 January. UK focus is on rural India. Materials from Leprosy Mission (UK).

Coming up – Actions and Events

Our new website’s events calendar has a selection of local and national events of interest: take a look! And please do send us events for inclusion.

16 January

There are many ‘hot topics’ in Fairtrade at present – things like the relationship between Fairtrade and corporate ‘own-label’ systems, market access for farmers, and the role of campaigners in the Fairtrade movement. You’re invited to discuss these with the CEO of the Fairtrade Foundation, Mike Gidney, who will be coming to Oxford on the 16th. Long Room, Town Hall, 6:00 to 8:00 pm (incorporating a brief Oxford Fair Trade Coalition AGM, talk, discussion session and refreshments). Free. All welcome.

5 February

It’s the 1st anniversary of the Eco-Church programme, which helps churches see why care for creation is part of our discipleship, evaluate what they’re already doing to care for creation, and take the next steps. Many churches will be celebrating with a ‘Green Communion’. Could you do so – and, if you’re not already involved with the Eco-Church programme, get your church to take the starting survey? Green Communion materials. Eco-Church survey.

14 February (and surrounding week)

The ‘For the love of’ campaign was started by a coalition of agencies and groups to help us talk about climate change in terms of protecting the things we love. This year, as last year, they’re asking us to make, wear and/or share green hearts around Valentine’s Day as a way of starting climate conversations. There’s a toolkit with lots of suggestions. Could any group you’re part of have a heart-making session?

Photo:

Photo ID 482888. 25/08/2011. Dollo Ado, Ethiopia. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe. www.unmultimedia.org/photo/

Human Rights – 11 December 2016

In this week’s email:

  • Human Rights
  • Praying for areas where rights are under threat

It’s fitting, as we mark Human Rights Day, that this week’s Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading confronts us with the realities of persecution – in it, we encounter John the Baptist, imprisoned for his criticism of Herod. We remember especially this week all who suffer because of state-sponsored intolerance of their faith in the Christ whom John proclaimed. May they know God’s peace amidst their sufferings, and may we, as fellow followers of Christ, seek to sustain them by our prayers and practical action.

Human Rights

What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

10 December is Human Rights Day – and given that there is much discussion around human rights, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the history of the concepts, as well as praying for areas where people are currently under threat.

December 10 was chosen as Human Rights Day to commemorate the day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. The Declaration came in response to the atrocities of World War II and, in the words of the human rights group Liberty, the “realisation that although fundamental rights should be respected as a matter of course, without formal protection human rights concepts are of little use to those facing persecution.”

Drafted by a group chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt with members from China, Lebanon, Australia, Chile, France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, the Declaration’s preamble sets out the aspirations and context that gave it birth. “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” it notes. It then continues: “[D]isregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…  [I]t is essential… that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.”

Thirty articles follow: these begin with the foundational statements that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and that human rights apply “without distinction” to all people. Twenty further articles enumerate specific civil and political rights:

  • to life, liberty and security of person (Article 3)
  • to freedom from slavery (Article 4) or torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment (Article 5)
  • to recognition as a person before the law, to equal protection and to due process (Articles 6-11),
  • to protection from arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence (Article 12),
  • to freedom of movement within states, to leave states (Article 13), to seek and enjoy asylum in case of persecution (Article 14) and to a nationality (Article 15)
  • to enter into consensual marriage (Article 16)
  • to own property (Article 17)
  • to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 18), freedom of opinion and expression (Article 19), and freedom of association (Article 20)
  • to take part in government and access public services (Article 21)

Six subsequent articles enumerate social, cultural and economic rights:

  • to social security (Article 22), to work, free choice of employment, just and
    favourable conditions of work, protection against unemployment, equal pay for equal
    work, just and favourable remuneration ensuring for a person and their family an existence worthy of human dignity, and the right to form and to join trade unions (Article 23), to rest and leisure (Article 24)
  • to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family and to special protection for all mothers and children, regardless of the child’s status (Article 25)
  • to education (Article 26)
  • to participation in cultural and artistic life (Article 27)

Oxford Public International Law has an interesting summary article on the genesis of the document and the influences on what was included – as well on the debates which led to its being a Declaration of the General Assembly, which has moral force but is not binding on member states and does not have treaty status.

In terms of its impact, the human rights organisation Liberty has described the Declaration as “one of the most important agreements in the history of human rights” and former Archbishop Rowan Williams, in a lecture which looks at some of the tensions around human rights, has spoken of it as “a landmark in the history of moral consciousness”.

What conventions support it – and how does it relate to the UK?

The Declaration was quickly followed by other instruments to give it effect in different contexts. Most relevantly for the UK, the newly formed Council of Europe created in 1950 the European Convention on Human Rights, which picks up primarily on the civil/political articles of the Universal Declaration, as well as on the right to education. The European Convention sets out both a series of rights and the extent to which some of them (privacy, freedoms of thought, conscience, religion, expression, assembly and association) are qualified by considerations such as the interests of the public safety or the rights of others. The UK played a significant role in creating and writing the European Convention and was one of the first to sign it on November 4th 1950. Helpful visual aids for each of the articles of the Convention can be found here.

The European Court of Human Rights followed in 1959, to rule on allegations of violations of the Convention. Other regional conventions and courts have also been adopted – for example the American Convention on Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and conventions on specific issues have also been adopted (such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on Torture).

The UK has allowed individuals to apply to the European Court of Human Rights since 1966, but the 1998 Human Rights Act made the European Convention directly enforceable in the UK, meaning that people who feel their rights have been breached can take their case to a British court rather than European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Human Rights Act also requires public bodies, such as local authorities and the police, to respect and protect human rights and, in the words of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, “in practice it means that Parliament will nearly always seek to ensure that new laws are compatible with the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights” (even though Parliament actually remains sovereign).

The current Government is proposing to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. An even more profound change was mooted in April when then Home Secretary Theresa May called for the UK to leave the ECHR, although she later pulled back from this position during her leadership bid, citing a lack of parliamentary support.

This year’s Human Rights Day: Prayer and Action

The theme for this year’s Human Rights day is “Stand up for someone’s rights today!” How might one do that? There are some suggested areas for prayer below – but what other actions might we take?

One clear avenue is to work through a human rights organisation or organisations – supporting them financially, taking actions they highlight and praying for them. Such support matters. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has said, “It means a great deal to those who are oppressed to know that they are not alone. Never let anyone tell you that what you are doing is insignificant.”  Many Christians already support organisations such as Amnesty or Human Rights Watch. Among potentially less-well-known organisations, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Forum 18 (which takes its name from Article 18 of the Universal Declaration) do effective work on religious freedom, with the former having a broad focus on freedom generally and a more specific focus on issues facing Christians, and the latter providing “original reporting and analysis on violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief of all people in an objective, truthful and timely manner … [with a] focus on Central Asia, the South Caucasus, Russia and Belarus” and analyses of the situation in Turkey. The International Justice Mission focuses on a range of rights abuses – such as sex trafficking, modern slavery, police brutality, and citizenship rights – that have a particularly heavy impact in poor communities. You can see the story of their work to free an innocent man from prison in Kenya here; they have also rescued a number of child victims of cybersex trafficking, including “Cassie” whose story is told here. And you can read here about their work with police and politicians in Cambodia to transform systems that put vulnerable people at risk.

For our everyday lives, it can be helpful to get reminders on ways to respond if we witness someone being subjected to abuse or harassment. An article offering helpful advice can be found here.

At a policy level within the UK, the status of human rights and the role of the Human Rights Act is a contentious topic. Some of the discussion engages with serious questions and concerns; some is less well-informed; and all takes place in the current highly-charged context. Some very important issues are at stake. In the immediate present, the Methodist Church has a campaign action to take in support of the Human Rights Act. We propose to explore the subject further in the new year and invite you to share your thoughts and perspectives as we undertake this work. If you would like to contribute, please be in touch with Elizabeth at elizabeth@ccow.org.uk.

Following on from Human Rights Day, please pray:

  • For all whose human rights are being violated today – that they might find redress and know fullness of life.
  • For all involved in the education and formation of young people – that they may instill respect for the dignity and value of every human life
  • That governments will respect human rights in both theory and practice
  • For the individuals and organisations that stand up for human rights, often in difficult circumstances – that they might be given wisdom, discernment, resilience, courage, determination and support in the work that they pursue.
  • For ourselves – for wisdom to know when and how to intervene to stand up for people and policies, and for courage to do so


Praying for areas where rights are under threat

  • Colombia
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Myanmar
  • Global Gender-Based Violence
  • … and an action point

Colombia

While rejoicing in the recent steps towards peace, we continue to be concerned about worryingly high levels of violence against human rights defenders, environmental activists, community leaders and trade unionists.

Please pray for wisdom and discernment, courage and safety  for all those seeking to defend human rights, the rights of poor communities, the environment, and the right to organise into trade unions.  Pray that the government will take action to end the culture of impunity for those who attack members of these groups – and will seek to provide safety for all its citizens.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Earlier this year, we wrote about issues surrounding the elections that should be held this year in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Human Rights Watch noted this week:

“Ten days before the December 19, 2016, deadline marking the end of President Joseph Kabila’s constitutionally mandated two-term limit, he still has not made any clear commitment on when or even if he will step down. At the same time, government repression against pro-democracy activists, the political opposition, largely peaceful protesters, and the media has intensified at an alarming rate.”

Please pray that God will give those in power the wisdom and courage to act for the good of the country, and will give those outside of power who are seeking a fair and just democratic process wisdom and courage as they seek to make their points. Pray, too, for wisdom for EU and US leaders as they consider actions to take in response to the unfolding elections crisis.

Myanmar

Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims have long been regarded as one of the world’s most persecuted people. Effectively rendered stateless by the government of Myanmar, in which they reside, they have been denied adequate access to food and medical care and suffered the destruction of their property as well as violence against individuals, families and communities.

Most recently, Human Rights Watch and others have reported that following an attack – allegedly by Rohingya militants – on police outposts in one of the townships near the Bangladesh border, “government forces declared Maungdaw district an “operation zone” and began sweeps of the area to find the attackers and lost weapons. They severely restricted the freedom of movement of local populations and imposed extended curfews, which remain in place. With the area sealed off to observers, local sources reported that government forces committed serious human rights abuses, including torture, rape, extrajudicial executions, and widespread destruction of buildings, including mosques.” Human Rights Watch has documented the burning of over a thousand structures; many aid workers (the main providers of health care) are not being allowed into the area, and with the exception of one World Food Programme delivery, humanitarian aid has been blocked; as a result, the UN says that 160,000 vulnerable people have been cut off from health care, school feedings and maternal care. And the allegations of torture, rape and murder are harrowing.

The violence against the Rohingya takes place against a wider background of uncertainty in Myanmar, following government offensives and recent counterattacks in other provinces where ethnic conflict exists. It also takes place in a context where the civilian government leadership shares power with the military, which controls the cabinet posts for defence, home affairs and border affairs, and thus the departments in charge of the operations against the Rohingya.

Agencies are calling for an independent inquiry into military abuses, as well as the immediate lifting of restrictions on access for humanitarian aid (CSW, Human Rights Watch). The UN has called for Aung San Suu Kyi to rein in hardliners, unite the country, and address the Rohingya’s  issues of citizenship and status.

Please pray for the safety and protection of the vulnerable Rohingya and other vulnerable ethnic groups in Myanmar. Pray for justice and healing for those who have suffered traumatic losses. Pray that Aung San Suu Kyi can be a unifying force within the country and can help it to overcome traditional divisions. Pray for the lifting of restrictions on aid, and for long-term changes that give permanent access to citizenship, justice and security to the Rohingya and other minorities. Pray for the government of Bangladesh, as it considers how to respond to the refugees fleeing across its border. Pray for international assistance in support of those who have suffered so much.

Global Gender-Based Violence

No woman should have to suffer gender-based violence – but a frequently cited study on the prevalence of violence against women and girls estimated that during their lifetime, over 35% of women globally had experienced either or both of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence. Pray for all women who have suffered gender-based violence – that God may give them healing and justice.

We pray particularly at this time for women in areas of conflict. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recently noted how conflict exacerbates extant problems:

“In Syria, where the ongoing conflict has destroyed the fabric of society, 67 per cent of women reported receiving some form of “punishment” from their husbands, 87 per cent of which was physical violence.

Sexual and gender-based violence was already widespread in South Sudan prior to the start of the conflict in December 2013, but it has increased fivefold in recent years. In Leer, Mayendit and Koch counties of Unity, an estimated 1,300 women and girls were raped and 1,600 women and children abducted between April and September 2015.

In Yemen, the reality of violence against women is rooted in gender inequality and discriminatory practices, which are further exacerbated by the current conflict. According to UNFPA, 3.1 million people have been internally displaced since the conflict began, and at least 17,277 GBV incidents have been reported.”

Pray for safety and security from sexual violence for all women and men in conflict zones, for an end to the impunity that often protects perpetrators of conflict-related sexual violence, and for healing and justice for those who have already suffered. Pray, too, for the mending of the fabric of relationships within conflict-ridden societies, of which the violence against women is one manifestation.

That issues around understanding gender-based violence are also present closer to home was made starkly apparent in a recent study conducted across Europe by the European Commission. Asked to state whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “Violence against women is often provoked by the victim,” more than a third of the respondents in five countries agreed. Asked whether they thought sexual intercourse without consent was justified by circumstances, more than a fifth of respondents in four countries felt that being drunk or having used drugs justified intercourse without consent; more than 15% of respondents in three countries felt that walking alone at night did so; and all told, across the EU 28, 27% of respondents suggested that at least one of the possible circumstances justified sex without consent.

Pray that in all parts of the world, people may understand that violence against women and sex without consent are always unacceptable – and may do everything in their power to end both.

And an action point

It’s not technically a rights issue, as the people in question weren’t seeking asylum and countries have the right to control entry. But there is strong feeling that the Home Office’s refusal to grant visas for three Orthodox archbishops from Iraq and Syria to attend the consecration of the UK’s new Syrian Orthodox Cathedral was questionable and not particularly supportive of church leaders in the Middle East. Might you write to the Home Secretary to express your concern? If you’d like some guidelines, email us.

World AIDS Day, Winter Cold, Northeast Nigeria, Colombia – 4 December 2016

In this week’s email:

  • World AIDS Day
  • Short Notes: Winter Cold, Northeast Nigeria, Colombia

This week’s Revised Common Lectionary readings offer a vision of the future, present encouragement, and challenge – the vision of the peaceable kingdom, in which all things are reconciled in Christ; an encouraging reminder in the epistle of the hope that Christians can receive now from Scripture and the Spirit; and the challenge of repentance that John the Baptist brings. May we – and all who encounter these readings – be inspired, encouraged and challenged!

World AIDS Day

“There’s really some great progress in terms of the HIV epidemic. But it’s … not past yet. HIV is a reality for us and I think it’s really important for us as a church that we must stay connected to this, or if we are not yet part of this, that we should become really involved in the fight against HIV and AIDS.”  World AIDS Day video by the Revd Christo Greyling, founder of Christian AIDS Bureau for Southern Africa (CABSA)

The past ten years have indeed seen some transformational shifts in the fight to end the HIV epidemic:

  • the numbers of people receiving treatment have improved hugely: in 2006, UNAIDS said that only 1.65 million people were on antiretroviral therapy in low and middle income countries. As of June 2016, UNAIDS estimates that 18.2 million people worldwide are receiving treatment.
  • mother-to-child transmission rates have fallen sharply. In South Africa, which has taken strong action to ensure appropriate ante-natal treatment, early mother-to-child transmission fell from more than 20% in 2004 to 1.8% in 2015.
  • Estimates of AIDS-related deaths have fallen sharply from a peak of roughly 2 million a year in 2005 to roughly 1.1 million a year in 2015
  • Low and middle-income countries have increased their investment in fighting AIDS by 46% in the five years from 2010 to 2015. In 2015, they spent US$ 10.8 billion.

These are causes for rejoicing – they represent millions of children born HIV-free and millions of HIV+ people living longer, healthier lives. We give thanks to God for those who have been part of these successes and for what they’ve enabled.

But at the same time, the good news isn’t the only news. As the new StopAIDS campaign says, “It ain’t over.” Treatment rates vary greatly from country to country and often within countries depending on your location or socio-economic status. There is a serious ‘prevention gap’ amongst adolescents and adults: UNAIDS notes: “New infections among young women aged 15-24 years have declined by only 6% between 2010 and 2015, while the rate of new

HIV infections among 25–49-year-old men and women is essentially flat. Meanwhile, new infections appear to be rising among people who inject drugs and men who have sex with men.”

What does this mean? If we look simply at young women, in 2015, an estimated 390,000 women between 15 and 24 became newly infected with HIV – that’s about 7500 young women a week. UNAIDS notes, “young women are facing a triple threat:

  • they are at high risk of becoming infected with HIV
  • they have low rates of testing and have
  • difficulting accessing and staying on treatment”

The high risk for young women stems from a range of causes. Our colleague Lyn van Rooyen, who runs CABSA, writes that primary factors include “child marriage, age disparate relationships, economic hardship and inequality – we still hear so many stories of ‘survival sex’, patriarchy and gender inequality … sexual and gender-based violence, poorer education for girls and young women, lack of specific information about HIV and HIV transmission, lack of comprehensive sexuality education, and biological vulnerability (the sexual organs of young women are more prone to trauma and micro tears, have a different pH etc, making them more vulnerable to infection).”

I (Maranda) remember sitting with a group of young women in South Africa. Their situations were, as is often true for young people the world over, complex and often contradictory. Society was telling them that education was important, and they could see the merit in aiming for or participating in higher education. But the older members of their church were expecting them to marry and immediately to give up work. Why then, they asked, should they continue with their education? Or should they reject what their church members were telling them? And what if you married and wound up being like the woman whose husband wouldn’t even give her enough money to buy a sanitary products? What should you do when your boyfriend was pressing you to take things further? Or when a friend was seeing an older man with a poor reputation, who was giving her gifts?  Amidst the questions, there was also a fear of attack (South Africa has one of the world’s highest rape rates); no woman went out alone after dark. There were so many areas of vulnerability – especially given the reluctance to mention, much less discuss, HIV.

For the sake of all who are vulnerable to HIV and AIDS, Christians – both those of us who are living with HIV and those who aren’t – need, as Christo Greyling says, to stay or get involved in the fight against the epidemic. That might be through working directly on prevention among young people, the way the Fikelela Project‘s ‘Agents of Change’ programme does, or by supporting such work financially. It might be by our showing in worship and the way we organise our church life that our churches are safe and welcoming spaces. It might be by sharing our own experience or expertise to inform others, or by seeking out information so that if someone comes to us with pastoral concerns relating to their status, we can listen well and understand the context. Or it might be getting involved in advocacy around finance and access to treatment: in September, the UK Government showed leadership by pledging £1.1 billion over three years to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

Please pray:

“Compassionate God, we cry out in our finiteness and frailty, knowing there are no cheap answers or quick fixes. We have a lack of words to express our feelings regarding the crises of our world. Grant us peace where we are groaning for grace and grieving for change.”

  • Pray for all who are living with HIV, and all who are affected by HIV and AIDS. Pray especially that all people may have access to treatment and may not experience discrimination because of their condition or that of family members.
  • Pray for all who mourn those who have died because of AIDS.
  • Pray that efforts to reduce new infections will be successful.
  • Give thanks for the ante-natal care that has done so much to halt mother to child transmission in some countries and pray that more countries are able to implement it and to help young people stay free from HIV.
  • World AIDS Day falls during the 16 Days of Activisim against Gender-Based Violence: pray specifically that countries will work to address issues like poverty and Gender-Based Violence that increase vulnerability to HIV. You might want to use the beautiful Creator God prayer by Musa Dube, found here.

Strengthen us and fill us with hope, that we may be able to continue to live with compassion in our struggle with HIV and AIDS.

  • Give thanks for the work of Christian organisations like CABSA helping churches to become aware of the issues around AIDS and to commit themselves to action.
  • Pray that churches may be places of welcome and safety, where people do not experience discrimination because of their HIV status.
  • Pray that churches may support people living with or affected by HIV – and give thanks for the many around the world who offer practical and spiritual care to those within and beyond their community.
  • Pray that churches will be able to offer their communities a safe, stable environment in which people can grow in Christ and find loving care when they face issues that could make them vulnerable to HIV.

The material in italics is from the latest CABSA World AIDS Day resources. You can find the full prayer and many further prayer resources on the CABSA website. Christian AidUSPG, and the Sanctuary Centre also have helpful resources.


Short Notes: Winter Cold, Northeast Nigeria, Colombia
Winter Cold

“In the bleak midwinter …” As parts of the UK have experienced the first cold weather of winter this past week, it’s also grown colder in southeastern Europe and the Middle East, where many refugees in Greece and the Balkans, Iraq, and Kurdistan (among other places) are inadequately protected against the freezing weather. Pray that asylum seekers and refugees in vulnerable situations will be given the resources they need to stay safe and well during the cold weather. Pray for more effective coordination of governmental and intergovernmental resources and policies to keep refugees and asylum seekers safe. Pray that churches may offer effective and useful assistance.

Action Point: Many charities – such as All We Can, CAFOD, and Embrace the Middle East, among others – offer ‘alternative gifts’ that include support for vulnerable refugees. Could you include these among your Christmas gifts to people?

Northeast Nigeria

Boko Haram’s attacks in Northeast Nigeria and Cameroon continue, with millions of people displaced by the violence. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has expressed particular concern about hunger in Northeast Nigeria: the region has almost 2 million internally displaced people and more than 5 million who are facing acute food insecurity, including some who face famine. UNHCR has warned that 75,000 children are at risk of dying of hunger.

Please pray:

  •  for an end to the attacks and true peace for the region, as well as for comfort and healing for all who have suffered as a result of the violence.
  • in thanksgiving for residents of the region and those from the Nigerian government and outside agencies and groups who are working to assist the suffering.
  • for “a coordinated commitment between the Nigerian government, international partners, and UN agencies” and that the Nigerian government will link humanitarian aid and programmes for long-term development in the region
  • for international donors and the Nigerian government to provide the funding needed for relief and development.
  • for the life and witness of Christians in the region.

Colombia

It is a cause for rejoicing when steps towards peace are taken, especially in situations that have long seemed intractable. This week Colombia’s Congress ratified a peace agreement with the FARC rebels. The agreement is a revised version – with additional concessions from the rebels – of the deal that was rejected in a popular referendum earlier this Autumn. Its implementation would bring to an end a conflict that has stretched for decades and displaced millions.

The situation remains complex: congressional opponents of the deal boycotted the vote and suggest that even the revised version, which incorporates many of their proposals, offers too much impunity to rebels. The rebels state that they have begun to destroy explosives and to create the political grouping that will represent them in the legislature, but that circumstances are not yet ready to move to demobilisation points … while the Government is awaiting a ruling on the extent of its power to use fast-track legislative procedures to grant amnestry to jailed rebels, which is one of the preconditions  rebels have set for demobilisation. Even if the demobilisation begins in good time, the process is likely to be difficult.

And there are other concerns – peace talks are needed with other groups, and there are worryingly high levels of violence against human rights defenders, environmental activists and community leaders.

The President recently tweeted that the ratification of the accord gave rise to a new “chapter of hope” Please give thanks for the progress made and pray that that hope may be realised for all Colombians, and that the country may know peace, stability and justice.

Photograph: World Bank Photo Collection, Creative Commons License