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Cover story

Catholic social teaching fuels dream of peace

Special Report Writer
Pristina, Kosovo

Frenchman Bernard Kouchner, the U.N.’s leader of Kosovo’s Interim Administrative Council in Kosovo, wants to see Albanian and Serbian children playing together. Many find this a pious, nearly impossible dream in a land where hatred is in greater supply than jobs or electricity.

But Erik Torch thinks it could happen. Torch has been in Kosovo since last June and now serves as Catholic Relief Services’ Justice and Peace program manager. CRS personnel believe the time is right to take the core ideas of Catholic social teaching - peace, social justice and the preferential option for the poor - and apply them to relief work and development. One of Torch’s first tasks has been to work with Parent-School Partnerships in 25 rural communities. Started in 1998, the partnerships are at the center of Catholic Relief Services’ five-year child-centered strategy for rebuilding a civil society in Kosovo.

The program tries to promote democratic processes and to enhance local capabilities at the grassroots level. It helps local communities improve their schools in conjunction with local parent councils, school personnel, local authorities and interested citizens.

The partnerships and councils work on the presumption that it is best to share power. “There’s so much in society that divides people. Education should not,” said Torch, an American and a member of the Catholic Worker community in Duluth, Minn. Torch previously worked two years in Serbia and Macedonia with a group of nongovernmental organizations known as the Balkan Peace Team.

Today he works with parents to identify the needs of their local school. One school labeled central heating as its chief priority. Through a micro grant from Catholic Relief Services that paid for the heater and the equipment, parents were able to heat the school once they built the chimney.

In the village of Gjonai, the parents council prioritized improvements in the electricity supply. The council issued a bid for the work and collected and reviewed offers. Catholic Relief Services helped to provide funding. The village now enjoys improved electricity.

Most youth in Kosovo have too much time on their hands after school with little meaningful stimulation, Torch said. So Catholic Relief Services has established youth councils that provide sports, dancing, language and computer labs after school. Albanian Youth Action celebrated its seventh birthday in March.

A third project being developed involves intensive workshops on how to respond to violence and how to create peace. The workshops are intended for doctors, teachers and those from middle levels of leadership who are opinion setters and can influence others. “We want to enhance their ability as peacemakers,” Torch said. He also wants to use the Internet as a tool in conflict resolution.

Torch praised the work of the Mother Teresa societies, which Fr. Lush Gjergji of Viti, near Pristina, began in the early 1990s. Started as a response to the sacking of health workers and massive layoffs of Albanian workers by the government in Belgrade, the humanitarian and charitable society soon had branches in 640 communities. Today some 7,000 persons volunteer with the society. While not officially an arm of the Catholic church in Kosovo, the Mother Teresa Society provides major distribution centers for humanitarian aid.

Torch cooperates with these societies at the village level. He also works closely with religious leaders from all the faith communities as well as with secular civic leaders. While it’s too soon for a detailed program of reconciliation, Torch said, he hopes that Catholic Relief Services’ three justice strategies will help to foster tolerance in Kosovo.

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2000