Are Christian church leaders becoming the world’s most active peacemakers? Only a week after President Peres of Israel and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accepted the Pope’s invitation to pray together with him in Rome, the Archbishop of Canterbury made a dramatic flight to Nigeria to pray with President Goodluck Jonathan and encourage him to make every effort to find the schoolgirls kidnapped by the terrorist organisation Boko Haram.
The Archbishop’s impromptu trip came hard on the heels of a visit to Pakistan, where he visited a small embattled Christian community and praised their efforts to forge closer links with the wider Muslim community, despite regular attacks by militants, the threats of mob violence and the increasing use of the notorious blasphemy laws to force Christians from their land and property.
The two men, both new in their jobs and both with fresh agendas that place considerable emphasis on peace and reconciliation, have been increasingly active in tackling conflicts that have defied the efforts of the world’s political leaders to resolve. While insisting they are not taking on political roles, and cautious of wading into the thickets of global diplomacy, both Pope Francis and the Most Revd Justin Welby have shown themselves skilled at using their huge moral authority to improve the political climate and persuade leaders in conflict situations to look again at proposals for peace.
This was dramatically demonstrated in Rome at the beginning of June, when President Shimon Peres of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, arrived at the Vatican for a formal ceremony to plant olive trees – the ancient symbols of peace. With the world’s cameras watching, both men greeted and kissed each other before shovelling earth around the roots of the trees. Coming after the breakdown of formal Israeli-Palestinian political talks on peace, the gestures were almost as astonishing as the famous handshake 21 years ago between Yassir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin of the White House lawn as President Clinton sealed the agreement of the Oslo Accords.
The Pope may not be a politician. But over the past year he has demonstrated an extraordinarily deft touch in his use of gestures and symbols to underline the messages he wants to convey. This was particularly evident during his visit to the Holy Land. In an image that will define his papacy, he paused to bow his head in prayer and pressed his hand against the graffiti-covered concrete of Israel’s formidable ‘separation wall’ – the barrier built to seal Israel off from the occupied West Bank. As his aides later conceded, it was a silent statement against a symbol of division and conflict.
The Palestinians were delighted, feeling that the Pontiff had drawn attention to their plight in a way that Israel was obliged to recognise. The Israeli government was visibly irked, but responded diplomatically. But the gesture then made it impossible for either side to refuse his invitation to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to join him in Rome to pray for peace.
At the very moment the Pope was in Jerusalem, the Archbishop was in Lahore, meeting bishops and leaders of other minority faith communities in Pakistan. His visit, part of his plan to meet the primates of all 38 provinces of the Anglican Church around the world early on in his time in office, was also laden with symbolism. It came only months after a devastating attack by two suicide bombers on a church in Peshawar, which killed and wounded more than 230 worshippers, and amid tensions over the increasing threats by Islamist militants against the Pakistani state and especially the small non-Muslim communities.
At a joyous morning service in the imposing Gothic Anglican cathedral in Lahore, he praised Pakistan’s Christians for their steadfastness in the face of these threats. He said the work they did in running colleges, health clinics and even a special school for children with learning difficulties (a provision not offered by the state), open to all and overwhelmingly attended by Muslim students, was an example of Christian service in action.
There was no doubt of the political risk he ran in making the visit. By ghastly coincidence, the Archbishop was listening to impassioned pleas by Pakistan’s bishops for the right to worship in freedom and safety at the very moment when, only streets away, a pregnant young woman lay dying in the dust outside Lahore’s High Court, her face and head smashed by bricks hurled at her by her family.
The woman and her husband had gone to court to swear an oath that they had married of their own free will, despite the opposition of her father. Every year there are around 900 ‘honour’ killings of women by their families. There could have been no more dreadful example of the dangers of hatred, ignorance and fanaticism that are now gripping Pakistan.
Security was extraordinarily tight for the Archbishop’s visit: armoured cars were used to move him and his wife around. It was a precaution that only a week later was shown to have been justified. In Karachi, where the small group from Lambeth Palace stayed a night, riots broke out a few days later, following the arrest in London of an exiled political leader who controls powerful militias in the sprawling city. The British High Commission building there, where the Archbishop stayed, was closed and evacuated. Three days later, militants stormed Karachi airport, from where he had earlier flown on to Bangladesh, killing officials and forcing the airport to close.
Peacemaking and reconciliation – within the Anglican Church and between the world’s main faith groups – were the declared priority for Justin Welby from the moment he became Archbishop. He is well qualified for the role. As an oil executive who visited Nigeria often before his ordination, he has seen at first-hand the conflict raging between Christians and Muslims in Central Nigeria that is now taking a deadly toll. As a former head of Coventry Cathedral’s Centre for Reconciliation, he has himself conducted delicate negotiations between militant groups in an effort to free hostages, often risking his own life.
On reaching Lambeth Palace he appointed Canon David Porter, an Ulsterman who succeeded him at Coventry, as his Director of Reconciliation. And together they have focused on many of the world’s more intractable conflicts. The machinery and strategies for reconciliation are now in place at Lambeth Palace.
The Pope, too, has made reaching out, especially to the poor, a focus of his papacy, and has spoken out strongly in favour of greater justice and opportunity for the downtrodden in the world’s slums. He, too, has reorganised the Vatican bureaucracy, appointing cardinals whom he trusts to carry out the priorities he has laid down.
Both men, with influence over vast numbers of nominal Christians and their political leaders, now look set to make the running in peace-making. Both are determined to halt the deterioration in Christian-Muslim relations around the world. And both are not afraid to speak out, unambiguously, in condemning violence and prejudice. The Most Revd Justin Welby called the stoning of the woman in Lahore a “revolting lynching” and said he had been “utterly horrified.” He has also called the abduction of the Nigerian schoolgirls an “atrocious and inexcusable act.”
The Church leaders are not attempting to supplant United Nations negotiators or politicians with responsibility for maintaining global security. But at a time when the world’s leaders seem paralysed in the face of its more intractable problems – poverty, injustice, ethnic conflict and civil wars – maybe the Church is rediscovering a role that could make it a formidable political as well as moral force: the role of championing humanitarian causes and chastising those who fail to take a stand against war, conflict and violence.