On a visit to the German Federal Defence Ministry in Berlin, members of a delegation from the World Council of Churches (WCC) have posed tough questions about German arms sales and about whether wars, such as the Iraq war, can ever really solve problems.
The WCC delegation was received last week by Christian Schmidt, parliamentary state secretary. Germany is one of the countries to which the WCC, which comprises 349 churches worldwide, is sending Living Letters teams, to learn about experiences of non-violence. The visit to the Defence Ministry in Berlin also formed part of their programme.
"Does Germany have to be the EU arms sales champion?" asked Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi, of the Province of the Anglican Church of Burundi and leader of the WCC team, referring to the ever increasing arms sales worldwide.
Ntahoturi referred to the genocide in his own country, and conflicts in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Somalia and the Congo. These civil wars were waged with weapons from outside Africa. A mere fraction of the money spent on them could, he claimed, help Africa to combat diseases such as malaria or the extensive poverty affecting many sections of the population.
State Secretary Schmidt explained that the high level of arms sales was a result of expensive weapons manufactured in Germany, such as submarines, warships and aircraft. By far the highest proportion of arms sold goes to NATO allies, he added. The German law on armaments control expressly forbids the delivery of arms to areas of conflict. That applied also to onward sales. "Our contracts include a clause on final use." In addition, Germany had, he said, agreed to the international ban on cluster bombs.
Konrad Raiser, WCC general secretary until the end of 2003, indicated that in Africa it is actually small arms that are the problem. These weapons, from pistols to Kalashnikovs, were smuggled in large quantities into African countries, he stated, and were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
The state secretary also recognized the problem, confirming that he was in favour of considerably stricter controls.
Georges Lemopoulos, WCC deputy general secretary, referring to the Iraq war, asked whether the situation of people in Iraq had on the whole not become worse. A member of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople [Turkey], he pointed to the dire conditions in refugee camps in Syria.
Lemopoulos stated that the exodus of Christians from Middle East countries, and not only from Iraq, is a consequence of that war. Schmidt responded that the Federal Minister of the Interior Wolfgang Schäuble was willing to admit refugees from Iraq into Germany, although that was not a solution to the problem.
For Schmidt, the main problem for Germany in the Middle East was not Iraq. When Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared his intention to wipe Israel off the map, it was not possible for Germany to remain silent, he said. "Israel's right to existence is a cornerstone of German policy," he added. That policy also involved encouraging negotiations between potential opponents, and playing a mediating role.
Thomas Yonker, of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the US, the youngest member of the WCC delegation, expressed regret that wars started from his own country, and hoped that this would soon change. Schmidt reminded him that good things had also come out of the US, such as the planes which sixty years earlier had been part of the Berlin airlift that broke the Soviet Union's blockade of the city.
Schmidt clearly dissociated himself from the conditions in the US Guantanamo camp in Cuba. By using torture America had crossed a threshold, over which Germany would not go, he said. He mentioned that Frankfurt's police commissioner, who had threatened the abductor of a young boy with torture, had been dismissed. The European Court for Human Rights had in a judgement the previous day expressly confirmed the ban on torture.
Prior to the Berlin visit, the delegation visited the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) in Hannover. Their programme continued with a visit to Dresden on Thursday and Friday, where they discussed racism with schoolchildren.
Further information on the Decade to Overcome Violence - http://www.overcomingviolence.org
Living Letters team visit to Germany - http://overcomingviolence.org/en/iepc/living-letters-visits/germany.html