CSMG: The Path of Peace Must Be Taken Up Anew

Bishops gather at the Separation Wall in Jerusalem.

US bishops gather at the Separation Wall in Jerusalem.

Today marks the first day of the 2015 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering. Catholic leaders from across the country are spending the day building community, studying Catholic social teaching and preparing to engage legislators on issues important to their faith. One of the international issues these leaders will bring to Congressional lawmakers is their support for a just peace in Palestine and Israel and continued aid for the Palestinian people.

In the past year US led peace negotiations between Palestine and Israel stalled, outbreaks of violence spawned yet another terribly destructive round of fighting between Hamas and the Israeli military and the humanitarian situation throughout the Palestinian Territories deteriorated, especially in Gaza. This was another startling reminder that the status quo is not sustainable, that there is no military solution to this conflict, and that courageous leadership is needed now more than ever. CSMG participants will raise their voices to support US leadership for peace and a two-state solution to the conflict in the Holy Land. They will echo the longstanding position of the Church that lasting peace requires the emergence of a viable and independent Palestinian state living alongside a recognized and secure Israel. A two-state solution will enhance Israeli security, preserve Israel as a Jewish majority democratic state, give Palestinians the dignity of their own state, allow access to the Holy Sites of all three faiths and promote economic development. It will also contribute to stability in the region and undermine extremists who exploit the conflict.

Both parties to the conflict have taken actions the other side and much of the international community deem inflammatory, most notably Israeli settlement expansion and Hamas’ rocket attacks. Most recently, the Palestinian Authority joined the International Criminal Court, a move that upset the Government of Israel and that the United States Government called counterproductive. In an effort to punish the Palestinian Authority for this action, some Members of Congress have sought to terminate the roughly $400 million in annual aid to the Palestinian people. If such legislation were to pass, it would have devastating humanitarian consequences and could undermine the Palestinian Authority’s ability to build capacity for a Palestinian State and continue its security coordination with Israel. Catholic leaders will bring these concerns to Congress during CSMG by advocating to preserve FY 2015 assistance to the Palestinian people in the federal budget, assistance that is in the best interest of Israelis, Palestinians and all who hope for peace in the Holy Land.

During previous Catholic Social Ministry Gatherings, leaders brought a similar message to Congress: work for peace in the Holy Land. While some may be discouraged by the deterioration of the negotiations in the past year, as Catholics we are people of hope. Peace is possible. During his pilgrimage to the Holy Land this past summer, Pope Francis reminded us, “The path of dialogue, reconciliation and peace must constantly be taken up anew, courageously and tirelessly.” Through their advocacy, CSMG participants will demonstrate that our Church remains committed to the important message of peace and is ready to be a peacemaker in our world.

To learn more about the situation in the Holy Land and the work of USCCB to promote peace, check out this backgrounder.
Julie Bodnar

Julie Bodnar is an intern at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Catholics Committed to the Global Human Family

Julie Bodnar

Julie Bodnar

Many Americans believe the United States spends a significant portion of its budget on foreign aid. One frequently cited survey reports that Americans believe this number to be as high as 25%. In reality, the United States spends less than 1% of its budget on foreign aid. This number is already startlingly low, but with every round of budget negotiations it risks further cuts.

The world’s needs are great. Too many families know the reality of having their lives upended by war, famine, natural disasters and other crises. Even today, the number of people experiencing poverty is still too high, especially in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. One in seven people experience extreme poverty, living on less than $1.25 per day. Over 50 million people were forcibly displaced in 2013, largely due to conflict and human rights violations. Given the violence in Iraq, Syria, the Central African Republic and South Sudan – to name just a few of the countries experiencing conflict – the data for 2014 may be even more alarming. The 2014 Ebola outbreak was the largest in history and could have been mitigated if affected countries had stronger health systems in place.

There is good news. International poverty-focused development and humanitarian aid make a real difference. Thanks to the global community’s commitment to addressing these development challenges, great progress has been made in recent years. For example, in just 15 years, extreme poverty in the world has been cut in half. Meanwhile, proven partners like Catholic Relief Services work every day to improve the lives of people across the world in very real ways. In Syria’s neighboring countries, CRS helps refugees survive the winter by providing medical assistance, cash transfers, food, blankets, heaters and other winter essentials. They’re working to create schools and child-friendly spaces where kids can begin to heal from the trauma they’ve experienced.

Aid is especially impactful when used for programs that involve the local community in planning and implementation. Community-based programming builds the capacity of local communities and promotes long-term sustainability, allowing even the small amount the budget the U.S. spends on aid to go a long way.

As Catholics, global development is more than just a practical matter of budgets and program efficiencies. It is rooted in our faith. All people are created in the likeness and image of God. We must work to preserve and strengthen poverty-focused aid in order to ensure that everyone is able to live in a way that promotes their human dignity. As Pope Francis tells us, accepting poverty in today’s world, a world of great wealth, is a scandal.

“Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry. We all have to think if we can become a little poorer, all of us have to do this” (June 7, 2013).

As January, USCCB Poverty Awareness Month, winds down, our commitment to strengthening poverty-focused aid remains strong. Next month, hundreds of Catholic leaders will gather in our nation’s capital for the 2015 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering. Living out this year’s theme, To Go Forth: Encountering Christ in the Heart of the World, these leaders will meet with their elected officials to advocate for policies that bring about a more just world. One of the key messages Catholics will bring to Capitol Hill this year is the need to strengthen funding for poverty-focused international development and humanitarian programs that save lives, reduce crushing poverty and build peace.

Julie Bodnar is an intern at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

The Church in Africa Speaks Out for Democracy

On October 30th the Parliament of Burkina Faso was to vote to amend the country’s constitution, allowing the President to serve beyond the currently prescribed term-limit of two, five-year terms. In the days leading up to the vote, violent protests in the capital city Ouagadougou broke out that culminated in the burning of the parliament building and the resignation of President Compaore on October 31st. The military installed Lieutenant Colonel Issaac Zida, a senior member of the Presidential Guard, as the country’s interim leader.

The Catholic Church commended this civic initiative, but also expressed grief and prayers for those who lost their lives in the demonstrations. The Church urged respect for “the authority of the forces of order and security” and emphasized the need to ensure the safety of persons and property. The archbishop of Ouagadougou, Cardinal Ouedraogo, called the seizure of power by Lt. Col. Zida unconstitutional because the transition of power should be ensured by civilians. Still, the cardinal appeared hopeful about an end to the crisis due to the willingness of the different parties to engage in dialogue.

Much of the international community also called on the military to turn over power to civilian control. The African Union set a two week deadline for such a turnover before they would enact sanctions. It is fortunate that the Burkinabé church, civil society and international actors persisted in their advocacy because on November 17th the country returned to civilian rule. A transitional charter backed by the church was signed, diplomat Michel Kafando was appointed the new Interim President, and the constitution was reinstated. In addition, Lt. Col. Zida stayed on as minister of defense while other military leaders took charge of three other ministries.

The attempt by the deposed Burkina Faso president exemplifies an all too common pattern throughout Africa. Burkina Faso is just one of fifteen African countries with a leader in power for over ten years, seven of these leaders for twenty-five years or more. Since 1990, leaders in eleven countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have tried to change or abolish term limits; seven of these cases were successful. It looks likely that leaders in another seven countries will push similar term limit changes in the coming years. [1]

The situation in Burkina Faso clearly shows that civil society wants accountable leaders and good governance, not the monopolization of political power that occurs when constitutions are amended and term limits weakened. Earlier this year, the Catholic Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo spoke out against a similar measure to alter that country’s constitution. They said such a change would be “a step backward on the road to building our democracy and would seriously undermine the harmonious future of the nation.” The USCCB worked to amplify the local Church’s message that “The happy future of the DR Congo lies undoubtedly in the strict adherence to our Constitution.”

As the Church in Burkina Faso and other African nations undergoing similar challenges begins to speak out about these threats to good governance, the Church in the United States will work to magnify these messages in order to encourage nonviolent civil society participation and government accountability for the common good.

Stephen Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa and global development and Julie Bodnar is an intern at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

[1] Adam Taylor, “Burkina Faso’s long-serving leader resigns – and why it matters,” The Washington Post, October 31,2014,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/10/30/why-burkina-fasos-attempt-to-topple-a-long-serving-leader-matters/ ; Ken Opalo, “As thousands protest against term limit extension in Burkina Faso, will other African presidents take note?,” The Washington Post: Monkey Cage, October 28, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/10/28/as-thousands-protest-against-term-limit-extension-in-burkina-faso-will-other-african-presidents-take-note/.