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Student federation combines faith, action

Ken Guest, outgoing chairperson of the World Student Christian Federation, participates in the opening worship service of the federation’s general assembly in Montreal. A UMNS photo courtesy of WSCF.

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

August 12, 2008

Prosper Munatsi, of the Student Christian Movement of Zimbabwe, was detained by police in June. A UMNS photo by Juan Michel, World Council of Churches.

When a presidential runoff election was scheduled for the end of June in Zimbabwe, the Student Christian Movement of Zimbabwe was among those informing youth about their voting rights and responsibilities.

On June 10, police raided the movement’s offices at the Ecumenical Centre in Harare, confiscating computers, laptops, digital cameras and a minibus. They also arrested five staff people, including a woman who had her 7-month-old baby with her.

The five were soon released without charge, but the movement said it considered the arrests and detentions “part of the broader campaign of intimidation orchestrated against defenseless citizens.”

Since then, the Student Christian Movement of Zimbabwe has continued to speak out. And it has been backed by more than 100 similar movements around the globe that together form the World Student Christian Federation. Most participants are 18 to 35 years old.

Federation representatives, meeting Aug. 1-9 in Montreal for their general assembly, squarely aligned themselves with the Student Christian Movement of Zimbabwe and expressed “deep concern” about continuing human rights abuses there, especially as directed against women and youth.

In this regard, we condemn the closure of the Student Christian Movement offices,” they said in an assembly resolution. “We urge the global community (to work) for an end to violence and a return of democracy and restorative justice. We seek to support any student activities that would contribute to the promotion of peace and justice in Zimbabwe.”

Bible and newspaper

Ken Guest, a United Methodist from New York who has served as the federation’s chairperson for the past four years, noted that such action is part of the group’s tradition of holding “the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”

Representatives of more than 100 student Christian movements across the globe gather for opening worship. A UMNS photo courtesy of WSCF.

Christian students are encouraged not only to focus on personal piety and salvation but to learn “to understand the message of Jesus for us in our contemporary world,” he said.

After his detention, Prosper Munatsi, who leads the Student Christian Movement of Zimbabwe, urged the international community to intervene in Zimbabwe’s crisis. He called for peace monitors when opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai decided to withdraw from the runoff election.

The World Student Christian Federation then issued a June 24 letter with the World Council of Churches, asking the United Nations, the South African Development Community and the African Union to increase efforts to address the "rapidly deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe." It has continued to speak out on the situation as President Robert Mugabe and Tsvangirai try to negotiate a power-sharing agreement.

“One of the fundamental characteristics of the WSCF is supporting students who are exploring the combination of their faith and social action,” Guest explained. “It was really wonderful, at the general assembly, for the students from Africa who are concerned about the situation in Zimbabwe to be able to meet with students from Asia-Pacific and, specifically, the Philippines, to discuss their concerns for democracy and human rights.”

Delegates at the assembly said they “strongly condemn the killings of members of the clergy, church workers, activists, journalists and ordinary citizens coming from the ranks of the workers, peasants, professionals and youth in the Philippines.”

Since 2001, when Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo assumed the presidency, there have been 903 victims of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, including 20 during the first quarter of 2008, the federation’s resolution stated. "We affirm that no person should be subjected to repression because of political beliefs. Those who are active in social, human rights issues and concerns including being critical of the Arroyo government should not be victimized."

Play an active role

The United Methodist Church is among the denominations pursuing the issue of human rights abuses in the Philippines. The federation asked churches around the world to sustain the pressure on the Philippine government and churches within the country "to lead and sustain the investigation of the killings and other human rights violations. We ask you to play an active role in the pursuit for justice to the victims and their families."

Other resolutions adopted by the assembly condemned the Aug. 8 military invasion by Russia into parts of Georgia and touched on human rights issues in Burma (Myanmar), Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian territories, and Lebanon.

Faith leaders participate in opening worship.

The World Student Christian Federation and the allied student movements "have always provided an opportunity for United Methodist students to begin their ecumenical journey and to move beyond their own denomination and their own country in understanding how God is at work in the world," according to Guest.

During the past four years, the federation has stabilized both financially and programmatically, reclaiming its identity as a trainer of ecumenical leaders on an international level, he said.

In a message to the 34th General Assembly, His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew noted that nearly a century ago, the 1911 World Student Christian Federation Conference in Constantinople “was an event of major ecumenical significance,” enabling leading Protestants to become acquainted with Orthodox leaders of the East.

Despite periods of difficulty over the years, "the federation continued serving Christian youth with coherence and perseverance, by encouraging them to draw from the unfailing source of their faith inspiration and strength, in order to fulfill their tasks as agents for reconciliation and renewal in our world," the patriarch said.

More information about the assembly can be found at http://ga.wscfglobal.org online.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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