In a recent meeting, the World Council of Churches (WCC) Executive Committee denounced the “Doctrine of Discovery,” which has been used to subjugate and colonize indigenous peoples. The Executive Committee issued a statement calling the nature of the doctrine “completely opposed to the gospel of Jesus.”

The statement was issued in a Feb. 14-18 meeting here, urging repudiation of this doctrine, which has permitted the enslavement of indigenous peoples in the name of Christianity.

The origin of the doctrine goes back to the papal bulls issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452, allowing the invasion and killing of the indigenous peoples.

In the 14th century, some of the historical church documents such as Dum Diversas and Romanus Pontifex called for non-Christian people to be captured, vanquished and to have their possessions and property seized by the Christian monarchs.

On basis of the same historical precedence the statement points out that, “Christopher Columbus was instructed, for example, to ‘discover and conquer,’ ‘subdue’ and ‘acquire’ distant lands.”

European countries like Spain, Portugal, England, France, and Holland used the doctrine. The doctrine was introduced in the law of the United States and was referenced in the United States Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M'Intosh, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543 in 1823, also has been cited by courts in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Therefore the Executive Committee statement points out that the “current situation of Indigenous Peoples around the world is the result of a linear program of ‘legal’ precedent, originating with the Doctrine of Discovery and codified in contemporary national laws and policies.” 

The statement rejects the idea endorsed by the doctrine that “Christians enjoy a moral and legal right to invade and seize indigenous lands and to dominate Indigenous Peoples.”

Rights of indigenous peoples

Calling the “Doctrine of Discovery” a violation of human rights, the statement supports the “rights of Indigenous Peoples to live in and retain their traditional lands and territories, and to maintain and enrich their cultures.”

Many churches are making efforts to repudiate the doctrine to protect the rights of indigenous peoples. The Executive Committee statement mentions efforts by churches in the United States and Canada, like the Episcopal Dioceses of Maine, Central New York and Philadelphia, the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, Unitarian Universalist churches and Quaker organizations also disowned the doctrine, says the statement.

As the “Doctrine of Discovery” will be the theme for the 11th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) this year, the Executive Committee statement stressed the need to sensitize churches on this issue.

The UNPFII session will take place from May 7-18, 2012 in New York.

The Executive Committee statement urged the churches and ecumenical organizations to mobilize and participate in the UNPFII process.

The statement requested the governments to “ensure that their policies, regulations and laws that affect Indigenous Peoples comply with international conventions, and in particular, conform to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169.”

In the statement, the WCC reaffirms its commitment to the rights of the indigenous peoples, asking each member church to “reflect upon its own national and church history” and to seek a better understanding of the issues faced by Indigenous Peoples.