24.05.11 01:00 Age: 287 days

Churches showing more initiative on stemming human rights abuse


The Rev. Joachim Mukambu Ya'Namwisi, who represents both the Mennonite Church and the Church of Christ in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said he has watched churches develop increasing strength when it comes to standing up for basic human rights.


In a country in which resources such as uranium, diamonds and cobalt are bountiful, the injustice of poverty is leading to violence, he said.


“Women are especially suffering sexual abuse and violence,” he said. “What can we do?”


Churches in the D.R. Congo joined together and asked for copy of the penal code from the government so they could better understand the law and monitor abuses. “The churches have started giving civic education in the case of sexual abuse. First, we tell people to go to the police and tell them you're a victim of violence. If they don't do something, we tell them: 'the churches will go after you.'”


Ya'Namwisi, speaking during a workshop at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) in Jamaica, was among many church leaders wrestling with a difficult question: “How can churches respond to human rights violations and end the impunity enjoyed by state officials?”


Participants in the workshop, titled “No Peace without Justice,” agreed that church response, while not easy, is both possible and necessary.


In recent years numerous international and hybrid tribunals have been mandated to investigate war crimes, crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. This trend confirms that the international community largely agrees that mass violence demands accountability, and that accountability is best procured through the fair and lawful prosecution of those responsible.


Sometimes, that lawful prosecution can take decades. In Germany, churches are advocating for trials of Nazi war criminals who, decades ago, were responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. “Even a person at 91-years-old can be brought to court,” pointed out the Rev. Dr Barbara Rudolph, of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, Germany. This persistent demand for justice is what brings closure to the victims' families.


Many churches have adopted the philosophy that there can be no peace without justice. A crucial aspect of social healing is the removal of those responsible for grave violations of human rights committed by the hand, or at the behest, of state leaders. In so doing, justice can be served, even belatedly, years after a crime was perpetrated.


Sometimes standing up for human rights puts the lives of pastors and church members at risk, said the Rev. Lorenst Kuzatjike, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia.


“When a pastor or clergy says the church has to stand up against apartheid, then it is difficult because the police and army have weapons. But the church has the word of God,” he said.


Ultimately, churches in Namibia have become a viable force in advancing a just peace, said Kuzatjike. “The church has taken the role of the policeman, of the army, to see that justice is done, to see that the people are living in a just world,” he said.


Yet the pain of raped, pillaged, exploited and enslaved communities reverberates around the world. Due to a lack of both political will and legal implementation, impunity for human rights abuses continues.


Churches are embedded in the community and therefore have a role to play in nudging their communities along the path towards truth and reconciliation, said Fr Rex Reyes, general secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC) in the Philippines.


As an example, Reyes presented the Ecumenical Voice for Peace and Justice which the NCC in the Philippines organized in 2007, and its “Stop the Killings” campaign.


“We invited our partners worldwide and together we brought the human rights violations – extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and others – before the international community,” said Reyes.


Another church-based organization that promotes post-conflict reconciliation through direct advocacy with state institutions is the United Evangelical Mission (UEM) in Germany.


UEM is an international communion of 34 churches in Africa, Asia and Germany, along with the v. Bodelschwingh Foundation Bethel. Its members regard working together for justice, peace and the integrity of creation as an integral part of their missionary duty.

Whether through appealing to supreme courts on behalf of political prisoners, providing legal assistance to victims of violence, or engaging in fact-finding missions to gather evidence of atrocities, churches are contributing to the fight against impunity.


The challenges facing these churches, however, are many. Resistant governments, unenforced laws and heightened skepticism regarding religious initiatives are just some of the factors minimizing the impact these projects are having.


IEPC website


WCC human rights advocacy


WCC member churches in Congo


IEPC photo galleries


IEPC videos


High resolution photos of the event may be requested free of charge via photos.oikoumene.org