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  • UN chief launches new disarmament agenda

    The United Nations Secretary-General has announced a bold new vision for global disarmament, to help eliminate nuclear arsenals and other deadly weapons from a world that is just “one mechanical, electronic and human error away” from destruction.

    The United Nations Secretary-General has announced a bold new vision for global disarmament, to help eliminate nuclear arsenals and other deadly weapons from a world that is just “one mechanical, electronic and human error away” from destruction.

    “The United Nations was created with the goal of eliminating war as an instrument of foreign policy”,  said António Guterres, unveiling his new agenda, entitled, Securing Our Common Future: An Agenda for Disarmament, at the University of Geneva, in Switzerland.

    “But seven decades on, our world is as dangerous as it has ever been,” he warned. “Disarmament prevents and ends violence. Disarmament supports sustainable development. And disarmament is true to our values and principles.”

    The launch comes at a time when “arms control has been in the news every day, sometimes in relation to Iran and Syria, sometimes the Korean Peninsula,” said the UN chief.

    The newAgenda focuses on three priorities – weapons of mass destruction, conventional weapons, and new battlefield technologies.

    First, the Secretary-Genera emphasised that disarmament of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons could “save humanity,” noting that some 15,000 nuclear weapons remain stockpiled around the world and hundreds are ready to be launched within minutes.

    “We are one mechanical, electronic or human error away from a catastrophe that could eradicate entire cities from the map”, he warned.

    Mr Guterres said the States that possess nuclear weapons have the primary responsibility for avoiding catastrophe. In that regard, he appealed to Russia and the US to resolve their dispute over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; to extend the New START treaty on strategic offensive arms, which is due to expire in just three years; and to take new steps towards reducing nuclear stockpiles.

    Second, he said disarmament of conventional weapons could “save lives,” in particular those of civilians who continue to bear the brunt of armed conflict.

    The UN chief said that beyond the appalling numbers of civilians killed and injured, conflicts are driving record numbers of people from their homes, often depriving them of food, healthcare, education and any means of making a living. At the end of 2016, more than 65 million people were uprooted by war, violence and persecution, he said.

    “My initiative will have a strong basis in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the world’s blueprint for peace and prosperity on a healthy planet,” he said, noting that excessive spending on weapons drains resources for sustainable development.

    In fact, more than $1.7 trillion dollars was spent last year on arms and armies – the highest level since the fall of the Berlin Wall. That is around 80 times the amount needed to meet the humanitarian aid needs of the whole world, he said.

    Third, he said that new technologies, when used maliciously, could help start a new arms race, endangering future generations. “The combined risks of new weapon technologies could have a game-changing impact on our future security,” he said.

    The cover of the Agenda, a 73-page document, depicts Orizuru, an origami paper crane. Its significance is that Japanese legend has it that anyone who folds a thousand paper cranes, will have their wish granted by the gods.

    In her hospital bed, Sadako Sasaki - a survivor of the atomic bomb explosion at Hiroshima in 1945 – folded more than a thousand paper cranes, praying that she would recover from the deadly leukaemia caused by the blast.

    She died at the age of 12, but her story spread around the world and origami cranes have since become symbols of peace.

    In the final paragraph of the Agenda, Mr. Guterres quotes the late Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, saying “in this field, as we well know, a standstill does not exist; if you do not go forward, you do go backward”.

    The Agenda concludes with an appeal to all “to use every opportunity to carry forward momentum for disarmament where it exists, and to generate new impetus where it is needed, in order to achieve a safer and more secure world for all.”

    * Read Securing Our Common Future: An Agenda for Disarmamenthere

    * United Nations http://www.un.org/en/index.html

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  • 'Pilgrim prayers' for women overcoming violence

    People across the world are  to have an opportunity to join in a special prayer for women who are standing strong in the face of gender-based violence.

    People across the world will have an opportunity to join in a special prayer for women who are standing strong in the face of gender-based violence. Each Thursday, beginning 31 May 2018, the World Council of Churches (WCC) will release via its website and social media, a prayer shared by members of 'Pilgrim Teams' who have been visiting communities in conflict, and hearing the stories of women who are facing sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence and other injustices.

    These 'pilgrim prayers' will reflect the experiences of Pilgrim Team members who, during the past two years, have been witnessing the deep wounds among women in conflict situations.

    Pilgrims visited Abuja, Jos and Yola in Nigeria in August 2017, and Burundi in December 2017. In February 2018, pilgrim teams visited Cauca, Uraba, Atlantic Coast, Bogota, Barranquilla, Valledupar and Bolivar in Colombia. A visit also took place in Juba, South Sudan in May this year.

    “In all the countries we have visited so far we were not prepared for the stories that our sisters have shared”, said Isabel Apawo Phiri, Deputy General Secretary of the WCC. “Our sisters are carrying unspeakable wounds. The women’s strength comes from their faith in God who is able to transform the conflict to justice and peace.”

    The weekly prayers will be shared as part of Thursdays in Black, a global movement resisting attitudes and practices that perpetuate rape and violence.

    * More about Thursdays in Black here

    * The World Council of Churches promotes Christian unity in faith, witness and service for a just and peaceful world. An ecumenical fellowship of churches founded in 1948, by the end of 2012 the WCC had 345 member churches representing more than 500 million Christians from Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and other traditions in over 110 countries. The WCC works cooperatively with the Roman Catholic Church.

    * World Council of Churches http://www.oikoumene.org/en

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  • Prison reformers respond to new education and employment strategy

    Prison reformers have welcomed the new strategy but say government must show it means business.

    The Ministry of Justice has published an education and employment strategy for prisoners, which it said "sets out new measures to boost prisoners’ skills while in custody and improve their chances of securing work on release. This will help to cut the £15 billion annual cost of reoffending as ex-offenders in employment are up to nine percentage points less likely to commit further crime. At present, however, just 17 per cent of offenders are in P45 employment a year after release."

    Commenting on the publication, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “This is a welcome strategy full to the brim with good intentions. It could make a big difference to the families and communities to which prisoners return on release.

    “But almost none of those good intentions set a date for when they will be delivered, or how many people will benefit. We have heard many of these promises before.

    “So the government must take this opportunity to show it means business. It must deliver a National Insurance holiday for employers, not just consider it. It must get thousands more prisoners into workplace release on temporary licence, not just consult about it. And it needs to say how many more prisoners will end up with a job when all these good intentions have turned into reality.”

    Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This is a welcome announcement by the Secretary of State for Justice, but the success of this policy will depend upon the government’s ability to solve a long-running problem – prisons’ failure to get people out of their cells and into education and training.

    “Unless prisons can function like real-life places of work – ensuring that people are up and out in the morning, having had a shower and some breakfast, to arrive on time to do a full day’s work for a full day’s pay and pay tax – then what will happen is what has always happened: people might be able to get jobs on release, but they will struggle to keep them.

    “The Howard League is the only body in the world ever to have run a proper business in a prison. It gave prisoners the opportunity to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and enabled them to pay tax, save and support their families. They made voluntary contributions to victims’ charities.

    “As a centre of excellence for real work in prison, we have offered to help the government to realise more prisoners’ potential. The offer is still there.”

    * The Education and Employment Strategy 2018 policy paper is available here

    * Prison Reform Trust http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/

    * Howard League for Penal Reform https://howardleague.org/

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  • Fillipinos still displaced after Marawi conflict

    Seven months after the city of Marawi was declared ‘militant free’, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos remain displaced

    Seven months after the southern Philippines city of Marawi was declared ‘militant free’, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos remain displaced as the government continues its recovery operation—which includes the challenging process of clearing improvised explosive devices from across the city.

    More than 350,000 people fled Marawi after fighting broke out on May 23 last year. One year later and just over 23,000 families have been able to return to their homes.

    The remaining Marawi residents are either still living with relatives or sheltering in evacuation centres—several of which are schools—in the vicinity of the besieged city.

    Many homes and shops in Marawi suffered extensive damage during the fighting, with collapsed buildings, bullet-ridden walls and burnt out cars still visible.

    “The children of Marawi are still suffering a year after fighting broke out. They’ve been displaced from their homes in large numbers, and are uncertain about the future, and what will become of their lives. This is no way for a child to live”, said  Save the Children Philippines CEO Alberto Muyot.

    “Many families have no choice but to live in cramped evacuation centres where they rely on support from aid agencies and the government for food, clean drinking water and basic hygiene items.”

    Nearly half of the 62,000 school-aged children who fled Marawi did not re-enroll in school this past year. This is largely because school buildings were occupied by displaced families, their parents could not afford basic learning materials and uniforms, families were staying too far away, or children didn’t feel comfortable in the host school.

    Promisingly, however, enrolment for the new school year has begun, with the Department of Education running a major campaign to get children back to class—‘Balik-eskwela sa Marawi’—which translates to ‘Return to school in Marawi’.

    “Getting back into the classroom is the absolute best thing for children so they can continue their education and regain a sense of normality and routine. School also gives children the opportunity to be with their friends, to have fun and forget about what they have been through, and offers protection from risks they’re vulnerable to,” Mr Muyot said.

    “It’s really important that all parents from Marawi re-enroll their children so they can have the best chance at a brighter future. Sadly we know the longer a child is out of school, the less likely they are to ever go back.”

    The massive influx of displaced families from Marawi last May put huge pressure on local schools in host communities, with average class sizes ballooning beyond 45 children. Some schools have also been running two shifts per day to try to cater to the demand.

    Save the Children has been responding to the crisis since the beginning and has set up 28 temporary learning spaces in host schools to help cope with the high number of new enrolments. It has also distributed 4,000 back-to-school kits for students and is working with the Department of Education to provide psychosocial support to teachers and children.

    The aid agency is also working with the local government and communities to prevent potential exploitation, such as child-trafficking.

    * Save the Children https://www.savethechildren.net/

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  • Call for new commitment on refugee resettlement post-2020

    Refugee charities are calling on the Government to make a new commitment on the future of resettlement in Britain and expand its successful Syrian programme.

    Refugee Action and the Refugee Council are calling on the Government to make a new commitment on the future of resettlement in Britain and expand its successful Syrian programme.

    Any gap between the current scheme and what comes next would jeopardise the local support structures put in place to enable refugees to rebuild their lives. This would be costly and increase barriers to integration.

    Figures released by the Office for National Statistics show the Government is on track to meet its pledge to resettle 20,000 refugees affected by the conflict in Syria by 2020.

    Nearly 11,400 refugees have now been welcomed through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) since its expansion in 2015.

    In the year to March 2018, a total of 5,760 refugees were resettled in Britain, including 4,342 through the VPRS, 632 through the Vulnerable Children Resettlement Scheme and 768 through the Gateway programme. This shows a slight decrease of nine per cent on the total number resettled in the previous year.

    The charities are jointly backing UNHCR’s call for refugee resettlement to be expanded to welcome at least 10,000 people affected by global conflicts and persecution each year through one consolidated programme.

    Stephen Hale, Chief Executive of Refugee Action, said:“Uncertainty over resettlement post-2020 is jeopardising the success of future schemes.

    “The Syrian programme has huge public support, with communities across the country choosing to welcome refugees to their areas. Its success shows we can and should do more.

    “But the agencies involved in providing this transformative work need a new commitment to its future.

    “Welcoming at least 10,000 refugees each year, regardless of which emergency they’ve fled and giving them equal support to rebuild their lives, would far better reflect the contribution we should be making.”

    Maurice Wren, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, said: “The Government can quite rightly be proud of what’s been achieved with resettlement in the UK. Every day we see its truly transformative impact on people who have survived unimaginably difficult situations and are given the vital chance to rebuild their lives in safety.

    “But as millions of people remain displaced worldwide, the need for resettlement remains urgent. We urge the Government to build on this great success by establishing an ambitious and well resourced resettlement programme from 2020 that responds effectively to global conflicts. Global leadership in this area is essential and we urge the Government to provide it.”

    * Figures from the Office for National Statistics are available here

    * Refugee Action https://www.refugee-action.org.uk/

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  • New reports call for more secular coronation for Prince Charles

    Academics say future coronation ceremonies should reflect the more secular, diverse and pluralistic nature of British society.

    Two new reports published by University College London’s The Constitution Unit think tank have proposed that the swearing of royal oaths and coronation ceremony accompanying the accession of Prince Charles to the throne should remove most religious elements to better reflect "a more secular and diverse society and a more decentralised Union state". Humanists UK, which campaigns for the disestablishment of the Churches of England and Scotland, and for the removal of religious privileges from communal institutions, has welcomed these proposals.

    In the first report, which focuses on the swearing of royal oaths, Professor Robert Hazell and Dr Bob Morris propose replacing the oath to be a faithful Protestant and preserve the privileges of the Church of England with an oath to preserve the Union of the United Kingdom and to uphold our laws and constitution.

    Professor Hazell commented, "The three statutory oaths which the new monarch must swear date originally from 1688-1707, when Catholic Europe was seen as an existential threat. In our more secular and pluralist society, they need to be revised and updated. But any significant revision would require fresh legislation. To be in time for the next accession, legislation would need to be passed during the present reign." 

    The second report calls for coronation and accession ceremonies that better reflects religious and belief diversity. The Executive Summary states, "the UK is a much more diverse, pluralist and secular society compared with 1952. Half the population have no religious affiliation. Only six per cent attend religious services, with only one-two per cent being attending Anglicans. Eleven per cent are from ethnic minorities." The ceremony would focus more on civil society than religious observance with representatives of non-Anglican religions and those of non-religious beliefs participating.  

    Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Polic,y Richy Thompso,n commented: "We very much support the findings of these two reports. We are committed to the principle of secularism – that in an open and democratic society our shared institutions, such as the office of the head of state, should treat all citizens on equal terms. This means that one set of religious beliefs, such as Anglicanism, should not be privileged over any other. Reform of the accession and coronation ceremonies has become all the more needed as the composition of the UK has become increasingly secular and diverse in its beliefs. It is also time that these changes are reflected in state ceremonies including the National Remembrance Service."

    * Read Swearing in the new King: The Accession Declarations and Coronation Oaths here

    * Read Inaugurating a new reign: Planning for Accession and Coronation here

    * Humanists UK https://humanism.org.uk/

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  • People with mental health problems 'failed by companies'

    The number of people with mental health problems seeking advice on utilities and communications issues has soared.

    Citizens Advice research has revealed limited, inconsistent and patchy support for people with mental health problems. Energy and telecoms were rated the worst sectors for customer service and additional support, while water companies were seen most favourably.

    The number of people with mental health problems seeking advice from Citizens Advice on utilities and communications issues has soared, at double the pace of people overall.

    Citizens Advice found:

    • People with mental health problems are four times more likely to have gone without essentials, such as food, to pay their landline, broadband or mobile phone bill
    • 13 per cent of those with mental health problems have had their landline, broadband or mobile service disconnected once or more due to lack of payment
    • Cases of people being promised extra support with things like meter readings from their energy provider and never receiving it

    Citizens Advice is calling for minimum standards to be set for mental health support across all essential service providers. The government recently published its green paper Modernising consumer markets in which it called for standards to be introduced.

    • Citizens Advice says people with mental health problems should be able to expect:
    • Access to well trained, specialist customer support
    • Priority repairs of faulty or broken equipment
    • Not to be prematurely disconnected due to lack of payment
    • Any arrears or debts will be dealt with in-house, rather than being sold on, taken to court or dealt with by a third party.

    Citizens Advice is also calling for companies across different markets to develop ways of safely recording information about vulnerable customers’ needs in order to provide better support.

    Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice said: "If you’re suffering with a mental health problem, dealing with everyday concerns like your energy bill or broadband signal may be particularly difficult.

    “Companies need to help their customers with mental health problems rather than adding to their struggles.

    "We found that support to manage essential services is either non-existent, hard to find or sub-standard, varying widely between sectors and companies. People with mental health problems deserve the same levels of extra care as any other vulnerable group, like the physically disabled or the elderly.

    “Stronger standards would make sure they have access to sympathetic customer support and don't have their mobile or energy suddenly cut off because of a missed payment."

    Extra support that is currently available includes:

    • Priority Services Register: support from energy suppliers and network operators to people who are of pensionable age, disabled, chronically sick or have a long-term health condition (including mental health problems)
    • Warm Home Discount: £140 off energy bills for people receiving Pension Credit Guarantee Credit, some people on certain means-tested benefits. People with mental health problems will not be eligible unless they meet the other criteria.
    • Watersure: Caps water meter bills for people on certain benefits, and are either responsible for children in full-time education, or have a medical condition (including a mental health condition) that requires greater use of water.
    • Ofwat Special Assistance: additional customer service available for people with mental health problems

    * Get consumer advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06 or 03454 04 05 05 for Welsh language speakers.

    * Read the government Green Paper, Modernising consumer markets here

    * Citizens Advice https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/

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  • ACLU Statement on introduction of ‘Anti-Semitism Awareness Act’

    The ACLU says the bill risks chilling free speech by incorrectly equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. 

    On 23 May 2018 the US Congress introduced an Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says it risks chilling the free speech of students on college campuses, and is unnecessary to enforce federal law’s prohibition on harassment in education.

    The bill directs the Department of Education to consider a wide range of examples of speech critical of Israel in assessing whether a school has violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by tolerating anti-Semitic harassment. By equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, says the ACLU, the bill is likely to cause college campuses to stifle protected speech in order to avoid investigations by the Department of Education. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, colour, or national origin in programs receiving federal financial assistance, including higher education.  It has been interpreted to include discrimination motivated by animus against Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and others.  This law would go further, by dangerously equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

    Borrowing from a definition and examples published by a European monitoring organisation, the bill characterises as anti-Semitic many constitutionally protected statements about Israel, including accusing people of “being more loyal to Israel” than to the United States, applying a “double standard for Israel”, or “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination”.

    American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero issued the following statement: “Anti-Semitic harassment has no legitimate place in government-funded institutions, just as anti-Muslim and racial and sexual harassment have no place.  Jewish people, like people of other faiths, must be protected against harassment and discrimination. Anti-Semitism is a serious problem in the United States, as evidenced by statistics put forward every year by the FBI. Religious liberty is a fundamental right under our Constitution and protecting every individual’s right to practice their faith if they choose is at the core of the ACLU’s values and advocacy.

    “Unfortunately, the proposed bill risks chilling constitutionally protected speech by incorrectly equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.  And there is no need for a new bill to protect students from anti-Semitic harassment, because that is already prohibited under Title VI. We worry that the law will lead colleges to suppress speech, especially if the Department of Education launches investigations simply because students have engaged in speech critical of Israel. College campuses should be havens for free expression, and students must be free to express their opinions and viewpoints, so long as they avoid harassment. We urge Congress to reject this dangerous and unnecessary bill.”

    * American Civil Liberties Union https://www.aclu.org/

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  • MPs across parties call for suspension of arms sales to Israel

    A cross-party group of MPs have called for a suspension of arms sales to Israel in an Early Day Motion tabled on 23 May 2018.

    A cross-party group of MPs have called for a suspension of arms sales to Israel in an Early Day Motion tabled on 23 May 2018.

    MPs from across political parties have expressed dismay over the UK Government’s response to Israel’s killing of unarmed protesters in Gaza, with particular questions on the legality of UK arms sales to Israel.

    In an Early Day Motion tabled by Richard Burden MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Palestine, MPs expressed concern that the Government stated it does not collect data on military equipment exported from Britain after sale.

    The UK Government has approved export licences for millions of pounds worth of arms and arms components to Israel in the past year alone. Categories of approved items include sniper rifles, pistols, weapons sights, targeting equipment, ammunition for small arms, and other items similar to those used by Israeli forces in deadly attacks on unarmed protesters.

    Responding to the news, Ryvka Barnard, Senior Militarism and Security Campaigner at War on Want said: “MPs are absolutely right to call for a suspension of arms sales to Israel in light of its use of excessive and unlawful force against unarmed Palestinians, resulting in over 100 dead and thousands injured. It’s shocking that this has to be called for through an Early Day Motion, as arms exports to Israel should have been suspended as a matter of course. The UK’s own arms export controls stipulate that weapons and military equipment should not be approved for export if there is a risk that it might be used in serious violations of international law. If these policies were implemented, the result would quite rightly be a de facto arms embargo on Israel." 

    She continued: “Palestinians have every right to protest the appalling conditions they have been subjected to, and to demand their UN-sanctioned rights as refugees to return to their homes. It is devastating that calling for their basic rights has again made Palestinians the targets of brutal and calculated military violence.

    “The UK Government should be standing up for Palestinian human rights, not selling arms to the state which systematically violates them. Suspending arms sales is the legal and moral first step towards ensuring that justice, human rights, and accountability mechanisms for victims of violence are put in place.”

    In just one day, over 3000 War on Want supporters lobbied their MPs to support the motion. 

    Last week, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva voted in favour of an independent war crimes inquiry to Gaza to investigate Israel’s lethal reaction to peaceful protests, in which Israeli forces killed over 100 Palestinians. However, the UK abstained from the vote, drawing criticism of the Government from MPs.

    Government ministers had said just days before the vote that the UK would support an independent probe, but the Government is now calling on Israel to conduct an investigation into its own alleged war crimes instead, against the international consensus.

    * Read Early Day Motion 1305 here

    * War On Want https://www.waronwant.org/

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  • European Churches 'must speak and act together' in the light of Brexit

    Speaking together with one voice is more important than ever in the light of Brexit, the President of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) has declared.

    Speaking together with one voice is more important than ever in the light of Brexit, the President of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) has declared.

    The Rt Rev Christopher Hill, Church of England Bishop and outgoing President of CEC, was speaking at the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly in Edinburgh.

    Praising the Church of Scotland’s ‘really wonderful’ approach to ecumenical relations he said: “We welcome the Ecumenical report which was presented to the General Assembly this week.

    “Scotland is a part of Europe and the Church of Scotland is a European church and will remain so irrespective of Brexit.

    “As a founding member of CEC the Church of Scotland has shown a long-standing commitment to working together on shared issues and aspiring to a communion of faith and common witness.”

    CEC was founded in 1959 to promote reconciliation, dialogue and friendship between the churches of Europe at a time of growing Cold War political tensions and divisions.

    Speaking of its on-going commitment to Europe as a whole, Bishop Christopher said the upcoming 2018 General Assembly of CEC taking place in Novi Sad in Serbia would see 115 member churches from across Europe gather together to consider a vision for Europe.

    The CEC is a fellowship of some 115 Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican, and Old Catholic Churches from all countries of Europe, plus 40 National Council of Churches and Organisations in Partnership.

    “We will be looking at how we witness today in a semi-secular culture. How do we respond to the humanitarian crisis in Europe and show hospitality to refugees?

    “What can we do to promote economic justice, to be of service to migrants and refugees and to explore bioethical questions?

    “The Church of Scotland is already addressing many of these issues and has a strong tradition of campaigning with other churches to witness and respond in a way which fulfils God’s will.”

    The General Assembly approved a new ecumenical policy for the Church of Scotland, ‘Local, Universal and shaped by the Mission of God’.

    The Rev Alison McDonald, convener of the Ecumenical Relations committee and a member of the CEC Governing Board, said; “The policy begins with the big picture, the Church Universal, for which Christ prays; The One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church called to share in the mission of God. It focuses on the Church of Scotland, affirming that we belong to that one Church.

    “It calls us to recognise in one another an essential component of the Church of Jesus Christ and, as such, to build relationships which make Christ’s one body visible.”

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