Participants attending Pax Christi's 70th anniversary Assembly in Bethlehem had another outing this evening - a truly golden evening in the sunshine - down to Manger Square and the Church of St Catherine for Pax Christi International's 2015 Peace Award ceremony. The church is adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, which marks the site of the birth of Jesus and which is currently undergoing major repairs. It is St Catherine's that hosts the Christmas Eve Mass that is beamed around the world.
The award was presented this year to the Women, Peace and Security Collective for Reflection and Action (Colectivo de Pensamiento y Acción Mujeres, Paz y Seguridad) in Colombia for encouraging women to engage with peacebuilding in their country. The annual award honours contemporary individuals and organisations who make a stand for peace, justice and non-violence in different parts of the world.
Tonight it was given to representative Rosa Emilia Salamanca, who was visibly moved as the church bells rang out in celebration. She recalled the deaths of over 200,000 Colombians in violence over the past 50 years and six million people displaced from their homes. "We are fed up with war" said Rosa, "and we are determined to replace the mechanisms of war with mechanisms for making peace".
Founded in 2011, the women's network brings together women from different backgrounds (such as religious, ex-combatants, indigenous, afro-descendants, human rights defenders, union leaders) as well as organisations committed to building lasting peace in Colombia.
The flagship initiative is the 'Ethical Pact for a Country in Peace', which stresses the importance of an inclusive dialogue for peace where women's participation is actively encouraged. Pax Christi co-president Marie Dennis pointed out in her introduction that women are usually left out of peace planning. Only 2.5% of the signatories of peace agreements between 1992 and 2008 around the world were women.
"Well earned" I thought, as I joined Rosa's standing ovation, but looking around our group I felt that awards could be going to so many in the pews. What about Ferdinand Djayerombe Vaweka from Development and Peace in Canada. Ferdinand hails from conflict-ridden Ituri Province in North East DR Congo, but his human rights work on conflict minerals and militia violence, child soldiers and rape as a weapon of war turned him into a target until he eventually fled to Canada as a refugee. He now continues to campaign on all these issues in partnership with Pax Christi International.
Fr Eugene Squeo, from the US state of New Jersey, is on the state council of Pax Christi. He visits and campaigns for justice for immigrants and for vulnerable people in jails, particularly tackling the use of solitary confinement in prisons. He played his part in the ending of the death penalty in New Jersey.
There are more than 200 Pax Christi groups in the US and members range from Judith Kelly in Virginia tackling fracking, to Anne Marie Richter from Florida who has worked in Afghanistan for 30 years training midwives, to Scott Wright in Washington who has lengthy experience of working with victims of torture and war in Central America.
What a congregation to be seated with! We all enjoyed the ceremony in the historic Bethlehem church, hearing music from the church choir and from a virtuoso player of the Qanoun, an instrument popular in Arab countries.
Afterwards, some of us visited the site of the birth of Jesus, under the altar of the Church of the Nativity. We had to bend low to get in the door which the crusaders deliberately kept small to bar horses riding in. I had my photo taken at the site with Romano Longole from Northern Uganda who works there for a peace organisation affiliated to Pax Christi, encouraging warring tribal groups to put aside violence, despite being in danger himself many times. This Assembly has been his first time at an international gathering and we were both moved to be at this sacred site for the first time.
Amongst our own UK group we have Pat Gaffney, who has devoted most of her life to justice work, peace education and advocacy, for 25 years as General Secretary of Pax Christi UK. Ann Farr, from Coventry, was a volunteer with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel and has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the oppression of the Palestinian people. She now sits on the central leadership of Pax Christi International and has been a core organiser of this Assembly. Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK is an expert on the growing use of armed drones in violence internationally and has spent time in prison for taking non-violent direct action to challenge the arms industry.
On the opening evening of this Assembly, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, sent a message saying, "let us use the occasion of your noble anniversary to remind ourselves to keep pushing, together, for nonviolence and a weapons-free world". The Colombian women and the other 160 people here - inspired by the Gospels and Catholic Social Teaching - are doing just that, whether they get awards for their mission or not.