Officials and families seek news on Iraq Christian peace workers
Some 24 hours after the expiry of the deadline set by the captors of four Christian peacemakers in Iraq, the Canadian, British and American governments are still seeking news of them, as are anxious families and friends.
UK Defence Secretary Dr John Reid said in a press statement yesterday that no further details had emerged and there was nothing to report.
The Swords of Righteousness (Truth) Brigades have remained silent about their hostages and have not responded to numerous requests to talk by both Islamic and Western negotiators.
There are now very serious worries about the fate of Tom Fox, Harmeet Sooden, James Loney and Norman Kember.
Dr Robert Patman, an international relations expert at Otago University in Canada, says one possible scenario is that the two Canadian hostages could be released before the others.
He says it appears the captors have made a distinction between them and the British and American captives, because of the different stance of their government to war and occupation in Iraq.
But Muslims across the world have pointed out that all the men are opposed to military action and have been defending the human rights of internees in Iraq.
A major concern is how the kidnappers can be enabled to ësave face' in releasing the men, an important cultural dimension of the situation which Western observers do not fully appreciate.
A reciprocal gesture by their host governments would be one way forward, but there will be extreme reluctance to appear to be making concessions to hostage-taking.
Interviewed on BBC radio through an interviewer yesterday, the Iraqi prime minister, who is prioritising security arrangements ahead of the decisive 15 December elections, said that three kinds of group were involved in kidnapping inside his country.
There were extreme loyalists of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, groups derived with external militants in other Arab countries, and some isolated factions 'who regard everyone else, without exception, as interlopers in Iraq.'
The fear is that if Sword of Truth is of the latter kind, there is no hope of persuading them to show mercy or to make a political distinction between different kinds of Westerners.
Sunni clerics and the many Muslim figures who have spoken out in favour of the CPT prisoners say that the silence may be a sign that their messages are getting through.
This is obviously the fervent prayer of friends and relatives of the four men, whose agonising waiting is being accompanied by vigils and messages of support across the world.
But Dr Patman claims that the latest information on the hostage-takers is that they are linked to one of the most ruthless insurgent groups in Iraq.
Meanwhile many Iraqi minds have been focused on the trial of Saddam Hussein, which has often descended into farce, and Thursday's landmark election.
A security clampdown is under way for the ballot to choose Iraq's first full four-year government since the fall of Saddam in 2003. This will not make contact with the kidnappers easier.
Iraq's Ministry of Defence has said it hopes that a huge security exercise incorporating thousands of Iraqi police and soldiers, backed by the US military, would protect polling places and guard against attempts to derail Iraq's fledgling democracy.
However it may also harden the resolve of militants and insurgents and make negotiations more difficult.
"During the election it will be hard for them [the insurgents] because we will have so much protection around polling places, we will try to stop the terrorists getting in," spokesperson Major-General Salih Sarhan told reporters last night.
"We all look to each other and offer a kind smile or a warm hug whenever that other person feels that they can't handle it and that happens quite a bit right now," Ed Loney, brother of Canadian hostage Jim Loney, told The Canadian Press from the family home in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
He added: "It's a pretty delicate situation and we're trying to not beat ourselves up and to remain hopeful."
Msgr Bernard Burns, priest at Precious Blood Cathedral where the Loney family worships, called the emotional trauma they have been facing "really unbelievable."
"The grief that they're going through - I don't know how much more they can take," Fr Burns said as he prepared for the third mass of the day yesterday and another special prayer for the hostages.
The church, he said, had been jam packed at earlier services, with almost 400 people jamming the pews.
[Also on Ekklesia: Lobbying goes on as Iraq hostage deadline passes 11/12/05 (including comprehensive links to our coverage and features of this event); Abu Qatada pleas for Iraq captives as deadline is extended; UN secretary general calls for release of all Iraqi captives; Iraq war brings unity for black baptists; Iraqi archbishop: Prayers for peace; Church says those who supported Iraq invasion must be held to account]