The use of rape as a weapon of war inverts the principles of human decency and "cries to heaven for judgement", Cardinal Vincent Nichols has told a high profile conference aimed at ending sexual violence in conflict.
Earlier in the day the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, joined William Hague and Angelina Jolie Pitt to encourage faith leaders to support the cause.
Cardinal Nichols told delegates at a two-day interfaith consultation at Lancaster House in London that sexual violence was always a crime, and that the systematic use of sexual violation among soldiers in some parts of the world was "to humanity's shame".
"The horror of sexual violence, used as a part of conflict and wafare, defies description because of the unbelievable spread of this evil in so many parts of our world. [It is] a deliberate and ordered tactic of oppression, domination, destruction," he said.
He deplored that in many situations the stigma of rape fell on the victim and not the perpetrator. "What terrible collusion is indicated by that fact?" He asked.
Mr Hague, the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, told delegates during his opening speech that the Government wanted to work with them to support victims and “shatter impunity” of those who raped and tortured women as a weapon of war.
“As faith leaders you understand that just as no human being is beyond redemption, no problem is beyond resolution,” he said. “I deeply admire the unquenchable determination to succeed in a moral and humanitarian causes that religion has often inspired. If ever a cause has needed unquenchable ambition and resolve it is this cause.”
He said that congregations’ unparalleled access to communities made them “trusted and impartial witnesses”, as well as the first port of call for victims.
Archbishop Justin Welby, who spoke after him, regretted that Churches had failed to act on this issue in the past.
“Our record has much to question. Churches must evidence that they recognise that issue, and in recognising it, they come with respect and humility – and that’s often not what we’ve done,” he said.
The consultation meeting focused on how to mobilise faith communities and is a follow-up to the Global Summit on sexual violence held in London last June. The two days of talks will produce a set of recommendations from faith leaders.
Archbishop Welby held his head in his hands as Mrs Jolie Pitt, special envoy to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who has just returned from northern Iraq, described the suffering of a young girl there who had been tortured with an electric drill.
“Our most powerful assets are not our armies,” she said. “They are our values. As faith leaders you are advocates for the values of compassion, tolerance, justice and reconciliation.”
She asked faith leaders to help lift the stigma attached to rape and sexual assault; to raise awareness of the issue of sexual violence being used as a weapon of war; to confront those who seek to use religion to justify sexual violence; and to demand justice for victims.
Cardinal Nichols, who spoke ahead of an evening reception on the first day of the meeting, committed the Church wholeheartedly to the initiative. Sexual violence harmed deeply the human dignity of victims and their sexuality as outlined in Catholic teaching, he explained.
"The violation of that bodily integrity is an offence against the Creator and cries to heaven for judgement," he added.
Afterwards, Mr Hague told The Tablet that the gathering was a powerful example of co-operation that could help to overcome tensions between Government and faith groups and between religions themselves.
“It relies on people of each faith to want to work together – Government can’t create that. Government doesn’t have the power to order people to work together. I think we’re seeing on this issue a great willingness to do so, and I’ve seen that all over the world. I don’t think any other tensions will detract from a willingness to work together on sexual violence,” he said.