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Church-backed peace initiatives ‘can help break flow’ of small arms

Organizers of church-backed initiatives say that with the right approach, the control of violence stemming from small arms and light weapons, particularly among children and teenagers, is possible.

"Preventing small arms-related violence and effecting peace among the youth is not only possible, but practical," asserts Salpy Eskidjian, initiator of the World Council of Churches-supported Peace to the City Network or PCN and the Ecumenical Network on Small Arms (ENSA).

Speaking at an 18 February media conference during the ninth assembly of the World Council of Churches in Porto Alegre, Eskidjian cited peace-making initiatives in Sierra Leone and Brazil.

More than 10 000 lives are lost each week, with small arms used in war, crime, domestic violence and suicides. Among the vulnerable are children and teenagers, reported ENSA, a network of predominantly Christian organizations convened by the WCC to help control small arms.

In Sierra Leone, a local "arms for development" programme of ENSA and the United Nations Development Programme is helping promote "peace and security". A million guns were found to have proliferated in the country after its 11-year civil conflict ended in 2002, said Florella Hazeley of the Sierra Leone Network on Small Arms.

"This meant one gun for every 25 persons, including women and children," noted Hazeley, a programme officer of the Council of Churches in Sierra Leone.

The WCC has among its priorities the support of peace-making initiatives and faith-based disarmament campaigns to help break the chain of supply and demand for easily transported and illicitly traded small arms. The initiatives are supported through its Decade to Overcome Violence, a multi-pronged campaign launched in 2001.

Organizers of campaigns to rein in small arms have noted that the Federation of American Scientists says small arms sales comprise about 10 to 20 per cent of the total US$34.5 billion worth of conventional arms transferred to developing nations in 2004. The federation says that small arms and light weapons claim an estimated 500 000 lives a year, and are easily smuggled across all but the most rigorously patrolled borders.

Under the arms-for-development programme in Sierra Leone, villagers are asked to surrender their weapons to the police, who certify a village or community as "arms-free". After the certification, the UNDP gives each community US$20 000 to support development programmes like water works, schools and hospitals.

The arms-for-development programme along with public education campaigns in schools, churches, and in the media, as well as lobbying on government policy-makers are all helping build and promote "a culture of peace" in Sierra Leone, said Hazeley.

And Viva Rio, a church-backed peace initiative in Rio de Janeiro, a city where small arms crimes are rife, is also helping instil in young people a culture of peace and non-violence through human rights education, sports, theatre, and other art forms, said Rubem Cesar Fernandes of Viva Rio.

(c) Ecumenical News International