Actor Mark Rylance celebrates conscientious objectors

Bruce Kent and Sir Mark Rylance placing flowers at the Conscientious Objectors memorial

Bruce Kent and Sir Mark Rylance placing flowers at the Conscientious Objectors memorial

By: Ellen Teague

Oscar and BAFTA-winning actor and peace campaigner Sir Mark Rylance was a speaker and performer at this year’s annual London commemoration of International Conscientious Objectors Day. It was held at the Conscientious Objectors memorial in Tavistock Square on Monday 15 May, with around 100 people attending. Along with young actor Patrick Walshe McBride, 57-year-old Rylance read a sketch featuring reflections of World War 1 soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon. Written by Juliet Rose, the sketch highlighted Sassoon’s anti-war views and lament for the loss of youth in war – “a younger generation betrayed by the older generation”. A one-minute silence was held afterwards for the victims of war.

Rylance is a patron of the London-based charity Peace Direct which supports grassroots peacebuilders in areas of conflict. And he has long been an enthusiastic supporter of Conscience: Taxes for Peace not War, which works to change British tax law to allow conscientious objectors the right to redirect that portion of their taxes which would usually go to the military into non-violent methods of conflict resolution. "We don't accept violence as a way of resolving conflict in our families, in our work places or in the street" he said; "war is such a wasteful violent and destructive way of resolving conflict.”

Nick Jeffrey, who resisted the US draft to fight in Vietnam, also spoke at the ceremony, where, thankfully, the rain held off throughout. Among those participating were members of Pax Christi, Columban JPIC, Westminster Justice and Peace, Movement for the Abolition of War and Quaker Peace and Social Witness. Music on the theme of peace was led by Sue Gilmurray

White carnations were laid on the Conscientious Objectors Memorial as names of international conscientious objectors from 79 countries were read out. Among them were Britain’s Arthur Butler, who died in Preston Prison on 12 December 1917, and Austrian Franz Jaegerstatter who was beheaded on 9 August 1943 for refusing to fight in Hitler’s army. The memorial was unveiled on 15 May 1994 by Sir Michael Tippett, Peace Pledge Union President and a one time conscientious objector, and it reads: 'To all those who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill'.

An organiser of the commemoration, Pax Christi’s Valerie Flessati, said: “Today's Tavistock Square ceremony with Mark Rylance speaking was an impressive reminder of the courage needed to take a stand against military service in our militarised world culture. One hundred years ago the legal right of conscientious objection to military service was won through the bravery of nearly 20,000 war resisters. Yet even today there are countries where that right is still not fully recognised. They include Israel, South Korea, Turkey and Eritrea, where many Jehovahs Witnesses have been in prison for years.”

She thanked Mark Rylance for attending, saying: “it is very encouraging to have your support for you will touch people who are not engaging with peace organisations”. Mark Rylance said he was honoured to meet some of his peace heroes at the event, and had his photo taken with Bruce Kent of Pax Christi and the Movement for the Abolition of War.

Other events took place on Monday around the country, with commemorations in Sheffield, Edinburgh, Manchester, Oxford and Portsmouth. Every year since 1982 the15 May has marked International Conscientious Objectors' Day - to commemorate those who have resisted and those who continue to resist war, especially by refusing military service. The national commemoration in London was organised by the First World War Peace Forum - a coalition of 12 national peace organisations.

See more pictures from the day on ICN's Facebook page. We will be posting up videos on the ICN Youtube channel later this week.