*By Philippa Hitchen
‘Walking, praying and working together’ was the theme of Pope Francis’ 21 June visit to Geneva to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches (WCC).
Despite old divisions and newer obstacles that still stand in the way of Christian unity, the Pope told WCC leaders that “the credibility of the Gospel is put to the test by the way Christians respond to the cry of all those, in every part of the world, who suffer unjustly” from poverty and conflict.
Among those listening to his words was Pentecostal pastor Rev. Frank Chikane, one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. He headed the South African Council of Churches, before becoming senior advisor to the African National Congress government, and now serves as moderator of the WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. In that role, he travels to conflict zones around the globe, advocating for peace and reconciliation, drawing on his own dramatic experiences of being arrested, tortured and almost killed by South Africa’s former apartheid government.
He says he calls himself “a miracle” because in 1989 police officers tried to poison him by lacing his clothes with chemicals. Years later, the former police minister came to confess and ask for forgiveness, but Chikane told him he had already pardoned him. The minister insisted that he wanted to wash his feet as a sign of repentance, leading Chikane to realise that “he needed to be ministered to” as a sign of liberation from his crimes.
Reflecting on how the South African experience can offer examples of reconciliation to other peoples in conflict, Chikane says that “justice must be justice for all, we couldn’t take over and do the same against whites”. We understood our struggle, he continues, as an effort to liberate whites as well, who were prisoners of the system, just as young Israeli soldiers, serving in occupied areas, are imprisoned in a constant climate of fear. “You can’t perpetrate violence against others and not be affected yourself”, he insists, “it’s impossible”.
The WCC works with both grassroots peace movements and with the people in power, Chikane continues, noting that it often takes time to see people change and think differently about how they wield power.
He recalls peace initiatives that he has been part of in Israel and Palestine, Colombia, Iraq and the Korean Peninsula. The WCC has worked very closely with politicians and Christian peace groups in both South and North Korea, he notes, adding that it is important to take a stand and speak up for the interests of the Korean people themselves, who all want peace and reunification.
“The whole body of Christ must stand together”, in this vital work, Chikane says, because “you can’t do it alone”. His message to Pope Francis is one of warm welcome, saying he hopes this visit to the headquarters of the WCC “will solidify that relationship” with the Catholic world. It sends “a message to the world that the church is one and when we speak, we speak as one body”, he concludes.
*Philippa Hitchen is a Vatican-based journalist