Columbans join People of Faith disrupting arms trade fair

Faith-based organisations managed to block both gates of the world’s largest arms fair venue at ExCel in London’s Docklands on 3 September. Around 400 people of faith held services in the roads to the East and West gates, praying and chanting or simply sitting in silence. They shared a belief that embracing peace is fundamental to their faith. Among them were Columban Father Aodh O’Halpin and Ellen Teague of the Columban JPIC team, noting that Peacemaking is one of the Columban JPIC priorities.

DSEI (Defence & Security Equipment International) is one of the world’s largest arms fairs. It takes place in London’s Docklands every two years, and will be held this year 10-13 September. Among more than 50 countries invited is Saudi Arabia, to whom the UK has sold £4.7 billion of weapons since 2015, with some used to kill civilians in Yemen. Arms trading companies asked to repent by the protestors included BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and Rolls Royce. Protests all this week are attempting to impede the setting up of the fair. The ‘No Faith in War’ day on 3 September focused on the witness and action of faith groups.

In the morning Pax Christi led a procession from nearby St Anne’s Church, Custom House, to the East Gate. Around 30 people stopped several times en route for an adapted Stations of the Cross liturgy led by Pax Christi Director Theresa Alessandro. “The arms trade condemns to death all those who will be killed by the weapons made and sold for profit” she said in her introduction to a ‘Litany of Resistance’. She quoted the words of Pope Francis that money made from arms sales is “drenched in blood”. The Pax Christi group included priests, religious sisters and lay people from as far afield as Coventry, Wolverhampton, Nottingham and Oxford, and even a Franciscan sister from Zimbabwe! Christian CND, the London Catholic Worker, Justice and Peace Westminster were amongst those represented. Banners included: ‘Pax Christi – Peace, Reconciliation, Nonviolence’ and ‘The UK sells death to small nations’. Sr Katrina Alton CSJP, from Nottingham said, “to call myself a Jesus follower means I must love my enemy and do all I can to actively resist the preparations for war; this is not a passive thing; war starts here, but it can end here.”

When the procession joined with one from the Anglican Church of the Ascension and arrived at the ExCel East Gate, both were clapped in by Quakers and others already gathered. Among them were people camped in tents and offering drinks and food. In line with the ‘No Faith in War’ theme, two Anglican bishops – Roger Morris of Colchester and Peter Hill of Barking – then led a service on the access road organised by the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. Taize chants, such as ‘Stay with me’ were sung against a backdrop of peace banners – ‘Cut War not Services’ for example – and interfaith friends joined in, including Buddhist monks from the Battersea Peace Pagoda. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has added his voice to the week of protests against London’s DSEI arms fair.

Early afternoon saw a silent Quaker meeting on the road at the East Gate which involved at least 350 people sitting or standing in silence for an hour. A Quaker statement said, ‘Quakers have a long history of challenging unjust practices, and the arms trade is one of the biggest injustices in the world today; this is why we are taking action to disrupt the arms fair’. Afterwards, as the protestors sang, police arrested at least 48 of them, who had refused to move from the road in order for vehicles to get through to the venue. Passionist priest and peace campaigner Fr Martin Newall and two others from Christian Climate Action were arrested earlier in the day. The excellent organisation included a team of legal observers giving advice to those willing to be arrested.

Memories of the day include a tasty shared vegan lunch and the kindness of those distributing drinks without charge; the power of a silent vigil in the sunshine, and well-known peace campaigners supporting the protest, such as Chris Cole of Drone Wars and Pax Christi activists Ann Farr, Valerie Flessati and Pat Gaffney.

CND & Trident Ploughshares was there on the following day to oppose the nuclear bomb makers exhibiting at the fair. Prominent Catholic anti-nuclear campaigner Bruce Kent went back for a second day!

* A Silent Vigil on the eve of the opening of the Arms Fair will take place on Monday 9 September from 7-8pm. Meet in Tidal Basin Road Road outside Royal Victoria DLR at 6.30pm. Open to all. Bring candles/jars. Columbans and Pax Christi will be represented.