Following the end of their conference in Leeds last week, the Bishops Conference of England and Wales issued statements on the following subjects: Asylum laws The Bishops welcomed the government's proposed changes to the asylum laws designed to protect asylum seekers from social exclusion and harassment. They have particularly welcomed: * the comprehensive review of the voucher system, which pledges to 'take immediate steps to ensure that trading partners are able to give change to vouchers' * the formation of a well-resourced National Refugee Integration Forum to provide jobs, accommodation and educational opportunities for successful asylum seekers * new guidelines which empower the police to challenge false and inflammatory statements about asylum seekers. They said: "These measures will not only assist asylum seekers to integrate into British society, but will also strengthen this country's commitment to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention." The Conference said they continued to be concerned about the increasing violence and hostility towards asylum seekers in the UK. They said politicians and the media have a particular responsibility to make sure that the asylum debate is conducted in a positive and balanced way, "especially in the run up to the general election". Columbia The Bishops of England and Wales expressed concerns for the people of Columbia. In their statement they said that the long-running civil war has resulted in many thousands of deaths and atrocities, 'committed with seeming impunity'. They pointed out that about two million Colombians are estimated to have been internally displaced, and many thousands have had to seek exile abroad. The statement recognised that this concern is widely shared among governments and other international bodies, in particular by Her Majesty's Government and the European Union. They affirmed that 'a peace process in Colombia, which implies a concerted response to the linked problems of violence, poverty, extreme economic inequalities, drug cultivation and trafficking, deserves the urgent and committed support of the international community, and that this support will need to include a close control of the arms trade with Colombia.' They expressed 'grave concern' that the implementation of 'Plan Colombia' will: "damage any peace process, since the Plan appears to centre on a massive military intervention directed towards the selective eradication of drug cultivation (almost exclusively, that controlled by the most prominent Colombian guerrilla groups, not by paramilitary groups), and will therefore: * further exacerbate the widespread abuse of human rights; * destroy the livelihood of rural communities by the indiscriminate fumigation of crops, with little attempt to promote alternative forms of agricultural production; * fail to tackle the gross inequalities and the political disabilities that underlie and transcend the destructive patterns of violence and drug production; * further marginalise from the peace process those groups within Colombian civil society that have suffered most from the violence of both paramilitary and guerrilla groups; * distract attention from the equally urgent need to reform the judicial structures of Colombia, so as to enable access to justice for all citizens. The Conference declared its support: " for all those, whether within or outside Colombia, who are working for the reforms necessary to make possible for the people of Colombia an integral human development." The Holy Land The Bishops' Conference of England and Wales * expresses its sadness at the recent violence in the Holy Land and the grievous suffering that has been caused by this and requests renewed prayers for a just peace. Many hopes appear to have been dashed by the violence: especially those of a negotiated settlement that would guarantee the fundamental rights of all the peoples of the region to live in justice, dignity and security, and so allow members of two peoples and three faiths to live side by side in reciprocal respect * recognises that every death by violence is a tragedy, and in many cases a crime. But it is also important to notice that there is a gross disparity between the numbers of those killed and wounded on each side * echoes some powerful recent words of the Holy Father, who wrote, 'Only a return to the negotiating table on an equal footing, with due respect for international law, is capable of disclosing a future of brotherhood and peace for those who live in this blessed land'. One implication of this expression of the Holy Father deserves particular attention - that negotiations between a strong party and a weaker one can only succeed in bringing justice given the vigilant support of the international community, especially where international law is at stake. The Bishops' Conference therefore urges Her Majesty's Government and the European Union to offer the necessary support for the negotiations * is fully conscious of the constraints on the main political leaders involved, who each have to take account of factions seemingly bent on further and systematic violence; and encourages them to continue with courage in the search for peace; since the more massive the present violence, the greater must be the paralysing fear of subsequent bitterness and vengeance * states its concern at the continued attempts of the Government of Israel to expand and build settlements, so creating new 'facts on the ground' at this highly critical stage of the peace process * expresses the prayerful hope that the momentum of the last few years, towards a peaceful and just co-existence, will not be reversed by the current violent conflict.
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