Peacebuilding Offers Hope Amid Violent Conflict

By Ken Hackett
CRS President

Over the past several months, fragile peace has been broken by violent conflict in several parts of the world. In the Middle East, hostage taking triggered intense bombing, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians and the displacement hundreds of thousands from their homes. In Sri Lanka, fighting resumed between the government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels. And in East Timor, civil unrest threatened a newly formed democracy.

Catholic Relief Services works in all of these areas, and as emergency needs arise, we have been responding. At the same time, we continue to address the root causes of conflict in the places we serve through a broad spectrum of peacebuilding efforts, from working with groups of bishops and other civic leaders to programs at the grassroots.

It was in this context of the pain and sadness of conflict and the hope of reconciliation that I traveled recently to Asia, both to meet with international religious leaders working for peace and to visit CRS programs in East Timor, where we are helping thousands of people displaced by conflict in this tiny island nation.

I first traveled to Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital of Japan, to attend the Eighth World Assembly of Religions for Peace, a gathering of more than 800 delegates from 100 countries representing all the world's religious traditions. I spoke on a plenary panel on peacebuilding, where I shared the dais with a Jewish rabbi from Israel, a Methodist bishop from Africa, a Jain nun from India and a Buddhist monk from China. Delegates included Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Shinto, Zoroastrian and Indigenous leaders. It was an inspiring gathering and we had a wonderful opportunity to exchange ideas and share experiences of peacebuilding from our various corners of the world.

After Kyoto, I boarded a plane for a 7? -hour flight to Jakarta, where I took another flight bound for Dili, East Timor. I traveled there to visit our CRS programs in a country that is one of the world's newest democracies, but is struggling to maintain peace.

After the restoration of independence in 2002, East Timor had been making progress in developing its nascent political system and its civil society. Earlier this year, a dispute within the armed forces sparked demonstrations and violence that led to a mass exodus from the capital city of Dili and caused many fearful people to leave their homes and seek sanctuary in the institution widely perceived as their protector – the Catholic Church. Camps for displaced people were quickly erected in Catholic institutions, including several that are managed by CRS: at the Salesian Brothers Don Bosco Vocational School and the convent grounds of the Salesian Sisters, both in Comoro; a college run by the Canossian Sisters in Has Laran; and the Cathedral in Vila Verde, a district of Dili. At the peak of the crisis, CRS was providing support to approximately 22,000 people displaced from their homes, and offered food, water and sanitation, health services, security and activities for children – including a soccer tournament at the Don Bosco school timed to coincide with the World Cup.

I went to East Timor to show the solidarity of American Catholics with all of the Timorese as they valiantly labor to build a stable and just society. As I met the people, from its political leaders to its Catholic bishops to the people who are suffering, I was struck by the important role played by the local Catholic Church. East Timor is more than 90 percent Catholic and is one of only two predominantly Catholic countries in Asia, the other being the Philippines. During the occupation by Indonesia, Bishop Carlos Belo was a strong voice denouncing violence and oppression, and advocating for justice, and the Church continues to be an important actor as one of the most visible and viable institutions in East Timor. Bishop Belo has since moved on to do missionary work in Mozambique, and his legacy is being continued by Bishop Alberto Ricardo da Silva of Dili and Bishop Basilio do Nascimento of Baucau. Perhaps the Church's most important role for the people of East Timor is that of protector, and it is not surprising that so many sought refuge in Catholic institutions during this latest crisis.

My message to the people of East Timor is that CRS and the American Catholic Church will continue to support you, as One Human Family, in achieving your vision of peace and prosperity. We will assist the Timorese Catholic Church as it reaches out in concern for its people. And we will help where we can to support the building of structures to guide a vision for a better tomorrow.

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