Vine and branches: Chaplains work to uproot radicalization in prisons


By Carol Glatz

CITY (CNS) — With visits to detention facilities and washing the feet of the
detainees, Pope Francis has placed renewed emphasis on the work of mercy of
visiting prisoners.

some see a growing urgency for the church to be present in cell blocks not just
as part of its mission to help the most disenfranchised, but because radical
ideologies have been filling the spiritual void wherever it is found —
especially in prisons.

and international entities are paying more attention to the problem of
radicalization taking root and spreading in prisons, said Msgr. Paolo Rudelli,
the Vatican’s permanent observer at the Council of Europe.

an upcoming meeting, the church hopes to show how and why all religions must
work together to protect a prisoner’s right to religious freedom and counter
extremism, he told Catholic News Service in an email response to questions May

May 30-June 1 gathering in Strasbourg, France, is sponsored by Msgr. Rudelli’s
office, the International Catholic Commission on Prison Pastoral Care (ICCPPC)
and the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences as a platform for dialogue
with governmental agencies through the Council of Europe, the monsignor said.

want to highlight the specific contribution” of the church in offering
spiritual care, he said, as well as “underline the importance of the daily
collaboration between chaplains of different faiths” by inviting Muslim,
Russian Orthodox and Catholic prison chaplains.

Brian Gowans, president of the ICCPPC, said people can use any religion, not
just Islam, as “a weapon, a tool of war.”

meeting is meant to show that “religion is not the problem, quite the
contrary, it’s the solution” to radicalization and extremism, he told CNS
by phone from Scotland.

priest, who will speak at the Strasbourg gathering, said leaders will look at
“how we can best utilize our faith as a force for good” and to
de-radicalize extremists or “help someone on the cusp of

aim in chaplaincy work is to get prisoners “to believe in themselves”
and recognize the talents and skills they have and channel them for the good,
said the priest, who has ministered to prisoners for 22 years, and serves as
the chaplains’ adviser to the Scottish prison service.

the heart of this is that people are looking for something in life,” he
said, “a reason to get up in the morning.” However, an unguided
search for new meaning can make them “easily manipulated” by people
peddling extremist ideologies, he said.

Gowans said many prisoners have been ignored by faith communities, and so
“they found someone who wanted them” and gave them a sense of purpose
in an extremist cause.

leaders from all faiths have to get inside prisons and make sure inmates can hear
what their faith really says because “killing others in the name of God?
No God wants that,” he said.

society also needs to focus on the addictions or social or mental problems that
lead many people to end up in jail, he said.

prisoners are suffering from feelings of loss, he said. “I tell them,
‘You’ve come in here with a lot of baggage. Let’s see if we can lighten your

don’t need to be in prison at all. We’ve just gotten good at locking up people
we’re mad at,” Father Gowans said.

of what he does, he said, is “raise their self-esteem, their hope.”

this regard, the church is “a huge resource, but it means you have to
engage. There are thousands of prisoners and few staff” able to offer such
needed face-to-face guidance, he said.

Gowans said he’d like to see all prison staff take an “asset-based
approach” to prisoners that doesn’t label them according to their crime
but encourages them to identify their skills and dreams.

people, including prisoners, don’t believe inmates have any gifts and redeeming
qualities, he said. “We as chaplains need to help people believe that,
help show them: ‘Hey, I am good at this. This is me.'”

Gowans said he talks to every prisoner he meets without regard to the person’s
faith or lack of religious affiliation.

stops to talk with people because “that friendly chitchat leads to other
things,” he said. But it is imperative chaplains not “water
down” their religion just for the sake of being friendly and approachable.

and more people want more spirituality in their life” and prison offers
time for deeper reflection, reading and prayer, he said.

of us are reflective, all of us have a spiritual element in our life that has
to be tapped into” and if chaplains don’t do it when they are there, then
prisoners may think, “If they’re not doing it who is?” leaving the
door open to more aggressive or manipulative pseudo-spiritual sources.

Gowans said he asks prisoners tell him their story, “which is met with
suspicion because no one ever asked them that question.” They often say he
is the first person in their life to show any interest at all and “that’s
the key to opening many doors.”

of radical movements play on people’s weaknesses or anger against a world that
“singles them out” or scapegoats them, he said.

most common remark he gets from prisoners, he said, is “You’re all I have.
I wish I had someone like you in my life” outside the cell walls.

need a mentor, a companion and the church is a great source here.”

a Catholic chaplain, he tells people Christ is that companion. The imams will
say accompaniment comes from the prophet Muhammad. But in every case, Father
Gowans said, “we need to be Christ with each other” offering
accompaniment as Muslims, Jews and Christians.

takes more than me. But I like to think there are lots of ‘me’s’ out

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Glatz on Twitter @CarolGlatz.

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