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Ugandan ministry awarded for living the values taught by St. John Paul II

John Paul II Justice and Peace Center volunteers are seen taking part in a "green initiative" on an undated photo. The center has been awarded the inaugural Premio San Giovanni Paolo II -- Award of St. John Paul II, established Feb. 7, 2023, by the Vatican's John Paul II Foundation.(OSV News photo/Vatican's John Paul II Foundation)

(OSV News) — This Ugandan ministry is transforming societal structures to “ensure dignity and justice for all.” Now it has been awarded the inaugural Premio San Giovanni Paolo II — Award of St. John Paul II, established Feb. 7, 2023, by the Vatican’s John Paul II Foundation.

“We didn’t know that our humble work here in Uganda would earn such global recognition,” Father Leonard Olobo, chairman of the John Paul II Justice and Peace Center in
Kampala, told OSV News.

The John Paul II Justice and Peace Center in the Ugandan capital was founded in 2006 on the initiative of seven religious congregations in the central African country, inspired by the 1995 papal exhortation “Ecclesia in Africa,” which emphasizes the church’s commitment to justice, solidarity and human rights. The aim of the center is the practical promotion of the social doctrine of the church, particularly as taught by St. John Paul II.

The Vatican’s John Paul II Foundation established the award to honor individuals, organizations or initiatives that “in their scientific, cultural and social activities, make use of the teaching or inspiration of St. John Paul II and contribute to the promotion of his heritage,” the foundation’s press release said.

Opened just a year after Pope John Paul’s death, the Ugandan center wanted to keep his legacy alive.

“We wanted his good works in social justice to continue,” Father Olobo told OSV News.

“This award is a clear manifestation that our mission resonates with the spirit of St. Pope John Paul II, on whose legacy the John Paul II Foundation was established,” he said.

The center’s journey began amid the aftermath of a devastating two-decade war in northern Uganda. Communities faced immense suffering, including violence, displacement and lack of basic services. This brought together seven religious congregations — Comboni Missionaries, Holy Cross Missionaries, Mill Hill Missionaries, Missionaries of Africa and the Society of Jesus — to be a beacon of hope, according to the motto: “Faith Doing Justice.”

The center’s projects include those combating human trafficking. Through workshops, community outreach, radio talk shows and town hall meetings, the center educates vulnerable populations about the dangers of modern slavery.

Father Olobo said people often fall victim due to lack of information, while others “unwittingly aid their own trafficking.”

In addition, the center caters to the needs of refugees and internally displaced persons. Uganda hosts over 1.6 million refugees, with the majority — 59% — coming from South Sudan.

Father Olobo emphasized that the center not only helps them through community dialogue, interreligious prayer conferences and conflict resolution training, but also through economic empowerment.

“With promotion of livelihoods, we skill the refugees in areas such as agro-ecology, tailoring, fish rearing, baking, soap-making, beekeeping,” he said.

The “Laudato Si'” clubs, inspired by Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical also are formed and “encourage the school management to plant trees on school lands,” he said.

“We promote a one-baptism-one-tree program in churches where parents seeking baptism for their children are catechized to plant at least some trees in their land or compound. … Recently, we just launched a project on food security with focus on agroecology that promotes indigenous crops and seeds,” Father Olobo said of the many environmental initiatives.

The center also advocates for the education of girls as well as runs anti-corruption and anti-violence workshops for law enforcement,

The center’s director admitted that the institution sometimes gets into trouble as powerful human traffickers pose a real threat to the work of the organization. Local clergy also look at the ministry suspiciously at times, given its advocacy for healthy civic society and ethical politics.

Father Olobo pointed out that in preparation for the 2026 Ugandan elections, the center is committed to “promoting democratic practices and citizen participation,” especially given Uganda’s history of electoral violence, intimidation, and irregularities.

The award ceremony for the Premio San Giovanni Paolo II will take place May 22 at the Vatican.

Ngala Killian Chimtom writes for OSV News from Yaounde, Cameroon.

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