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The perils of peacekeeping

Priest's abduction shows how giving aid can be fraught with danger

  • Fr Myron Pereira, Mumbai
  • India
  • June 5, 2014
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My thoughts today are about the kidnapping of a member of the Society of Jesus in Afghanistan, Father Alex Prem Kumar, the country director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).

Fr Kumar is a 47-year-old Indian priest from Devakottai, in Tamil Nadu. He has been with the Refugee Service in Afghanistan for three years, and before that, spent more than a decade with Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in South India.

What is the Jesuit Refugee Service, and what is it doing in Afghanistan?

In 1980, the then Superior-General of the Jesuits Pedro Arrupe, was in Bangkok concluding a visit to Southeast Asia.

He was particularly moved by the plight of thousands of “boat people”: ordinary Vietnamese, most of whom had fled Communist rule in their country by crowding into small and barely seaworthy fishing vessels, entrusting themselves to the cruel sea, hoping desperately that neighboring countries would give them shelter.

Most did not. Thousands of people perished in the dark waters of the South China Sea.

“We must do something to help these refugees!” cried Pedro Arrupe, and the Jesuit Refugee Service was born.

Many Jesuits consider the JRS as Father Arrupe’s last gift to the Society, because on his return from Bangkok, he was felled by a stroke at Rome airport. He never recovered and died several years later.

But the refugee service he inspired has since grown in strength and vigor, and has spread from Southeast Asia to Africa, and to South America and Eastern Europe. It has appeared wherever masses of people have been denied human rights, have been driven out of their homelands and persecuted.

Its work embraces rehabilitation (through housing, education and training), counseling those affected by the traumas of war and persecution, assistance in migration, and advocacy. Some years ago, the JRS effectively lobbied for a worldwide ban on the use of landmines.

When Father Arrupe began the refugee service, he felt that if good people were made aware of the problem and addressed it, refugee numbers would soon decline.

Alas, they have not. In fact the number of refugees (and internally displaced persons within their own countries) has grown significantly.

On the South Asian sub-continent, the JRS has been active with the Tamil refugees of Sri Lanka, and with Nepali expatriates from India, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

There has been a long JRS presence in Afghanistan too, ever since the American-led invasion exacerbated the country’s downward spiral of political violence and religious bigotry. Most JRS work has been in the western province of Herat.

Fr Kumar had driven from Herat city to visit a rural school, and was on his way back when an unknown group kidnapped him.

Militant groups have shown themselves to be hostile to the education of girls. They have also been antagonistic to the presence of foreign doctors and aid workers, and have on earlier occasions captured and executed some of them. The point I’m making is that all genuine work for peace and the development of peoples is fraught with risk. The work of healing and reconciling shattered lives is not easy.

Almost every country has sections of its people pitted against another. Often this is because of age-old hostilities based on empire or race, on religious or class differences.

Then there are distinctions based on ideology or gender, fears of the corrupting influences of ‘modern society’, a hankering for an old patriarchal culture where “everyone does what they are told, no arguments”.

As it handles the needs of victims of injustice, wars and genocide, the Jesuit Refugee Service believes in “accompaniment”, in being a presence with them. This may also be described as “solidarity”, a word rich in meaning today.

Making peace is not just a question of political parleying, it’s very much a matter of healing souls and bodies, “the condition of a hospital on the battlefield”, which is what Pope Francis believes the Church is called to be.

And every so often an incident comes along that reminds us of the perils of peacemaking.

 Jesuit Fr Myron J. Pereira is a media consultant based in Mumbai

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