By David Alton
Universe Column June 15th 2003
The school I attended as a boy was named for St. Edmund Campion, and it took as its motto his words: Auctore Deo, The Enterprise is of God.
I was thinking about those words while reading “Who Says You Can’t Change The World?” – Danny Smith’s fast moving and inspiring account of the Jubilee Campaign.
I don’t think that any of us who 18 years ago met at the House of Commons in the Jubilee Room had any idea of what was being launched or how it would grow. Notwithstanding the all-too-human mistakes made from time to time, its achievements have been significant.
As in any good story Danny opens his account by grabbing our attention. He does this by graphically describing a dangerous situation that required risk taking. The purpose was to support Fr. Shay Cullen’s work in the Philippines in exposing a racket involving the sexual exploitation of little children.
Initially, Jubilee’s work centred on the persecution of Christians in the former Soviet Union. So often their suffering had been ignored by the West.
Canon Michael Bordeaux, the founder of Keston College, who monitored the plight of the suffering church, has often described how it was politically convenient for church leaders and parliamentarians to hide behind the excuse that “intervening will only make their situation worse.” It’s an argument still being used in places like Zimbabwe and China.
In 1985 in the wake of the successful campaign to free the Seven Siberian Christians who had been holed up in the basement of the American Embassy in Moscow, Jubilee was determined that the world should see and understand the fate of people suffering for their beliefs.
Through these stories you also begin to appreciate how much we take our own religious liberties for granted. You see clearly what secularisation has so often occluded, that some things – as Edmund Campion knew – are worth dying for.
This was forcibly brought home to me one cold night in 1986 at Mostiska, on the Polish border with the former Soviet Union.
With two companions, were ordered off the train and we and our belongings were searched. I had with me an ITN camera and several hundred Ukrainian prayer books.
Five hours later, after a lot of questioning, the prayer books and camera were carefully re-packed although a biography of Cardinal Basil Hume and my copy of the Liverpool Echo were confiscated. Despite Perestroika they clearly weren’t ready for the Scouse Mouse cartoon strip.
This was mildly irritating but like nothing in comparison with what we learnt from people we met during that visit.
Ivan Gel was the chairman of the Committee for the Defence of the (Greek Catholic) Church. He had spent seventeen years in prison. Bishop Pavlo Vasylyk had been incarcerated for eighteen years. A young priest had been caught illegally celebrating the liturgies and had just returned from his punishment: six months at Chernobyl clearing radioactive waste, without any protective clothing.
On our return Jubilee organised prayer vigils, letter writing campaigns and parliamentary action. Along with ITN we persuaded BBC Newsnight to broadcast our film material. In small ways the world knew a little more about what was happening in the Ukraine.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union Jubilee’s work refocused.
This time, the suffering of believers in the Islamic World and Far East became a central pre-occupation. In the military zone in South East Turkey we saw first-hand the plight of the Chaldean and Syrianni Christians and the Kurds. We took evidence from the Coptic Christians of Egypt and from other ancient churches.
We also entered Burma, illegally, to see the scale of the suffering among the Karen people. This was re-enforced by the campaign Jubilee launched on behalf of the jailed Christian human rights activist, James Mawdsley.
Since then Jubilee’s human rights work has extended to campaigning for street children – and has helped change the laws against trafficking.
Danny Smith is surely right to ask the question posed by the title of his book “Who Says You Can’t Change the World?” Jubilee’s story is an encouragement to each of us not to accept things as they are.