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Forty years after the Soweto uprising, leaders of churches in conflict-torn countries gathered in South Africa to study the ways of peace and reconciliation. The ecumenical gathering in Johannesburg was organized by the World Council of Churches and the South African Council of Churches. Photo courtesy of the World Council of Churches

Photo courtesy of the World Council of Churches

Forty years after the Soweto uprising, leaders of churches in conflict-torn countries gathered in South Africa to study the ways of peace and reconciliation. The ecumenical gathering in Johannesburg was organized by the World Council of Churches and the South African Council of Churches.

Finding peace from conflict, post-Soweto

By Linda Bloom
June 16, 2016 | NEW YORK (UMNS)

South African and ecumenical church leaders marked the 40th anniversary of the Soweto uprising with a consultation designed to assist those in today’s conflict or post-conflict countries.

The June 8-11 event, “Peace-Building and Reconciliation Consultation: The Place of the Church” was organized by the World Council of Churches and the South African Council of Churches. Bishop Ziphozihle Daniel Siwa, presiding bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, is president of the South African council.

The events and consequences of June 16, 1976 — when police met student marches with deadly force, sparking the larger anti-apartheid movement — served as a backdrop throughout the event to conversation among the 55 participants. Participants included those from Burundi, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Palestine, South Africa, South Sudan and Sudan.

“We met on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the student uprising that began in Soweto, South Africa, and later spread throughout the country,” the group wrote in a June 10 statement. “This was a turning point in the struggle for liberation and the involvement of the global ecumenical movement.

“We discussed the best ways to take a proactive role in engaging and supporting initiatives for peacebuilding and justice, as a calling to fulfill God’s mission in the world. In peacebuilding and reconciliation, church leaders are called to promote those things that make for peace, and to denounce and stand against those things that threaten peace or sustain injustice.”

Stadium gathering

David Wildman, who represented the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, said the WCC will be prioritizing conflict areas over the next few years, starting with Palestine this year, followed by Sudan and South Sudan in 2017.

“The idea is people could share lessons learned but also learn from one another,” said Wildman, the mission agency’s executive secretary for human rights and racial justice, about the consultation.

On June 11, consultation delegates were among the hundreds who gathered at Orlando Stadium, the site of a former police station in Soweto, to mark the anniversary of uprising. Wildman said they walked a route from one of the high schools. That march was never completed in 1976, he noted, because the students were blocked enroute when the police started firing at them.

Speeches during the stadium event included one by the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, the WCC’s top executive.

“As human beings we share a very basic right today, given through the resurrection of our lord Jesus Christ: We have the right to hope,” Tveit told the gathering. “We have the right to hope that sin, violence, death, destruction, separation, exclusion, discrimination and abuse of power shall not have the last word.”

The stadium event closed “with a series of prayers that really were kind of confessional,” by those representing different communities related to apartheid and the struggle against it, Wildman reported. Twenty-two years after South Africa’s first democratic elections, “the sense was these moments of confession were because there was work (still) to be done,” he said.

The name of the stadium, Orlando, was not lost on the participants as they heard about the gay nightclub shootings in Orlando, Florida. South Africa has taken a lead on resisting LGBTQ discrimination, Wildman said, and is one of the few countries where same-sex marriage is legal.

Process of reconciliation

Noting in its statement that “reconciliation is a process of moving from a divided past to a united future,” the consultation identified several ways to help churches in conflict or post-conflict situations engage in peacebuilding:

  • Offering solidarity and witness together at national, regional and international levels.
  • Providing theological reflection and teaching, such as Kairos South Africa and Kairos Palestine, and the Palestinian and Israeli Ecumenical Forum.
  • Building capacity for a just peace through advocacy networks and campaigns.

Current situations in places like Sudan, South Sudan, Nigeria and Palestine are not direct parallels to what happened in South Africa but reflect the ongoing nature of the struggle for peacebuilding, Wildman said.

“Reconciliation is not just dialogue but also changing relationships,” he explained. “Real reconciliation is changing our relationships of power, of acknowledging past wrongs but also moving forward together.”

Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at https://twitter.com/umcscribe or contact her at (615)742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org