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Bishop urges Tillerson to use diplomacy to resolve simmering Congo crisis

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WASHINGTON — The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace called on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to undertake diplomatic efforts to ensure that democratic elections are carried out by the end of the year to avoid continued strife and the possible outbreak of civil war.

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., gestures during a March 23 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department in Washington.  (CNS/Bob Roller)

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., gestures during a March 23 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department in Washington. (CNS/Bob Roller)

In a May 1 letter to Tillerson, Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, the committee chairman, shared the concern of the Congolese Catholic bishops’ conference that an agreement between the country’s government and opposition parties governing a presidential election in 2017 was not being followed.

The Congolese bishops voiced their concern over rising tension in Congo in an April 20 statement after President Joseph Kabila unilaterally nominated Bruno Tshibala as prime minister over the objection of opposition parties.

Tshibala, a former member of the largest opposition party, was named prime minister of a new transitional government established to organize a presidential election by the end of the year after Kabila refused to step down when his second term in office expired in December.

Kabila has said, however, that the government needs more time to overcome the massive logistic and financial challenges to holding an election. The opposition maintains that Kabila is trying to cling to power beyond his constitutional mandate.

Demonstrations in December resulted in at least 40 deaths at the hands of government forces.

The Catholic bishops’ conference helped negotiate Dec. 31 what has been called the St. Sylvester Accord. The agreement called for elections in 2017, after which Kabila would step down. Kabila’s appointment of Tshibala violates that agreement, the bishops said.

Bishop Cantu said Congo could resolve its electoral crisis this year by holding free and fair elections that would lead to the first peaceful transfer of power in the country’s 57-year history or it could descend into autocracy, riots or perhaps civil war.

U.S. diplomacy could head off violence and instability, the committee chairman said.

The Congolese bishops “used their moral authority” to become involved in the talks to create conditions of “peaceful, constructive dialogue to resolve the crisis,” Bishop Cantu explained in his letter.

“It’s not the church’s place to take on a political role by applying pressure on the political parties to resolve the crisis and protect democracy and the common good. The Congolese people need the international community, the United Nations and the regional countries to work together to convince the Congolese government to prepare inclusive, free and fair elections, as called for by the constitution to allow civil society and the common good for the country to flourish,” Bishop Cantu said.

Bishop Cantu urged Tillerson to “deploy the diplomatic and development resources at your discretion to ensure that the government honors its constitution and the democratic principles on which it is built.”

“An investment in diplomacy and promotion of good governance will save many millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping expenditures in the long run,” Bishop Cantu wrote. “It will also rescue millions of people from needless suffering.”

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Bishop briefs Tillerson on church’s interest in building the ‘common good’

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace met with the country’s top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, March 23, for a policy-packed 35-minute conversation about immigration, the Middle East, Africa and the role of the Catholic Church’s efforts toward building “the common good.”

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., gestures during a March 23 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department in Washington. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., gestures during a March 23 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department in Washington. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

“After some small talk about Texas,” the two spoke about the Middle East, about Iraq and Syria, reaching out to Central America and Mexico, and the situation in Africa, said Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, explaining his initial meeting in Washington with Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, who, like Bishop Cantu, hails from Texas.

Bishop Cantu said the meeting was about letting Tillerson know “that our only motive is to help build the common good, that we don’t have ulterior motives,” and explaining the bishops’ peace and justice committee’s work in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the Far East.

Bishop Cantu, as the chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, has spoken for a two-state solution in the Israel-Palestine conflict, against the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories, for reducing the United States’ nuclear arsenal, and raised concerns about an executive order that targets refugees from some countries with predominantly Muslim populations, which are at odds with stances taken early by the Donald Trump administration.

“I have concerns,” he said in an interview with Catholic News Service, but said the meeting with Tillerson was about establishing a relationship that can help the church advocate for policy issues to help the common good.

“We bring a unique perspective,” said Bishop Cantu. “One of our principles in Catholic social teaching is the common good and that goes beyond our own church needs.”

Bishop Cantu said he talked about the church’s efforts in Congo and South Sudan and the need for stability in such places. U.N. agencies said in February that famine and war in the area are threatening up to 5.5 million lives in the region.

Because of the church’s humanitarian agencies, its solidarity visits, and long-term contact with local governments and populations around the world, the church lends a credible voice, Bishop Cantu said.

“He expressed that he was eager to have open lines of communication with us and to listen to our perspective on things,” Bishop Cantu said.

“The two areas we especially touched on were the Middle East and how to rebuild in Iraq and Syria. And the second topic that he wanted to hear our perspective on is the immigration issue, particularly how to reach out to Central America and Mexico,” said Bishop Cantu.

He said he emphasized to Tillerson the importance of having countries where religious minorities have a say in the government and of investing in rebuilding countries. The proposed Trump administration budget has been criticized for its plans to slash funding for the State Department up to 28 percent, or $10.9 billion. The cuts would greatly affect the department’s Food for Peace Program, which reduces hunger and malnutrition in poor countries, while proposing a $54 billion, or 10 percent, increase in military spending.

Bishop Cantu said he left information with Tillerson about the church’s concerns with the proposed budget.

“We’re concerned about the very steep increase in the military budget, the cutting back on foreign aid, we’re very concerned about that. I did want to emphasize how important development is in regions that need to be stabilized,” he said, “that those are wise investments of time and funds.”

The meeting also included a discussion about Christians in the Middle East, Bishop Cantu said, “and that Christians don’t want to live in a ghetto. … They believe it’s important that they live in an integrated society that is safe and secure,” to have a voice in local, regional as well federal government. He said he also emphasized “the fact that the (Catholic) church in the Middle East can act as a voice between the Sunnis and the Shia” and the importance of the church remaining in places such as Iraq and Syria.

“Any wise government official wants to listen to the voice of people who have a stake in different areas and to listen to the wisdom of experience,” Bishop Cantu said. “We have our brothers and sisters there, the church, who do live there. The fact is that … we bring a trusted voice.

“We bring some wisdom to the conversation,” he added. “Our vision is to build a society that’s stable, that’s just, that’s peaceful, and ultimately, that’s the goal of the state department … and so I think that’s why our voice is valuable to them.”

 

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U.S. bishops’ official urges Tillerson to back two-state solution in Mideast

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. government should continue to promote a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and avoid actions that would undermine results, said the head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace.

The brother and relatives of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammad Rajabi weep during his Jan. 7 funeral in Hebron, West Bank. Rajabi was killed by Israeli forces. A prominent U.S. bishop urged the U.S. government to promote a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (CNS photo/Abed Al Hashlamoun, EPA)

The brother and relatives of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammad Rajabi weep during his Jan. 7 funeral in Hebron, West Bank. Rajabi was killed by Israeli forces. A prominent U.S. bishop urged the U.S. government to promote a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (CNS photo/Abed Al Hashlamoun, EPA)

Drawing on his observations from a January trip to the Holy Land, Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, committee chairman, wrote Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and urged him to continue to work for a peace agreement “that respects the human dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians and advances justice and peace for all.”

Bishop Cantu told Tillerson that Israeli settlements were an obstacle to peace.

“Settlement expansion on occupied Palestinian lands undermines a two-state solution, destroying the homes and the livelihoods of Palestinians as well as the long-term security and future of Israelis,” he said.

The bishop spoke of his Jan. 14-19 visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories with bishops from Canada and Europe. In a statement at the end of the visit, the bishops said Christians have a responsibility to oppose the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories, because “this de facto annexation of land not only undermines the rights of Palestinians … but, as the U.N. recently recognized, also imperils the chance of peace.”

In his Feb. 1 letter, Bishop Cantu reminded Tillerson that 2017 marked 50 years of “a crippling occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, crippling for both peoples.”

He also spoke of problems created by the Israeli security barrier, a series of cement slabs, barbed wire fences and security roads snaking across part of the West Bank. If completed as planned, the separation wall would stretch nearly 400 miles and restrict the movements of 38 percent of residents of the West Bank.

“The Cremisan Valley is home to a Salesian monastery, convent and school, and the agricultural lands of 58 Christian families who live in nearby Palestinian towns,” Bishop Cantu said in his letter. “The building of the wall constricts residents’ movement, impairs access to their lands, separates Christian institutions from those they serve, and encourages Christian emigration.

“The Cremisan Valley is emblematic of the alarming number of Palestinians who have lost their homes and livelihoods. Settlement expansion, confiscation of lands and the building of the separation wall on Palestinian lands violate international law and undermine a diplomatic solution,” he said.

Bishop Cantu also mentioned President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Moving the embassy to Jerusalem would erode the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution and is a threat to pursuing peace and ending conflict. Its impact would incite and destabilize the area, compromising U.S. security,” Bishop Cantu said.

The 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act authorized funding for the embassy to be moved to Jerusalem by 1999. However, the act contained a provision to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv if it was in the best interests of U.S. national security. U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush pledged to move the embassy, then kept it in Jerusalem so as not to inflame tensions.

Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, said Jan. 23 that the administration is studying the situation.

Bishop Cantu told Tillerson the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would continue to engage the State Department on international issues, but that getting a peace agreement for Israel and Palestine would “require arduous work.”

“It has been 50 years of tumult and turbulence, of egregious injustices and random acts of violence. However, the United States has always provided leadership and support to the peace process,” Bishop Cantu said.

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