Franciscans International Marks Three Decades of Human Rights Work

Jocelyn Thomas Franciscan World

Members of Franciscans International with the Secretary General of the U.N., António Guterres (center). (Photo courtesy of UN Photo/Manuel Elias)

NEW YORK – While most groups celebrate historical milestones with galas and fanfare, Franciscans International took the opportunity of its 30th anniversary of human rights and social justice advocacy to plan for the future when laypeople, friars and other religious from around the world converged at San Damiano Hall on West 31st Street last November for a presentation on FI’s history, as well as an open and informal dialogue about the organization’s future objectives and the impact of the Franciscan voice at the United Nations.

“It was good to come together to celebrate the past, but to also plan for the future,” said Joe Rozansky, OFM, president of the International Board of Directors of FI, which has offices in New York City and Geneva.

(left to right) Joe Rozansky, Helena Yánez Loza, Markus Heinze. (Photo courtesy of Franciscans International)

Among those who attended the Nov. 8 event were founding members of FI who played a significant role in the development of the organization. The 30-year milestone marks FI’s official recognition as a non-governmental organization, or NGO, at the United Nations – a meaningful designation, according to guest speaker Helena Yánez Loza, deputy permanent representative of Ecuador to the U.N., who emphasized in her presentation the importance of cooperation between states and NGOs to bring about positive change in international policies on social justice issues.

Yánez Loza cited the success of joint efforts between Ecuador’s delegation and FI on business and human rights, highlighting St. Francis’ love and respect for nature as an inspiration to combat the current climate crisis.

“I feel lucky to be here,” she said. “Franciscans are embedded in my life.

Joe said that Yánez Loza’s acknowledgment of the Franciscan charism and FI’s work at the U.N. – and the time she spent in conversation with board members and guests on Nov. 8 – was indicative of her country’s strong support of the organization and its advocacy efforts on issues of climate change and human rights. It also validated that FI – and the Franciscan voice – is being heard at the U.N.

“The staff and board of directors have been doing outstanding work to bring the Franciscan voice to the U.N. In a world where peace, the earth, and the dignity of so many of our sisters and brothers are threatened, I am very proud of the work that FI does at the U.N. to defend basic Franciscan values,” said Joe, who is stationed in Chicago where he serves as assistant director of the OFM interprovincial  post-novitiate formation.

During the event, Markus Heinze, OFM, executive director of FI, called attention to individuals who have been central figures in Franciscans International – including Marya Farah, the organization’s New York City representative to the U.N. since September 2019, and Sr. Kathie Uhler, OSF, one of FI’s early voices. Sr. Kathie, in turn, introduced others who were instrumental in the formation years, including Ignatius Harding, OFM, and Jim McIntosh, OFM.

Reflecting on Three Decades of Advocacy
After a casual lunch, a trio that contributed greatly to the founding of Franciscans International – including Ignatius, Sr. Kathy, and Kevin Smith, OSF, of the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn – led a presentation on FI’s humble beginnings. Moderated by Brian Belanger, OFM, of Siena College, the group talked about the challenges and achievements of the early years – recalling the first environmental advocacy projects and working with indigenous peoples and discussing the significance of Franciscan involvement.

Kevin Smith, Kathie Uhler, and Ignatius Harding at the Nov. 8 gathering in New York City. (Photo courtesy of FI)

“Relationships are very important,” said Ignatius, now stationed in northern Virginia. “Like St. Francis, we found ways to get things done [through relationships]. We [experienced] a lot of successes.”

While in New York City, the FI International Board of Directors held its annual fall meeting from Nov. 7 to 10, during which Larry Ford, OFM, guardian of Holy Name of Jesus-St. Gregory the Great on the Upper West Side, hosted dinner at the friary. The board meets twice a year, usually once in New York and once in Geneva.

Since the November gathering in New York, Franciscans International has been working through several initiatives to communicate its mission. Last month, FI representatives participated in the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Madrid, where Thomas Kleinveld, the organization’s communications officer, and his colleagues held a press conference with FI’s religious partners to provide an interfaith perspective on climate justice. They also conducted a workshop for local faith-based organizations on ways they could lobby the government for greater human rights and climate protections.

Kleinveld, who said that attendees enjoyed the informal nature of the Nov. 8 event in New York, also visited Benin with the Africa program coordinator of FI to take part in a campaign against ritual infanticide of so-called “witch” children, who are believed to cause bad luck.

FI operates regionally in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Programs and projects that FI takes on in these regions are the product of issues that arise from the grassroots level among the Franciscan family members in various countries, according to Joe, who is encouraged by the collaboration among those who serve in leadership positions with Franciscans International.

“I am pleased about the level of trust and collaboration that has developed among board members over the last four or five years,” said Joe. “The atmosphere that exists on the board has been passed on to the Conference of the Franciscan Family (CFF), the ‘generals’ who are actually in charge of FI. This atmosphere comes from the top,” he added, noting that OFM Minister General Michael Perry, who serves as liaison to FI, has encouraged this collaborative environment.

Significance of NGO Status
Although they celebrated the organization’s 30th anniversary, most members and supporters of Franciscans International believe that the birth of the movement was 37 years ago, when in 1982 Dionysius Mintoff, OFM, and the late Sr. Elisabeth Cameron, OSF, suggested the concept of establishing a Franciscan presence at the U.N. It wasn’t until seven years later that FI was officially recognized by the U.N.’s department of public information – and in 1995, Franciscans International became one of only a few recognized NGOs in general consultative status with the U.N.’s economic and social council, which essentially acknowledges that FI represents major segments of society worldwide.

Members of Franciscans International at the U.N. headquarters. (Photo courtesy of FI)

Non-governmental organizations such as Franciscans International fulfill a vital role within the U.N. human rights framework, explained Joe, elevating voices from the grassroots and providing expert advice that helps guide and inform international negation.

After Dionysius and Sr. Elisabeth put forth their proposal, a group of Franciscans – friars, sisters and lay members, most working in communities stricken by poverty and conflict, and many who saw their livelihoods and the environment destroyed by large-scale industrial projects – felt a calling to effect positive and lasting change at the global level. Their efforts led to the formation of FI in 1989 as a Franciscan voice at the United Nations. FI is the only international Franciscan common ministry in which all branches are represented.

Sponsored by the Conference of the Franciscan Family, in which all Franciscan branches except the Poor Clares are represented, FI’s vision is a world in which the dignity of every person is respected, the environment is sustained, and nations and people live in peace. At the Nov. 8 meeting,  there was discussion on FI’s future role at the U.N. in advocating for the rights of all human beings to nutritious food and clean water, asylum, healthcare, and other basic needs – all of which are the subject of an FI publication, “The Works of Mercy and Human Rights.”

Vital Role at United Natons
Prior to the gathering on 31st Street, members of FI’s International Board of Directors and staff representatives met with U.N. secretary-general António Guterres at U.N. headquarters in New York, a meeting that was arranged by Fr. Vitor Melicias, former OFM provincial of Portugal and a colleague of the secretary-general.

In their conversation with Guterres, Joe and his colleagues highlighted recent FI successes – among them UNICEF’s recognition of a FI program in Benin to defend witch children, a collaborative effort that makes U.N. measures on extreme poverty accessible to more people, and a document (“Connecting the Dots”) that helps organizations with U.N. measures on climate change, sustainable development and human rights.

Joe characterized the meeting with Guterres extremely productive, noting that the secretary-general acknowledged the importance of the work of NGOs at the U.N. – singling out FI’s efforts and how the organization brings Franciscan values to the process of defending human rights.

“He not only recognized FI’s work, but encouraged us to reach out to him and his office for assistance, and he expressed a willingness and commitment to help promote our efforts in the future. It was a cordial meeting and one that we are hopeful has opened an important contact for us at the U.N.,” Joe said.

Gearing Up for Active 2020
In celebration of the 30th anniversary of Franciscans International, events were also held in Geneva and Rome that highlighted the organization’s advocacy efforts in promoting peace, human dignity, and environmental justice. Information about these events – held in April and July – can be found on the FI website.

One of several FI booklets made available at the  anniversary celebration in New York.

Now that the celebrations are over, 2020 promises to be more active than ever for FI.

“Many of the issues that are related to our core pillars – human dignity, care of creation, peace and reconciliation – are overlapping, said Kleinveld, the communications officer. “For example, the rights of migrants will be a key focus in 2020. Particularly in the Americas, many are displaced by large-scale industrial projects. This will tie in with our other priorities, such as business and human rights, the rights to water, and the rights of indigenous peoples.

“Our work is also driven by the needs of local Franciscan communities (in places like the Philippines, West Papua, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mexico) that face specific or urgent problems and threats,” added Kleinveld, a native of The Netherlands who works at FI’s Geneva office.

In the first half of 2020, FI staff members will be visiting Brazil, Guatemala and the Philippines to meet with Franciscans and other partners. In addition, FI plans to invite their partners from around the globe to Geneva when the U.N. is hosting relevant sessions so that “the people on the ground” can share their experiences with key diplomats and international representatives, according to Joe.

Information about FI initiatives can be found on the organization’s Facebook page and in its e-newsletter. A Franciscan Spotlight posted on the FI website a week before Christmas provided a reflection on La 72, a Franciscan shelter in southern Mexico that welcomes migrants

Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.