Category Archives: Justice and Peace

South Sudan church balances prophetic role, practical challenges

by Chris Herlinger
NCR
(August 21, 2017)

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Santo Loku Pio Doggale, the auxiliary bishop of the capital of Juba (Chris Herlinger)

(August 21, 2017)  Yuba, South Sudan — Bishop Santo Loku Pio Doggale is not a man to mince words and he didn’t mince words earlier this year when he discussed South Sudan’s descent into a worsening, seemingly never-ending civil war.

“The government is the orchestrator of the war, and the people are suffering as a result,” he told NCR from his office in the capital of Juba in late May, citing numerous examples of the afflictions South Sudanese are experiencing: rape, looting and displacement.

“They are being brutally mistreated,” the auxiliary bishop of the capital of Juba said of those who are the victims of violence — victims who have, at the moment, “no resource to justice. It’s a big mess.”

He acknowledges that his critics — in the government and even some, privately, within the church — wonder if his criticisms are fair, smart or wise.

But Doggale brushes aside those criticisms, saying, “I’m not afraid.”

“My life doesn’t matter. I’ve suffered, too. I’ve lost members of my family. But when brutality is the order of the day, someone has to speak up, especially when you see that the flock is living in fear. This makes me angry.”

Doggale’s outspoken stance represents one wing of the church — a faction that believes that the church needs to be firm in its prophetic stance not only for the larger cause of peace in South Sudan but also in calling out the current government for policies and actions some believe are the cause of the current war.

But in a predominately impoverished, Christian nation where the church has an outsized role in providing education, social services and even basic necessities like food, the church’s place in society also has a practical side.

“The Catholic Church has a strong, strong footprint here,” said Fr. Pau Vidal, a Jesuit priest and a project director for Jesuit Refugee Service in the northern city of Maban. Another humanitarian agrees. “The churches have credibility here in South Sudan,” said Jerry Farrell, the country representative in South Sudan for Catholic Relief Services. “In fact, they’re the only institutions that do have credibility, as they touch on so many parts of life: spirituality, health care, housing, education, food.”

Financial figures about the church’s role are hard to come by, but Catholic Relief Services alone has provided assistance of some sort to more than 1 million South Sudanese, the agency said, and works in partnership with local dioceses, parishes and religious congregations of both women and men.

Famine remains a serious problem and 6 million of country’s 12 million people face some kind of food insecurity — the lack of access to food — according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Church-based groups have initiated programs to improve the humanitarian situation within the country. As just one example, the Society of Daughters of Mary Immaculate, or DMI Sisters, is working on local initiatives to assist small communities in agricultural projects.

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Homes and businesses destroyed in recent clashes just outside the South Sudanese capital of Juba (Chris Herlinger)

Grave problems persist in the country and whether stated in public, like Doggale, or in private, among numerous Catholics, they revolve around the current government in power.

The criticisms center on several fronts — that the government has either not been able to control factions of the government military forces known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which is predominately made of members of the ethnic or tribal group known as the Dinkas, or has been purposely targeting non-Dinkas and populations the government believes oppose it.

Ethnic tensions have been put to use for political purposes, as Human Rights Watch said in its report on the ongoing conflict, noting that it began in 2013 when “soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and those loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, fought in the capital following months of growing political tensions.”

In its 2017 report, Human Rights Watch said that government troops have “killed, raped, and tortured civilians as well as destroying and pillaging civilian property during counterinsurgency operations in the southern and western parts of the country,” while acknowledging that both sides of the conflict “have committed abuses against civilians in and around Juba and other areas.” Some 2.4 million South Sudanese have been displaced, Human Rights Watch noted.

For its part, the South Sudanese government claims its troops are trying to battle an anti-government rebellion. It has blamed the civil war — which began in late 2013 — on anti-government rebels. And it has said it is committed to finding a peaceful solution to South Sudan’s war with those who oppose the government.

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Young boys in a camp for the displaced on the grounds of the Catholic cathedral in Wau (Chris Herlinger)

Some within the church, such as Fr. Moses Peter, a diocesan coordinator for Caritas in the city of Wau — which has faced a serious crisis, with thousands seeking refuge on the ground of the Catholic cathedral there — are, like Doggale, government critics. Peter said, “Nobody trusts the SPLA,” and notes that the government has accused the Catholic Church of being “pro-rebel,” a charge he strongly rejects. (President Kiir is a Roman Catholic.)

Yet the prophetic often mixes with the practical — Peter says in his humanitarian work, he works cordially with local officials among the thousands displaced in Wau by the conflict. And the church has a long history in Wau of involvement with peace efforts among all parties and factions to help diffuse local tensions.

Everyone in the church is tired of the conflict and is eager to resume some sense of hope and nation-building that ushered in the creation of the world’s newest nation after it gained independence from Sudan in 2011. Many relish memories from that time, their first taste of independence, coming after years of war.

“It was a beautiful moment — an independent people felt they could start afresh,” said Vidal. “But the [current] war has worsened the situation so much and there is no sense of nation unity now.”

Some say there is still enough political and humanitarian space to do needed pastoral work.

“It is certainly better now than in the 1960s when our people were under Arab rule,” Sr. Mary Faida, a member of the Sacred Heart Sisters, a South Sudanese congregation, said of life under the rule of neighboring Sudan, which is predominately Muslim. She said the work now of the church and of religious congregations — whether in education or in health care — is “giving hope to the people.”

Yet there are still deep worries about the church and its future. Interviewed in May, Doggale said even with all of its problems, he did not believe that the national government was engaging in systematic harassment of the church. But he did say some government officials were probably behind threats to individuals, including him.

“Is it government policy? No,” he said, but added he had received several threatening anonymous calls recently, including one in which a man told him, “Your days are numbered.”

There have been other troubling signs, too: a group of government troops threatened employees of a church bookstore in Juba in February of this year and took books off of the shelves they declared were written by government critics.

Since May, the bishop has become increasingly pessimistic. South Sudan-based Radio Tamazuj reported in July that Doggale called the current government’s national dialogue strategy “a waste of time.” He said, “The problem is political and it has to be solved by the political leaders,” including Kiir and Machar.

“The ordinary citizens have not yet created any problem, that’s why our faithful citizens are able to stay for three months without salaries and they don’t even demonstrate. They still go to work, you will never see this in any country in the world,” he said.

In emails earlier this month, Doggale told NCR that the current situation is “getting worse day by day. People are living in the uncertainty, rampant insecurity, hunger and diseases. In one word. It is limbo.”

In a later email, the bishop said, “The intimidation is of all South Sudanese by their own government. The ruling elite don’t care who you are, they just do what they want and when they want it.” He said there is there is no rule of law and repeated his belief that the country is in limbo.

“In South Sudan everybody is under intimidation, and so fear is instilled into people. It is the church that tries to give some voice, and so they (the government) are not comfortable about that and that is why they also get frustrated when the voice of the church continues in many ways to be aloud and strong on the suffering of the people.”

Others who agree with the bishop say privately the church has to be careful — that it is dealing now with what some call a military dictatorship and that the church is clearly in the government’s crosshairs.

“This is not a joke, what is happening now,” said one member of a religious order, who said the Kiir government has made a number of false allegations about the church, including that it has called “for regime change.”

“The stakes are now going up for the church,” the member said.

“The blood of the tribe is thicker than the water of Baptism,” Doggale said. “Our government is Catholic. They read the Bible. They go to church. But how much do they put into practice?”

Others also point out that in such an intense, confusing environment it is probably no surprise that four dioceses in the country are without bishops now.

“The Catholic Church is trying to finds its way now. But in keeping quiet, and not speaking out against human rights, we are taking sides and protecting our own projects,” said one cleric who did not want to be identified.

“How much injustice will we continue to see? There is so much that the religious here are witnessing,” the cleric said. “When you speak out [it is assumed], you are speaking out against the government. How can you do that in a way that is constructive?”


[Chris Herlinger is international correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is cherlinger@ncronline.org.]

How Syria continued to gas its people as the world looked on

Reuters Investigates Toxic War

REUTERS-Bassam Khabieh Syria continues to gas citizens
DEADLY AGENT: A sarin attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta killed hundreds of men, women and children in August, 2013. Despite international condemnation, attacks with chemicals continue. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Nearly four years after President Bashar al-Assad’s government promised to get rid of its stockpile of chemical weapons, gas attacks are still commonplace. What went wrong?

By Anthony Deutsch

Filed Aug. 17, 2017, 10 a.m. GMT | THE HAGUE – In the spring of 2015 a Syrian major general escorted a small team of chemical weapons inspectors to a warehouse outside the Syrian capital Damascus. The international experts wanted to examine the site, but were kept waiting outside in their car for around an hour, according to several people briefed on the visit.

When they were finally let into the building, it was empty. They found no trace of banned chemicals.

“Look, there is nothing to see,” said the general, known to the inspectors as Sharif, opening the door.

So why were the inspectors kept waiting? The Syrians said they were getting the necessary approval to let them in, but the inspectors had a different theory. They believed the Syrians were stalling while the place was cleaned out. It made no sense to the team that special approval was needed for them to enter an empty building.

The incident, which was not made public, is just one example of how Syrian authorities have hindered the work of inspectors and how the international community has failed to hold Syria to account, according to half a dozen interviews with officials, diplomats, and investigators involved in eliminating Syria’s weapons of mass destruction.

A promise by Syria in 2013 to surrender its chemical weapons averted U.S. air strikes. Many diplomats and weapons inspectors now believe that promise was a ruse.

They suspect that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while appearing to cooperate with international inspectors, secretly maintained or developed a new chemical weapons capability. They say Syria hampered inspectors, gave them incomplete or misleading information, and turned to using chlorine bombs when its supplies of other chemicals dwindled.

There have been dozens of chlorine attacks and at least one major sarin attack since 2013, causing more than 200 deaths and hundreds of injuries. International inspectors say there have been more than 100 reported incidents of chemical weapons being used in the past two years alone.

“The cooperation was reluctant in many aspects and that’s a polite way of describing it,” Angela Kane, who was the United Nation’s high representative for disarmament until June 2015, told Reuters. “Were they happily collaborating? No.”

“What has really been shown is that there is no counter-measure, that basically the international community is just powerless,” she added.

That frustration was echoed by U.N. war crimes investigator Carla del Ponte, who announced on Aug. 6 she was quitting a U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria. “I have no power as long as the Security Council does nothing,” she said. “We are powerless, there is no justice for Syria.”

The extent of Syria’s reluctance to abandon chemical weapons has not previously been made public for fear of damaging international inspectors’ relationship with Assad’s administration and its backer, Russia, which is giving military support to Assad. Now investigators and diplomatic sources have provided telling details to Reuters:

– Syria’s declarations about the types and quantities of chemicals it possessed do not match evidence on the ground uncovered by inspectors. Its disclosures, for example, make no mention of sarin, yet there is strong evidence that sarin has been used in Syria, including this year. Other chemicals found by inspectors but not reported by Syria include traces of nerve agent VX, the poison ricin and a chemical called hexamine, which is used to stabilise sarin.

– Syria told inspectors in 2014-2015 that it had used 15 tonnes of nerve gas and 70 tonnes of sulphur mustard for research. Reuters has learned that inspectors believe those amounts are not “scientifically credible.” Only a fraction would be needed for research, two sources involved in inspections in Syria said.

“Why, my God, three-and-a-half years later, has more progress not been made in clearing up the inconsistencies? If I was the head of an organisation like that, I would go to Damascus and I would confront these people.”
–Angela Kane, former U.N. high representative for disarmament

– At least 2,000 chemical bomb shells, which Syria said it had converted to conventional weapons and either used or destroyed, are unaccounted for, suggesting that they may still be in the hands of Syria’s military.

– In Damascus, witnesses with knowledge of the chemical weapons programme were instructed by Syrian military officials to alter their statements midway through interviews with inspectors, three sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international agency overseeing the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, conceded serious questions remain about the completeness and accuracy of Syria’s disclosures.

“There are certainly some gaps, uncertainties, discrepancies,” OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu, a Turkish diplomat, told Reuters.

But he rejected criticism of his leadership by Kane and some other diplomats. Kane told Reuters that Uzumcu should have turned up the pressure on Syria over the gaps in its reporting and done more to support his inspectors. Uzumcu countered that it was not his job “to ensure the full compliance” of treaties on chemical weapons, saying that the OPCW was mandated to confirm use of chemical weapons but not to assign blame.

Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Meqdad, insisted that Syria was completely free of chemical weapons and defended the country’s cooperation with international inspectors.

“I assure you that what was called the Syrian chemical weapons programme has ended, and has ended with no return. There are no more chemical weapons in Syria,” he told Reuters in an interview.

Sharif did not respond to requests for comment about the incident at the warehouse.

SARIN ATTACK

On Aug. 21, 2013, hundreds of people died in a sarin gas attack in Ghouta, a district on the outskirts of Damascus. The colourless, odourless nerve agent causes people to suffocate within minutes if inhaled even in small amounts. Assad’s forces were blamed by Western governments. He has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons and blames insurgents for the attack.


Continued: Read the full report –
http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/mideast-crisis-syria-chemicalweapons/

 

South Sudan: A Cup of Tea

Sent by Sister Carolyn Buhs, SNDdeN
Solidarity Teacher Training College
Yambio, Gbudue State, South Sudan

July 28, 2017 Raimundo Rocha

By Bill Firman – The basic things we need for daily living we often simply assume they will be there. Not so in South Sudan where very little can be taken for granted. When I first came to South Sudan in 2009, I lived in Malakal. Most people there cooked on charcoal but we were lucky enough to be able to use gas. It is very convenient to be able just to turn a burner on and off when you like. When gas was no longer available, we used charcoal, a much slower and less convenient way of cooking.

When we turned the generator on, or there was town power, we could use an electric hot plate. At that time there was town power at night in Malakal. In Juba, where I am now, there used to be town power all day; but town electricity is only a happy memory today. It ceased to be available several years ago. We have adjusted and installed solar power but our solar system will not support cooking on an electric hot plate or in an electric oven.

cooking with charcoal
Women cooking in South Sudan
Image credits: Paul Jeffrey, 1017

In most of our houses and institutions, charcoal or wood is used for cooking, backed up by gas. Bottled gas is not readily available outside of Juba. We have found ways to maintain a limited supply of gas in Wau, Yambio and Riimenze but only if we use it sparingly. One cannot just go into town to renew the supply. In large towns such as Juba, Wau and Malakal, charcoal has to be brought in from bush areas. It is, or maybe was, a common sight to see trucks laden with bags of charcoal moving into Juba. Making and selling charcoal from wood has been a traditional South Sudan occupation for people in bush areas.

Amid the soaring prices of food, the shortage of diesel and petrol leading to greatly increased public transport costs, the great devaluation of the South Sudanese Pound (SSP) and the general insecurity, we thought conditions for the people could not get much worse. But in the past month, they have. In just three or four weeks the price of a sack of charcoal in Juba has increased from SSP700 per bag to SSP2500. One man living in a UN PoC (Protection of Civilians) camp told me recently that most of the people there have not cooked for several days.

In the PoC camp, the cost of a bag of charcoal is SSP3,500. That is about USD 24. It may not sound much in some countries but when salaries are low, it is a huge problem. The judges in South Sudan have been on strike recently as their salaries are in the range of 8000SSP to 12,000SSP (not even USD100) per month. Most South Sudanese are paid significantly less than this. So how can they afford this inflated price for charcoal?

 

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Our very loyal worker, Emmanuel, has four children at home with his wife plus several members of his extended family. He estimates they normally use about one sack of charcoal per week. Others with fewer people say a sack will last for three or four weeks if they are careful. Either way, it is easy to understand why the huge increase has people worried. Image credit: Paul Jeffrey
Displaced find refuge in South Sudan Church
Rosa Taban sits in front of her makeshift shelter in a camp for more than 12,000 internally displaced persons located on the grounds of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Mary in Wau, South Sudan. Image credits: Paul Jeffrey

Why has this happened? Insecurity. Apparently charcoal producers are too easily robbed bringing their charcoal to the city to sell it or when taking the payment for it back to their home place. The rising cost and shortage of fuel may also be a significant factor leading to the high new price. So there is a charcoal shortage. I suppose some may say not burning charcoal is good for the environment but it is certainly an unwanted scenario for those living in Juba who lack alternatives.

The shortage and rising cost of fuel affects everything. Our driver and cook in Juba each have to catch two buses each day, each way, to get from where they live to here. It does not seem long ago that the fare was SSP1 for a bus ride but now it is costing them SSP100 to travel to and from work each day – about SSP2000 per month.

The front cover of a recent Amnesty International Report carried the statement in large bold letters: ‘If men are caught they are killed; if women are caught they are raped’. In another report, Amnesty asserts that ‘A survey conducted in 2015 by UNFPA found that 72% of women living in the Juba PoC sites reported having been raped since the conflict broke out, mostly by police and soldiers.’

Displaced find refuge in South Sudan Church
A family shares a meal inside their shelter in a camp for more than 12,000 internally displaced persons located on the grounds of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Mary in Wau, South Sudan. Most of the families here were displaced in June, 2016, when armed conflict engulfed Wau. Image credits: Paul Jeffrey

These are startling statements and there is fear among the people of becoming victims of violence. There are many traumatized people but most cope by putting it out of their minds and getting along cheerfully with life. But how do you remain cheerful when you can’t even afford to boil the water for a cup of tea? How do you remain healthy if you can’t cook your food or sterilize the water you drink? Many South Sudanese are used to living with a simple diet, and with hunger, but many will find life very difficult if they can’t cook their porridge or enjoy a cup of tea.

Br Bill – S.S.S.

 

“Long March to Justice:” Appointed Judge to Investigate Syrian War Crimes

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
IPS (Inter Press Service)

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What remains of a street in Aleppo. Credit: IPS

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 6 2017 (IPS) – A former French judge has been appointed as the head of an independent team tasked with investigating war crimes in Syria.

Catherine Marchi-Uhel was appointed by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to lead a panel known as the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism which aims to gather, preserve, and analyze potential evidence of serious violations of international law committed in Syria since 2011 for use by courts or an international tribunal.

The legal team, established in Geneva, was created by the UN General Assembly in December 2015 after facing longstanding resistance from Russia which has used its veto power eight times in the Security Council to block investigations and action on the conflict.

Marchi-Uhel is the first head of the panel and has extensive experience in international criminal law, previously serving as an international judge with the UN mission in Kosovo and in Cambodian courts prosecuting leaders of the Khmer Rouge. She was the Head of Chambers at the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and worked in various legal positions at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with UN peacekeeping missions.

Most recently, Marchi-Uhel has been serving as the ombudsperson for the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda.

Many applauded the move, including Human Rights Watch who noted that the team is “critical” for the “long march to justice,” stating: “For victims who have known nothing but suffering, despair, and abandonment, the creation of this team represents a small step in the difficult struggle for justice, redress and an end to impunity that has marked the bloody conflict.”

Though the exact figure is uncertain, estimates of casualties from the 7-year long war range from 320,000 to over 400,000.

A UN International Commission of Inquiry has comprehensively documented atrocities committed by all parties to the conflict, including systematic attacks on hospitals and schools.

One of the deadliest attacks in Syria came in October 2016 when a series of airstrikes hit a complex of schools in Haas, killing a total of 36 civilians, 21 of whom were children between the ages of 7 and 17. Another 114 people were injured in the attack including 61 children. Afraid of future attacks, the school was closed.

“A Syrian Air Force attack on a complex of schools in Haas (Idlib), amounting to war crimes, is a painful reminder that instead of serving as sanctuaries for children, schools are ruthlessly bombed and children’s lives senselessly robbed from them,” the commission stated.

Such attacks in Syria are estimated to account for half of global attacks on schools from 2011 to 2015.

Several countries have already begun their own investigations into war crimes in Syria including Sweden which prosecuted a former Syrian opposition fighter for war crimes in December 2016.

The International Mechanism headed by Marchi-Uhel is expected to further these efforts around the world.

However, the team, funded by voluntary contributions, has only received half of the $13 million that its work is estimated to cost in its first year with 26 contributing countries as of June.

Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Switzerland, and Qatar are among the group’s top donors.

Follow @https://twitter.com/tharanga_yaku

Christians in Middle East call Pope Francis’s visit to Egypt a blessing

Dale Gavlak |May 2, 2017
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

PAPAL VISIT EGYPT
Pope Francis and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, right, attend an ecumenical prayer service at the Church of St. Peter in Cairo April 28. (Credit: Paul Haring/CNS.)

Christian leaders in the region say Pope Francis’s April 28-29 trip to Egypt was a great success. The pope has backed Egypt’s efforts to tackle Islamic militancy, saying the country has a special role to play in forging regional peace as well as in “vanquishing all violence and terrorism.”

AMMAN, Jordan – Pope Francis’s historic, 27-hour visit to Cairo has left a profound mark on Egyptians, Catholic leaders said, as they anticipate increased ties with fellow Orthodox Christians and Muslims.

“The pope’s visit was a big blessing to the Egyptians, both Muslims and Christians. It boosted the morale of the Egyptian people, especially after the Palm Sunday blasts,” Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Egyptian bishops, told Catholic News Service by phone. “He gave a message of love, peace and hope.”

Greiche referred to a pair of terrorist attacks April 9 at two Egyptian churches. The Islamic State group claimed credit for the attacks, which killed at least 45 people, injured more than 100 others and shook the Middle East’s largest Christian community to the core.

“The pope’s visit for Catholics in Egypt was a great happening, very positive,” Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, a noted Egyptian Catholic theologian and Islamic studies scholar, told CNS. The professor teaches at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and St. Joseph’s University in Beirut.

Even more important, he said, was the historic improvement in ecumenical ties between the Catholic and the Coptic Orthodox churches. Francis and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II signed a declaration on common baptism.

“This was a big step,” said Father Samir.

“In Egypt, there are a lot of mixed marriages between Catholics and Orthodox,” Samir explained, citing the previous Coptic Orthodox requirement that new members joining the church – including those who had previously been baptized as Catholic – had to be baptized again.

“This was very unhappy,” he said. Now both churches agreed to recognize each other’s sacrament of baptism and pledged to continue working toward greater unity.

“In general, the ecumenical relations with the Coptic Orthodox Church made very good steps and can go further,” Samir predicted, citing a possible reconciliation over the celebration dates of Christmas and Easter.

He also said Francis and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi reached a better understanding. This is important for the country’s Christians, who are among the oldest communities in the Middle East, dating back to the apostle Mark.

“By meeting (el-Sissi) and having a normal, positive relationship, the pope is supporting the only one who can help the Christians,” the theologian said. “Being a very pious Muslim, el-Sissi is also the one trying to protect the Christians against ISIS.”

Francis has backed Egypt’s efforts to tackle Islamic militancy, saying the country has a special role to play in forging regional peace as well as in “vanquishing all violence and terrorism.”

Yet, Greiche said he believes it may be difficult to protect Christians and other Egyptians from growing acts of extremist violence.

“Criminal acts are designed in the heads of terrorists first. You cannot say that Christians are safe or anybody is safe from any terrorist attack. We pray and we ask for our Savior to help us and not to experience more than what we already have,” the priest said.

“We cannot say that Christians will be more safe (due to the pope’s visit), because terrorists are always there,” he added.

However, Francis’s call to expose extremist violence carried out in God’s name impacted Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, who heads al-Azhar University in Cairo. He hosted the International Peace Conference attended by Francis, Tawadros and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the Eastern Orthodox churches.

Although “ISIS will not listen to whatever the pope says,” Francis has now put the Vatican’s relationship with al-Azhar on a stronger footing, said Father Samir.

As the world’s highest authority in Sunni Islam, al-Azhar trains Muslim clerics and scholars from around the world and has the potential to change the discourse.

Critics, including el-Sissi, complain the university is not doing enough to properly challenge Islamist extremists on theological grounds.

However, scholars also point to a dichotomy in the Quran in which Islam’s Prophet Muhammad at times espoused peaceful interactions with Christians and Jews and at other times violence.

By emphasizing nonviolence and that “only peaceful means are acceptable, it will help some Muslims to go along this line – to be nonviolent,” Samir said. “The main thing is change the mentality of Muslims, especially of the teaching of Islam, which is mainly the teaching in al-Azhar. “

Samir also pointed to another challenge.

“In the last five to six years, there is a new element, the militarization of radical Islam,” he said. The scholar blames the United States and some European countries for providing arms to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which allegedly finance radical Islamic movements.

“The problem is much larger. It’s a question of rethinking Islam,” Father Samir said.

Francis also met with Egyptian seminarians, priests and religious before wrapping up his Cairo visit, leaving a deep impression on them, too.

“He greatly encouraged us to live a life dedicated to Christ, the living hope. And to instill that hope in all we minister to: the disabled, the poor and disadvantaged,” Father Shenouda Andraos, the head of St. Leo Great Coptic Catholic Seminary, told CNS.

New South African alliance calls for Zuma’s exit

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Sister Brigid Rose Tiernan, SNDdeN holds the sign — “Zuma you are accountable.” Photo: Joan Mumau, IHM

AFP

Johannesburg (AFP) – South African opposition parties, religious groups and civil society activists on Thursday launched a new alliance to try to force President Jacob Zuma to step down.

Called the Freedom Movement and backed by retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, it plans to hold a mass rally on April 27, the annual holiday marking South Africa’s first post-apartheid election in 1994.

Zuma’s sacking of respected finance minister Pravin Gordhan last month fanned years of public anger over government corruption scandals, record unemployment and slowing economic growth.

“Never before has there been a more urgent need to build unity of purpose to stop South Africa’s current trajectory,” said the movement at its launch in Soweto, a hotbed of the struggle against apartheid.

Tutu, seen as the country’s leading moral authority, said in a tweet that he supported the movement, adding “it is important that we unite as South Africans to bring an end to state capture.”

“State capture” is a term that refer to the alleged corruption among Zuma and his associates.

Tens of thousands of South Africans have in recent weeks staged demonstrations demanding Zuma’s resignation.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance party and several small opposition parties backed the alliance as well as some trade unions and the National Religious Council.

On World Day of Peace, stories of sisters who survived Hiroshima bombing

by Gail DeGeorge
Global Sisters Report

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Sr. Masako Miyake, left, talks to Sr. Estelle Kazuko Takabayashi, who was sharing her memory book. (GSR photo / Gail DeGeorge)

(December 29, 2017) The world witnessed the horror of nuclear weapons on August 6, 1945, when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m., killing about 80,000 people instantly.

By December of that year, the death toll in Hiroshima rose to about 140,000, including those who had died in fires and from injuries and radiation sickness. Hiroshima city officials say the toll exceeds 290,000 if the count includes those who died after December 1945 of nonacute injuries or radiation poisoning.

On August 9, 1945, three days after the bombing of Hiroshima, the United States dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing more than 70,000. Thousands more from both attacks suffered with lingering health problems.

While in Hiroshima a few months ago, I interviewed five sisters: three who witnessed the attack and are hibakusha, victims who survived the bombing; one who arrived in the devastated city two days later and also is considered a hibakusha; and one who came to Hiroshima as a small child just six months after the attack. They shared their memories of that day and how it shaped their lives and vocation. In some cases, it was the first time they had heard each other’s experiences. January 1 is the Catholic observance of World Day of Peace.

5-sisters-in-gail-degeorge-600x112-px-web
From left to right, Sr. Agnes Elenor Kazuko Hirota, Sr. Anna Cecilia Yukie Sakimura, Sr. Lucia Joseph Akie Aratani, Sr. Estelle Kazuko Takabayashi, all Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, and Sr. Maria Teruka Onojima, a member of the Society of the Helpers of the Holy Souls. (GSR photos / Gail DeGeorge)

Sr. Agnes Eleanor Kazuko Hirota, 76, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur
She was 5 years old and playing outside with friends when the bomb dropped. The house cracked, and she remembers suddenly being under the house. “If I stayed still there, we could all have been dead, but I saw a slight, dim light, so we walked,” Hirota said.

She led her playmates toward the light to a nearby river. Her mother came looking for her and found her near the river, where her father also reunited with them. She lost track of what happened to her friends. She would learn later that she was the only survivor.

“As we were there at the river, the oily rain, the black rain came,” Hirota said. The dark rain, which fell for about 30 minutes after the mushroom cloud formed above Hiroshima, contained soot and dust with radioactive particles from the bomb.

Hirota, her father and her mother went to a nearby tree to take cover. Hirota’s mother was badly injured by falling debris, and her brother brought his friends to carry her mother on a stretcher. She was so little that others could carry her, Hirota said.

While she was waiting for her older brother, people kept going into the river for water. Many who went into the river died — some by drowning, some from severe injuries and others from shock.

“That is something I always carry in my heart: All my friends are gone. God must be requiring me to live differently,” Hirota said. “So that has always been my question. What is my mission? What is it I have to accomplish?”

On August 8, “we lost our mother. She called me to her side and told me her last message: to stay strong,” Hirota said.

The next day, her father died.

“My father asked me for a glass of water, I brought it to him, he drank the water and passed away,” she said. Her brother and sister weren’t able to be with her parents in their last moments.

“At a young age, I got to see death, and I understand what it is like to die,” Hirota said. “I’m not very scared of death. It is very quiet, it is very austere.”

Without her parents, life was difficult for Hirota. Her oldest brother was 20 and took care of her and her sister. He sent Hirota and her sister to a Catholic school instead of a public one because it offered a better education.

“I took it as a calling, and I became a nun,” Hirota said.

Her brother had four children, so it couldn’t have been easy to pay the tuition, she said. “God has always protected me all the way up to now,” she said.

She said she was less than a half-mile from the epicenter of the bombing and is grateful she has never been hospitalized with any effects from it. At 76, “I am still up and standing and teaching in kindergarten and thankful for the things I can do.”

Throughout her work as a teacher, Hirota said she has felt called to convey the message of peace to her students. “Where there is justice, there is peace,” she tells her kindergarten students.

“I tell the children their quarrels are little wars — even at that young age, they need to learn to make peace,” Hirota said.

“We can grow peace,” she said. “It’s the peace that we should pass down to generations.”

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Sr. Anna Cecilia Yukie Sakimura stands next to a bust of St. Pope John Paul II, who visited the Memorial for World Peace Cathedral Feb. 25, 1981. (GSR photos / Gail DeGeorge)

Sr. Anna Cecilia Yukie Sakimura, 80, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur
Sakimura, then 9, had been evacuated to her aunt’s house outside the city before the bomb dropped. Many parents sent their children to the countryside to protect them during the war.

She saw the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, then learned that something awful had been dropped. On the path near her aunt’s house, she saw people walking or being carried on stretchers to get away from the city.

Because her family was in the city, “I was really worried about the mushroom cloud.” So on August 9, she and an older cousin took a train into what was left of Hiroshima. Amid the vast devastation, she remembers seeing an iron bridge that had fallen and others that were half destroyed.

Her father was away for work in Iwakuni, about an hour from Hiroshima. Her mother and two older sisters were in the city when the bomb fell. Her oldest sister was rescued from a building that had collapsed, but a friend her sister had been with died instantly.

Her brother, who was a soldier in charge of telecom operations, had been walking to the train station when the bomb dropped. His body was never found.

In the years after the bombing, Sakimura’s family lived near a Christian family in Hiroshima that hosted a study group with a German priest. Because of their relationship with the Christian family, Sakimura’s family, which had practiced Buddhism, became Christian.

When she was 13, Sakimura decided she wanted to be baptized, but her parents said she was too young. She waited a year and was baptized when she was 14. Her calling to consecrated life came thanks to Sunday school at the Hiroshima Peace Cathedral. Her older sister also decided to become a sister.

“I read about saints, and the most touching was Francis of Assisi” because of his peaceful and gentle nature, Sakimura said.

“My calling was to be part of this religion,” she said.

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Sr. Lucia Joseph Akie Aratani; Sr. Agnes Elenor Kazuko Hirota pose on the grounds of the Memorial Cathedral for World Peace in Hiroshima, or Noborimachi Catholic Church, built 1950-1954. On the right is the 1915 Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, which was damaged in the bombing and left as a memorial. It is commonly referred to as the Atomic Bomb Dome, or Genbaku Domu. (GSR photos / Gail DeGeorge)

Sr. Lucia Joseph Akie Aratani, 82, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur
At the time the atomic bomb exploded, she was 11 years old. She was attending a school just outside the city but would return to her house near the Hiroshima train station after.

School started at 8 a.m., but the students had to be at school at 7 a.m. to work in the school’s garden. On the morning of August 6, the students had done their hour of farming work and were on the second floor of the school in their classroom. Class was about to start.

Aratani was seated in the front row. She remembers seeing her teacher standing up from her desk and going to the podium, and “all of a sudden, there was a flash with a beautiful orange color — bright orange. It was very transparent. . . . I turned my head to the other side and from the window, the white building across the way turned blue from the light. Then all of a sudden, bam! A great sound and all the windows fell with a great noise.”

“I was so scared,” Aratani said. “I was crazy enough to run away from the site.”

She took her backpack with her lunch and her school helmet and ran. She had to be careful walking because of the holes in the floor, and there was shattered glass everywhere.

She ran to her teacher’s house near the school.

“My mother told me she would come [if there was an emergency], so I just waited at my teacher’s house,” Aratani said.

She went into a storage house and saw her teacher’s brother and others coming up on a hill. She saw people were injured and burned, with some being carried on stretchers.

At that point, “I’m expecting my parents to come find me,” Aratani said. Her teacher, who wanted to find out what happened to the students, came looking for her. The school was rearranged as an emergency center.

She remembers one scene in particular at the emergency center: “One mother was trying to take care of her baby, trying to feed her. But she was greatly burned and shaking. She was all black and red and must have been in great pain but needing to feed the baby. But the baby wasn’t moving. That scene stays in my mind. I don’t forget, even now.”

Before the light fell, she and some friends wanted to go home, so they walked part of the way to Hiroshima but were sent back — the city was in flames. She stayed at her teacher’s house, then later went up in the mountains to the relatives of her teachers.

“We were looking at the city burning,” Aratani said.

She remembers seeing soldiers on the road, some lying down without hats or hair. They were asking for water. She remembers someone shouting that if the victims were given water, they would die. (Although they were not aware that a nuclear weapon had been used, they had watched people die from shock shortly after being given water.)

Her sister found her with the teacher’s relatives. “Our houses were all burning — still burning the whole week. A tree trunk kept burning for a week downtown. We’re still in wartime, so the fighter jets were still coming.”

“From August 7 on, the city was filled with the stench of death,” Aratani said. The bodies were covered with maggots and flies. Three days later, group cremation began.

After the bombing, many priests came to Hiroshima. Aratani’s sister decided to get baptized and took Aratani to church and to catechism class.

A very famous German priest, Fr. Hubert Cieslik, was among a small group of Jesuit priests in Hiroshima who survived the bomb.

“He was a very gentle man,” Aratani said.

The priest spoke in slow Japanese, but Aratani loved his sermons. She didn’t like Mass at first — it was in Latin and the priest wasn’t facing the congregation. She didn’t want to go at all, but he helped her understand it.

She was baptized, and her mother came to the ceremony in a kimono. Aratani still has a card from her baptism. “It was a grace from God, and I fell in love with prayer,” she said.
Every morning, she would go to Mass with her sister, walking to the church and to school. She was very impressed with the Catholic sisters who taught and cared for them.

“I wanted to be a sister — from the blood of my heart,” she said. “They took care of us. I never had any doubt.”

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Left, Memorial to Sadako Sasaki and the many children who died in the A-bomb attack or from effects afterwards: Sasaki was 2 years old during the bombing and had no apparent injuries, but developed leukemia nine years later. She kept folding paper cranes, believing they would help her recover, but she died Oct. 25, 1955. Thousands of school children joined in folding the cranes while Sasaki was battling the disease and continued afterwards in her memory, including Sr. Maria Teruka Onojima. Right, the Genbaku Domu. (GSR photos / Gail DeGeorge)

Sr. Estelle Kazuko Takabayashi, 90, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur
After high school, at age 19, Takabayashi was sent to a factory in Kurashiki, where she was when the bomb dropped in Hiroshima, where her mother and brothers lived. (Her father had died of a cerebral hemorrhage when she was 10 years old.)

She decided to try to go to the city on August 7, taking trains from the countryside into the city in a roundabout way. She arrived August 8. There was no train station and no buildings. Soldiers were trying to clear the streets. She remembers seeing one lady who must have been beautiful, as she was an officer’s wife, but she looked like a ghost. She was carrying bones in her hands — her father’s bones, the lady told her.

She tried to find her mother. Their home had been near a school in the central part of the city where the Peace Park now is. Her mother, she heard later, had gone on an errand to what would become the hypocenter and must have died in the blast. Her body was never found.

She passed a swollen corpse that looked like a horse. As she walked along the railroad, she met many Koreans who had been working in the area who were crying because they had lost their families. She arrived in west Hiroshima and met up with her elder brother.

Her younger brother had been injured breaking up houses to stop the fires that raged in Hiroshima after the bomb. He was taken to a relative’s house in the hills, where there was a long line to see the doctor, who could do nothing to help people. Takabayashi and her brother went back home, and he died on August 11.

“I said, ‘Stop, do not go,’ but he got colder and colder,” she said. “I cannot forget the experience of death itself. Even now, I feel something.”

A few years later, Takabayashi began teaching at a Catholic school, Notre Dame Seishin High School in Hiroshima. Her whole family was Buddhist, but she decided to study the catechism. She went on a retreat and was baptized in 1951. She entered the convent in 1955.

She says she has put her life in God’s hands. “I accept from God everything, and that has given me peace,” Takabayashi said.

“There is tragic news every day with terrorist attacks,” she said. She said she gets peace from faith: “People have forgotten [getting peace through faith] because there is confusion and terrible things still happening in the world.”

Sr. Maria Teruko Onojima, 74, Society of the Helpers of the Holy Souls
Onojima is Japanese but was born in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation. When she was 3 years old, just six months after the United States dropped the bomb, Onojima’s mother moved her and her 2-year-old brother to the suburbs of Hiroshima to join their grandparents, who had lost everything in the bombing.

Her classmate, Sadako Sasaki, died of leukemia 10 years after the bomb at the age of 11. Her story is immortalized in Children’s Peace Monument as well as in the symbol of paper cranes: Sasaki believed folding paper cranes would help her recover, and she kept making them during her eight-month fight with the disease.

When Sasaki was hospitalized, “we started making cranes. It was very serious leukemia, so we tried to join her wish. All of us made cranes.”

Onojima’s grandparents were very religious, she said. Onojima remembers her grandmother telling her: “You have to look for your own God.”

“So that was my assignment. That’s what I was looking for,” Onojima said.

She first went to the Protestant church, but by her first year of senior high school, she was studying with a Jesuit priest who was a pastor in Hiroshima. He introduced her to a sister who was a Helper of the Holy Souls. She was baptized at 18, and at 25, she decided to join the Helpers of the Holy Souls community.

As part of the international congregation, Onojima was sent the Philippines in 1979 during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. She lived in a very depressed area to help build the Christian community. When she introduced herself, she would say she was from Hiroshima.

“They don’t know much about Japan, but they know about Hiroshima,” Onojima said.

After 10 years in the Philippines, she went to the United States for five years then returned to Japan. “Little by little, [working with hibakusha] became a special mission,” she said. “For me, this is natural.”

The Society of Helpers was the only congregation in Hiroshima before World War II, so when the  Memorial Cathedral for World Peace was built, the center asked them to send a sister to help manage the church. Since then, sisters of the Society of Helpers have worked at the cathedral, and it is now Onojima’s turn. She has provided spiritual direction and support to hibakusha at the Cathedral for World Peace for 23 years.

“There are so many people seeking the meaning of life and are really suffering,” Onojima said.

After World War II, “many adults didn’t have any inner care” — emotional, psychological or spiritual counseling, she said. Adults could not express their feelings even to their families, so relationships with children and parents become strained.

“When I started working here, many were looking for someone to tell their stories, so I continued listening to the stories,” she said. She is not a psychologist but studied spiritual direction and accompaniment in Chicago. “My experience in the Philippines and the States and international congregation and that international experience is very helpful.”

“For many years, [survivors] didn’t want to talk about the war or their experiences,” she said. “But now, they want to talk.”

[Gail DeGeorge is editor of Global Sisters Report. Her email address is gdegeorge@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter @GailDeGeorge. Thanks to Mariko Komatsu and Sr. Masako Miyake of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur for their help in telling these stories.]