Bishops’ silence on Afghan war ‘a scandal’

  • December 6, 2007

{mosimage}TORONTO - Canada’s Catholic bishops are failing to lead as the nation’s troops are drawn ever deeper into a civil war in Afghanistan, KAIROS board chair Fr. Paul Hansen told The Catholic Register.

“The Catholic Church has abdicated its responsibility to speak about Canada’s largest military endeavour since the Korean War,” Hansen wrote in an e-mail to The Register.

At a briefing on Afghanistan organized by the ecumenical think tank Project Ploughshares no Catholic organizations were in attendance. Every large Protestant denomination, the Canadian Council of Churches and KAIROS, the ecumenical social justice agency, were represented at the briefing. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, which has a seat on the board of Project Ploughshares, was not at the meeting where churches discussed an ecumenical response to the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan, due to report back to Parliament Jan. 31.

The Development and Peace representative to Project Ploughshares was in Montreal for meetings on the day of the Toronto briefing.

Hansen called the bishops’ slow deliberations on Afghanistan “a scandal.”

“Is it because the CCCB has made so many cuts and because their recently hired researcher for justice and peace matters is no longer with the CCCB? Is it because working ecumenically with our sisters and brothers is no longer a priority for the CCCB?” asked the Redemptorist priest.

While it is true that the bishops’ conference has lost its researcher on social affairs, that doesn’t mean the bishops are in the dark about Afghanistan and Canada’s role, said bishops’ conference spokesman Sylvain Salvas.

“We have somebody doing the research,” Salvas said. “I know the (social affairs) commission meeting is well prepared. The bishops will discuss very seriously the topic of Afghanistan at their next meeting.”

The CCCB social affairs commission was to meet Dec. 11 and 12 to discuss Afghanistan.

“Canada is at war and its presence in Afghanistan cannot leave us indifferent,” Archbishop Andre Guimond told the assembled bishops of Canada at a plenary CCCB meeting in October. “There will not be peace in Afghanistan without a true peace process which involves all the parties. This is what Canada especially needs to promote.”

The bishops have not commented on Afghanistan since Guimond’s mention of it at the plenary. However, Salvas predicted there would be a statement from the bishops soon.

“Next week we will have a pretty good idea of what will be the next step,” he said.

While the bishops deliberate, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace has been part of a coalition of non-governmental organizations with development projects in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan Reference Group, led by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, submitted position papers on development, human rights and peace building to the Independent Panel chaired by John Manley.

The reference group called for a greater emphasis on diplomacy and development, and asked that the government keep the military out of the business of delivering development aid.

“Security is indeed important, but cannot come at the expense of development and diplomatic efforts. Indeed, the way in which we are currently pursuing security efforts is hampering the effective delivery of aid, progress in development assistance and, therefore, prospects for peace,” said the reference group submission to Manley.

Development and Peace funds a number of Afghani women’s and civil society groups at work on development projects, and has a partnership with Catholic Relief Services, the development arm of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Development and Peace’s projects also include work with refugees on the Pakistani side of the border. Between 2007 and 2011, largely funded by CIDA, Development and Peace will spend $650,000 on projects in Afghanistan.

It’s important that the churches be ready to respond when Manley reports to Parliament Jan. 31, said Ernie Regehr of Project Ploughshares.

“There’s no question about the churches being a relevant voice on this. The whole thing comes very close to the moral and spiritual — when you think about the sacrifices that are made,” he said.

At the Project Ploughshares briefing Canadian Forces Lieutenant Commander Albert Wong told church representatives the eventual resolution of fighting in Afghanistan lay in economic development and better policing.

“For most Afghanis, the pressing concern is, ‘Do I have a job?’ ” Wong said.

While hardcore Taliban and foreign fighters are unlikely to lay down their arms for a peace process, economic development which offers employment and a future to young men could starve the fighters of new recruits, said Wong.

The Canadian Forces has shifted their focus from fighting insurgents to training and equipping police, he said.

“In Canada, if you have a problem in your community with a bike gang you don’t call the army. You call the police,” Wong said.

The churches may wish to see a change in emphasis such that less money is spent on military operations and more on development assistance, but the churches are not advocating an immediate pull-out of Canadian troops, said Regehr. Canada’s military intervention on the side of the government in Kabul, however, limits Canada’s role in building a future peace, he said.

“We should not indulge in the hubris that Canada is going to be the one to facilitate such a (peace) process,” he said. “We’re engaged in one side of the civil war, and I don’t think we’re eligible for such a role.”

Military success is vital from the viewpoint of the Western forces with troops on the ground in Afghanistan, said Wong.

“If you fail in Afghanistan you could really question, why have a NATO?” Wong said.

The Canadian Religious Conference, which represents Canada’s 213 orders of Catholic sisters, brothers and priests, urged Ottawa to rethink the Afghanistan mission in December of 2006.

The CRC has not made a submission to the Manley panel and is still discussing how to influence the debate, said CRC spokesperson Sr. Louise Stafford.

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