Standing With Refugees on World Refugee Day 2017

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Becky

Rebecca Erskine is an Executive Assistant at the World Mission Council. She also sits on the Action Of Churches Together in Scotland- Anti Human Trafficking Group, and has an active interest in the response to the refugee crisis. Here she shares her thoughts on World Refugee Day 2017. 

 

Checking the news has become a bit of an apprehensive activity. Headlines endlessly emerge, breaking news hurries across our screens, and dozens of case studies and images are presented before our eyes each day. Although this is an issue which has been with us for 1000’s of years, the media surge of at present brings the refugee crisis home in a way that perhaps before, was unimaginable to many.

More widely reported than ever, the crisis has urged people and countries around the world to respond to the needs of millions, calling on ethical, financial, political and legal resources. In the midst of the ongoing crisis, many corporations and organisations, including the United Nations Refugee Agency, have stated that they believe now is the time to show world leaders that the global public stands with refugees.

World Refugee Day is marked on the 20th of June in recognition of our need to deal with the immensity of this crisis. This year, on the 20th of June, the United Nations will launch its #WithRefugees petition, to send a message to authorities that they must work together to respond to this crisis more effectively, and work towards a better, safer World.

 

 

The World Mission Council seeks to support our partner churches and organisations who are working tirelessly to make an impact on the everyday lives of refugees. On this World Refugee Day, we reflect on the work some of our partner churches are doing in response to the imminent and long term needs of refugees in their countries. Below are just some examples of how our partners stand with refugees:

  • St Andrew’s Refugee Service (StARS) provide quality education to over 280 refugee children from pre-school to senior grade 3. This takes place in a safe space for children to interact and play, where they also receive their breakfast and lunch. StARS also provide a psychosocial programme for women, which includes a young Somali women empowerment group, weekly Iraqi women support groups, a photography workshop for Southern Sudanese women, women’s sewing workshops, teenager mother support group, and a Sexual and Gender Based Violence awareness week programme.

 

 

  • In the Church of South India, nutritional supplements for pre-school children and the elderly are given to the Refugees Rehabilitation Programme in the Karimnager Diocese. Safe transportation, income generation training for women, health screening and career guidance for youth are also provided.

 

 

  • The Presbyterian Church in Myanmar provides food and shelter construction for communities that have been displaced by floods and landslides within the Chin state.

 

 

  • The Evangelical Church of Greece provides safe, ‘homely’ feeling spaces where refugees can have their own personal space, receive basic health care, education for their children and daily social interaction with the local community.

 

  • The Church of Scotland’s Needing A Neighbour Campaign supports the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan who provide relief for those who have been displaced because by the civil war. Through their agency, the Presbyterian Relief and Development Agency (PRDA), they are able to reach areas in great need with much needed assistance. David Bradwell, the Church of Scotland’s Refugee Coordinator, is doing an interfaith Pilgrimage in July to raise money for this project. You can sponsor him here.

 

 

These are a few examples of the work undertaken by our partners across the globe. On this World Refugee Day 2017, and each time you turn on the news and are presented with the refugee crisis, please keep in mind our partners across the world who are reaching out to refugee communities and individuals, and who work hard rebuilding lives with peace, love and dignity. The World Mission Council stands with its partners who work to end this crisis.

Visit the Scottish Faiths Action for Refugees webpage for more information on the Church of Scotland’s response to the current refugee crisis in the UK.  

A Visit to Wi’am; Non-violence, Playgrounds, and The Wall

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Hebron 33 (Maureen Jack from CPT in red cap)

Maureen Jack is Vice-Convener of the World Mission Council, and has a particular interest in the Middle East. Here she writes about a recent visit to Palestine and Israel. 

 

At last year’s General Assembly one of the international delegates was Tarek Zoughbi, who works at Wi’am (Palestinian Conflict Transformation Centre) in Bethlehem, a Church of Scotland partner.  The centre runs children’s, youth, women’s, job creation, mediation and nonviolent resistance programmes.  The core tenet of the work of this Christian organisation is its commitment to nonviolence.

This is illustrated on its website:  ‘Our physical presence next to the Wall is a continuous non-violent resistance. By having a community center with a garden, playground, and place for people to gather, we are more than anything showing our persistent resilience and commitment to peace and justice. Wi’am networks with other individuals and groups in the West Bank in order to build civil society and promulgate a culture of nonviolence.  Much of our non-violent resistance is focused on Palestinian youth, because they have the potential to create great positive change in our society.’  For information on the full range of Wi’am’s work, please see http://www.alaslah.org.

What is not clear from its website, though, is the difficult situation under which Wi’am operates.  In March I was privileged to be invited by Usama, one of the staff, to visit the centre.  In their grounds they have a children’s playground (full of children during school holidays) and some raised beds in which the people they work with grow vegetables.

 

The centre is in an extremely vulnerable position.  As this first photo shows, Israel’s separation barrier has been built right up against Wi’am’s grounds.  Also extremely close to Wi’am is Aida refugee camp.  There are frequently clashes between Palestinian youths throwing stones and the Israeli military shooting tear gas, sound grenades, skunk water etc.

The second photo shows the remains of tear gas and sound grenades that had landed in Wi’am’s grounds during one such clash just a few days before I visited.  Tear gas is extremely painful to the eyes and brings on coughing: it can be dangerous for anyone with asthma or a heart condition.  Usama pointed out that the tear gas canisters indicated that they were out of date, and so were likely to be even more of a risk to health.

On the separation barrier the Israeli military has installed remotely controlled cameras and a mechanism for dispensing skunk water under pressure.  On more than one occasion skunk water has been fired into the Wi’am children’s playground; Usama thinks this was perhaps simply for the purpose of testing its range.  Skunk water has a vile smell, and so does the sewage that comes onto Wi’am’s grounds from a culvert through the barrier (see the third photo).

We then visited the centre’s shop, where they sell nativity sets made from local olive wood (see the fourth photo), and other small craft items.  I was particularly struck, given the difficulties Usama had spoken of, by the piece of needlework with the message ‘War is not the answer’ (see fifth photo).  By its presence, its witness, and its work, Wi’am is following the path of peace in the birthplace of the Prince of Peace.

A Visit to House of Grace, a Church of Scotland Partner in Haifa: Rebuilding church, lives, and a community

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Hebron 33 (Maureen Jack from CPT in red cap)

Maureen Jack is a member of the World Mission Council who has a particular interest in the Middle East. Here she writes about a recent visit to Palestine and Israel. 

 

In March I went with Kate McDonald, our Minister in Tiberias, to visit House of Grace in Haifa. Here, we met Jamal Shehadeh, a Melkite Christian who now runs the project. The project is housed on the site of a beautifully restored church (see photo below) that Jamal’s family rebuilt from a shell.  New high buildings are being built just a few feet away from the church and the House of Grace buildings. It felt to me as if we were being imprisoned as we stood in their small grounds.

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Perhaps that sense came to me because I was aware of what the House of Grace family do.  Not only have they rebuilt a church, but their work, their ministry, is rebuilding the lives of prisoners on parole.

Non-Jews form 20% of Israel’s population, and 45% of the prison population. Despite such statistics, House of Grace is the only half-way house working with prisoners on parole who are not Jewish. Work with Muslims, Christians and Jews used to take place, but in 2011 the Israeli Rehabilitation Authority required it to work only with Muslims and Christians. Staff and volunteers at House of Grace do however include Muslims, Christians and Jews.

House of Grace can work with 15 released prisoners at any one time. They usually have a waiting list of between 10 and 16 men who have been granted parole, but are waiting in prison for a place.  The arrangement is that the men spend nine months living in House, and then a further twelve months living in the community whilst maintaining contact with House of Grace.  Most of the men interacting with the project have had a drug problem. Their work is very successful, and reoffending rates are lower than other facilities in Israel.

The project also provides job opportunities for men who have been sentenced to community service, as well as evening activities for children in an effort to raise awareness and prevent crimes from being committed in the first place.  Initially, this work was focussed on children who were seen as at risk of becoming involved in crime, but Jamal found that the children were self-conscious about coming and didn’t want their friends to find out. Instead, their children’s programme is now open to all youngsters in the community.

Another part of their ministry is the distribution of food to local families in need (see supplies stacked in church in photo on the right) around the time of their own religious holidays.  Jamal spoke of how encouraging it is when a family will thank them for the offer of food, but say that they no longer need this assistance.  The project cooperates with the welfare department, schools, churches, Scouts, and other community groups in their various programmes.

The work that Jamal and his family do is inspiring.  Jamal spoke of the benefits the men gain from being in a family community, playing with the young children in the family, and having the support of his mother (who was visiting a prison that morning); the regard in which his mother is held was obvious from the wonderful array of Mother’s Day flowers that seemed to be everywhere we looked!

The reputation that House of Grace has gained is impressive. It became vital when the authorities were proposing to cut their government grant.  This would have made their work difficult, if not impossible, to sustain.  As a partner, the Church of Scotland did what it could, through Kenny Roger, Middle East Secretary, to lobby on their behalf.  But, local support was more important.  At an emergency press conference held in the church Jamal was moved to see that sitting together were parliament members, a rabbi, a bishop, a monk and a sheikh. “I couldn’t help my tears” he said.  The funding was reinstated.

Most inspiring of all is listening to Jamal speak about the motivation and strength he gains through his faith.  For him, to be among people and able to help brings him joy.  He spoke of the Shehadeh family being used as a tool to show God’s grace.  For him, being chosen to do God’s work is a source of great joy.

It is a real joy for the Church of Scotland to be a partner of House of Grace.  To visit the project and listen to Jamal is a tremendous privilege.  I would encourage anyone who wishes to enrich their own faith to make contact through World Mission and arrange to visit.

Talitha Kumi. Young Woman, Rise Up

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Jalalpur Jattan_Eleri Birkhead at WDOP service_3Eleri Birkhead, Development Officer at the World Mission Council, visited Pakistan together with other members of the Church of Scotland Violence Against Women Task Group. Below is a short account of her experience:

 

I’m in an office with a line of people before me. Each one of these people has a story of suffering and perseverance. Directly opposite me sits a beautiful young woman and her mother. The young woman looks at the floor, holding back tears. As her mother speaks, the tears flow. She is a survivor, and has a story of abduction, rape, and injustice. The perpetrator is free.

Though the tears flow, this young woman is seeking healing. She will pursue an education, and will not give up. She speaks about the violence she has experienced as an act of defiance.

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Thanks to CLAAS (The Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement), a Church of Scotland partner organisation, this young woman has lawyers representing her, and a strong support network. Her mother has stood by her, despite a culture where rape is sometimes interpreted as an act of ‘spoiling’ a woman’s purity.

This office is in Lahore, Pakistan, where I travelled with the Church of Scotland Violence Against Women (VAW) task group. We were there to learn about the response of the Church of Pakistan, and other partner organisations to VAW.

After many conversations and meetings with a whole range of women and girls it became clear that VAW is a global phenomenon. It comes in different forms, but it has an impact on rich or poor, Christian or Muslim, Asian or European.

The violence experienced by women in Pakistan can range from honour killing, to domestic violence, or societal violence (where women are prevented from pursuing opportunities such as gaining an education). There are very few laws in place to protect women, and existing laws often fail to have any legal impact.

The human impact is devastating. But it’s not all doom and gloom.
Things are slowly changing
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We met women who were pursuing further education, who are determined to bring about change. We met Rev Nosheen Khan, the first woman principal of  the Gujranwala Theological Seminary, and Dr Farhana Nazir who is a faculty member at the Seminary. We met professional women who were lobbying for the legal rights of women and minorities through Community World Service’s National Lobbying Delegation. These women are powerful leaders, and are bringing about societal change.

We also met women whose mission it was to bring an end to violence against women in Pakistan.

Valerie Allen, convener of the Church of Scotland VAW Task Group, was able to speak about violence against women during a church service at the Praying Hands Cathedral in Lahore. Following the service a women came striding towards her and gave her a big hug. This woman, Shunila Ruth, had experienced violence herself. She had taken this experience, and had set up her own organisation called ‘Talitha Kumi Welfare Society’- Young Woman, Rise Up, named after Jesus’ words in Mark 5:41.

Her organisation provides legal support for women who have experienced violence, alongside work and activities designed to provide young women with empowerment.

Lahore_Shuinla Ruth MPA, Director, Talitha Kumi_3

Shunila Ruth has a powerful presence. Her knowledge about the subject is deep, as is her understanding of Women’s Rights. Importantly, she knows what it’s like to experience violence. She can relate to women who come to her, and knows how to provide emotional and spiritual support.

Slowly, within organisations such as Talitha Kumi, and community initiatives, women are coming together and rising up to change a culture and a legal system which is harmful to women in Pakistan

As Shunila Ruth said: “My pain became my passion, and my passion became my mission”. Shunila was impacted by gender based violence. She became passionate about bringing violence against women to an end so that others would not have to suffer. Slowly, she is bringing about change in her community. This will be true for women all over Pakistan, Scotland, and the world, who will be turning their pain into action until we reach justice and fullness of life for all women, and men.

Scotland, Tea and Compassion in Action

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In 1852 18 year old James Taylor left Kincardineshire to be an assistant supervisor on a coffee plantation on Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). He learned about growing tea when he visited India, planted his first tea garden in 1867 and established the first tea factory in 1872. When blight devastated the coffee plantations the estate owners followed Taylor’s lead and opted to grow tea[1].

Local Sinhalese farmers were forced off their land and displaced by the plantations. Unable to find labourers in Sri Lanka willing to work for a foreign master, the planters brought Tamils from India to work on the estates.

The Church of Scotland sent ministers to be chaplains and built churches for the Scots planters, like Scots Kirk in Kandy, but they did no outreach to the local people or the plantation workers.

Fast forward 150 years and you can still visit Scots Kirk in Kandy. The workers on the tea estates are Up-Country Tamils who are among the most powerless people in Sri Lanka.

Thirty years ago a remarkable, visionary woman Pearl Stephen began a women’s’ project in the garage at Scots Kirk. Her husband George was the minister.  Out of that garage an organisation grew to become the Women’s Development Centre (WDC[2]). Pearl set up a school for disabled children to provide special education and rehabilitation. Community development work included work with commercial sex workers who were vulnerable to HIV. But WDC is best known for its work with victims of sexual violence.

Pearl died in 2013 and her daughter-in-law Sashi has taken over the leadership. Like Pearl, Sashi combines total commitment to the girls in WDC’s care with a love and compassion that does not judge.

WDC can accommodate 50 girls and young women under the age of 16 who have been raped or abused. Some of the girls have been abused for years before they become pregnant. They may have been abused by male relatives when their mother was working in the Gulf. They may have suffered because of the breakdown in moral behaviour as a result of the brutalisation of society caused by three decades of war between the government and the Tamil Tigers.

When the Sri Lanka justice system gets involved the abuser is charged with statutory rape and the girl can be referred to WDC. Girls come from all over Sri Lanka, they include Sinhalese and Tamils, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. They can stay until the court case is resolved, which can take a few years in some cases. Sashi and her co-workers help the girls care for their babies, train them in crafts and weaving so they can learn skills that will help when they leave. Parents of the girls come for counselling so they can rebuild their relationship with their daughter. Other girls are admitted to local schools so they can return to education.

Sashi and her team at WDC care for and heal girls who are vulnerable and often discarded by their families. It is impossible not to be moved by what they do. The people who built the Scots Kirk may not have cared much for the people who toiled on their plantations. But the work that began in the garage is compassion in action.

[1] http://www.scotland.org/features/scotlands-legacy-in-sri-lanka

[2] http://womendev.org/

After the Easter Day bombing, resilience and defiance

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Sandy Sneddon writes about his visit to Pakistan in the aftermath of the Easter Day bomb attack in Lahore

On 23 March I was delighted to be invited to attend a ceremony at the Pakistan Consulate in Glasgow to mark Pakistan Day. This commemorates the Lahore Resolution that called for an independent federation of Muslim majority provinces in British-ruled India. Speeches from President Mamnoon Hussain and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif were read out and the Consul General spoke of the strong links between Scotland and Pakistan, the contribution people from Pakistan have made to Scotland and Pakistan’s fight against extremism.

Four days later on Easter Day a suicide bomber killed at least 74 people including at least 42 Christians and injured 300 more, mainly women and children, in a public park in Lahore. Pakistani Taliban’s Jamat-ul-Ahrar faction claimed responsibility for the attack saying they deliberately targeted Christians who were celebrating Easter.

Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park joins a list that includes All Saints Church and Army Public School in Peshawar, St John Catholic Church and Christ Church in Youhanabad, Bacha Khan University, Charsadda as just some of the places where Taliban suicide bombers have attacked and killed scores of people in recent years.

Along with two colleagues I was due to travel to Pakistan on Monday 28 March. After confirming with our partner church that we would still be welcome we arrived early Tuesday. A visit originally planned to focus on Church of Scotland property issues quickly changed to a visit showing solidarity and pastoral support for our partners and the Christian community.

When we arrived in Lahore we met the Moderator of the Church of Pakistan Synod, Rt Rev Samuel Azariah. He had already visited survivors in hospital and was organising meetings with church and Muslim leaders. He called on people to go beyond statements that condemned extremist violence and take concrete action to end the violence.

Later we met with a senior Muslim cleric, Maulana Tahir-ul-Ashrafi. A former Taliban fighter in Afghanistan he told how his experience of being treated with respect by Christians situations led him to re-read the Quran and discover there was no basis for discrimination against Christians in Islam. This changed him from being strongly anti-Christian to becoming a leading proponent of inter-sect and interfaith peace and harmony.

The Church of Scotland has supported the Church of Pakistan’s campaign against the misuse of the Blasphemy Law for a number of years and we also support the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) which operates in Pakistan and Britain. Churches and Christian NGOs established CLAAS in 1992 to be a place where Christians could come for legal aid and support when accused in blasphemy or other cases and to have shelter from their persecutors. We visited the offices and met staff including lawyers and activists. We also visited Apna Ghar (“Our House”), a shelter for victims of the misuse of the Blasphemy Law and forced conversions. We met four young women who were currently residents and who were being rehabilitated after suffering rape or abduction. The staff were interested to hear about WMC’s report and Bible Studies on Gender Based Violence, an issue they have been researching as part of a USAID project.

We attended Sunday worship at Salman Memorial Church, Ugoki outside Sialkot where Iain Cunningham, Convener of the World Mission Council, preached on the Road to Emmaus linking the grief and confusion of Cleopas and his companion to that of Christians in Pakistan following the terror attack a week earlier. We returned to Lahore when Iain, myself and Dr Caroline Carson from the Episcopal Church USA joined over 200 Christians as well as Muslims and Hindus prayed for peace at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park. It was a sombre yet defiant occasion that included us singing Psalm 20, “May the Lord answer you when you are in distress; may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.”

In our final conversation Bishop Azariah asked us to consider how the Church in the West can show solidarity in this time of crisis with the churches in Pakistan. Christians and Muslims must listen and learn from each other so we can combat extremism and terrorist violence. We need to ask our government what is doing to ensure that human rights are observed in Pakistan so that people from all communities can live their lives to the full. The authorities in Pakistan must do more protect its citizens from terror attacks. And we must pray for the families of those killed in the park, pray for the injured to be healed and give thanks for the Christian community in Pakistan, for their faithfulness in the face of extremist violence.

Chillingly a Pakistan Taliban spokesman said this week that they are planning “more devastating attacks that will target Christians and other religious minorities as well as government installations.”

 

Further reading

On Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law http://www.claas.org.uk/blasphemy-laws/

Purifying The Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities by Farahnaz Ispahani (Harper Collins, 2015)

Church of Scotland report on Gender Based Violence http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/serve/world_mission/reports_and_resources/gender_based_violence

Nepal suffers border blockade

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After suffering massive earthquakes in April and May, the Himalayan nation of Nepal was briefly in the global spotlight. After the initial rescue and recovery operations, the news cameras left; many short-term humanitarian relief agencies have also come and gone.

Adding to the burden of redevelopment of infrastructure and the rebuilding of lives following the earthquake our partners and other agencies within Nepal are now being faced with an added crisis which is getting little or no international attention or assistance, says Joel Hafvenstein, Mission Partner. The India-Nepal border crossings have been closed for more than two months, affecting far more people than were affected by the earthquake. This crisis stems from a political dispute that has spun out of control. Now all sides are finding it hard to back down or compromise. All over the country, Nepali people are struggling to buy anything that would normally be imported from India. The border closure is painfully proving how much landlocked Nepal depends on trade with its southern neighbour.

Malcolm & Cati Ramsay, Mission Partners serving with United Mission to Nepal, sent an account of the impact of the blockade.

Nepal has borders with two countries only: India and China.  But the vast majority of imports come from India, as the borders with China pass through the Himalayas which are often blocked by landslides in the monsoon, or snow in winter.

The current blockade on the Indian border is crippling Nepal. The critical shortage of petrol, diesel, and aviation fuel occasionally available is rationed.  So queues at every Kathmandu petrol station easily stretch for a mile or so, and people wait in them for several days and nights at a time.  Gas cylinders for cooking ran out some weeks ago.  The government is now officially selling firewood on the streets of Kathmandu so that people can cook.   Medicines are in desperately short supply.  Many hospitals are warning that they will run out of emergency medicines in a week or less.

Chaos as fuel shortages grip the country

Chaos as fuel shortages grip the country

For many Nepalis life now is gruelling. Schools and colleges are shut as there is no transport.  Factories are idle as they cannot get the raw materials they need.  Restaurants are closed as there is no cooking gas.  Taxis are stationery as they cannot get petrol.  Hotels are empty as tourism has shrunk to a trickle.  The national economy has been seriously damaged by the two-month blockade.  In short, ordinary Nepali life is being throttled.

The cause of the blockade appears to be that the people in the Terai (the low lying region along the southern flank of Nepal which borders on India) are blocking the borders to protest against the new Constitution which was promulgated on 20 September.  They argue the new provinces created in the Constitution exclude them from proper representation.  But everyone in Nepal believes that the blockade is also being unofficially supported by India.  It seems this is because the people in the Terai are ethnically more Indian than Nepali, so India sees their interests as being crucial to continuing Indian influence over Nepal.   Whatever the full truth, the end result is stale-mate.  In the Terai itself tragically there have been almost 50 violent deaths.   Ambulances and lorries carrying medicines have been torched by those enforcing the blockade.

The National Reconstruction Authority should be ingathering and disbursing the $4.1bn, (£ 2.7bn) funds pledged by foreign governments and donor agencies.  However, a full seven months after the earthquake, this body still has not been even set up as the various political parties are squabbling between themselves as to who should be its Director.

The other intensely dispiriting aspect of the current crisis is that there are some people who are actually benefiting from the whole situation.  One such group is those who run the black-market.   Black-market petrol is being sold at three times the official price.  Mission Partner Joel Githinji writes of how a 13 kg cylinder of gas that normally cost Rupees 1,500 (about £9) is now sold at Rupees 7000-8000 (£43-£50).

Old water bottles filled with black market petrol

Old water bottles filled with black market petrol

Another group which is benefiting are some opposition politicians.  They see the crisis as a chance to unseat the current Prime Minister K. P. Oli(who was only appointed in September). So they are refusing to support any talks which are aimed at ending the crisis.

Our mission partners ask us to raise awareness of the current crisis and to pray that the current deadlock would be resolved soon.  And until it is, pray that corruption and greed may be replaced by honesty and integrity, and that those who are most at risk may be given priority for what limited resources there are.

“Why Are You Going There?”

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Asia Secretary Sandy Sneddon writes about his recent visit to North Korea

“Why are you going there?” How do you get there?” “I didn’t think they’d let church people in.” “I didn’t think there were any Christians there.” These were the kind of responses I heard when I told people I was visiting North Korea, or to give the official name the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

I was in a 12 person delegation organised by the World Council of Churches (WCC) that was invited by the Korean Christian Federation (KCF). WCC has been involved in advocacy for peace, reconciliation and reunification on the Korean peninsula since 1984, a process that was given fresh impetus at the WCC’s 10th Assembly in Busan, South Korea in 2013. This was the first ever ecumenical meeting with representatives from North and South Korea, Korean Diaspora and internationals to take place on the Korean peninsula.

In September our partner churches in South Korea, the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK) and Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) held their centennial General Assemblies and held  a Northeast Asia International Peace Forum. The Forum culminated in a prayer service at the Reunification Observatory at Odu Mountain outside Seoul that overlooks the rivers between South and North Korea. We wrote our prayers for peace on ribbons and tied them to a cord as we looked north across the border.

Prayer ribbons at the Reunification Observatory, Odu Mountain, South Korea

Prayer ribbons at the Reunification Observatory, Odu Mountain, South Korea

2015 year marks the 70th anniversary of World War 2 and also the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule. Without consulting the Korean people President Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin agreed to temporarily occupy the country as a trusteeship with the zone of control along the 38th Parallel. The hope was to establish a Korean provisional government which would become “free and independent in due course.” Seven decades on the division remains cemented by the Armistice which ended the 1950-53 Korean War, a conflict that cost up to 5.5 million lives and devastated the peninsula.

New tower blocks, Pyongyang

New tower blocks, Pyongyang

Our hosts arranged visits to a number of places of historical and social significance in and near Pyongyang. We saw monuments dedicated to events and achievements and that celebrated the ruling Kim dynasty starting with Kim Il Sung’s family home at Mangyongdae just outside Pyongyang. The Tower the Juche Idea was built in 1982 to mark the 70th birthday of Kim Il Sung who developed Juche as a doctrine which emphasises man’s control of his destiny, political independence, economic self-sustenance, and self-reliance in defence. The Arch of Triumph is slightly bigger than its Parisian namesake and was also built in 1982 to honour President Kim Il-sung’s role in the military resistance for Korean independence. The Monument to the Three-Point Charter for National Reunification commemorates Korean reunification proposals put forward by Kim Il-sung in 1980. These seek reunification without outside interference through a federal structure retaining each side’s leadership and systems in a successor state the Democratic Federal Republic of Korea. In 2000, both North and South Korea signed the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration in which both sides made promises to seek out a peaceful reunification.

Monument to the Three Charters for Reunification, Pyongyang

Monument to the Three Charters for Reunification, Pyongyang

It was harrowing to see the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities which commemorates over 35,000 people killed by US-led forces at the end of 1950.

Other visits included a nursery and kindergarten where 100 orphans have first rate facilities that would be the envy of any country. Some five year-olds performed patriotic songs for our group. The home for 80 elderly people next door was similarly well equipped. The KCF bakery runs at only 20% capacity due to US sanctions that make it difficult to buy ingredients.

Kindergarten children singing patriotic songs

Kindergarten children singing patriotic songs

We visited the Joint Security Area around Panmunjom, part of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) which forms the 250 KM land border along the 38th Parallel. Despite the name the DMZ is the most militarised strip of land on the planet. The WCC visit included a meeting with Kim Yong Dae, Vice President of the Supreme People’s Assembly and we had a whole day meeting with KCF of the Steering Group of the Ecumenical Forum on Korea.

People's Army soldiers at the demarcation line, Joint Security Area, Panmunjom

People’s Army soldiers at the demarcation line, Joint Security Area, Panmunjom

We were even entertained at a dolphinarium, a circus acrobatic show and a football match. The game was between a works team from the South playing against a Pyongyang factory team and was played in the largest stadium in the world, the 150,000 capacity Rungrado 1 May Stadium.

On the Sunday the WCC delegation attended worship at Bongsu Church, one of only two protestant church buildings and the first to be built in DPRK since the Korean War. This is the church, rebuilt in 2011 with funds from South Korea, where delegations are taken. There was a lot in the service about reunification, DPRK’s calls for dialogue and recent achievements under the leadership of Kim Jong-un. We also visited Chilgol Church, rebuilt in 1992 and again in 2014. It is on the site of the original a Presbyterian church built in 1889. Kim Il-sung’s maternal grandfather was an elder and his mother, Kang Ban Sok was an active member. We also visited a house church of 11 people. Mr Cho Un Pong established the house church in 1992 and continues to be the leader. KCF say there are some 500 house churches across DPRK. The existence of a church in DPRK probably owes a lot to Kim Il-sung’s Christian relatives. The current Chairman of KCF, Kang Myong Chol is from the same family as Kim Il-sung’s mother. Claims by some groups that North Koreans cannot attend church are untrue on the evidence I saw though there are restrictions on the activities of Christians and adherents of other faiths.

Choir at Bongsu Church welcoming the WCC delegation

Choir at Bongsu Church welcoming the WCC delegation

In the Pyongyang Appeal issued during the visit WCC asks member churches, church-related organisations and people of good will to engage in solidarity, advocacy and action to end provocative joint US-South Korean military exercises near the peninsula; lift economic sanctions against DPRK; Engage in respectful dialogue between the two Koreas, with the objectives of mutual recognition, peaceful co-existence, reunification and reconciliation; Promote exchanges and encounters between North and South Koreans, and mutual visits by members of the international Christian community and Christians in the DPRK, in particular young people from both North and South Korea; Strengthening the relationship between the KCF and the NCCK with the churches of South Korea, and with the Korean Christian diaspora around the world.

The NCCK has faced criticism from the authorities in South Korea for participating in the visit and agreeing to the Pyongyang Appeal, which was initially misreported in the South Korean press. This illustrates that the Gospel imperative for peace is still radical and challenging to many who gain from the status quo of conflict and division.

I look forward to the Church of Scotland playing an active part and fulfilling the commitments of the Pyongyang Appeal

‘Noted’

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Entering into Malawi through its Mulanje border from Mozambique seems like moving from lying on rocks to lying on a feather bed. After 3 hours of seriously bumpy dirt roads to suddenly being on a flat, non- potholed Tarmac was bliss. We should not think that all roads in Mozambique are dust, there were some great stretches of good roads and more being constructed and equally there are some pretty awful ones in Malawi.

However at this  point it was bliss!

This is day 5 with Synod of Blantyre and like the roads our visit has seen high and low points. Two days of Consultation meetings bringing with them questions about process, accountability, sustainability and more. Important issues which can be aired in a round table situation which perhaps can’t from our offices in Scotland can be brought up in face to face meetings. Opportunity to meet with other partners from around the world asking similar questions – some answered and some ‘noted’ – can lead to shared understanding and shared working.

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Visiting Malawi helps to bring perspective to the very current political and economic situation in both the country and the church. The currency fluctuation against the dollar means almost certainly a hike in fuel prices is on the cards, which has a knock on effect for all other commodities. Malawi at present is the poorest country in the world in terms of GDP.

Visiting our Mission Partner, Dr. Ruth Shakespeare at Mulanje Mission Hospital brings perspective in relation to the importance of continuing our partner relationship here. Her long time experience of working strategically in resource poor settings around the world has ensured improvement on all fronts in the hospital. It is not just about caring for patients and mentoring the medical staff, we found her having just installed solar power, overseeing a whole new sewage system, passionately discussing the future dairy cow project and showing us the new staff housing project. All of these add value to the lives of people living in the catchment area.

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We returned to Blantyre on Monday to greet the delegates at the 30th Biennial Syond meeting, we left them as they debated and deliberated their future. Then once more we were on the road!

This time northwards to Nkhoma and anticipation of the next experience!

Building on Strong Partnerships, Rebuiding Communities

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Sandy Sneddon visited one village affected by the April earthquake in Nepal

Jare is a small village in the south of Dhading district about 60 KM from Kathmandu. Thirty families live and work the land there, a mixed community of various castes and Dalits.

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A view of Dhading in Central Nepal

A local organisation, Prayas, has been working with the community for five years. Supported and mentored by United Mission to Nepal Prays has organised the women into a Self Reliant Group that ran a savings club and helped with loans to expand their farming to include goats. The women organised a drinking water supply scheme for the local school, providing much of the labour themselves so that pipes could be laid to bring water to the school. They planted banana and guava trees and split the income between the school and children’s club that Prayas also established. School attendance was poor but as the women became more organised they took turns to accompany the children to school. They also took turns to guard the local forest to prevent illegal logging and enlisted the help of volunteers. As in other places in Nepal some men abuse alcohol, drinking “raksi,” the locally-made spirit. And as in other places this can lead to domestic disputes and violence. The women of the Jare Self Reliant Group started intervening and reconciliation work in the community.

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One the members of Jara Self Reliant Group

United Mission to Nepal (UMN) has been working with various local groups in Dhading district since 2005. Today they work with nine NGOs, a government school and a farmers’ cooperative. They have helped these organisations develop policies, improve governance and become more sustainable.

At 11.56 on 25 April a massive earthquake struck central Nepal. The men and women of Jare were outside working so amazingly no one was injured. Ninety percent of the buildings were damaged and are unsafe, about a fifth of the houses collapsed. A lot of livestock was killed and all the water sources dried up, except for school drinking water.

With a decade of experience working in Dhading and with long-established relationships with local government, community-based organisations and the communities where they work meant UMN was ideally placed to deliver relief aid quickly and effectively to over 12,000 households, something that was recognised by the communities and the district administration. This was a massive labour and logistical effort – many communities, especially in the mountainous north of Dhading, are very isolated and the existing poor roads and bridges were damaged and blocked by landslides. UMN are finalising a 25 month plan for relief and rebuilding work in five Village Development Councils in the district, three in the north and two in the south, including Pida.

They will be ably assisted by the resourceful women of Jare SRG, amazing, resilient women who have already dome so much to improve the quality of life in their community.

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A member of Jara Self Reliant Group

This is one glimpse of one community that was affected by the earthquakes that devastated Nepal in April and May this year. It also shows what our partners are doing

in response, working with communities and community-based organisations to help them rebuild their homes, villages, farms and lives. This will take years and we all have our part to play.

The Church of Scotland co-founded United Mission to Nepal in 1954 and remains a Supporting Partner.