WASHINGTON, Oct. 23 (RNS)--Children caught in the crossfire of armed conflict around the world pay a steep price for the battles of their elders, often forced to sacrifice their bodies, their families and their lives to battle. Worldwide, one child in four--some 540 million--lives amid instability such as war, according to a United Nations Children's Fund report, ``The State of the World's Children 2000.'' Within the past decade, 2 million children have been killed and 6 million wounded in armed conflict.

In recent days, images of Palestinian children have been a media mainstay as Israeli and Palestinians battle. Palestinian say the youngsters are expressing the rage of their people toward Israeli domination; Israelis say Palestinian parents and political leaders shamelessly exploit the children for their own political gain.

Regardless, many of the more than 100 Palestinians killed and the thousands injured in the current fighting have been children.

But in the face of such a grim reality, faith-based organizations are planting seeds of hope for the youngest casualties of war.

In southern Albania, for example, child refugees from Kosovo are waking from the nightmare of the region's civil war with the help of faculty from Andrews University in Michigan and relief workers with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency.

Faculty with the university's department of social work teach relief workers how to help heal the wounds of war, guiding girls as young as 8 years old to recovery after brutal rapes, and coaxing others from the brink of suicide.

``Part of the problem is that traditionally when faith-based humanitarian organizations have responded to relief work we have been so busy feeding and distributing blankets and food that no one really has ever been there to listen,'' said Sharon Pittman, chairwoman of the Andrews University department of social work. ``It's extremely critical that those emotional needs get dealt with so that these kids will have a full emotional recovery--and that's what we wanted to do.''

Nearly 100 children have been helped through the program since it was implemented in refugee camps last fall, said Pittman, who traveled last spring to Albania to work with Kosovar child refugees.

``These children had lived through so many unconscionable things,'' she said. ``Every child had seen someone killed and a lot of them had been separated from their parents so they were in the refugee camps alone. It just breaks your heart what these children have been through.''

Relief organizations in need of trauma counselors for children eventually will have access to a list of graduates of the university's training program, Pittman said.

``The goal would be to create a database of people who are certified mental health counselors that any humanitarian organization could call when they're responding to children living in a crisis,'' she said. ``Making sure children get that sort of help is critical.''

Children orphaned by the long-running civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo are the focus of efforts by United Methodists there to protect children. Next month, the denomination will officially open an orphanage for children robbed of their parents by both war and disease.

``So many children have been left without parents because of these wars,'' said Clyde A. Anderson, executive secretary for East Central Africa for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. ``Our orphanages will help us protect at least some of the children from the atrocities of war in the country--and kids who have been orphaned by AIDS. These kids need a safe haven where they can sleep and learn.''

The orphanage is part of the denomination's $12 million effort to build orphanages and schools in war-torn regions in Africa. The building will house about 150 children, and will also boast a learning center open to all children in the community, Anderson said.

``We're losing a generation in Africa to diseases like cholera, malaria, typhoid fever and HIV/AIDS, and if we don't reach out through the faith communities in a caring and spiritual way we're going to lose a whole generation who are the gems of God's creation--our children,'' Anderson said. ``Africa will only be sustained as the children are preserved, and that's our goal--to preserve Africa's future.''

Children in eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa not only must brave war and other conflicts. Many also find themselves struggling simply to go to school. Some 130 million children--mostly girls--do not attend school, according to U.N. figures.

In an effort to boost school attendance, Catholic Relief Services has thrown its support behind a United Nations proposal for an international school lunch program to feed the estimated 170 million children in Latin America, Asia and Africa who do not have a school lunch or breakfast program at their schools.

School lunches would not only improve academic achievement, but prompt more parents to send their children to school--particularly female children, said Kenneth Hackett, executive director of Catholic Relief Services.

``For us it's an issue of justice,'' said Hackett, who testified in July before a Senate committee hearing held to determine whether the United States should support the program. ``We believe basic education for boys and girls is a fundamental right.''

The $3 billion program, of which the United States has pledged to shoulder $750 million, is ``a win-win situation,'' Hackett said.

``This program can aid both the American farmer and the needy abroad,'' he said. ``A lot of farmers have surplus produce that's just sitting there, but this way the government buys the excess produce to give to needy children overseas, and then the children have food to eat while they're at school. Everybody benefits.''

Though the program is still in its infancy and specific details of the program, including who will oversee its implementation, have yet to be ironed out, there ``is no way people cannot support this,'' Hackett said.

``It's not a quick fix--a school feeding program won't solve all the problems of poverty in the world,'' he said. ``It's a complex undertaking and we certainly have to make sure there's sustainability. But it's definitely one small part of helping needy children, and we in the United States have been so blessed with abundant wealth that we have an obligation to help out in some way."

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