Dear Friends in Christ:
On Tuesday we commemorate Human Rights Day, honoring the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, an action urged by many U.S. Christians after two great wars. I urge you as pastors to encourage your congregations to seek information provided by our office of World Mission and through the Presbyterian News Service regarding the needs of our Christian partners around the world.
This year, as we hear protesters from Hong Kong to Iraq and Iran, from Gaza to Kashmir, from South Sudan to Chile, from Cameroon and Ukraine and from our own Southern border, we cannot forget their bravery or forsake them in our prayers. The worldwide undertow of authoritarianism and racist ethno-nationalism makes it clear that human rights cannot be taken for granted even in our own country.
In this Advent season, as we pray particularly for the Holy Land and prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we lift up our church partners around the world who ask for our solidarity. In the words of the 1974 General Assembly:
“As Christians we dare not be oblivious to the erosion of human freedom wherever or to whomever it occurs. Nor dare we feel detached from the courageous actions of fellow Christians who risk life, liberty, and reputation in witnessing to truth and justice in their own societies. ‘If one suffers, all suffer.’”
As an aid to your prayers for the human rights of all of God’s children, I have asked our World Mission area coordinators to summarize the most pressing concerns in their parts of the world and to provide links for further information. Because the scope of our concern is daunting, I share with you here a prayer that you are encouraged to adapt for either written or spoken use.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made in your image and born into one human family of great and beautiful diversity. Forgive us when fail to show awe and respect for each other. Remove our suspicion of strangers and even neighbors that justifies neglect and violence. Strengthen our support for journalists, whistle-blowers and leaders of popular movements, who are frequently jailed, tortured, and sometimes killed. Empower us to demand international courts that serve the cause of justice for the vulnerable and impose just punishment on governments and leaders who violate human rights laws and conventions for the sake of market access and personal corruption.
God of justice and love: Let us hear with you the voices of these oppressed persons and communities. Help us to break supply chains of oppression and halt aid and trade with those who abuse or expel those of religions and ethnicities they do not share. Strengthen your church to remember that “truth is in order to goodness …” Give us steady hope for that great day when your ‘world house’ becomes that ‘house of prayer for all peoples’ in the new Jerusalem. Until that day, let us not weary in well-doing.
In the name and Spirit of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Please join me, too, in sharing the information that follows in your families of faith.
Major human rights concerns in world regions, December 2019
Greater Middle East and Northern Africa
The two countries in the region with the largest numbers of Evangelical or Protestant Christians related to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Egypt and Lebanon, have both seen public protests this past summer and fall. In Egypt, the military-backed government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is quite restrictive of human rights. In Lebanon there are great pressures from the 500,000-plus refugees from still war-torn Syria — some also members of our partner church, but Lebanon’s own gridlocked government has led to large scale protests for economic and political improvements. In Syria, there are continuing tragedies affecting Kurdish and formerly rebel/ISIS held regions of Syria, where sanctions continue to hamper reconstruction and the United States has largely withdrawn from any leverage for human rights and reconciliation with the Assad regime. Libya remains a conflict zone with some immigrants still able to get thru to the Mediterranean, though their chances of gaining entry to Europe remain slim. Demonstrations in Iraq and Iran have intensified this past fall, and the latter country faces pressures from the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia continues to wage war on Yemen, with support from the U.S. despite the murder of a U.S.-Saudi journalist. The war in Afghanistan continues to grind on, 11 years after the General Assembly (and many other civil society groups) called for the U.S. to negotiate withdrawal.
In Israel and Palestine, given their prominence in Advent and Christmas: 2018-19 protests against the blockade of Gaza have been met with regular Israeli live-fire, leaving more than 400 killed and 7,000 wounded. West Bank restrictions have increased, so that all West Bank Palestinian men under 65 need permits to enter Jerusalem, curtailing Christian and Muslim worship as other measures intensify that city’s annexation. With the U.S. announcement that it no longer sees as illegal Israel’s colonial settlements built on confiscated Palestinian land, the U.S. breaks with international law and further forecloses on the “two state” solution. [Note: the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee will bring a report on Jerusalem to the 224th General Assembly (2020)]
Widespread restrictions on migration have been significant parts of the platforms of political parties in Hungary, Italy, Greece, the Balkans, and a source of tension with Turkey’s authoritarian government, which limits migration into Europe and has crossed into Syria to fight Kurds who were U.S. allies, as in Iraq. Russia continues to occupy violently approximately 15% of Eastern Ukraine, in addition to its annexation of Crimea. Though protests over Brexit have been nonviolent, changes in the status and border in Northern Ireland could reignite Protestant/Roman Catholic tensions. A bright spot comes from the island nation of Malta, where arrests have been made in the assassination of a prominent anti-corruption journalist.
The Stated Clerk has recently lifted up our partner churches’ call for prayers for Cameroon, where the English-speaking fifth of the country is under violent siege disrupting, for example, education at 80% of Presbyterian Church-related schools in that region. South Sudan remains a grave concern, though a ceasefire has been brokered between the two warring parties in that new nation. A bright spot was achieved in Sudan earlier this year after protestors camped out for weeks until a post-dictator unity government was agreed upon that restricted the role of the military. The end of a long dictatorship in Zimbabwe is also a sign of hope. In Nigeria and several other nations, the guerrilla group Boko Haram continues to kidnap and cause violence against Christian and secular institutions and local governments.
Asia and the Pacific
Tension on the Korean peninsula is not a new story, but U.S. policy, however untraditional, had raised hopes that de-nuclearization might advance, improving conditions in the North and relations among neighboring Japan and China. Hong Kong demonstrations have kept human rights at the forefront, but Taiwanese politics has dealt with similar concerns. The mass confinement and surveillance of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities is also a sign of the Chinese Communist Party’s intensifying internal controls. In Myanmar/Burma, approximately 400,000 Rohingya remain without citizenship, with more than 1 million seeking refuge in Bangladesh. That military-dominated government also oppresses its Kachin province, many of whose people are Christian. India, which is increasingly dominated by Hindu nationalism, continues to impose a form of martial law on Kashmir and abuses against lower caste women and religious minorities are frequent. In the Philippines, a widespread crackdown on drug dealing is seen to have led to widespread legal abuses and killings of poorer young people. Australia seems to stand among those countries pushing back against any responsibilities to take in refugees, including Christians from other Pacific island nations.
Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean
Venezuela and Brazil have attracted the most attention over the past couple of years, with an enormous wave of Venezuelans seeking survival outside that politically divided country, with some going into Brazil. Brazil’s policy reversal to open up more of the Amazon for cash crops has led to increased human rights onslaughts against indigenous peoples; a general militarization has been credited with an increase in the murder rate. Colombia’s peace treaty ending its long war with a rebel group has been stressed by the influx of Venezuelans, but also by continued displacement and mistreatment of the Afro-Colombians (with whom the PC(USA) has had an accompaniment program). Demonstrations in Chile were met with repressive tactics that recalled the Pinochet dictatorship, though the effort is underway to rewrite the constitution he influenced. In Bolivia, the military shifted its support from the longterm indigenous leader Evo Morales to opposition parties; the hope is that aspects of a coup may be short-lived.
Central America and Mexico continue to experience economic and environmental pressures, with the three “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras now accounting for the largest (but declining) numbers of migrants and asylum-seekers approaching the U.S. The role of drug gangs and the failure of the U.S. “war on drugs” have led to much corruption and violence. In Nicaragua, the more populist Sandinista tradition has become a dictatorship by longtime “president” Daniel Ortega; over 300 killings (many of university students) and the outlawing of all protests have sent more than 80,000 out of the country.
For more than 25 years prior to the internet, extensive print Human Rights Updates were prepared by the UN Office and World Mission area coordinators that included a section on the U.S. for our own integrity. Thus here we note mistreatment of migrants, including children; efforts to restrict the right to vote; the unconstitutional prison at Guantanamo Bay; restrictions on reproductive rights; and race-based distortions of the criminal justice system, including mass incarceration of people of color and frequent police killings of unarmed African-Americans.
As Chile, Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay all face varying degrees of political, economic and religious polarization and — in many cases — bitter social conflict, we pray that our ecumenical partners in these countries might have the wisdom, insight and courage to lift up constructive prophetic voices and be fully present as agents of justice, peace and reconciliation.
Central America, Mexico, Guatemala and the U.S.-Mexico border — all closely linked with the rest of Central America:
Help us to remember that your own son, Jesus, and his parents, Mary and Joseph, were migrants inside their homeland and refugees in another country. Even as we face fear and anxiety about our own country's issues and problems, help us to remember God's call — repeatedly throughout the scriptures — to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. For we know that you are our God and therefore all humanity are our sisters and brothers in Christ and worthy of your grace, love, and care.
The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)