Columbans join campaigners against DSEI Arms Fair

Ellen Teague writes about Columbans attending a peaceful protest organised by Pax Christi, Quaker Peace and Social Witness and Quaker Roots outside the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) 2021 Arms Fair held at the ExCel in London on Monday 13th September.

Around 200 campaigners held a candlelight vigil outside the ExCel Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) 2021 Arms Fair in London’s Docklands on Monday evening. Organised by Pax Christi, Quaker Peace and Social Witness and Quaker Roots it took place on the eve of the fair’s opening. Joining the campaigners was Columban Fr. Ray Collier who has attended many arms trade protests at that spot over the years.

The same evening saw an online vigil, in which Ellen Teague participated, organised by Anglican Pacifist Fellowship and Christian CND, which included the Sue Gilmurray anti-war song, ‘The war machine rolls round and round.’

Then, the following morning, Pax Christi held a peace pilgrimage and Stations of the Cross from local St Anne’s RC Church at Custom House to the ExCel Centre, joining a huge day of action to protest the opening of the event, and much of it in the rain. Joining them was a Columban group from Birmingham, organised by Justice and Peace Education Worker James Trewby. Arms dealers had to pass a remembrance ceremony for victims of war and the arms trade, organised by the Peace Pledge Union, when they arrived. Names were read out dozens of victims of war of many nationalities over the last 20 years (including Afghan civilians and British soldiers) and a wreath of white poppies laid at the entrance to the arms fair.

Columban lay missionary Roberta Kim reflected afterwards: “It was a curiosity which drove me to go and see the Arms Fair. On the way of prayer led by Pax Christi, I saw some of the protesters holding signs against Arms Trading and speak about the motivations of protesting, which demonstrated their passion for humanity. After the prayer, while I was walking along the road to the Exhibition Centre I witnessed groups’ speeches, presentations and I even saw two young ladies lying down in the rain to block entry to the centre. One of the protesters was saying this shouldn’t be happening in a country where people flee for safety and freedom from their own country’s persecution and war, but where there is an Arms Fair selling weapons which bring war. We are doing good things on one hand and doing bad things on the other hand. At the entrance of the Exhibition I met a big circle of people either sitting or standing silently protesting. One man shouted, ‘if you’re really Christian, you have to block people from entering the Centre’. A woman gave a speech about nonviolence protest and respecting people with different ideas. It was a very impressive moment for me to see their mature way of expressing their opinions in a very orderly way. I saw there’s a long way to go to find what being a ‘Real Christian’ means to each Christian and that’s why I am here as a missionary.”

Tobi, a Columban faith in action volunteer said: “I came because I wanted to speak to protesters and learn about the impact that arms are having on vulnerable communities across the world. Coming to the protest was definitely an eye opener as I could see the seriousness of the protest through the solidarity amongst people. Having spoken to them, I learnt that the Christian faith is more than reading scripture but about being a doer of the Word.”

Fr. Ray Collier explained “I was delighted with the Bishops statement taking up the call of Pope Francis to end the arms trade and its consequences. I was also very heartened to see so many attend the silent candle-lit vigil.”

UK Catholic Bishops and organisations also voiced their opposition to the arms trade in a statement issued days before the UK hosted Europe’s biggest arms fair. The arms fair took place at the Excel Centre from the 14th-17th September 2021, bringing together governments and military delegations from across the world with more than 800 exhibitors, including 90 percent of the world’s top 10 arms manufacturers. It was supported by the UK government, but opponents declaring a moral responsibility to oppose it included faith groups.

Commenting on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, Bishop William Nolan of Galloway said, “tragically, conflicts fuelled by the trade harm the world’s poorest communities, they force people to flee their homes as refugees, and they have devastating consequences for our environment.” He added that, “we urge governments across the world, including our own, to commit themselves to ending the global arms trade and instead pursue the path of peace and reconciliation.”

The statement was signed by representatives of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales: Bishop Declan Lang, Chair – Department of International Affairs, Bishop William Kenney – lead bishop for peace and disarmament issues, and Bishop Paul McAleenan – lead bishop for migrants and refugees. Pax Christi, Justice and Peace networks, CAFOD and SCIAF, also joined the bishops in saying, “we stand alongside all those people of goodwill who are peacefully campaigning against the arms trade and join in prayer with the Holy Father that our leaders may commit themselves to ending it, in pursuit of peace and care for our whole human family.”

On 14th September The Times carried an article by Bishop John Arnold of Salford, lead bishop on the environment, and Bishop Paul McAleenan taking up Pope Francis’ opposition to an industry which he describes as inflicting “untold suffering” and being “drenched in blood”. They said, “challenging the sale of guns, bombs, and other weaponry is part of our Christian commitment to peace and the protection of human life.”

Delegates and protestors witnessed a Red Arrows flypast on Tuesday lunchtime as the DSEI opened. The UK had formally invited 61 countries to send delegations to the DSEI, including six countries on its own list of human rights abusers – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Colombia, Egypt and Iraq. Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) said the presence of the six countries shows the UK is “not serious about arms export controls, or global peace, human rights, or good governance”.