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.

Living Stones – journeying together in Mozambique.

Carol Finlay, World Mission Council, Church of Scotland writes about journeying with the Evangelical Church of Christ in Mozambique. (IECM)

The road to Linchinga was lined with mud brick and thatched houses, and the red dust from the road covered everything inside and outside our vehicle! It was a long road and took us several hours to reach there but the welcome we received from the members of the congregation was as warm as the sun shining outside the church. This was the case as we travelled throughout the northern part of Mozambique. We are visiting our partner church with another partner church, the CCAP Synod of Blantyre.  Following in the footsteps of those early missionary’s of the Church of Scotland in what is now the south of Malawi, we journeyed from Blantyre to Mozambique. Over 100 years ago, the Scottish Mission took the gospel eastwards and the IECM was founded.

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The church has had a rocky history, disturbed by land feuds, wars and unnatural boundaries drawn through tribal groups. It finds itself today in a country that is geographically vast and economically growing but where resources are not evenly spread. The IECM, Synod of Nampula is situated in the north, east of Lake Malawi, in an area of outstanding beauty, with amazing rocky ridges and mountains but with little in the way of Tarmac roads, schools, health clinics etc. The church struggles with travel between its congregations. It also juggles languages, Portuguese, English Chichewa and Lombwe.

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The church also struggles with capacity in its organisational structure, with training for its clergy and even the ability to pay them wages. There are only 5 full time paid ministers, several others have to take on other employment and work part time as unpaid ministers. The church needs to work with its members to move from a culture of expecting always to be given what they need to a sense of ownership and therefore developing a means of supporting the church structures.

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Our journey took us to the graves of some of the early missionaries, remembered and beautifully tended by the church today; but more importantly it allowed us to meet the ‘Living Stones’ of the IECM today, it reminded us we are in a three way partnership and has encouraged us all on our journey of faith together. We look forward in the next three years to developing a tripartite relationship, to help our sisters and brothers to build capacity and to share and learn from each other as we attentively accompany each other on the journey.

No Holiday Camp

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Here is World Mission Council member, Maureen Jack’s final post from her visit to Greece as part of the Christian Peacemaker team.

There are three camps for Photo33refugees on Lesbos. Of those run by the authorities, the longer-established one is the detention centre Moria Camp, which is run by the police and is over four miles from Mytilene. It houses several hundred people in buildings. The refugees are fenced in and not allowed to leave without the document from the Greek authorities that allows them to travel; equally, organisations such as Christian Peacemaker Teams are not allowed in. When I first visited Moria eleven days ago, the camp itself was full, and there were hundreds of people camping just outside the camp, some in proper tents but some under makeshift shelters. They had access only to a small van selling water and a few items of food and other essentials. Now, the number of people outside the camp is relatively small, and the turnaround time only a few days, which is a real improvement.

Kara Tepe Camp was established this year on a spare area of ground a couple of miles from Mytilene as a temporary transit camp. When I first arrived here it was extremely cramped, and I was told that at one poInt there were more than 3000 refugees. It is all tented accommodation, with ridge tents provided in which extended families of up to ten people sleep, often simply on pieces of cardboard. But there have not been nearly enough to accommodate everyone, and so refugees unable to find a vacant tent buy small tents locally. There are a few toilets in the camp, but the smell from them is such that I haven’t looked inside. There are also a few stand pipes with hoses, at photo32which the men and children wash; but for women it is much more difficult. The water is not fit to drink. There has been a lot of illness in the camp, especially among the small children. Kara Tepe is open, and so the refugees can come and go at will. There are two supermarkets within a hundred yards or so, which means that people can buy necessary supplies, as long as they have the money. For those who don’t, food is distributed twice a day; but the morning distribution I saw consisted of a bread roll; and refugees and agencies have told us that there is often not enough food for everyone to get a share and that the quality is very poor. In a recent change, all of the Syrian refugees are taken to Kara Tepe, with the other nationalities going to Moria. The turnaround here too is much quicker than before so that the Syrians generally only have to stay one night; even last week, some people were staying in these conditions for a number of days.

The third camp is Pikpa. It is very different from the others, much smaller (fewer than 100 refugees) and run by a group of local people called Village of All Together (VOAT). It is a couple of miles from Mytilene, and is on the site of a former youth camp. There are wooden buildings of about sixteen feet square, furnished with beds and mattresses, bedding, towels, and basic cooking equipment. On arrival, refugees are given toiletries and some basic food. There is donated clothing available if needed. Each week there is a food distribution, according to what has been donated during the week.

I was recently involved in taking five Syrian refugees to Pikpa from the local hospital Photo35because it was felt that they would not cope with the rigours of Kara Tepe. One family was a father and his young adult daughter. Around midnight, two of my teammates were out for a late swim when they saw a boat with refugees making for the shore; they helped the group out of the water, and when this young woman collapsed they helped to get her to the hospital, where she was kept in overnight. The hope is that after a rest for a couple of days she will be ready to continue with the journey. The other family was a young couple with the husband’s brother. He has significant physical disabilities and is paralysed from the waist down; I understand that he had to be catheterised in hospital. I don’t know what these three young people experienced in Syria that made them embark on this desperately difficult journey; I only know that the young woman was terrified when an aeroplane (presumably full of tourists) flew overhead – she burst into tears, and clung onto my hand.

There is a helpful Greek man who works in connection with the ferry ticket office at the port. I saw him most evenings and he told me how many refugees have travelled on to Athens that day. A week ago he told me that the figure since 8 June 2015 was over 26000. To put this in context, the population of Lesbos is something like 86000. This influx places tremendous pressures on the community here. I have been extremely impressed by the continuing commitment of local volunteers to improving the lives of the refugees during their time on Lesbos.

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The last stage of this part of the refugees’ journey is to get an official document from the Greek authorities which allows them to stay in Greece for a limited period of time, and removes certain limitations on them (such as not being able to take a taxi). It is moving to see how excited people are to get this document, which allows them to set off on the ferry to Athens on the next stage of their journey, often with Germany or Sweden as their ultimate goal. But, as I watched them embark on the ferry, I could not help wonder what difficulties lay ahead for them.

Welcome to the EU.

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Maureen Jack, a Member of the World Mission Council, shares further news from her experience as part of a Christian Peacemaker Team in Greece.

The system on Lesbos is that refugees have to complete an initial registration with the port police in Mytilene. Some land near Mytilene and so don’t have too far to travel. But others land on the north side of the island; as you may have seen on TV, some of the refugees, men, women and children, had to walk almost forty miles. Until recently, there was a law in Greece forbidding the giving of lifts to refugees; indeed, some local people were charged and brought to trial for helping in this way. Fortunately, this law has now been repealed; locals and tourists offer lifts and Medecins sans Frontieres has provided a bus from Molyvos in the north to Mytilene, which some refugees can travel on. And there are people helping along the route, giving food and clothing, including the good folk of a church in the village of Kallouni.

Refuges in Lesbos

People are often exhausted when they arrive here. I have seen people with their shoes and the bottoms of their trousers dripping wet. It is mainly younger people who make the journey; one young Syrian man told me that he and his wife of four months had come but that their older family members were not fit enough to make the journey. But I have seen a man in a wheelchair who does not have the use of his lower limbs or one arm, following injuries sustained when planes dropped bombs in Syria; he is travelling just with his brother and a friend, but everyone on their boat had helped him.

Refugees can arrive in Mytilene at any time of the day and night. The registration office is supposed to be open between 6am and 9pm, but I have been in the port area around 7pm or 8pm and found it closed.

Some refugees have little money, but for many I have met money is not an issue. They are allowed to patronise shops and cafes, but they cannot legally stay in a hotel or take a taxi or public bus without the relevant document from the Greek authorities. (When I was on my own taking a taxi to one of the refugee camps, the driver asked me if I had this document). This means that there are refugees with no option but to hang about and sleep rough in the port area, either waiting for the office to open for the initial registration or, after this first registration, for a bus to their camp.   One young Afghani woman who had arrived in the early evening asked me where she could wash and change and I could only suggest that she have something to eat or drink in a cafe and use the bathroom there (the public toilets are not great.)

I have watched how people are dealt with during the initial registration. I am sorry to say that they are not always treated well. None of the refugees speaks Greek and so the port police speak to, or often shout at, them in English (which some, but by no means all, understand). To be fair, there are sometimes so many people that the authorities have a difficult job. But the staff make the refugees sit on the ground (which is covered in small stones) in a cramped area. After giving information including their name, nationality and date of birth, the refugees get a piece of paper with the date of their registration and a registration number; then they have their photo taken holding up this piece of paper.

After this, they are free to go to the camps. The time of registration dictates how long they wait for a bus: I have spoken to people at 8pm who have been waiting for the bus for seven hours, afraid to move from the car park in case they miss it.   The numbers of refugees are such that the buses that take them to the camps are often overcrowded. I shall write about the camps in my next post.

A Hazardous Journey To Seek Refuge.

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Remains of boat washed up on shore.

Remains of boat washed up on shore.

Maureen Jack, a member of the World Mission Council shares some thoughts from her current placement as a Christian Peacemaker.

I am here on the Greek island of Lesbos on a short-term project with refugees with Christian Peacemaker Teams. The media have run a number of stories about the present situation on the island, including the impact of the large number of refugees on tourism. I have only been here a few days, but apart from close to the ferry terminal, it is unusual to see more than a few refugees in the main town of Mytilene, near where most of the refugees wait in camps for the documentation needed for them to move on.

The refugees’ journey to Lesbos is fraught with difficulty. The last stage is by boat from Turkey, just a few miles away, to the north of the island. Several refugees have described it to us. Turkish people smugglers sell places in an inflatable boat for $1000 to $1500 each. One young Afghani man told CPTers that the boat in which he came was about 8 metres long and held fifty people. The boats are equipped with engines. The smugglers point the refugees in the general direction, but do not travel in the boats, leaving the refugees to fend for themselves. So they have to decide, for example, who will steer the boat. As they approach the Greek coast, fearful of being sent back, they often slit the rubber and throw the engine overboard. One young family were still dripping wet after they had come and registered in Mytilene, And some refugees who have been on boats that have taken in water report having lost the few possessions they were able to bring with them.

One refugee family I spoke to has lost something much more precious: their eight-year-old son. He was knocked down by a car and died instantaneously as the family walked for part of the way through Turkey on their journey from Syria. As I sat with the father, a sports teacher, and his wife, a primary school teacher, he said sadly, ‘We have paid a high price.’

They, like so many of the Syrians I have met here, have come from Aleppo, the home town of Father Ibrahim Nseir, who was a delegate at this year’s General Assembly.   One group I met are all Christian. I asked them whether they were afraid during the journey: ‘When we come to the land, I thank Jesus,’ said one young man.

The fact that so many people have made this hazardous journey from Father Ibrahim’s city has brought it home to me how difficult things must be for him and his family.

A Refuge for Refugees

Maureen Jack, a World Mission Council member sends a third blog from her visit to our partner church, Synod of the Nile of the Presbyterian Church of Egypt.

What does the term ‘unaccompanied minor’ mean to you? Until yesterday, it made me think of children excited to be travelling on an airplane, maybe going home from school for the holidays, or off to stay with grandparents, But yesterday in Cairo we encountered a very, very different reality.

Egypt has many refugees, who have come from countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and, more recently, in large numbers, from Syria. One agency that works with them is the St Andrew’s Refugee Service (StARS) in downtown Cairo. The organisation is based in St Andrew’s United Church, which was originally a Church of Scotland church, the sanctuary having been dedicated in 1909 by the then Moderator of the General Assembly. St Andrew’s is one of the churches in the Synod of the Nile, a Church of Scotland partner.

The need for support for refugees here is immense. The official UN High Commission for Refugees figures indicate that there are 180 000 refugees in Egypt. Unofficial estimates place the figure at more than twice that number. Their situation is extremely precarious. Refugees cannot become Egyptian citizens. Nor can their children. Nor can their children’s children. Lack of citizenship denies them access to healthcare and education. They have no recourse to the law and so no protection against the racism that was described to us. It is therefore not surprising that the church’s Pastor, Rev Kristen Fryer, finds that members of some of the eleven other congregations that worship in St Andrew’s are reluctant to leave after worship, finding in the church a place of safety and security and solace.

It is no surprise, either, that many try to escape by boat to Europe. The Executive Director of StARS told us about one group of people who paid money to risk the journey recently. They were held for several days on farms (to hide them from the authorities), and then spent days first on smaller boats and then on a larger boat, before being landed again in Egypt; altogether, they had spent ten days without access to food or water.

StARS has over a hundred staff and provides a service to several thousand refugees each year. They offer intensive support to people in crisis and to new arrivals, whom they seek to link to communities from their own area; they offer group support to mothers of children with a disability and survivors of sexual based violence; they run an adult education programme, with 1500 to 2000 participants, some classes meeting in the hall built many years ago with CofS Guild funds; they run an all-through school for 245 children (they can only offer a place to one applicant in six); and because the most vulnerable children were missing out on places in the school they have started a preschool to prepare them for school; and they have a feeding programme, providing breakfast and lunch for all their pupils.

All this they do on an annual budget of $500,000 (about £300,000). Staff salaries are low, both for expats and for those case workers who come from the communities they serve. Their working conditions are cramped and basic. But what you see is their passion for and joy in service and their commitment to those they serve.

And the unaccompanied minors? StARS reckons that there are around 1100 refugee children in Egypt with no parent or relative fulfilling the role of parent; StARS provides a service for 400 of them. For some children, their parent(s) died on the journey to Egypt. There are others whose parents are in prison in their home countries and who have been sent on their own to make the hazardous journey in the hope that they might have a better life. The children have a very difficult time: some of them are abused or forced into prostitution, which is why the organisation hopes to raise the money it needs to be able to employ a psycho-social worker for children in the area of sexual and gender based violence. The youngest unaccompanied minor with whom they work is a little Sudanese girl of just six, whose parent died after they had arrived in Egypt. Her worker has been able to find her a home with a Sudanese family from the same tribe who are giving her good care.

To hear of what StARS achieves with so little is amazing. To meet their staff is inspiring and humbling in equal measure. What an appropriate name: STARS.

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