“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” With those words from Isaiah (9:2) we proceed through Advent and towards the great light of the feast of the Nativity of the Incarnate Word – or, as we know it, Christmas.
Around the world today there is much darkness. Turn on the news and, whatever your views on Brexit, the commentary is doom and gloom. Look further afield, and politics in the United States or on the streets of Paris is not appealing either. And in my own field of human rights and religious freedom, from Syria to Pakistan, Nigeria to Vietnam, the outlook looks bleak.
Yet it is in the darkness that the lights shine most brightly, and in places of persecution, repression and conflict there are still many lights. Over the course of this year I’ve had the privilege of once again working with and walking alongside some truly extraordinary people, and seeing lights shining in the darkness. Some are people of Christian faith, but others are from different religions or none. But they all share a simple bond: a striving for humanity, dignity and freedom. I would like to recall five of them.
But before describing these beacons in the darkness, I would like to name them according to their virtues, as five lights that might inspire and guide us as we continue through Advent, celebrate Christmas and embark on a new year. They are: forgiveness; courage; perseverance; justice and truth; and hope. You might argue that that amounts to six, but justice and truth go together, and indeed all the virtues are interdependent.
Let’s start with forgiveness. It’s the foundational value of our faith. It is accompanied by redemptive love. It is something we seek when we repent, and it is something we should offer unreservedly to others. But it is not always easy. That was brought home to me when I travelled to Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, in August.
I visited three churches almost three months after a family of suicide bombers had attacked them within minutes of each other. I met clergy and relatives of those who had died. Without exception, everyone I encountered repeated one word: “forgiveness”.
At one Catholic church, the priest, Fr Aloysius Widawan, showed me an upstairs room which he said had been strewn with blood and body parts flung by the force of the blast. He pointed out windows that had been blown out, and icons of St Luke and St John damaged but not destroyed. Everyone spoke of their shock. But, said Fr Aloysius, the consistent response from all his parishioners was: “We must love others. We forgive the attackers. We do not want revenge.”
Even the mother of two young Catholic boys, Nathan and Evan, aged eight and 12, who died as a result of their injuries, said just two days after the bombing: “I have already forgiven the bombers. I don’t want to cry any more. I know that our Mother Mary also lost her son, Jesus. I forgive.” The boys had been baptised only two years before and had just received their first Communion.
“For the Church, we must forgive,” Fr Aloysius said. “This is our doctrine. But for an individual, like the mother of these two boys, the ability to forgive is about faith, not doctrine. None of the victims ever asked: ‘Why has this happened to me?’ They just said: ‘OK, we forgive them, and we pray for the victims.’ There was no anger, no criticism of other religions, only forgiveness. It’s not about religion, it’s about humanity. Of course they had not conferred with each other. It came from their heart.”
Secondly, courage. In November, I was privileged to host a delegation of activists from the Kachin, Shan and Ta’ang ethnic groups from northern Burma. The delegation came to London and Brussels to raise awareness of the terrible human rights violations and humanitarian crisis in northern Burma, in a conflict which has been ignored as the world’s attention has focused on the plight of the Rohingyas.
The group included a Catholic priest, nominated by the bishops of the three dioceses in northern Burma, the president of the Kachin Baptist Convention, two young Kachin civil society activists, a Ta’ang women’s advocate and a Shan. All six spoke publicly, in Parliament and in the media, and met a Foreign Office minister. When I asked them whether they wanted to keep their visit low-key and out of the media, they had declined, saying: “We have come because we want the world to know. So we will speak.”
They returned to Burma, knowing that they faced interrogation, but courageously they each determined not to allow fear to silence them.
Courage and perseverance are two sides of the same coin, and just as the light of courage was evident in the delegation from Burma, so was the light of perseverance in a delegation I hosted in October from Hong Kong. The group consisted of three of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy activists, from three generations: Martin Lee, the 80-year-old founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party and a devout Catholic, and two leaders of the Umbrella Movement, Benny Tai, aged 54, and Nathan Law, aged 25.
Martin would have every reason to retire, but he doesn’t. Benny came to London knowing that he faces a jail sentence in Hong Kong, but he persevered. And Nathan, having already been elected as the youngest member of Hong Kong’s legislature, was disqualified for quoting Mahatma Gandhi, and then jailed for his role in the Umbrella Movement. He could have very understandably decided he has done his part and would focus on his studies – but no, instead he came too.
The three of them spoke at the Conservative Party conference, gave media interviews, met Members of Parliament and, whatever the disappointments and setbacks, continue to persevere in sounding the alarm about the dramatic erosion of Hong Kong’s basic freedoms and the unravelling of Hong Kong’s autonomy promised under the principle of “one country, two systems”.
Justice and truth are increasingly rare commodities these days, but just last week an independent tribunal established to investigate allegations of forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China – known as the China Tribunal – held three days of hearings, chaired by the barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who had prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic.
The tribunal’s inquiry is not over, and it may have more hearings to consider further evidence, but at the conclusion of three days in which it heard from more than 30 witnesses, it reached a powerful and important interim judgment. Sir Geoffrey delivered the statement, saying:
We, the tribunal members, are all certain, unanimously, and sure beyond reasonable doubt, that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practised for a substantial period of time, involving a very substantial number of victims. We will deal in our final judgment with our finding as to whether any international crimes have been committed by this practice. If so, by whom, and with detail as to the time periods concerned, and the number of victims, which will all be derived from further analysis of present evidence, and other material yet to be provided and to the legal advice yet to be received. But, to repeat, it is beyond doubt that forced harvesting of organs happened on a substantial scale, and by state-organised or approved organisations and individuals.
Having played a small part over recent years in trying to bring to the world’s attention reports of forced organ harvesting in China, I saw this as another light in the darkness. Justice has not yet been done but it may have been advanced, and truth has been acknowledged by a panel of seven eminent experts.
Finally, hope. We Catholics would link this to faith, but we don’t have a monopoly on it. There are many examples, but here are two. First, from Indonesia. Immediately after the Surabaya church bombings, Muslims in that city and elsewhere came to churches to offer solidarity, condolences and support. Archbishop Ignatius Suharyo of Jakarta told me that at the evening Mass that same day in the capital’s cathedral, which sits opposite the large Istiqlal Mosque, two young Muslim women came, unannounced, and began to hand out red and white roses (the colours of the Indonesian flag) to the congregation in a gesture of solidarity.
Fr Aloysius said that in Surabaya, Muslims came to the churches to express condolences and help clear up the wreckage. “Our message: it’s about equality, solidarity and unity. Respect for God means respect for other persons,” he said.
Although the church cancelled the Mass that was due to start soon after the attack, and the first afternoon Mass, the 6.30pm Mass that day went ahead, and normal church activities, including daily Mass, resumed the next day. That is a cause for hope.
Secondly, North Korea. It would be premature to say whether the unexpected meetings this year between North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un and South Korea’s leader Moon Jae-in, and between Mr Kim and President Trump, are cause for hope. It is, of course, better that they are talking rather than threatening war. But North Korea’s appalling human rights abuses – which, according to the UN, constitute crimes against humanity – appear to be off the table in these talks.
But what gives hope is the continued efforts of those working to ensure that the human rights crisis is not ignored. Earlier this month I was invited to speak four times in Seoul on North Korea’s human rights situation, at events to mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One event was organised by a movement named Zakar Korea. I was told that zakar is Hebrew for “remember”.
Whatever happens between Mr Kim, Mr Moon and Mr Trump, what gives me hope is the knowledge that there is a band of activists – South Koreans, Westerners and most especially North Koreans who have survived brutal abuses and escaped – who will not let us forget the suffering of the people of North Korea. Their human dignity and human rights are critical to any meaningful peace on the Korean peninsula.
So these are my five lights in the darkness: those of forgiveness, courage, perseverance, justice and truth, and hope. The stories summarised here are but glimpses of these virtues, which I am privileged to encounter in the people I work with, both on the front lines of persecution and conflict, and in advocacy around the world.
At this Christmas time I would add a sixth light, which encompasses the five already described, and that is the light of sacrificial love. A love that compels us to take risks, work hard and speak out for those who need our voices. A love that attempts to imitate, however imperfectly, the light of the Incarnate Love we welcome in the manger on Christmas Day.
Benedict Rogers is East Asia team leader at the international human rights organisation CSW, and author of From Burma to Rome: a Journey into the Catholic Church
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