A Discussion with Etienne De Jonghe, Former Secretary General, Pax Christi
April 1, 2010
Background: Etienne De Jonghe's career has focused on working for world peace. He was Secretary General of Pax Christi International for nearly 30 years. (Pax Christi is a Catholic international peace movement, autonomous with respect to church authorities with a very strong lay input. Its international secretariat is currently located in Brussels.) In the first part of the interview, De Jonghe reflects on the evolution of Pax Christi over the years and his role in guiding and shaping the organization. The second part is an exchange on leading issues, including Pax Christi's work on the small arms issue, truth and reconciliation commissions, and some personal memories, including Pax Christi's role in relationships with Eastern Europe and the Orthodox Church in the former USSR. Etienne De Jonghe and Katherine Marshall met twice in April 2010, in Washington D.C.
Looking back to the start, how did you first get involved in your work?
I am Belgian, 64 years old now, and I have taken an early retirement. While at the Berkley Center, I am responding to urgings of colleagues that I write about the years that I lived with Pax Christi.
My earliest professional life was focused on academia. My initial studies were at Louvain, in political science. At the end of my initial university studies, I received a grant to go to the Polemological Institute of the University of Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands. I studied there for a year and a half. I did my thesis (for the fin de licence) on the subject of the evolution in the thinking in the Catholic Church on war and peace. I set out to cover a vast period, from Pius XII to John XXIII, but ended up sticking with Pius XII! I was awed by the huge amount of material I found on the topic, with countless speeches and a great deal of theory. I focused on that period in the 1960s, which I still see as a major watershed.
It was while I was at Louvain that I first became involved in setting up a study group that was dedicated to peace research. I had hoped that a lasting program would start there at Louvain; it did, but only much later. I found myself involved in university politics, with a small group of colleagues and fellows. But then my student days were coming to an end and economic pressures were driving me to a regular job.
My first job was for one year at the University of Hasselt, to replace someone who was doing his military service. After that, I worked at the University of Antwerp, at Ufsia, a Jesuit university.
In the meantime, I was approached by Pax Christi, a small group then based in Brussels, around 1970. They wanted me to help in building the movement in the Flemish part of Belgium and I quickly became deeply involved. It was through this work that I realized that the academic life was not my passion: peace and politics was. That was a turning point, when I decided not to pursue my doctorate, but to focus instead on political action. That same year, I met my wife, and thus found the two great loves of my life.
I was asked to return to the University of Hasselt, which I did for the next several years. The University of Hasselt was developing at that time team teaching and project-based education with a large input from students. That determined my choice. Together with a colleague, I wrote a successful book on Belgian politics, which helped people to understand the positions of others across the many divisions in my own country. This was a time of intensive reforms in Belgium, and the nation was deeply divided. Many French-speaking Belgians at that time did not speak Dutch, the language of the majority, and the two groups simply did not meet; they still, in many ways, do not know each other.
During this period, through 1978, I worked in my free time on building the Flemish Pax Christi. For it to connect within the system and to blossom there had to be roots. There was pressure for greater equality on both sides, and having the two separate Pax Christi groups (French and Flemish) made it possible for both to develop their own specificity. The Flemish group moved its secretariat to Antwerp. But, I stress, I was and am not a Flemish nationalist! The Flemish group over the years had a real breakthrough in the Flemish part of the country, and soon it became accepted as a formal group within the Pax Christi Federation (it remains to this day a very active group).
From the beginning, the focus of the Antwerp group was on a broad mobilization for peace. We ran a yearly campaign, working with strong links to the Catholic Church, but independent. We operated as a think tank, concentrating on human rights and disarmament. Our members were attracted from many sectors, including the university, the trade union movement, and other sectors of civil society.
In 1975, while I was still at the university, working as a volunteer for Pax Christi’s Flemish branch, I was elected to the Pax Christi International Board. From that point on, I became involved in the broader international dimensions of the movement.
And in 1978, Pax Christi was looking for a Secretary General, and I was selected for the job. The office of the Secretary General had, before that, shifted its location which in the early years followed the International President. But at the period when I was taking up the post, Pax Christi moved to establish a permanent headquarters. The International Secretariat moved first to Antwerp and then to Brussels, and that is where the Federation’s headquarters has been located ever since.
What was your role and how would you describe, in a capsule, the nature of your work in the Secretariat?
When I started as Secretary General, Pax Christi had 14 branches in a dozen countries (Belgium was one country with two branches). In 2007, there were more than one hundred member organizations in around fifty countries, in all continents. So the movement was growing rapidly during the years when I served as Secretary General. It was a complicated and rather organic growth process. Not all the member organizations were founded as Pax Christi. For example, the Brazilian organization had a different origin, but at a certain point became affiliated to the Federation. Some national member organizations have a quite distinct character. The Dutch chapter is one example: it has fused with a Protestant group and has developed more and more as a big project organization, which supports local peace initiatives in the South of the world and serves as a go-between and mediator. Thus the challenge during the early years of my assignment was to get the different sectors, the national Pax Christis, affiliated organizations, and partners to work together and to persuade them to accept the responsibility of the Executive Committee and Secretariat and the implications of being a common movement.
In my job, I helped to run what was in many ways a think tank, focused both on active problem solving and advocacy and on more intellectual work. In some respects, the focus of Pax Christi was and is on consciousness raising and much work supports that. But during my time I also travelled all over the world, visiting 87 countries during my term. Besides advocacy and some roles in mediation, our main focus was on peace education and mobilization. We also had responsibility for organizing the global assembly every three years ,where major themes and policies were discussed as well as continental and regional consultations. In the latter period, we engaged in a strategic planning process which set the tone for the future work of the organization. More information on this plan and on the organization can be found Pax Christi International's website.
I decided to leave in 2007, after almost 30 years. It was a remarkable career with a remarkable organization. I was succeeded by Claudette Werleigh, originally from Haiti (where she was at one time Minister of Foreign Affairs and briefly Prime Minister), who is now the Secretary General.
Can you talk briefly about the path of Pax Christi, from its foundation?
Pax Christi originated in France, in the immediate post World War II period, thus in 1944-45. The first efforts that led to the creation of the movement, Pax Christi, grew from work to reconcile the French and Germans. Two people were key, a teacher, Marthe Dortel-Claudot, and a bishop, Msgr. Pierre Theas. Both had experienced first-hand the violence and bitterness of the war years and, working through prayer, they met and began to collaborate, with Msgr. Theas as the first formal Pax Christi leader. Their joint leadership set a model that stayed with Pax Christi ever since: formal leadership roles are held by senior Catholic Church leaders as well as lay leaders. Women who, obviously, could not hold a formal position in the Church hierarchy, were effective leaders within the movement.
Pax Christi took on a more formal status around 1950. Msgr. Roncalli, then Papal Nuncio in Paris (and later Pope John XXIII) worked together with Cardinal Feltin, the Archbishop of Paris and first international president of Pax Christi, to broaden the scope to all peoples and from a prayer movement to a movement of deeply committed to study and action. The international secretariat was first established in Paris, with Father Bernard Lalande leading a secretariat that gradually took the organization and its objectives beyond French and German reconciliation.
From the start, Pax Christi members were very diverse. They were a mix of lay and religious people, a varied grouping that included bishops, members of orders, and lay, who form the vast majority of its members and leadership. Pax Christi had clearly a substantial autonomy vis-a-vis the Catholic Church and did not at any stage come under the Bishops Conferences. In many respects, Pax Christi was more like Amnesty International than a church entity. The movement, which had started in France, spread first to other European countries. Pax Christi members formed national branches, so that it took on the form of a Federation. Pax Christi never was and is not today a movement of bishops and cardinals. It is a membership organization made up of national movements, affiliated and partners organizations.
And the most important element, by far, is the men and women who make up the organization. Again, they are diverse and include Catholics and non-Catholics. The movement also attracts some I would term “marginal Catholics.” But the capacity to engage in dialogue with the Vatican has always been important and generally very positive.
The year 1965 was an important landmark. The term of Cardinal Feltin, who had served as the first International President, came to an end. The International Council (general assembly) elected (there were always elections) Cardinal Alfrink, from Holland (Utrecht), as International President. Carel ter Maat was appointed Secretary General and, with him, the International Secretariat moved to The Hague in the Netherlands.
And 1978 was another important landmark year. Msgr. Luigi Bettazzi from Italy was elected International President (he was from Italy, and quite left-leaning). I became Secretary-General. And the International Secretariat moved to Belgium (where it has remained ever since).
To touch briefly on the major milestones, in terms of leadership, Cardinal Franz König from Austria was International President from 1985 to '90, and was followed, in 1990 by Cardinal Danneels from Belgium, and in 1999, Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem was elected President. Between 2007 and 2010 there was a co-presidency of Archbishop Monsengwo from D.R. Congo and Marie Dennis, from the USA. The next International Co-Presidency will be Bishop Dowling, from South Africa and Marie Dennis, serving a second term.
Pax Christi was blessed by its leaders. Cardinal König was a great man (he would have been a great Pope, and played an influential role in the election of Pope John Paul II). But a series of strong women have always played important roles, prominent among them Marie Dennis. She has played a pivotal part, for 20 years. She has a fascinating personal story. She was married, to a dentist, lived in Guam, working as a civil engineer on developing submarines. An involvement with U.S. Catholic programs on poverty changed her life. Her focus shifted to issues of justice. She went with her children to live on a farm and later her husband left her and she had to raise the children. She became more and more involved in social movements. She then decided her vocation is as part of the Maryknolls, where she is the director of the Center of Global Concerns in Washington, D.C. and New York.
What were the major conflicts where you found yourself personally engaged in the issues?
In truth, the movement was involved in virtually all major conflicts in one way or another, and I got involved in them all as its secretary-general. That includes the East West conflicts in the early years, the Middle East conflict, of course, conflicts in the Balkans, East Timor, Sudan, Uganda, West Africa, and so forth.
Pax Christi was very active in the former Soviet Union, and had strong relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, going back to 1972. Our first link was in fact established during the WCRP inaugural Assembly in Japan, and we developed the relationships over time. Because we were a non official movement, we were able to do things that the Vatican could not. We were in close communication with several people in the Vatican who appreciated our contacts and knowledge. This brought us into contact with, for example, the Vatican Secretary of Christian Unity, Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, and with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli when he was Secretary of State.
What about the conflicts in Central America, where I have heard about Pax Christi’s role?
We were very much involved in Central America during the 1980s, the period of most intense conflict. I was involved personally. Archbishop Romero asked Pax Christi to send a delegation, at a senior level, which included the International President. After his assassination, a delegation visited the four Central American countries in 1980. That mission, which resulted in a set of hard-hitting reports about human rights abuses, led to two strong reactions, the first from the Cardinal Lopez Trojillo, president of CELAM, the Latin American Bishops’ Conference, and the second from World Vision.
The Cardinal-President of CELAM protested to the Vatican about the mission’s critical findings on the Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference’s as well as on CELAM’s positions concerning the conflicts with the Sandinista government. This was in the middle of the conflicts around the Contras, who were supported by the Reagan administration. Cardinal Casaroli invited Pax Christi to the Vatican for a discussion, which went very well and was respectful towards Pax Christi. The incident showed much about Pax Christi’s relationship to the Vatican, independent, but with considerable sympathy (Cardinal Casaroli in effect said to us, “What do you expect if your delegation under the leadership of a bishop from another part of the world criticizes a national bishops’ conference? These bishops will come to us to complain. There are people here who think differently, but I fully appreciated your work.” It also showed how the Church was divided, with some (like Msgr. Bettazi, our International President) sympathetic to the left, while others in the church at large were much more aligned with conservative forces.
The second outcome was a lawsuit filed in a German court by World Vision. Our report was blunt, and we had put it out in haste, without a review by a lawyer (which really we should have done). And it was rather harshly worded, and said (not suggested) that World Vision had links with the local para-military and the CIA. We were served papers, had to get a lawyer, and went to a court in Frankfurt, all in a fortnight. But before launching the court case, World Vision went through considerable changes, and many of their local staff in Central America were let go, an indication that our criticism had a basis. For various reasons, including the complexity of Pax Christi’s legal status as a Swiss-registered organization, we won the case. World Vision was in turn ordered to pay all the legal expenses. At their request we met afterwards with the World Vision top team to make peace over dinner. We would not, however, issue a joint statement as World Vision had wished, because they were still suing many other organizations, big and small, including Trocaire from Ireland, who lost and had to pay a lot of damages.
How did Pax Christi work with the World Council of Churches? In some ways you seem to have similarities in the historic course and in the agendas.
Pax Christi worked quite closely with the WCC on various issues over the years, but there was no formal relationship. It was largely on an ad hoc basis. Pax Christi was part of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, set up by the WCC and we had common initiatives. For example, on the non-proliferation treaty we held a press conference in Geneva with the then WCC secretary general Konrad Raiser and Cardinal Danneels as international president of Pax Christi International.
Can we turn now to some of the issues that have been your focus over your career? To start, Pax Christi is well known for its advocacy against small arms. How did you see the issue evolve?
First of all, Pax Christi was involved in the initiative to establish an International Criminal Court (ICC), an effort that reflected many years of mobilization; many NGOs were involved. The campaign went on for about ten years before the Rome Convention, establishing the ICC, was formalized. In the campaign, there was much collaboration between Amnesty, Pax Christi, many other international NGOs and many national groups. It was a remarkable effort. Parallel to that, we were building links to some governments that were sympathetic to the idea—some were the “usual suspects,” thus the Norwegians and the Irish, for example. These sympathetic governments were themselves looking for support. There were also a predictable set of countries that were rather suspicious, for example the U.S. The campaign used the internet, massively—in fact, that is the way we functioned, and it created links that lasted. There were thousands of groups and meetings.
The ICC was already ambitious and the effort was far from easy: the Bush administration was active in opposing it, and put pressure on many countries (perhaps 50 countries) and there was complex counter pressure, especially from European countries. Countries like Romania were pulled both ways.
The model that evolved was picked up later for the arms trade. It involved many of the same allies: leaders included Amnesty and Pax Christi Holland. The International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) took shape (I was a speaker at its launch). The effort later multiplied, bringing in religious groups and others; this was a focus for ecumenical networks. The growing efforts also had a regional focus. There were active groups in Africa, especially Congo.
The effort is difficult because small arms are very much part of cultures, so often the campaign is going fundamentally against the grain. The ICC was in many ways more straightforward, because it dealt with major war crimes, genocide and crime against humanity if they are not dealt with in the national juridical system. (In that respect I find it strange that the Bush administration was so terribly opposed, since the ICC represented no real risk as the U.S. clearly can deal with crimes within its judicial system.)
But the arms trade was more difficult. It has nonetheless become a large campaign, with mobilization of groups, signatures etc. And it is taking on new dimensions, for example the effort to ban cluster munitions. This was a theme during the Gaza war, because there were many accusations that cluster ammunition was used. The results were not unlike those for land mines, with many innocent victims, including children hurt while playing in ruins and farmers on their land. Pax Christi was a leader, with Pax Christi Ireland and the Netherlands especially active. Pax Christi was a also a leader in the campaign against the landmines.
How did you see the objectives of the campaign?
We are working for a treaty to regulate and push back the use of small arms. In fact, in violent conflict, small arms cause much harm and suffering. They do not cost much and so are purchased in large quantities. And when a conflict ends large quantities of arms are left, and continue to cause great harm and flow to the next violent conflict zone. The objective is to get them off the market. But there are strong gun cultures, the Finns for example, who have traditions of guns and hunting. But now there are more and more incidents with guns in schools, a pattern that is spreading. So we push and push and push, and realize that there will always be a push back. Of course, arms and guns will not disappear; the police, for example, will always carry arms. It is a huge task, not only to try to change the culture but to try to get a grip on flow of arms, and the people who do business in arms.
We also work more broadly in focusing on places and situations where there are high levels of violence and instability. That would include warlords and gangs as well as some governments who sell blood diamonds in order to procure arms. So the traffic in arms is the main objective. There are all kinds of initiatives in this area, including efforts to encourage populations to trade in weapons in return for agricultural tools or to pay in kind for medical care so that the arms can be destroyed afterwards—a hospital in northern Kenya had a successful campaign. But it is a long campaign.
How good is the information about the arms trade? Is research and intelligence a large part of the campaign?
The sources of arms and the nature of the arms trade are actually very well known. There are lists of manufacturers and traders, and good documentation does exist. The complexity is the connection with smuggling, for example around “blood diamonds.” And there is a famous Russian who has a huge empire that is a large player in delivering arms to all parties in conflict. Belgium itself had a tradition as an arms manufacturer. Now those factories make tennis rackets! Italy and Russia and the U.S. as well as Czechoslovakia are still important. The campaign uses the information that is available.
You mentioned Pax Christi’s long tradition of working with women. Can you talk more about that? And how has it related to the Catholic Church?
Women have always been the major drivers of the movement and have been prominent at every stage. The movement was started by a woman, Marthe Dortel-Claudot, the French teacher who started a prayer campaign to reconcile with Germany. She went to see a Bishop seeking help, and he pointed to another bishop, Msgr. Theas, and the two began to work together for reconciliation.
There were significant differences in the role that women played among the different Pax Christi national sections. Pax Christi U.S. always had a strong presence of women. This was true across all the Anglo Saxon countries. Overall the role and presence of women is growing in the movement. The model of having leadership of the movement shared in an international co-presidency of a woman and a bishop has now been formalized. Marie Dennis used to be a vice president, but now she is the co-president.
What do you see as special facets of women working for peace within the movement? Are there special cases or people that deserve special focus?
Women have always been leaders in movements that work for peace, though in different roles in different countries. In Britain, there was a courageous movement led by women where women camped for many months protesting missile sites at Greenham Common in England. Some sections, however, had trouble attracting women. In the “classic” peace approaches, that is those associated with missiles and arms, the issues were, perhaps, in some countries less attractive to women. But now, there is a new generation of young women, leaders and lobbyists, who have changed the world as well as Pax Christi.
Pax Christi has not really taken a leadership role or stands on women’s roles in society. The movement has consciously stayed away from issues like abortion, leaving it essentially open inside the movement. We took a position that it is possible to have differences of opinion on these controversial issues. We have enough to do without taking that on. That allowed Pax Christi to mobilize across divides. Overall, though Pax Christi could be and is considered rather progressive within the Church.
Pax Christi has also been active in some of the coalitions that have formed to seek action on issues for women in conflict. Pax Christi was less of a leader than a part of some relevant coalitions, for example for women in the Congo. And Pax Christi has given its annual Peace Prize to women on several occasions, including to a leader of the women’s movement against rape as a tool of war in the Congo and the Tokyo Museum leader who focused on the “Korean comfort women” during the Japanese occupation in the Second World War.
As you reflect on your career, what are some of the personal stories that stand out?
There are so many stories and memories! That is why I need to write my book. There were many cases where we achieved a lot, but in a sober evaluation also many cases where we missed the point, missed the boat. We need to learn from both.
Perhaps the most interesting area in which I was most personally involved was the long series of contacts with Eastern Europe as well as the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), starting in the early 1970s. I was in the former USSR perhaps 40 times! This took place in the context of Communist Eastern Europe.
Pax Christi was independent, but our ROC contacts were very much with the knowledge and the blessing of the Vatican, especially with the Pontifical Council on Christian Unity. There were friends there who respected what we did, though we did our own thing, took our own responsibility, and never asked for approval. There was, however, a certain moment, around 1988, when preparations were underway for a great Millennium celebration of the ROC, when we were asked to be a go-between between the Vatican and President Gorbachev. A large celebration was being prepared and the Vatican’s stand was unclear. It was a time when there were large opportunities to develop relationships, with major changes starting under Gorbachev, but also many tensions, including those after the assassination attempt on the Pope; who knew what was behind it?
Cardinal Silvestrini approached Pax Christi, with concerns about Catholics in different parts of USSR, as well the question of the future relationship with the ROC. They were seeking some resolution of tensions. At that time Cardinal Koenig was international president; he was very gifted and had long experience in working in East Europe. I went, together with a member of the Exceutive, to Moscow for talks and to be available as a go-between. Our delegation was received in an unmarked hotel, in an environment of great secrecy. We met a high level delegation of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In our discussions we passed some messages, that “the Pope was a Slav, and was watching what was happening in the USSR with great interest.” In the end, the Vatican decided to send a delegation to the anniversary events, at a senior level, with Cardinal Casaroli as Secretary of State, and Cardinals Echegarray and Willebrands. I accompanied Koenig to the Millenium Celebrations. There was a meeting between Cardinal Casaroli and Gorbachev. And this was followed by a visit by Gorbachev to the Vatican.
The advantage, the strength of Pax Christi was that we had contacts at many levels. They included the grassroots, NGOs, the academic world, diplomats and policy makers.
There were other interesting meetings around the time of the invasion of Afghanistan. In the delegations of the ROC, there were no women on the Orthodox side! But what was interesting was some of young theologians who were there. The Orthodox Church had to rely on these young theologians to deal with the kinds of issues, like human rights, that were raised by us. There were official meetings, every three years, that involved Cardinals and bishops and lay on our side and included Metropolitans on the ROC side, but also these young theologians. We had enough informal contact with them that they explained how the system worked. They (the church officials), had to deliver their texts to the branch of the Party that controlled the churches, and they would get them back, amended. The texts on theological dialogue would include paragraphs that were the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, and our counterparts were at times embarrassed by the bluntness of them. They would point them out, and explain confidentially that those paragraphs were not their own. After the meeting, they had to report to the party authorities individually on all contacts and conversations. These were checked against each other. Once there was a very formal meeting with the ROC where an unannounced document was put on the table by them. Both sides followed the original agenda and concluded at the end that there was ‘unfortunately’ no time left to deal with the unannounced document: it was just too bad. The interference from outside was neutralized in a way the ROC delegation could defend at home.
There was also a dark side to our exchanges. We saw a deeply conservative, nationalist, anti-Muslim set of attitudes that we found embarrassing. But we also recognized that there was some of that in our own Church. One of the young Orthodox theologians took me, in 1986 or 1987, to a screening of a film about the Stalinist reign of terror and the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was made in Georgia while Sheverdnadze was in power in the beginning of glasnost, by a TV crew working in the margins, discreetly, with leftover of budgets and spare time. It was an allegory, with nothing called by name, but it had a dictator looking like a mix of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini singing opera on a balcony. In the allegory, the powerful father figure comes back again and again from the grave. There were also scenes of torture with the singing of revolutionary songs inside a beautiful church building. It was very touching to see the struggle with the past and to reflect on the ways in which the Orthodox church was able to survive all of this. The Orthodox Church remains very nationalist to this day, with strong views about Chechnya as a just war, for example.
Other memorable times, in terms of personal experience, were my visits to the Vatican. We would visit in small delegations, with Cardinal Koenig, or others. So once, here we are at the Vatican, coming in with Cardinal Koenig, his secretary, a member of the Executive, and me, through the courtyard and along the grand gallery that leads to the Secretariat of State. Another Cardinal came out of the building of the Secretariat of State. He was Cardinal Koenig’s successor (who later left in some disgrace), but there had been bitterness with Koenig, so Cardinal Koenig pulled us apart, almost hiding behind a pillar. It was a strange moment. We entered and met with Cardinal Sodano, Secretary of State, who had been talking to a beautiful Adonis, an Indian priest. We recognized him because he had been a driver years earlier for the Nuncio in Brussels; he had come through the diplomatic school and had clearly gone up the ranks.
It was then our turn, and we went into a separate room to meet with the Secretary of State. His compliments to Cardinal Koenig were effusive, almost excessive. The discussion focused on the Ukraine and the implications there for the churches after Communism fell apart. There were complicated tensions around the church buildings between the ROC and the Roman Catholic Church. The Greek Catholic church, in the Western Ukraine, had been persecuted under Stalin with the Russian Orthodox Church receiving their buildings while in Russia proper the ROC was persecuted. The ROC was very much weakened, struggling for survival while being used a s a tool of Russification elsewhere in the Soviet Union. The Greek Catholic Church was driven underground. There were painful memories and conflicts, even going back to the Nazi period, to Catholic militant movements, links with Russia, and varying roles in the liberation from Communism. There were tensions around Opus Dei and similar groups going into Russia as if there was nothing there. We had been asked by the Russian Orthodox Church to raise some of these issues, so we were bringing them to the attention of Secretary of Sodano, in hopes of moderating some of the tensions. Was the Secretariat of State fully aware of these developments? That was then and is not entirely clear. The experience highlighted how decentralized the Catholic Church was and remains.
What was the role of Pax Christi during the Rwanda crisis?
I also have painful memories of the Rwanda genocide. The ferocity of the events came as a surprise. But there were indications of growing tensions beforehand. We got a letter, suddenly, at the end of 1993, about the creation of a Pax Christi group in Rwanda. The White Fathers who were missionaries there were seeking support for this group. Cardinal Danneels went to preach a retreat for the Rwandese bishops. Around New Year, there were marches, together with Protestants, for peace and reconciliation. That was just four months before the genocide.
Then the genocide happened, and in that tragedy, the international community was paralyzed. We were all watching. We were in touch with a Belgian journalist who brought out pictures. The role of the French military was shocking, as they just saved the white people. We had discussions about Belgium’s role; it withdrew after 10 soldiers were assassinated, probably on purpose. There were sharp public debates and Pax Christi was involved, and very divided. There were some who took a pacifist view, and others who argued for intervention and action. At the time, the German section took an absolutely pacifist line, and were against even humanitarian intervention.
This raises the difficult question for us all (and it came up in Kosovo also): What do you do when prevention has failed? Silence is not acceptable. There were people from Belgium pleading for humanitarian intervention. The realities were very close to us. There were Tutsis and also Hutus; we knew well who were massacred. We knew people who saved other people and we knew people in the camps, where Pax Christi people organized non-violence trainings. Later on, civil society was hindered in their work, with many accusations coming from the authorities, even towards our member organizations. To this day distrust is a legacy.
What about Pax Christi’s work with Truth and Reconciliation Commissions?
We played a role mostly in sharing experience because there was much interest among our members.
We had many people on our Board and in the movement who were involved in many relevant countries: Haiti, Angola, Salvador, and Nicaragua, for example. Bishop Dowling from South Africa was very much involved: in many respects he is a typical Pax Christi bishop. He played a prominent role in the struggle against apartheid. And he was ready to speak also about the downsides of South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for example the disillusionment of victims who saw their persecutors walk free.
So our role was to think about different approaches and to evaluate them. We set up a process of reflection on the process and on needs. We got very different answers. For example, one member from Angola who had spent a long time in prison was very much against the process. He argued that what was needed was simply to turn the page, and that’s it. Many, on the contrary, had thoughtful reflections and experiences underlining the need for such a process. We discussed these findings in several meetings over the years. But there is no single report or conclusion. The process was more one of sharing and building networks. Members with special interest in the process included Peru, Haiti, Croatia, South Africa and Guatemala.
One more reason to write the book!