Churches join new initiative to rid the world of genocide

By staff writers
11 Nov 2007

A joint campaign to eliminate genocide around the world has been initiated by leading civic, academic and religious figures in a conference room at the Interchurch Center near the campus of Columbia University in New York, USA.

Representatives of churches, the United Nations, and human rights organizations brought their ideas, concerns and hopes together in an effort to forge an alliance to abolish genocide.

There was an honest acknowledgement of the role religion can play and has played in fuelling and legitimating deadly conflict in the world, along with a recognition that it also plays a role in reconciliation and peacemaking.

Analysing the way in which ideology and religion can be corrupted and looking at how to combat this was an important part of the discussion at the gathering.

In his opening prayer Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, the new president of the National Council of Churches USA (NCCUSA), called upon God to "grant rest to all who have perished in genocide."

The archbishop is the diocesan legate and ecumenical officer of the Diocese of the Armenian Orthodox Church of America. He was installed in his two-year elected office the previous night at St Vartan's Armenian Cathedral in New York City.

"Inspire our leaders with wisdom, compassion and resolution in the face of evil," the NCC president said concluding his prayer.

"As long as I am General Secretary of the NCC this will be a living concern, not a one-time symposium," said the Rev Dr Michael Kinnamon, the NCCUSA's new general secretary, in his remarks welcoming the participants to the all day consultation.

The event was sponsored by the NCCUSA, Genocide Watch, the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University, and the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.

One panel discussion focused on the political challenges to abolishing genocide. The group heard from the Honorable Francis Deng, the United Nations' special adviser for the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities. A former member of the government of Sudan, Dr Deng described how the politics of identity is now being defined in religious terms.

"The role of religion is shaping identities that become 'conflictual'," said Dr Deng. He told of his own experience in Sudan. He grew up in a traditional African family with its own religion, attended a Roman Catholic school and became a Catholic. Some of his brothers attended Islamic schools and became Muslim. Later he lived in a Protestant area of his country and attended a Muslim school.

These different religions describe one another very differently, Deng said, who suggested each faith tradition needs to emphasize with one another their common goodness and not to divide people because of their professed faith.

A second panel took up the complicity of Christians in genocide. The speakers examined how the church participated in Rwanda, Germany, Bosnia and in the United States in the genocide of Native Americans.

Dr Andrea Bartoli, a Roman Catholic from George Mason University, noted Rwanda was a predominantly Catholic country. He acknowledged the Catholic Church was not only silent but in some places actively participated in the genocide.

The church "failed to convert hearts and minds," said Bartoli, suggesting those who took part in the genocide "acted not as Catholics but identified as some other" group.

The German genocide of the Jews was viewed by a Lutheran theologian through the lens of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the World War II theologian who wrote and preached against the Third Reich. He was executed in the waning days of the war.

Dr. Christiane Tietz, currently at the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University, said a bad interpretation of Martin Luther's doctrine of two kingdoms - the kingdom of the world and the spiritual kingdom - led to many Lutherans participating in the laws and actions of the government that let to the extermination of the Jews.

"The church as the community of the saints is a community which transcends and bridges racial and national differences," said Dr Tietz. "If it does not, then Christ is not the Lord of the church. The church is not there for itself; it has to care for those persecuted. It has to be there for others."

A Serbian Orthodox priest and former US foreign service officer in the Balkans, Dr Milan Sturgis, reminded the group that the date this genocide discussion took place was the 69th anniversary of "kristalnacht" which began the rounding up of Jews in Germany.

Dr Sturgis related many of his experiences in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo including the loss of cousins, aunts and uncles "who were slaughtered."

"Religion was perverted into a political identity," Dr Sturgis said. He told of witnessing Serbian priests blessing Serb militias, Roman Catholic priests blessing Croatian militias and imams blessing Muslim militias.

"We need to be more concerned with forecasting and prevention [of genocide] rather than laying blame," said Dr Sturgis.

Concluding the panel was Dr. Anne Marshall, a United Methodist and member of the Muskogee Nation. Dr Marshall said Native Americans suffered both a physical as well as cultural genocide.

"Until there is an acknowledgment that genocide has happened here by churches and governments there can't be healing and wholeness," said Dr. Marshall.

Dr Antonios Kireopoulos, NCCUSA's associate general secretary for international affairs and peace, who organized the forum, said the next step is to involved more groups and create a true alliance to abolish genocide. The structure of this forum - prayer, historical record, Scriptural reflection, sharing and a call to action - will be offered as a template to other faith communities.

"God loved us so much that we have been given the power to change the world," said the Rev Dr Bob Edgar, former NCCUSA general secretary, in the closing "sending forth." He urged participants to put flesh on their words.

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