“May we work together to advance towards a new horizon of love and peace, of fraternity and solidarity, of mutual support and acceptance.” Pope Francis
M&R BULLETIN #3 | April 2021
Increased conflicts cause displacement
and exacerbate the pandemic
Despite restrictions on movement arising from the pandemic, conflicts and persecutions continue to force displacements around the world. According to the UNHCR, as of June 2020 there were 79.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide (of whom 45.7 million were IDPs, 26 million were refugees, 4.2 million were asylum seekers, and 3.6 million were Venezuelans displaced abroad).
Conflicts and the pandemic have mutually affected each other throughout 2020, and this will probably continue in the near future. On the one hand, the COVID-19 emergency has increased isolation, preventing forcibly displaced communities from accessing basic services and other assistance, and exposing them to the risk of further violence. On the other hand, violence did not stop with the arrival of the health crisis, which instead created new opportunities for conflict. We are even witnessing an increase of clashes and tensions in certain regions because of a lack of resources and the difficulties some experience in accessing services as a consequence of the pandemic.
For its part, the Catholic Church is committed to promoting peace between peoples and nations. To this end, the Holy See considers that fostering a culture of encounter and of solidarity are the main ways to build a sustainable peace and to address forced displacement. The main objective of this bulletin is to share ideas and illustrate actions that can be taken to end violence and respond to the distress of people displaced by conflicts in this time of pandemic, inspiring and inspired by Catholic actors at all levels.
Conflicts and displacement
In Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical Letter Populorum progressio of 1967, affirming the concept of integral human development, the Magisterium of the Church reflected an important shift that took place after World War II, namely the move from a focus on national security to a concern with human security around the world. Nevertheless, more than half a century later, in his Encyclical Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis describes the current situation of widespread violence as “a ‘third world war’ fought piecemeal”. What all these abuses against human dignity share, as the Pope notes, is a denial of “the human family’s innate vocation to fraternity”.
Therefore, “there can be no peace without a culture of care,” as the Holy Father reminded us on 1 January 2021, the celebration of the 54th World Day of Peace. Peace is a great good and a gift from God, and is founded on attention to others and on dialogue and cooperation between peoples. Peace “is not only the absence of war, but rather a life rich in meaning, rooted in and lived through personal fulfilment and fraternal sharing with others. Then that peace, so longed for and always endangered by violence, by egoism and evil, that peace that is endangered may become possible and achievable,” he said.
The Vatican COVID-19 Commission (VCC-19) has devoted close attention to increased conflicts connected with displacement and the pandemic.
During the press conference entitled “Preparing the future, building peace in the time of COVID-19” (EN, IT, ES), Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson began by affirming that “while today unprecedented sums are devoted to military expenditure (including [massive] nuclear modernization programs), the sick, the poor, the marginalized, and victims of conflict are being disproportionately affected by the present crisis.” Current crises are interconnected and are widening the gap between rich and poor, but also between “zones of peace, prosperity, and environmental justice and zones of conflict, deprivation, and ecological devastation,” stressed the VCC-19. In light of this, “there can be no healing without peace. Reducing conflicts is the only chance for reducing injustices and inequalities.” To this end, the VCC-19 calls for multilateral implementation of Sustainable Development Goals in order to “shift from national security by military means to human security as the primary concern of policy and international relations.”
In its first newsletter, the Security Taskforce of VCC-19 analyses the effect COVID-19 has had on conflicts. If the virus undermines our capacity to solve conflicts and complicates peace-making efforts, at the same time “conflicts undermine the implementation and effectiveness of measures to fight against COVID-19.” But we are not all in the same boat in this case, and poor countries and vulnerable populations pay the highest price. “Armed violence and conflict and poverty are linked in a cycle that prevents peace, furthers human rights abuses, and hampers development,” explains the Commission, which ends the newsletter with action points to prevent conflicts and foster disarmament.
The fraternal response of the Church
COVID-19 did not bring an end to conflicts and violence, but neither will Catholic actors cease in their mission to assist forcibly displaced people wherever there is need.
The Syrian people are experiencing a war that has been going on for 10 years. Economic sanctions, inflation, and now COVID-19 have exacerbated their situation. Despite the many challenges presented by the pandemic, CAFOD is working in displacement camps and urban areas where humanitarian needs are highest, providing vital emergency aid – food, shelter and medical care – to vulnerable families affected by the coronavirus. The Catholic charity is also committed to building new toilets, sinks for handwashing and basic laundry facilities in camps in north-west Syria, for families who have fled the conflict, and to distributing PPE and hygiene items along with advice on protecting oneself from COVID-19.
In Armenia, Caritas is helping families overcome the trauma of war and displacement that some of them have had to experience repeatedly. Besides providing accommodations and meals, Caritas offers some medical services and distributes first-aid kits, hygiene supplies and clothing. To curb the spread of the coronavirus, each family is placed in a separate unit with its own bathroom and has been provided with masks and hand sanitizer. Special attention has been given to children, who received toys and educational games, while psychologists and priests often visit the families to provide support.
Catholic Relief Services launched a project to help people returning to Iraq’s Nineveh Plain to restore trust and to rebuild their lives and communities which were torn apart by violence committed by Islamic State militants. Not only COVID, but low oil prices and the devaluation of Iraq’s currency have made these goals even more difficult to attain. The program aims to promote peacebuilding and social cohesion, boosting mutual understanding, tolerance, and trust within the communities while fostering economic opportunities and livelihoods for young adults.
The COVID-19 pandemic is on the rise in Ethiopia, a country that is affected by its own internal conflicts while it also shelters more than 800,000 refugees of different nationalities. The risk of infection for the latter population is particularly high due to the conditions in which people live in the camps. As a result, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Ethiopian Bishops’ Conference and the Vicariate of Gambela have distributed masks, soap, and hand sanitizer in primary and secondary schools located in Jewi, Itang, and Kule refugee camps. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church is also providing support for the people affected by the war in the Tigray region. The Italian Bishops’ Conference (IT) allocated 500,000 euros to provide basic necessities, health and school kits, and support for healthcare facilities in the region in the form of rebuilding and supplies of medications and medical devices, through the efforts of Caritas Italiana.
The leadership of Nigeria’s Catholic Diocese of Yola is completing the construction of houses meant to accommodate victims of Boko Haram (PT, FR, EN) who have been living in camps within the diocese for more than five years. The diocesan housing project comprises 43 apartments, which are divided into two dwellings each, to accommodate 86 families. Those interested in farming will have access to adequate land at the housing facility. With the support of Missio Germany – the main source of funding – the diocese has also constructed a school that will admit IDPs’ children as well as children in the neighbouring villages who are of primary-school age. The residence also includes a church and a mosque to care for the spiritual needs of the IDPs.
Attacks in northern Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, continue to force people to flee their homes, causing many displacements. The Archdiocesan Missionary Centre of Braga (CMAB) has launched a missionary project (PT) in cooperation with the diocese of Pemba, in Mozambique, which has brought Portuguese volunteers to the Parish of Santa Cecília de Ocua, where many displaced persons are welcomed. The Parish Economic Affairs Council has allocated to each family a farming kit including seed corn, beans, peas, a hoe, a machete, and a bucket, so that in the longer term they may have some sustenance. So far, 22 families have been supported, says the CMAB.
Voices from the Church: thoughts are with the oppressed
Pope Francis’s historic apostolic journey to Iraq can be seen from the perspective of peace-building, rather than politics — a positive turning point and an example of the positive change that religion can bring. He went to Iraq “as a pilgrim of peace in the name of Christ, the prince of peace.” Holding an interreligious meeting at the birthplace of Abraham, he sought to remind us all of our common origin, of our brother- and sisterhood. “The Iraqi people have the right to live in peace; they have the right to rediscover the dignity that belongs to them,” Pope Francis stated at the General Audience after returning from Iraq. COVID-19, political tensions, economic difficulties, and ongoing terrorist attacks increase insecurity in the country, while in recent decades Iraqi Christians have been victims of discrimination and martyrdom because of their identity, which is both ethnic and faith-based. The Pope’s visit was meant to encourage them to stay and to affirm that they are not forgotten, but the pontiff’s address was also a direct appeal to the global community. “May the clash of arms be silenced! May their spread be curbed, here and everywhere,” he said. “May the voice of builders and peacemakers find a hearing! The voice of the humble, the poor, the ordinary men and women who want to live, work and pray in peace.” He said “fraternity” is a challenge for Iraq and the whole world. Fraternity is the only possible response to war and weapons.
“Destroyed by war and suffocated by economic sanctions, Syria is like a ship sinking in a storm. And to the disciples of Christ who are in Syria, in this state, the same anguished words come to mind that the Apostles addressed to Jesus, who was sleeping in the stern, while their boat was overwhelmed by the waves on Lake Tiberias.” These are the words of Samir Nassar, Maronite Archbishop of Damascus, in his Lenten message. “Faced with these scenes of desolation,” continues the message, “little ones and the poor cry out to the Lord […]: ‘Master, don’t you care that we are about to perish?’” Then Jesus wakes up, calms the storm, and then asks his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”(Mk, 4:40) “In today’s situation”, Archbishop Nassar concludes, “the Church in Syria continues on her path and her work in the fields of health and education, accompanies and supports weakest families” and he emphasizes: “Even if the world forgets Syria, the Lord looks at us and does not let the boat sink”.
Catholics living in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, as noted above, have lived an “experience of the cross” amid the escalation of terrorist violence over the past three years, affirmed their former bishop Luiz Fernando Lisboa. An Islamic militant insurgency has launched hundreds of attacks in the northern province since October 2017. Violence peaked in 2020 with beheadings, kidnappings and attacks on churches. Archbishop Lisboa said this war has shown him the greatness of these people, who are poor but have a sense of profound solidarity. “During this time of war, every family which wasn’t forced to flee took one or two, or even three, refugee families into their home, on the back porch, and shared the little they had with those who had nothing at all and had been wandering, desperate and directionless,” he said.
“Peace I leave you, my peace I give you, not as the world gives do I give it to you” (Jn. 14:27, New American Bible).
For earlier issues of this Bulletin, please visit: migrants-refugees.va/en/c-19-bulletin
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