Ahead of the UN’s International Youth Day on 12 August, which this year has “Youth Building Peace” as its theme, World Watch Monitor takes a look at some of the challenges facing young Christians around the world and how they try to contribute to building peaceful societies.

After years of war Colombia's young men and women want peace. (Photo: Open Doors International)
After years of conflict, Colombia’s young men and women want peace and are ready to help build it. (Photo: Open Doors International)

Many of the world’s 1.2 billion 15-24-year-olds live in countries where they have to live in fear because of their religious beliefs, and this year’s UN International Youth Day (12 August) – celebrated with events held all over the world – recognises not only the challenges they face, but also their role in building peaceful societies.

Colombia – life after conflict

In Colombia, although the war between the government and the Marxist FARC rebel group officially ended in September 2016, Christians living in Arauca, an area in the east, have continued to face oppression by armed groups. Church leaders and congregations have been subject to extortion and restrictions in holding meetings and distributing literature, World Watch Monitor has been told.

During the peace talks between the government and the FARC, the situation in Arauca did not improve. The area continued to see militants from the ELN, a guerrilla group comprising FARC dissidents unsupportive of the peace process.

Adding to the ongoing security issues that the people in Arauca are facing is the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the other side of the river, in neighbouring Venezuela, where a political crisis has led to violence and food shortages.

After following a training program, Arauca's young people are more aware of their responsibilities within their communities. (Photo: Open Doors International)
Arauca’s young people took part in a training programme, aimed at helping them to be more aware of their responsibilities. (Photo: Open Doors International)

To help young Christians build “better lives for themselves, their families and … to keep communities from violence, illegality and war”, the international charity Open Doors developed a programme.

Oscar Guana, its training coordinator, describes how, as a result of this, young people are more aware of their responsibilities within their communities. They have started to reach out to guerrillas, to facilitate reconciliation initiatives between the Church and its oppressors, and to work with local police to implement a drug-prevention programme in local schools.

“The community of Arauca is torn apart by violence and war, and families are destroyed. Mental health has been neglected and opportunities for healing are scarce,” says Jessica Flórez, a social and community psychologist. “These young people are influencing the emotional, psychological and spiritual health of their communities by leading social projects and initiatives. Their work and influence is urgent and necessary for the construction of a viable future.”

Mary*, 24, was one of the participants in the programme. Her father, an ex-guerrilla, became a Christian and was then harassed by his former companions for many years. Mary grew up seeing him fighting the constant harassment, and she observed his transition from a man of war to a man of peace. Today she holds an important position in the mayor’s office and acts as an agent of change, a voice for her Christian friends who are living under pressure because of their faith.

Iran and Syria – isolation and insecurity

Meanwhile, young Christians in other parts of the world face their own challenges.

In Iran, they often cannot meet face-to-face with peers to talk about their faith. They can’t obtain Christian books and sometimes don’t even have their own Bibles. They live lonely lives, as their need for secrecy makes it almost impossible to meet with other Christians, as there’s always the risk of being reported and arrested.

In Syria, being young and living in a city like Aleppo means not only facing safety and security issues that stop them from being able to meet, but feeling the isolation even more – there’s often no Internet, so no connection with the outside world.

Nadia, a young woman from Damascus, told World Watch Monitor: “I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. One second can end our life. Constantly we hear shooting, bombing. A few days ago I drove with some people in the car and we passed the bodies of six dead people lying in the street; we just drove by, as if nothing had happened. A friend of mine – he was really a good person – was recently shot for nothing.”

Church leader Samuel* in Aleppo said young people in his community have “no dream for the future except searching for a way to leave the country”, while others are upset at having been born in Syria. He said they ask questions like “Why do young people in other countries have freedom to fulfil their dreams, while we are not even able to see each other because of the war? How long do we have to wait? Why should we bother doing anything?” He said they feel their life is “useless” as they “have no hope for the future”.

Central African Republic – violence

Quanizolo was seriously injured when a rocket was fired by Seleka militants into his church in Bangui. (Photo: Open Doors International)
Quanizolo was seriously injured when a rocket was fired by Séléka militants into his church in Bangui. (Photo: Open Doors International)

In the Central African Republic, a rocket fired into his church changed the life of Quanizolo Saint Jacob for ever. The  young man, who used to be very active and loved playing football with his friends, was seriously injured when the Islamist rebel group, Séléka, attacked the Evangelical Brethren Church in the Cité Jean XXIII suburb of the capital, Bangui, in August 2013. Seven died. More than 30 others, including Quanizolo, were injured.

“I recall hearing the sudden explosion – nothing else,” he said. “I was loaded into an ambulance and taken to the hospital, where I learned later just how serious my injuries were.”

The blast shattered Quanizolo’s left leg so badly it had to be amputated below the knee. A large piece of shrapnel settled in his right leg and prevented him from walking for a long time afterwards. He spent more than four months in the hospital.

Quanizolo received a prosthesis so he could move around more freely, but 14 pieces of shrapnel could not be removed and are still in his body, causing him a lot of pain.

“I had many doubts and questions towards God, especially during those four months in hospital. ‘Where was He when this happened? Why would God allow this to happen to me?’ I felt hopeless and had a lot of anger towards the people who caused the war,” he said.

“The situation limits my ability to earn my own living and improve my life. When I think of this, it makes me feel sad. Whenever I look at the scars on my body, I get frustrated.

“But I have decided to forgive those who did this to me. God asks me to forgive those who did this evil because in so doing I would have peace of mind and His blessings.”

Quanizolo has big dreams for the future. He intends to marry his fiancé Huguette – who was injured in the blast herself – as soon as possible, and, one day, after finishing his studies, he wants to start his own business.

Indonesia – freedoms under pressure

Over 60% of the world’s youth live in the Asia-Pacific. According to a UN Youth regional overview, “this translates into more than 750 million young women and men”. The review describes how, despite the hurdles, young people are increasingly participating in decision-making processes through the use of new media and other networking tools.

Young people in Indonesia have to be careful using social media - several users have been charged and imprisoned on charges of blasphemy. (Photo: Open Doors International)
Young people in Indonesia have to be careful using social media – several users have been charged and imprisoned for committing “blasphemy”. (Photo: Open Doors International)

In Indonesia, however, they have to be careful in what they post on social media due to blasphemy laws. Even President Joko Widodo’s youngest son faced blasphemy accusations following a video he uploaded.

It is just one of “the two dozen or so blasphemy prosecutions filed since the President … took office in October 2014”, writes Andreas Harsono, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Last week (31 July – 6 August) 2,000 young people from 22 Asian countries came together in Yogyakarta, central Java, to celebrate Asian Youth Day, modelled on the World Youth Day initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1985.

Catholic news agency Fides reports how young Catholics and Muslims talked about what it meant to be “united in cultural and religious diversity”.

“This meeting strengthens bonds of understanding, dialogue, tolerance among young people of diverse faiths: tolerance does not mean being silent and bearing with one another, but rather forming and enriching personal relationships through sharing, dialogue, genuine friendship, working together, growing in reciprocal trust and esteem; it is a matter of interaction,” it quoted Rifqi Fairuz as saying, speaking on behalf of the young Muslims taking part in the event.

To celebrate the UN International Youth Day this year, young Indonesians are also putting on a series of events in Jakarta from 11 – 13 August.

*Names changed for security.