From a stamp engraved on copper by Th. de Bry, 1590: “Discovery of America, 12 May, 1492, Christopher Columbus erects the cross and baptizes the Isle of Guanahani by the Christian Name of St. Salvador.”

From a stamp engraved on copper by Th. de Bry, 1590: “Discovery of America, 12 May, 1492, Christopher Columbus erects the cross and baptizes the Isle of Guanahani by the Christian Name of St. Salvador.”

In a recent meeting, the World Council of Churches (WCC) Executive Committee denounced the “Doctrine of Discovery”, which has been used to subjugate and colonize Indigenous Peoples. The Executive Committee issued a statement calling the nature of the doctrine" fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus”.  

The statement was issued in a meeting from 14 to 18 February in Bossey, Switzerland, urging to repudiate this doctrine, which has permitted the enslavement of Indigenous Peoples in the name of Christianity.

The origin of the doctrine goes back to the papal bulls issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452 and 1455 respectively, allowing the invasion and killing of the Indigenous Peoples.  

These historical church documents titled Dum Diversas and Romanus Pontifex called for non-Christian people to be captured, vanquished and to have their possessions and property seized by the Christian monarchs.

On basis of the same historical precedence the statement points out that, “Christopher Columbus was instructed, for example, to ‘discover and conquer,’ ‘subdue’ and ‘acquire’ distant lands.”

European countries like Spain, Portugal, England, France, and Holland used the doctrine. The doctrine was introduced in the law of the United States and was referenced in the United States Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M'Intosh, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543 in 1823, which in turn has been cited by courts in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Therefore the Executive Committee statement points out that the “current situation of Indigenous Peoples around the world is the result of a linear programme of 'legal' precedent, originating with the Doctrine of Discovery and codified in contemporary national laws and policies.”

The statement rejects the idea endorsed by the doctrine that “Christians enjoy a moral and legal right based solely on their religious identity to invade and seize indigenous lands and to dominate Indigenous Peoples.”

Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Calling the “Doctrine of Discovery” a violation of human rights, the statement supports the “rights of Indigenous Peoples to live in and retain their traditional lands and territories" and "to maintain and enrich their cultures.”

Along with the Episcopal Dioceses of Maine and Central New York and the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, many churches have denounced the doctrine in the United States and Canada.

Last year several Unitarian Universalist churches and Quaker organizations also adopted resolutions to repudiate the doctrine.

As the “Doctrine of Discovery” will be the theme for the 11th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) this year, the Executive Committee statement stressed the need to sensitize churches on this issue.

The UNPFII session will take place from 7 to 18 May 2012 in New York.

In consideration of this, the Executive Committee statement urged the churches and ecumenical organizations to mobilize and participate in the UNPFII process.

The statement requested the governments to “ensure that their policies, regulations and laws that affect Indigenous Peoples comply with international conventions and, in particular, conform to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169.”

Through this statement, the WCC reaffirms its commitment to the rights of the Indigenous Peoples, asking each member church to “reflect upon its own national and church history” and to seek a better understanding of the issues faced by Indigenous Peoples.

Read full text of the WCC Executive Committee statement

"Is five hundred and seven years too long for justice?" (article from the ECHOES magazine, 1999)

Christian self-understanding in the context of indigenous religions (WCC press release of 14 February 2012)

WCC programme: Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples