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The Church and the United Nations: Working Together

by Peg Maron

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The large Trusteeship Council Chamber of the United Nations in New York had filled slowly at first, but by 10:00 a.m. on 9 March there was hardly a seat left. Nevertheless men and women – priests, sisters and lay people from many nations – continued to crowd through the doors.

The occasion was a two-day international round table on the question of refugees, sponsored by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations and the Path to Peace Foundation, and financed in part by Catholic Near East Welfare Association. The meeting had been called to address the problems raised in a recent Vatican document, “Refugees: a Challenge to Solidarity.”

This document was prepared by Roger Cardinal Etchegaray, president of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum,” and Archbishop Giovanni Cheli, president of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples. Both were scheduled to speak.

The meeting started late, delayed, we were told, by urgent world business that had detained the secretary-general of the United Nations, Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Not until 11:40 a.m. did Ambassador Rene Valery Mongbe, permanent representative of Benin to the United Nations, vice-president of the 47th Session of the General Assembly and chairman of the meeting, begin his statement.

Like most of the speakers, Ambassador Mongbe addressed the assembly in French. Many in the audience were fluent in that language; others, like me, reached for the earphones through which we would hear the crisp tones of the interpreters in the languages of our choice.

Catholic Near East Welfare Association was asked to participate because of its fine record of assistance to refugees and the displaced. We have programs for Palestinians who constitute the world’s oldest refugee population. We also help Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia, Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq and citizens displaced by civil strife in Armenia, Ethiopia and Lebanon.

But we also work on another front. Catholic Near East Welfare Association is a nongovernmental organization associated with the UN Department of Public Information. We have access to open meetings of United Nations’ bodies. We receive invitations to briefings, seminars, consultations and conferences on political, economic, social and humanitarian issues.

As a Catholic nongovernmental organization, we are associated with the International Catholic Organizations, which has an information center in New York. Meetings held at the center twice a month feature distinguished speakers from the United Nations and other NGOs.

Responding to Ambassador Mongbe’s statement, Archbishop Renato R. Martino, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, read a message from Pope John Paul II in which the pope asked the international community to build a world “where peace will be secure, minorities will be respected and people will have the freedom to practice their religion and to live in their homes and in their countries without fear and with sufficient means of subsistence by their families.”

The pontiff warned that humanitarian assistance cannot be a substitute for political action.

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Tags: Refugees CNEWA United Nations