A Toronto Christian response to torture

  • November 4, 2010
 Simon Appolloni and Stephen ScharperTORONTO - Nobody is in favour of torture, unjust imprisonment, secret trials, pre-emptive war or judicial murder. However, despite our best intentions, we live in a world of death penalties, wars and occupations.

For Stephen Scharper and Simon Appolloni, a University of Toronto religious studies professor and the PhD student he supervises, knowing we are not innocent requires a Christian response, one of discernment, reflection and prayer. That’s why they’ve launched an English Canadian chapter of Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT).

“We’re no longer (in Canada) that country that boasts of civil liberties and human rights,” said Appolloni. “We’re doing it too. We’re seeing that in the Afghan war, in the Khadr case. It’s in our house. We can’t ignore it.”

ACAT has existed in Quebec for 25 years. It was first established in Paris in 1974. But the largely Catholic ecumenical organization has never been able to break through in either English Canada or the United States.

In the shadow of both the Iraq War and Afghanistan, ACAT seems poised now to become a real presence in anglophone North America.

The University of Toronto-based English Canadian chapter of the international movement has established a new annual lecture. The first Marcellus Lecture — named after the Roman centurion who testified to the divinity of Christ as He hung on the cross — brought DePaul University scholar William Cavanaugh from Chicago Oct. 16 to speak about “Torture: A Spiritual Challenge.”

ACAT is part of a vigil outside the U.S. consulate on University Avenue praying for that country to close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation, better known as the School of the Americas, at Fort Benning, Georgia. It has also launched a study group taking a close look at Cavanaugh’s book, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ.

A lot of what ACAT does will sound familiar to people who have been involved in Amnesty International. It started as a specifically Christian offshoot from Amnesty. ACAT groups meet to learn about torture and prisoners of conscience and then write letters to authorities around the world asking for speedy, open and fair trials or release.

But there’s a critical difference between ACAT and Amnesty, said ACAT Quebec’s president Guy Gauthier.

“It’s based on the Scriptures and the dignity of the human,” Gauthier told The Catholic Register. “The main difference is we add a Christian dimension. We take action and we pray.”

For Appolloni, the combination of action and prayer is critical. Though Appolloni can always be found in church on Sunday, that’s not enough for him.

“Going to church on Sunday doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car,” he said.

ACAT’s next Toronto meeting will be Jan. 17. Contact Lauren Drainie at lauren.drainie@utoronto.ca  or (416) 593-0906.

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