By Edward Pentin
ROME, JULY 3, 2009 (Zenit.org).- It’s been called the worst kind of slavery, yet it continues to this day: Children used as soldiers, possibly as many as 250,000 worldwide, who are forced to kill their neighbor, sometimes even their parents, siblings and friends.
Last week, Benedict XVI paid tribute to those trying to end this horrific scourge and help these children return to normal life. Speaking at the end of his weekly general audience June 24, he told a visiting U.N.-led delegation fighting against the use of children as combatants of his “deep appreciation” for their commitment.
“I think of all the children of the world, in particular those who are exposed to fear, abandonment, hunger, abuse, illness, death,” the Holy Father said. “The Pope is close to all these little victims and remembers them in prayer.”
According to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, a coalition of human rights organizations, although many children have been freed from wars that have recently ended, thousands more have been drawn into new conflicts such as those in Ivory Coast, Sudan, Chad, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Myanmar.
The children, some as young as five, are trained not only to use weapons, but also to lay mines and explosives, to scout, spy, or act as decoys, couriers or guards. They can also be forced to perform logistical or support functions, and many of the girls are coerced into sexual slavery. Most are poorly fed and have little or no shelter. And even if their captors release them, they are often stigmatized back home and shunned by their communities.
Yet there is hope for those who survive and manage to escape. According to the United Nations, largely thanks to the work of faith communities and, in particular, the Catholic Church, they have access to food and shelter, and are helped toward rehabilitation and reintegration.
Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N. secretary-general’s representative for children and armed conflict, said she had partly come to the Vatican to personally thank Benedict XVI for the work the Church is doing in this area. The Church, she told a Rome press conference June 24, is doing “enormous good work” to help these children. Through its vast networks, she said, the Church raises awareness through education, and acts as an “early warning system” to help protect and prevent children from being abducted.
Hosted by the Sant’Egidio lay community, which itself has often supported the rehabilitation of these children, the press conference also heard from Grace Akallo, a 29-year-old former child soldier from Uganda. Thanks to the work of the Church, she was given a new life after being kidnapped from her Catholic school and taken to Sudan where she was forced into marriage, taught how to use firearms and where she met other children who had been coerced into killing relatives and friends.
She eventually found freedom, was rehabilitated thanks to her former headmistress — a nun — who simply read to her, and ended up attending a university in Uganda. She is now a graduate student in the United States.
“What these children need most is love and acceptance because most of society rejects them,” Akallo said, and stressed the importance of “prevention and protection” for these children. Education of society is vital, she said, and recalled how on returning home she was “pulled from buses, called names and sometimes beaten over the head because they believed I had committed crimes.”
Also speaking was Sacred Heart Sister Rosemary Nyerumbe who runs a center for former child soldiers in northern Uganda. “We all have the responsibility and obligation to restore the lost dignity and innocence of these children,” she said. “You can open the door of your house, but the most important thing you can do is open the door of your heart and reach out to these children.”
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Pope talks, people listen
Benedict XVI’s views on the current financial crisis, included in his first social encyclical — which will be released July 7 — could possibly become a bestseller in the United States if a recent survey carried out by the Knights of Columbus holds true.
The Knights’ poll of a broad sample of Americans in March this year showed that 57% of U.S. citizens were eagerly wanting to hear Benedict XVI discuss “the short sightedness of personal greed and selfishness” that is thought to be the main cause of the current crisis. A further 55% wanted to hear him explain how a society can be built “where spiritual values play an important role.”
Also interesting is that an earlier survey carried out by the Knights in February showed widespread public discontent with business ethics: 76% of Americans polled believed that corporate America’s moral compass is pointed in the wrong direction, and 90% of respondents, and 90% of executives, see career advancement and personal gain as primary factors that corporate executives take into account when making business decisions. Moreover, nearly two-thirds believed that religious beliefs should significantly influence executive’s business decisions, and over two-thirds of executives agree.
The encyclical, which Benedict XVI signed Monday, the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, comes just days after the financier Bernard Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in jail for defrauding thousands of investors of billions of dollars. It will also appear on the eve of the Group of Eight summit of world leaders in Italy, July 8-10.
“What our poll shows is that the American public sees something very seriously wrong and sees ethics as part of the solution,” says Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus. “Since the country is overwhelmingly Christian in the sense that most Americans are baptized Christians, and one out of four are Catholic, the view of the Pope on these matters is going to be very important in the United States.”
Anderson, who was visiting Rome this week, believes that the Pope is one of the few world figures who can speak out on these ethical questions with authenticity, and do so without favoring either the political left or right. “We have to give Benedict XVI his own space and not try to claim it from one side,” says Anderson, who is urging the public to read the encyclical with an open mind. “I think a Christian ought to approach an encyclical from a standpoint of how am I going to be changed, not whether or not it affirms a position on something.”
And although he predicts the Holy Father will underline the necessity of an ethical foundation to sustaining the free market system, he does not expect the Pope to enter into technical aspects or specific policy. “What he’s going to say is that a Christian, if he understands his two commandments of love of God and love of neighbor, can no longer ask Cain’s question: Am I my brother’s keeper? He understands he has a responsibility to his brother and understands who his brother is. Benedict has said time and again: We’re part of a human family, therefore we need to have a certain solidarity. […] If you have that general ethical disposition, you’re going to make decisions in a context that are going to be far better than if you don’t.”
The supreme knight, who was once a special assistant to Ronald Reagan, is surprised that despite more than 90% of Americans believing there is a kind of unethical foundation to the current crisis, “nobody wants to talk about it,” thereby leaving a vacuum which the government is presently filling. It’s therefore time, he says, for corporate leaders to “fess up to some ethical responsibility.”
Not only would that “resonate very well” with the American public, he believes, but it would also help preserve the sustainability of the free market which is currently in “real jeopardy.”
The Pope has already given clues about the content of the encyclical, saying the current global economic crisis proves that the rules and values that have dominated the economy in past years need to be re
placed by a concept that is “respectful of the needs and rights of the weakest.” He also took the opportunity at his weekly general audience July 1st to “stress the importance of ethical and moral values in politics.”
But this theme of establishing an ethical foundation is an idea the Holy Father has had for some time. In a prescient speech he gave in Rome in 1985, he said it is “becoming an increasingly obvious fact of economic history that the development of economic systems which concentrate on the common good depends on a determinate ethical system, which in turn can be born and sustained only by strong religious convictions.” Conversely, he warned, “it has also become obvious that the decline of such discipline can actually cause the laws of the market to collapse.”
“An economic policy that is ordered not only to the good of the group — indeed, not only to the common good of a determinate state — but to the common good of the family of man demands a maximum of ethical discipline and thus a maximum of religious strength,” he said.