UCC GMP will lead WCC pilgrimage to Marshall Islands, where nuclear legacy persists

The World Council of Churches is sending a delegation — headed by United Church of Christ General Minister and President the Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson — on a pilgrimage to the Marshall Islands to raise awareness about the effects of nuclear testing and climate change in the region.

“This is an issue that the United Church of Christ has been involved with for many years through Ecumenical Advocacy Days, General Synod resolutions and advocacy through the Washington, D.C. office,” Thompson said. “We have Marshallese members of the UCC who are also concerned about the on-going effects of nuclear testing and climate change on those who live in Marshall Islands and the other islands of Micronesia.

“As a member church of the WCC with a long history of advocacy on these issues, being invited to be present affords a renewed opportunity for raising these concerns alongside our partners.”

Long-term impacts on Marshallese people

An aerial photo of the Kwajalein Atoll shows how low-lying many of the islands are. Rising sea levels due to global warming threaten the lives and livelihood of the Marshallese people.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands (the official name of the Pacific nation) is made up of two chains of islands and atolls that lie north of the equator, southwest of Hawaii and east of the Philippines. In the 1940s and ’50s, the U.S. military conducted more than five dozen nuclear bomb tests in the area, including the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated by the United States.

The impact of these explosions, coupled with climate change, have caused long-term environmental and health effects throughout the islands.

Thompson and the WCC delegation will meet with survivors of the nuclear testing, activists from civil rights groups and members of the United Church of Christ in the Marshall Islands — also known as Jarin Rarik Dron (JRD) — one of Global Ministries’ partners in the area.

Pressing U.S. on nuclear legacy

The U.S. and Marshall Islands governments recently agreed to a new Compact of Free Association (COFA), which will be in effect for the next 20 years. New COFAs had already been signed with Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia in May. These agreements govern economic and strategic relationships between the United States and the Pacific nations.

But disagreements delayed the COFA between the Marshall Islands and the United States.

Derek Duncan, Global Ministries’ area executive for East Asia and the Pacific, said that the Marshall Islands pressed the United States to take more accountability for the nuclear legacy before the two countries signed a new COFA.

“Over the years since, Marshallese have suffered miscarriages, birth defects and cancer due to radiation poisoning from the tests,” Duncan wrote in a Witness for Justice article last year. “… As part of the Compact of Free Association the U.S. signed with the Republic of the Marshall Islands after its independence in 1979, a Nuclear Claims Tribunal was established that awarded the islanders significant compensation for medical relief and clean-up. However, the United States has so far failed to apologize for the harm it caused.”

The Rev. Michael Neuroth, director of the UCC’S D.C. office, was one of the signatories on a letter sent to the Biden Administration last December, urging the United States to apologize and address the harm caused by its nuclear weapons testing.

The Rev. Palukne Johnny, then President of the United Church of Christ in the Marshall Islands or Jarin Rarik Dron (JRD), speaks at the JRD Assembly held at Uliga United Church of Christ in July 2019. Johnny recently passed away on Sept. 13, according to Global Ministries’ Derek Duncan.

‘Justice, reconciliation and unity’

One of the goals of the WCC pilgrimage is to increase awareness and advocacy of church partners, particularly in the United States. The hope is that people of faith everywhere will join the Marshallese people in calling for accountability to address the harm caused to inhabitants of the region.

“Our siblings in the Marshall Islands are facing a serious crisis as a result of nuclear testing and climate change,” Thompson said, calling the WCC visit a “pilgrimage of justice, reconciliation and unity.”

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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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