Mangalorean Jesuit Priest Fr Cedric Prakash on a Daring Mission Serving Refugees in Beirut
Mangalorean Jesuit Priest Fr Cedric Prakash Sj on a Daring Mission Serving Refugees in Beirut-Lebanon
Mangaluru: Mangaluru origin Human Rights and Peace Activist Fr Cedric Prakash, belonging to the Gujarat Jesuit Province of India, after working with the St Xaviers’ Social Service Society, he was the director of PRASHANT-the Jesuit centre for human rights – which he founded in Ahmedabad on October 2, 2001, and after a 42-year stint in Gujarat, is presently working in Beirut, the largest city in Lebanon, where the middle-east crisis is an unfolding tragedy, serving the refugees there. He is been working among the thousands of internally displaced people. He was actively involved in welfare of the victims of 2002 post-Godhra riots-Gujarath. He shot into prominence when he fought for the victims of the anti-Christian riots in the Dangs in 1998-99.
Since the 2002 Gujarat riots, this Jesuit activist has been a relentless critic of the then chief minister Narendra Modi, over his alleged role in the riots. Even Modi believed that the denial of the US diplomatic visa to him in March 2005 was because of Fr Cedric’s testimony in June 2002 before the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in Washington. He had spearheaded the campaign against Gujarat’s new anti-conversion law The Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act 2003, which he later challenged in 2009 in the high court.
It was during his visit to Lebanon in July 2015 that Fr Cedric had finally made up his mind about Beirut. Fr Cedric is now assigned with Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) to work for Syrian refugees. The JRS, headquartered in Rome, is an organisation performing apostolic work of the Society of Jesus (SJ)-a congregation of the Catholic Church. He calls the Beirut assignment “a call of God”, and “It is a big challenge,” which he confirmed during a Catholic retreat. In his new mission, he will be coordinating the `universal mission’ of the JRS for Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Sudan and Chad. His work involves ensuring that refugees are accorded the rights guaranteed by the 1951 Geneva Convention.
Fr Cedric has been at the forefront on issues related to human rights, justice, peace and other advocacy matters for which he has been honoured both in India and abroad. He has been the recipient of several national and international awards which include the Kabir Puraskar by the President of India in 1995 for harmony, and the notable Chevalier de la Legion Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honour) by the French President in 2006 for human rights causes as well as the central government’s Minority Rights Award, among many others. On his new mission to JRS Fr Prakash says, “The refugee crisis in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), especially in the light of ISIS today cannot be seen in isolation of powerful lobbies and other vested interests.There is very little political will. The arms and ammunition industry plays a crucial role in MENA and so do mercenaries of every hue.”
Fr Cedric said it was the outcome of his admiration for late Jesuit superior general, Fr. Pedro Aruppe who started the Jesuit Refugee Service in 1980 to meet the emergency of the boat people of south-east Asia, and a long and difficult process of discernment to discover God’s will, to which Fr. Cedric said “yes”. He said his job at JRS MENA with refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, includes highlighting advocacy issues at different fora, such as with the media, like-minded individuals and groups, concerned governments, etc… At the time of his visit to Amman, he had visited some 25 refugees centres in the Middle East region.
He said many of these refugees and internally displaced people are in makeshift centres, illegally rented apartments, dormitories, in the open fields or in officially-recognized refugee camps- and they suffer exclusion and lack of integration, manifested in restrictions in employment, formal education and movement; lack of food, safe drinking water, sanitation and medical care, and exploitation and abuse. Besides stories of trauma, pain and suffering, Fr. Cedric also comes across heroic models of resilience and hope. He said he was particularly moved to tears to see a mother of 4 little girls, abandoned by her husband, struggling to give her children a better tomorrow.
This 65-year-old noted Jesuit human rights activist Fr Cedric Prakash was in Mangaluru recently for about ten days on a very private visit in the midst of his month-long vacation from his work among the refugees in the Middle East. Our readers now know that Fr Prakash is internationally acclaimed and has received several awards for his work in human rights, justice, and peace! Fr Prakash was here visiting family and friends – especially his maternal aunt Dr (Sr) Olinda Pereira the Founder-Director of Roshni Nilaya, and being with her on her 92nd birthday(August 15th).
During his week-long stay in the city, the only public engagement he accepted was to address the faculty and students of the Jesuit Management Institute AIMIT in Beeri on their Orientation day; besides of course celebrating and preaching at several Masses in various Churches and convents. Fr Prakash however, took time out to give an in-depth interview to Yours Truly of Team mangalorean on wide ranging issues covering his work among the refugees in the Middle East and his vision of being a Catholic Priest today!
Here are the excerpts from an exclusive interview, where Fr Cedric was asked about the humanitarian assistance of JRS MENA, besides advocacy, counselling and show of solidarity.
Q: How long has it exactly been that you are now out of India?
I left India in the middle of January 2016 to work with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in the Middle East. It is effectively more than nineteen months now.
Q: How did you decide to go work with refugees?
Ever since the JRS began in 1980, by the visionary late Fr Pedro Arrupe (a former Superior General of the Jesuits) I have always wanted to spend some time in the midst of the refugees/IDPs. In 2015, I received an invitation from the then International Director of JRS to work in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region. After a long process of discernment and with permission from my Superiors, I finally decided to opt for a stint with the JRS. Of course, there were rumours (very wrongly so) that I was “sent out” of the country by my Superiors/Bishops because of “pressure” from the political bosses of the country. The truth is that it was solely my decision to accept this invitation.
Q: What is the type of work you do with the Jesuit Refugee Service?
I am the Advocacy and Communications Officer for JRS (MENA Region). I have a very elaborate ‘job description’ of the responsibility which has been entrusted to me. I have to spend a lot of time in the midst of the refugees and the IDPs; listening to them, trying to understand their woes. Most of them have to go through immense suffering – and due to no fault of their own. I do my best to make their voices heard or if that is not possible, to tell their stories to a wider audience. As part of the advocacy work, I have to network with like-minded groups and individuals and regularly with the media. Very often, it is an extremely delicate and sensitive job so I have to do a fine balancing act in order not to jeopardize the wider interests of the refugees. Above all, have also to interact with decision and policy makers at various levels. All this and much more!
Q: In how many countries do you work in this mission?
Our work in this Region is among the refugees and displaced in five countries: Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. In this mission, we also have to engage with countries and partners (agencies) in Europe and North America.
Q: In what ways does JRS help refugees/displaced?
As JRS, our work among the refugees/IDPs is multi-dimensional. Our focus is education. We are convinced that education is a sure way of providing dignity, belongingness and the opportunities for a future of those affected Thousands of displaced children come to our schooling programmes daily. We also provide life-skills training for the seniors: computer literacy, cooking and baking, beautician etc. In Jordan, we run an elaborate tertiary education programme linked up online with Universities in the United States. In every country, we have teams who visit the displaced on a regular basis in their makeshift tenements in the camps, to assess their needs, to see in what ways we can be of help to them. We provide psychosocial support to those who need it, trauma counselling when necessary. We provide food item kits (or cooked food) and non-food items (household essentials) to the most deserving. JRS in essence, works in three inter-related dimensions: to serve, to accompany and to advocate for the refugees and other displaced.
Q: What, in your experience, are the most fruitful ways of fostering peace and goodwill between Christians and Muslims?
There are several similarities between Christians and Muslims; besides, both have their belief in One God, are Abrahamic faiths and have originated in the Middle East. True that over the years there has been much hostility between the two religions. Some of this hostility is very unjustifiable and has a lot to do with politics, power, oil and religious bigots on both sides. I think it is important for us to learn from one another, appreciate the good and understand the differences. We must learn to pray together and strive to make our world more compassionate and peaceful. Above all Christians and Muslims who are liberal and open-minded must take on the fundamentalists who are divisive, preach hate and indulge in violence.
Q: What are the most difficult and rewarding aspects of your job while working with the refugees in the Middle East?
In work among the refugees/displaced, there are always plenty of challenges. These need to be faced. War and conflict in this part of the world, is not an ordinary fight between two neighbours. Big powers, the military-industrial complex and other vested interests are involved. Many of these are not interested in peace or for lasting, durable solutions. Powerful individuals and groups profit from war. It is the ordinary citizen – most often the very poor ones- who are most affected and suffer the most. One big challenge is to impact on the host countries to change the mind-set and the attitudes of people specially those who live in host countries. Another challenge is to meet the many needs of refugees and the displaced. These are many and often we feel helpless and unable to respond to all of them.
Of course I find great fulfillment in what I do. I am moved and inspired by the many stories of hope and resilience of ordinary people. The work of JRS is done selflessly and with great sacrifice, by many civilians in spite of great difficulties – this is another very rewarding dimension.
Q: Being a Catholic priest doing service in Muslim areas helping the refugees, what challenges are you facing, risks or threats? How do you cope with it?
I guess being anywhere in, the world today (including India) is a threat. There are certainly some risks. Whilst not being imprudent, I do not allow the fear factor to get the better of me. My faith is total in God my loving Father; He knows what is best for me – and will always care for and protect me. I see Muslims and all others, as my brothers and sisters (and not through the label of their religion) – very specially the refugees and the displaced. I do try to reach out to them in every possible way; in turn, I have also received much love, appreciation and belonging.
Moreover, it is wrong to think that Muslims are the cause of what is happening in the world today. If we go by the label of religion most of the suffering in our world today is because of the so-called “Christian nations”. (Do a reality check and see who are those largely responsible for the major wars in the world or who owns the arms and ammunition industry today) We must be aware of this and unequivocally condemn every violence, all fundamentalism – including Hindutva and what the Israeli Government is doing to the Palestinian people.
Q: Was there ever a moment when dedicating your life to this mission made you nervous or hesitant?
I strongly believe that the Lord has called me to serve in the Middle East and I have never been nervous or hesitant for a single moment in this mission.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people (especially Christians), what would it be?
We need to understand the Person, Message and Mission of Jesus in today’s context. We have to be instruments of his justice, non-violence, compassion and peace in our world today. We have to mainstream and live out a Gospel without compromise. A Christian, who is trapped in fear, is no disciple of Jesus. Many of us – including Bishops, Priests and religious -have not sufficiently understood the meaning of Pentecost in our lives. We have relegated it to saying loud and long prayers. We certainly need to pray – but more important is to be a WITNESS today: to take a visible and vocal stand for the poor, the marginalized and the suffering of our country; to uphold Truth, Justice and the values of our Constitution and above all, (like Jesus)to play a prophetic role and to show courage to take on the fascists, fundamentalists and fanatics who govern our lives today and deprive us of our legitimate rights.
Q: How has forgiveness had a significant impact on your life?
Forgiveness is an essential component in the life of a Christian. We must forgive, as Jesus taught us to do. However, forgiveness is ALWAYS in the framework of Justice and our Christian commitment. If not, we will be denying the stand of Jesus in the scene of the woman in adultery or for that matter, in the parable of the ‘Last Judgement’. Working for Justice is not about revenge and hate, but doing what is expected from us as disciples of Jesus.
Q: How long do you plan to stay there? Any plans to return to India soon?
I went to JRS (MENA) on a two-year contract (this is the normal way JRS operates). Therefore, in actuality, I complete this assignment in January 2018. There are several requests from my friends in civil society and even from the Church that I return to India after that. However, at this moment, all possibilities are very open!