Feature Story

by Sophie Bodegon

WCC participates in international rally
at the UN against gun violence

Say No To Guns logo
NEW YORK -- Peace activists, development workers, doctors and church members took to the street for four hours on 17 July in a rally calling for controls on gun trafficking to save lives. Just steps away at the United Nations, the world's governments started negotiations on a new revised draft document to control the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons.

"I do mind dying!" was the angry theme that wove through the "International Speak Out" as Africans, Latin Americans and North Americans kept on-lookers glued at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. The first joint activity of US and international gun control and human rights activists, the rally underscored the toll on life in a world where "guns know no borders."

The mood was festive yet sobering at times in the tree-lined square. Mothers showed up with their toddlers in strollers, relieved that the showers forecast for the day had stopped. Parents of all ages distributed campaign buttons from the Million Mom March for sensible gun laws. Women handed out black ribbons to protest how women were particularly harmed by the availability and use of small arms. In the middle of the square, dappled in sunshine and shadow was a column made up of more than 1,370 pairs of shoes of various sizes. They were arrayed in a "Silent March" to represent the daily death toll of firearms.

To this setting entered Trio Aquarius, a Brazilian ensemble playing the ballet suite "Three Woes and Seven Cities" on cello, violin and piano. As the clear soprano of Juliana Franco floated above the crowd, three dancers from the Marcia Milhazes Danca Contemporanea performed in alternately slashing and gentle movements. In an introduction prior to the performance, Salpy Eskidjian, WCC International Affairs, Peace & Human Security staff leading the WCC delegation to the UN conference, explained that the dance depicted the tensions and the beauty of the peace process in cities. "Peace is the fruit of complex and arduous although beautiful processes."

"It was great," enthused Nicole Gaston-Cruz, a young mother-to-be who was at the plaza to walk her dog as usual. The hour-long dance and music based on seven stories of the WCC Peace to the City Campaign was commissioned by the World Council of Churches for the Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches Seeking Reconciliation and Peace (2001-2010).

At the rally, Florella Hazeley of the Christian Conference of Sierra Leone and member of the WCC delegation, appealed to passers by to think again about buying "conflict diamonds." Speaking within blocks of the world's finest jewelery stores, Hazeley said "remember how many lives are lost because of these gems." Increasingly Sierra Leone's diamond industry has come under the control of the armed opposition which uses the stones to purchase arms. In Sierre Leone, as in the United States, violence in cities, particularly in schools, is on the rise, Hazeley said. She reported that school teachers have been held hostage by youth armed with small weapons.

The rally stirred up more direct local involvement than expected. Soon after Palestinian young adult peace advocate George Qassis, of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochment spoke, two older men heckled him, shouting, "This is an outrage!" "This is not acceptable !" Trained to handle such provocation, Qassis talked to them calmly before others in the rally led them away.

Qassis, a member of the Peace to the City Network and the WCC delegation, addressed the rally during the Speak Out giving his testimony on the human impact of the violence of occupation and militarism. He shared his experiences about growing up in the Palestinian Occupied Territories in Beit Sahour near the city of Bethlehem. "I have never been free in all my life," Qassis said. "I know the pain but I was one of the lucky ones." He reported having lost three friends in the first Intifada, the Palestinian uprising, and called for active non-violent resistance as a way to struggle against the Israeli military occupation.

Providing graphic testimony was a 12-meter wide Wall of Pain, a set of panels containing stark photographs, artwork and stories on the violence wrought by small arms. The Wall began in Brazil by WCC Peace to the City Network partner, Viva Rio in June last year during the campaign "Enough! I Want Peace". The campaign gained great momentum throughout Brazil, culminating in peace and disarmament manifestations in 14 state capitals and dozens of municipalities throughout the country. Its presence at the UN Conference was sponsored by the WCC, which called on its member churches worldwide to contribute their own testimonies of gun violence. The Wall has been displayed outside the conference hall at the UN and will travel to different churches in the USA.

Among the information booths, the WCC set up a table offering brochures on WCC's activities on peacebuilding and disarmament and Decade to Overcome Violence, including the Peace to the City Network. T-shirts and postcards announcing the Peace to the City Seven Point Peace Plan and notepads with the reminder "create a culture of peace" shared space with crosses made out of spent bullet shells. The crosses, made in Liberia by former soldiers, were graphic reminders of the terrible conflict in the country as well as efforts at reconciliation and rehabilitation. Reinhard Tietze of the Lutheran Church in Germany and one of the founders of the initiative was on hand to talk about the project.

The rally connected the local and the global. "There are two things we battle here -- apathy and denial," said Mary Leigh Blek, president of the Million Moms March. Blek, whose son Matthew was shot to death by youths in New York, called for more stringent laws especially on "Saturday night specials" -- small, cheap firearms frequently used in street crime in the US. After hearing accounts from other parts of the globe, Blek said, "Now I see how we need solidarity around the world."

"Unless the US changes its position on the production and sale of firearms, however, there will be no progress locally and globally," emphasized Lora Lumpe, American peace activist and researcher, the main organizer of the rally.

The UN warns that 90 percent of those killed in the past decade in conflicts where small arms have been used were civilians. Most vulnerable are children and women. In the U.S., New York state posted the sixth highest number of deaths from firearms, with California having the most. Figures compiled by the HELP Network and the Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago include homicides, suicides and unintentional deaths.

Press releases and stories on WCC participation at the UN Conference:

Latin Americans push for International Day of Arms Destruction

Disappointed at small arms agreement, WCC also sees hope for a stronger platform for common action

Wait for the homework, Mozambican bishop tells NGOs - Press update

Oral intervention on reduction of demand for small arms and the role
of faith communities
- CCIA/WCC message at the UN Conference

'We do mind the dying' -- press statement from the newly launched Humanitarian Coalition.

Churches use story, symbol and dance to protest the use of and
trade in small arms
- WCC Press Release

Devastating human costs of small arms and light weapons: WCC team at UN small arms prepcom - WCC Press update

Churches prepare for UN conference on Illicit Trade in Small Arms - WCC feature story

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