World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Statement on South Asia

03 September 2002

Adopted by the Central Committee, Geneva, 26 August - 3 September 2002.

The situation in the South Asia region poses a major threat to world peace. Two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, remain in a state of perpetual and growing military confrontation. The region has been the scene of inter-state and intra-state violence and conflict for the last five decades. It is home to over a billion people and provides a contrast of two different worlds - that of the rich elite minority and a poor, disadvantaged and socially marginalized majority. Its societies are being torn asunder as a result of nationalism, ethnocentrism and religious extremism.

Three smaller countries, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, are also in crisis. Nepal, the only Hindu kingdom in the world, is faced with a growing "Maoist" insurgency that has resulted in immense loss of life, prosperity and security for its people. The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has taken a heavy toll of human lives and has brought the country's economy to a virtual standstill. The signing of the agreement in February 2002 to cease hostilities between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) provides a sign of hope. However, since it gained independence from Pakistan through a liberation war in 1971, Bangladesh remains unable to overcome the confrontational nature of its politics. Opportunist politicians and repeated military interventions have brought the country to virtual ruin. Its economy remains stagnant and wholly dependent on massive external assistance.

South Asian societies are plagued by endemic corruption and confrontational politics that often result in grave and serious human rights violations of opposition political parties. In an ever-growing environment of intolerance, religious minorities and religious freedom are under attack not only at the hands of the authorities but also in several cases from the majority communities.

The churches and Christians in the region are overall a small minority faith. The growing climate of religious intolerance and nationalism seriously threatens their and other religious minorities' rights to manifest their faith in public worship and practice. Christians are often pressured to be silent, suffering witnesses to hope in turbulent times. In such critical times the participation of Christians in the life and action of the community comes out of their understanding and exercise in faithfulness to the power of the gospel. In the midst of brokenness, violence and conflicts, Christians and churches are challenged to be messengers of peace and provide space for healing and reconciliation.

Against this background, and in the context of the Decade to Overcome Violence, the Central Committee takes the following actions:

1.   Religion, Politics and Intolerance

1.1    The South Asian Region has been the dwelling for major religions of the world, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. For centuries people practising these religions have lived in peace and harmony. That situation now seems to be changing. In the last decade religion has emerged as a significant and sometimes a dominant factor in intra-state conflicts. It has been manipulated to promote narrow political or nationalist interests and objectives. Religious intolerance has grown almost universally and South Asian societies are no exception to it.

1.2    In India the emergence of Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) as a major force on the political scene has seriously undermined the secular base of the country. During recent years, Christians and Muslims have come under attack and their places of worship have been burnt. Attacks against the Dalit community too have increased. Despite all the constitutional guarantees Dalits continue to suffer indignities and discriminations not only at the hands of the authorities but also at the hands of the majority. In Pakistan the environment of religious intolerance, which was nurtured during the 11 years period of General Zia's military rule, has made the lives and properties of Christian minorities insecure. Many families have suffered because of indiscriminate use of the blasphemy laws that have targeted innocent Christians. Christian villages and churches have come under attack at the instigation of Islamic extremist groups. The situation has worsened as a result of the US-led war in Afghanistan. In Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Buddhist and Islamic groups have often used religion for political purposes to incite hatred and violence against religious minorities.

1.3    The increasing religious intolerance in the whole of South Asia has claimed many victims. It has undercut the multi-cultural, multi-religious and pluralistic base of societies in the region. Intolerance has encouraged a new wave of ideologies, which distort and seek to rewrite history and which incite communal violence, building walls of separation and hatred between communities and peoples.

The Central Committee calls on the churches including those in the region to:

  • raise awareness of the spread of religious extremism that is affecting most religions - Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Buddhism - negatively. This negative influence of religion often originates with groups acting out of ignorance and obscurantism in order to impose their particular religious views on society;
  • encourage and support civic educational projects that promote understanding, tolerance, peace and inter-communal harmony at local, national and regional levels;
  • engage in dialogue on human rights with people of other faiths and convictions in order to build a culture of peace and address such issues as rights of minorities and intolerance;
  • draw attention to the plight of the Dalits suffering from the discriminatory practices and policies of the Indian government and to help secure the implementation of constitutional guarantees through legal recourse, awareness building and advocacy at the national and international levels;
  • mobilise national and international support for the repeal of the Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan.

2. India - Pakistan Confrontation and the Kashmir Dispute

The post September 11th developments have again brought Pakistan and India to the brink of a major war. The war in Afghanistan and the US presence in the region have added a new dimension to an already tense situation in the sub-continent. The military establishment in Pakistan is again being rewarded for its support to the US-led international coalition against terrorism. Yet while the military regime actively participates in the war against Taliban and Al-Qaida networks in Afghanistan, it remains lukewarm in its political will to disband the militant Islamic groups at home that are engaged in violent actions in Kashmir.

2.1    The Kashmir dispute remains a thorn in the side of India and Pakistan. Since the partition of the sub-continent in 1947, the two neighbours have fought three major wars. The present deployment of millions of troops across the borders could lead to open hostilities with prospects of a nuclear war that neither side can afford.

2.2    Despite the UN Security Council Resolutions of the 1940s and 1950s and the Simla Agreement of 1972, there is presently an impasse with little prospect of the parties returning to the negotiating table to seek an amicable settlement of the dispute through dialogue. The situation in Kashmir took a turn for the worse in the late 1980s, when India, instead of listening and responding to the grievances of the people of Kashmir, sent in the military forces to the valley to quell a popular uprising. The situation since has continued to deteriorate with no signs of return to normalcy. The Pakistan-sponsored incursions by Islamic militants to support the struggle of the Kashmiri people have further aggravated an already grave situation.

2.3    The people of India and Pakistan have paid a high price because of this perpetual state of military confrontation between the two countries. It has led to a steady increase in defence expenditure. Such increase has come at the cost of health care, food, education, adequate housing and other projects in the human development sectors further adding to the sufferings of the common people.

The Central Committee

affirms that the Kashmir dispute be resolved in accordance with the wishes of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The basis for such resolution should be the principles enunciated in the UN Security Council Resolutions of the 1940s and 1950s and it should be pursued in the spirit of the Simla Agreement of 1972;

reiterates that there is no military solution to the Kashmir dispute and the two parties should return to the negotiating table without delay;

appeals to the governments of India and Pakistan to take immediate steps to restore and normalise relations by undertaking confidence-building measures that could pave the way for a political dialogue;

calls on the government of India to allow increased access to the Kashmir Valley by non-governmental organisations concerned with human rights; and on the government of Pakistan to refrain from providing support to Islamic militant groups involved in cross border terrorism;

encourages WCC member churches to be in solidarity with churches in India and Pakistan and assist them in their ministry of healing and reconciliation in the region;

urges the churches in India and Pakistan to undertake the following actions to facilitate the process of an amicable settlement of the Kashmir dispute:

  • to build awareness amongst the churches in the two countries about the urgency of resolving the Kashmir dispute;
  • to encourage and support people-to-people relations between India and Pakistan for better understanding and for promotion of peace and reconciliation in the region;
  • to organise prayer vigils, where possible on an inter-faith basis, to promote peace and reconciliation between the two countries.

3. The Nuclear Threat

The May 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan caught the international community unawares. Tensions between the two countries increased, giving rise to the prospects of an accelerated arms race in the region. The tests were condemned worldwide and on 6th June 1998 United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1172 calling on the two countries to refrain from further nuclear tests. The Resolution laid down a set of guidelines to bring the two countries into the mainstream of non-proliferation regime. The ecumenical community is of the considered view that it is dangerous to rely on the assumption that nuclear weapons will not be used in South Asia. The Kargil episode in 1999 and the December 13th, 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament have shown that there is little appreciation of the changed situation in the sub-continent since the May 1998 nuclear test.

The Central Committee calls on the governments of India and Pakistan to:

  • dismantle their nuclear weapons and become parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty;
  • place all their civilian nuclear programmes under internationally recognised safeguard arrangements; and
  • cooperate with other states in the region in working towards a nuclear-weapon free zone in South Asia.

calls on both governments in the meantime to immediately implement measures to reduce the risk of deliberate or inadvertent nuclear attacks by:

  • jointly committing to a policy of no first use and formalising that commitment through a bilateral agreement;
  • refraining from arming delivery systems;
  • ensuring effective central civilian political control over nuclear policies and facilities; and
  • expanding and enhancing the existing agreement prohibiting attacks on each other's nuclear installations.

further calls on the governments of India and Pakistan to:

  • halt all further research, development and production of nuclear weapons or weapons components; and
  • cease production of fissile materials and to support international negotiations towards a global ban on the production of fissile materials.

calls on other governments to:

  • end immediately all material and political support to India and Pakistan for the development and production of nuclear weapons and/or their delivery systems.

calls on its member churches in South Asia to:

  • urge their respective governments to work towards a South Asia nuclear-weapon-free zone; and to
  • undertake public awareness programmes in support of the abolition of nuclear weapons in South Asia and globally.

calls on churches in other parts of the world to:

  • support the churches and ecumenical bodies in South Asia in their efforts to promote a nuclear-weapons-free zone in that region; and to
  • call upon their own governments to withhold all support related to nuclear weapons research, production and deployment by India and Pakistan and encourage achievement of the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in South Asia.

4. Sri Lanka's Ethnic Conflict

The conflict in Sri Lanka, since it escalated in 1983, has claimed over sixty thousand lives on both sides of the ethnic divide. The war has left the country's economy in tatters. For over two decades people - mostly Tamils - have been subjected to draconian laws. Torture, detention without trial, extra-judicial killings and curtailment of freedom of the press are common practices of the state. The LTTE has imposed strict conditions in areas under its control where extortion, summary executions and forced recruitment, particularly of children, for war purposes are common practices.

The escalation of the war in 1980s and 1990s resulted in the mass exodus of Tamil refugees to India, Western Europe, North America and Australia; in addition a large number of people in the North and East were uprooted as internally displaced persons. Several attempts were made to mediate a peace agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE without much success. The situation unexpectedly changed in February 2002, however, when the Norwegian Government facilitated a Memorandum of Understanding between the Sri Lankan government and LTTE to cease hostilities, pending the peace talks that are scheduled to take place in Bangkok, Thailand.

The Central Committee:

  • welcomes the Memorandum of Understanding arrived at between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam;
  • urges the ecumenical community to

- accompany the sister churches in Sri Lanka in their journey to peace;

- pray for, encourage and provide solidarity support to the National Council of Churches in Sri Lanka and the Church of Norway in their joint efforts to build awareness and mobilise support for the peace process;

- mobilise support nationally and internationally in favour of the Peace Process in Sri Lanka;

- provide human and material resources for reconciliation and reconstruction of Sri Lanka.

5. Bangladesh and Religious Minorities

After three decades of Independence, Bangladesh has failed to evolve a viable constitutional framework of democratic governance. The country has suffered frequent changes of government and bloody military coups. Its founding principle of "Secular Bengali Nationalism" has collapsed and the country is presently caught between the throes of abrasive right-wing Islamic political parties and opportunist politicians. Lack of development of parliamentary political culture has paved the way for destructive politics of the street. There is an urgent need for building a culture of tolerance and peace in the country.

The Central Committee calls on the churches to:

  • monitor the situation of the religious minorities in the country, and provide pastoral and solidarity support to the churches and Christians in the country;
  • provide human and material resources to the churches of Bangladesh to enable them to initiate inter-religious cooperation and dialogue to promote tolerance and build a culture of peace.