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Promoting peace for the world especially conflict-stricken regions in Asia; how to involve the Church in the peace movement?



Rev. R.W.Timm, CSC

For the last 38 years I have had a major involvement in work for justice and peace. At the invitation of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Bangladesh (CBCB) I convened the Commission for Justice and Peace (CJP) in June 1974. At the first meeting of the CJP I was elected as the Executive Secretary and held that post for 23 years. In October 1974 the CBCB gave me an additional task as the National Director of Caritas Bangladesh. The CJB gave training in parishes at their invitation. It also addressed itself to some major issues of national importance – the welfare of the adivasi or tribal people (we do not use the term indigenous because the government says that there are no indigenous people in Bangladesh), the position of women in society and in the readymade garment industry and the tribal people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

For the past 30 years I have taught a semester on Justice and Love each year in the Major Seminary of Theology. This is preceded by a semester on Social Analysis. We want all our local priests to be aware of the society in which they live and to know the means of analyzing it.

I hope that we will have no more situations like the one about 27 years ago when we learned that the army was doing forced sterilization in a tribal area near the northern border. The two local priests of a large mission located in the area knew of the army action but on a visit to Dhaka did not even mention it to the Archbishop. The present Director of Caritas, Dr. Benedict Alo D’Rozario, was the Hotline representative at the time and he investigated the case. (Hotline is a branch of the CJP, proposed and approved at the first Asian gathering of CJPs in Tokyo in 1979. It began functioning January 1, 1980 in Hong Kong.). The previous month the Upazila Health Center had 18 sterilization operations, while the army did 550 sterilization operations in two weeks, all on women. I met the one at USAID in charge of funding the government population program and threatened him with a world-wide exposé unless they stopped the army immediately The ambassador told the president of Bangladesh that he would not get another pice unless he got the army out of sterilization for good. The army has up to now been completely sidelined.

I give this injustice in detail to show how we put justice first in practice and its result was peace. (Isaiah defines peace as “the fruit of justice.”) It is the policy we adopted and it works the best. However, we realize that there are specific issues, such as anti-nuclear weapons’ campaign, where peace has the priority because it is the main topic.

I have not followed my usual practice, as a teacher, of giving definitions first. The relationship of justice and peace is shown in the first sentence of the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: (Whereas) “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.” The Human Rights Commission made no attempt to formulate a rational theory of human rights. They were so eager for peace in the world after so many hears of horrible devastating warfare with enormous loss of human lives that they accepted that all people form one human family. Based on their only good model of human rights, the Bogota Declaration of Human Rights, they also accepted human dignity as the basis of human rights, thanks to the persuasive oratory of Dr. Charles Malek of Lebanon. Cardinal Walter Kasper later wrote that the social contract theory is inadequate to explain human dignity “in its fullness” without the help of Judeo-Christian revelation.

To understand violations against peace we have to understand violence. It is “an extreme form of aggression, such as an assault, rape, murder and it has many causes, including frustration, exposure to violent media, tending to see others actions as hostile, even when they are not.” There is an increased risk of violence by “drinking, insults and other provocations, environmental factors like heat, overcrowding.”[1] WHO has in its definition of violence “the intentional use of force,” but the worst violence in Bangladesh is usually spontaneous and often has something to do with religion.

Religious basis for conflict

A growing number of conflicts in Asia are based on differing religious interpretations. There conflicts are all analyzed deeply from a religious background in Just (the International Movement for a Just World), the monthly foldout magazine published by Dr. Chandra Muzzafar, a Malaysian. Many intellectual solutions are offered, which, if heeded, may reverse harmful policies of the past. “Violence against sacred spaces oftentimes engender (sic) conflicts deadlier and intractable. As a result, this kind of conflict becomes increasingly difficult to resolve.”[2] Dr. Chandra makes a reasonable argument against Israeli expansionism and often opposes the “hegemonic” worldview of the USA. Such alarm words should be avoided, since they arouse opposition rather than win over an opponent.

A horrendous example occurred right after I accepted this assignment. A young Bengali Muslim in charge of a small shop for mobile phone repairs in Ramu in a Buddhist area found an image on Facebook highly offensive to Islam, tagged by a Buddhist he knew. He made duplicate copies and distributed them widely with a friend of his. A short time later 6,000 people unknown by anyone in Ramu came in trucks, buses and vans from many nearby villages. It was learned after the attacks from computer experts that the image had been “doctored” and the Buddhist name deliberately added. The image was taken from the Facebook page of an Iranian, slain for his anti-Islamic views. The attack was cleverly planned and seemed to be spontaneous and almost fooled the journalists.

The attackers, using gunpowder and petrol, destroyed 12 temples and monasteries, innumerable “idols” (thus reported by an otherwise sensitive leading English newspaper) and 50 homes (though neighboring Muslim houses were spared). Government blamed the main opposition party but the reigning party was deeply involved in the attacks. The experts demand a judicial inquiry to prevent political squabbles over responsibilities. Government has long boasted about the wonderful harmony of the four major religions in Bangladesh, but this is the worst violation of peace and harmony against Buddhists since the Partition of India in 1947. There is huge sympathy for the affected Buddhists but the masterminds behind the planning of the attacks will probably never be identified.

A common behavior when a nation-wide strike is declared by opposition parties is to set on fire a number of buses and other vehicles the night before to make sure everyone is afraid of risking their vehicle on the strike day. No one has yet made a policy to stop this, even though the newspapers print many clear photos of miscreants aiming pistols or carrying torches openly. When a garment worker is killed, hundreds of workers get inflamed with passion and pour out into the roads with clubs to bash trucks, buses and cars which had nothing to do with the killing. Often the police stand by watching helplessly. Police have not developed any policy to prevent such attacks or to stop them quickly as soon as they hear about them.

Catholic peace organizations

Most peace organizations are founded and run by dedicated laity. The Catholic Worker Movement, founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in May 1933, is radically pacifist, committed to the poor and to basic change in society.

Pax Christi International is a non-profit, non-governmental, pacifist organization working on a world-level. Large numbers of U.S. bishops are members. It has prepared a handbook on non-violence and its techniques. It works for “peace with justice.”

The International Fellowship for Reconciliation (IFOR), though not a Catholic body, is open to people of all religions and has six Nobel laureates as members. It was founded in 1919 to overcome the spirit of revenge against Germany in the harsh treaty after World War I. It has six areas of concern: Decade for a culture of non-violence, non-violence education and training, youth empowerment, interfaith cooperation, disarmament and gender justice. IFOR has a vision of the human community based on the conviction that love has the power to change unjust structures. It seeks justice as the basis for peace.

Secular Asian Organizations

The Institute of Pace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi is the leading South Asian think tank. It studies nuclear issues, disarmament, non-proliferation, weapons of mass destruction, the war on terrorism, counter terrorism, armed conflict and peace processes in the region. It also has a China Research Program.

A high-level Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council was formed on September 5, 2012. The body is intended to help regional peace efforts in a fast-moving and more complex world. Long-standing conflicts between governments and Muslim-majority areas in Thailand and the Philippines, quarrels over islands in the South China Sea, religious attacks in Aceh are all issues the proposed Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council could help resolve.

The Asian Human Rights Centre in Hong Kong is the leading agency for justice and peace activities and for legal action in Asia. They carry out thorough case studies on major issues in many countries of Asia.

Promoting and practicing peace

There are many ways of practicing peace. They can be found abundantly on the Internet. There are 50 ideas on doing peace and 100 ideas for creating a more peaceful world. We publish an 8-page, bi-monthly Hotline Newsletter in English, based on condensed articles in the media. It is the only one of its kind. Frequently, I offer my own comments in brackets, which are often openly critical.

Commenting on Nick Mele, a Pax Christi USA National Council member, in his recently published Becoming Nonviolent Peacemakers. Eli S. McCarthy proposes that we think about nonviolent peacemaking in the context of virtues rather than in either of the two prevailing frameworks, just war rules or strategic choices. McCarthy’s ideas tie nonviolent peacemaking and nonviolence in general more closely into Catholic social teaching and moral theology, something that has been entering Catholic discourse on war of late through a kind of backdoor admission that violent action is no longer a viable choice in the twenty-first century. A little more than halfway through his book, McCarthy poses two key questions about moral training and practice: “Who are we becoming?” and “Who ought we to become?”

Some of the common methods of working for peace are: fasting, human chain, boycott, pen strike, slow-down, sit-down, gherao (surrounding), procession, demonstration, strike, poster, leaflet, banner, badge, signature campaign, giving news to media, pressure movement, analyze successful movements.

All theological seminaries of Asia should have courses to increase the social awareness of seminarians, their ability to recognize and analyze violations of justice and peace, especially those of a social nature. Educating the trainers of diocesan CJP groups is also essential for keeping them abreast of the ever-changing nature of the social condition. They must be imbued with the Catholic social teachings that are essential for the pursuit of peace. These may be found in the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church but are much more concisely stated in The Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The right to pacifism is defended: “those who renounce violence bear witness to the serious physical and moral risks involved in the use of violence. In order to defend human rights they make use of non – violent means that are available to the weakest. It is a legitimate option for Catholics to be pacifists. Pacifism can be a way of bearing witness to love, as long as the rights and duties of other people or communities aren’t harmed.” (n 2306)

The criteria for a just war are important for all to know, and all the conditions must be met

-The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain;

-All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

-There must be serious prospects of success;

-The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver that the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition. (n 2309)

[Note that the declaration of war by a legitimate authority is missing from the conditions.]

World Peace Day on January 1 is an occasion for the Pope to teach the whole world about different approaches to peace. In his State of the World address to representatives of 177 countries having diplomatic relations with the Vatican Pope Benedict told them that he was “personally struck by the feeling of fear which often dwells in the hearts of our contemporaries in the face of terrorism, the threat of war, famine, disease and environmental degradation.” He urged them to say “NO TO WAR”! He stated that “war is always a defeat for humanity.” The solution of differences “will never be imposed by recourse to terrorism or armed conflict, as if military victories could be the solution.”

In the United States there have been education programs and courses since the 70s. Five areas of Justice and Peace Studies are recognized: “war, peace and arms races; social, political and economic justice; conflict regulation; the philosophy and practice of non-violence; a just world order.”[3] In addition, Justice and Peace elements are incorporated in about 25 per cent of other subjects.

Besides the formal courses, many opportunities are arranged for the students to carry out community service for the benefit of the poor. For degree programs the students may spend a semester or two in developing countries in order to see up close their many problems in striving to break out of poverty. Social service may lead them to challenge the society in which they live.

On the other hand, their service may be predominantly for the rich. Fr. Henry Volken, SJ, founder and director of the Indian Social Institute, Bangalore, told us how, as seminarians, they were sent out to dig a pond or tank for the whole community of a village to use. They finished the task and went home feeling good. Only later did they learn that the tank was on a rich man’s property and by force he kept others from using it. So our social endeavors should always begin with social analysis to look below the surface for the true causes at work, often in a hidden way.

From peace to conflict

Bangladesh began in 1971 with an unselfish display of communal religious harmony. The people of all faiths fought side-by-side in the Freedom Fighters. They universally rejoiced on Victory Day December 16, 1971 as the Pakistan Army formally surrendered. The new Constitution adopted in 1972 was based on the UDHR and stated that the nation would stand on four pillars: nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism. But in 1977 President Ziaur Rahman replaced secularism with “absolute faith and trust in Almighty Allah,” and in 1988 President H.M. Ershad amended the Constitution to proclaim Islam as the state religion. The ignorant took this to mean: “Bangladesh is for the Muslims.” The consequences could have changed the whole country completely. But fortunately the rapid rise of fundamentalism provoked a reaction among the sensible of civil society and the Supreme Court declared the two amendments illegal and unconstitutional in 2011. Bangladesh continues to struggle to maintain religious harmony but the lust for land is so powerful that thousands of Hindus have been unjustly deprived of their land. Millions of Muslims are ready to forget they are reasonable animals when Islam is judged to be grossly maligned by outsiders and to erupt into destructive behavior.

On such occasions it would be very helpful for the heads of the four religions to come together and make a joint religious appeal for tolerance and peace for those who were in no way responsible for offenses against Islam. Love, justice and peace, when proclaimed by the highest religious wisdom in the land, will surely move the majority into standing together. Several decades ago when anti-Catholicism was strong in the United States, the chief leader against it in one state was the Protestant Governor. The reason was that he had an Irish Catholic housekeeper who deeply impressed him with her deep faith. By understanding more and more about others, prejudices are weakened or destroyed and people come to see each other  as equal human beings, having humanity as their common bond. The Roman playwright Terence wrote around 200 B.C.: Homo sum et nihil humani a me alienum puto (I am a human being and therefore I consider nothing human as alien to me.)

In my long experience with Caritas I have seen people as a group change. Caritas formed groups among the poor rural people, with 15 members as a minimum. At one time there were 17,000 of these groups, half male, half female, organized for self-reliant development. Even the illiterate have sufficient knowledge of their own local situation to do skilled social analysis. In the beginning there many differences and quarrels among them but they gradually learned to solve personal, group and village problems. They solved injustices by peaceful group actions to bring organized group pressure on the offenders. Peace is learned through practice and people can learn to remove the causes of prejudice and violence.

Use of military for peace

One of the ways the military has been used for peaceful purposes is in the rapid aid given to distressed people after natural disasters. After the 1970 great cyclone it took 17 days before the army showed up in the cyclone-affected areas. This was a source of great criticism of Pakistan, because the army in East Pakistan was exclusively West Pakistani soldiers. The Bangladesh army after independence was strongly welcomed and acclaimed for their assistance after the big cyclones Sidr in 2007 and Aila in 2009. The soldiers are strong and disciplined and can do the immediate tasks of rehabilitation more quickly than even the NGOs. An army which is eagerly awaited is an army which will take pride in its work and in its brotherhood with the survivors of disasters.

The principal aim of the United Nations is the maintenance of international peace and security. The use of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force has helped to solve a problem of long standing. Should a nation intervene when a country erupts in genocide? Is there not an obligation of humanity to intrude militarily with sufficient force to bring about peace? The UN peacekeeping force, while not an active combatant, brings the opinion of the civilized world to bear on a nation that has renounced its responsibilities. The Bangladesh army has furnished the largest peacekeeping group, well-disciplined and not a political power to be feared. The UN was able to please the more powerful nations by taking up the burden and major costs of policing the world. It is not a complete solution, to be sure, but it is a remarkable step on the path to peace.

The Church relies mainly on its Caritas organization which has built up a good name in disaster management and a book on it will soon come off the press. Caritas Internationalis has developed  a disaster manual, which has now been replaced by a much more thorough one  in 2011 produced by the Sphere Project (of which it was a founding member) and entitled Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response.

Anti-nuclear movements

Greenpeace International is perhaps the most vocal voice against nuclear power. It has always fought vigorously against nuclear power because it is an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity. They seek not only to halt expansion of nuclear power but even to shut down existing plants. They consider that nuclear power is a dirty, dangerous and unnecessary technology.

The Church is against nuclear power but little may be done against it in practice. What can the Church do effectively?  For years Bangladesh has been planning a nuclear reactor for producing much-needed energy. The rapid discovery and development of many gas fields held off the nuclear threat for years. But now it is back as a very real possibility, even as richer countries plan on reducing nuclear power. A rosy picture is painted of a fail-proof operation. But more than 80 per cent of the country is less than 50 feet above sea level. What will be the effect of severe periodical flooding on nuclear operation and on storage of spent fuel? With little nuclear expertise in the country, how can the NGOs, civil society and the Church  plan an effective campaign against the reactor before actual construction begins?  The coordinating bodies of the NGOs have to take up this question jointly and to assign their most knowledgeable persons to work on this problem.

[1] › Psychology Topics. Adapted from the Encyclopedia of Psychology.

[2] Satha-Anand, Chaivat, “Understanding the Global Threats of Violence against Sacred Spaces, Just, 2012, 12 (9): P. 11.

[3] Fahey, Joseph J. “The Nature and Challenges of Justice Education” in Justice and Peace Education: Models for College and University Faculty,” 1975, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, p.3.

<VaticanⅡ, Ecological Crisis and Peace of Asia>, Seoul : WTI 2013