Praying for a miracle amid Iraq hostage silence
As the silence continues in Iraq over the fate of four Christian peace workers taken captive three weeks ago by an unknown militant group, those who have been working tirelessly for their release prepare for the worst while hoping and praying for good news.
Estimates of the chances of persuading the Swords of Righteousness (Truth) Brigades to show mercy towards the men, who went to Iraq to campaign against war and for detainees, vary considerably.
UK Home Office minister Hazel Blears said last night that 'everything that can be done is being done' to try to secure their release.
Numerous calls for dialogue by official agencies, and for freedom for the captives by Muslim groups and leading Islamacists, have so far led to no public word from the kidnappers.
But security experts stress that what really counts is what is going on behind the scenes, out of the glare of publicity. Much depends on the identity of the group and how connected or disconnected they are to other militant organisations, most of whom are horrified by the threats against people they regard as 'friends of Iraq'.
Mr Chris Cole, director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (England), of which British captive Dr Norman Kember is a trustee, said: 'We are looking for a miracle at this stage.'
The Fellowship is an international network of religious pacifists closely allied with Christian Peacemaker Teams. Cole has himself risked arrest and prison in his protests against nuclear weapons and the international arms trade.
He added: '"We are all anxious but we remain hopeful and positive. Norman is a very faithful and strong individual and we want to remain hopeful for him and the other hostages.'
Bruce Kent, a friend of Dr Kember for 15 years and former CND general secretary, said: 'I haven't given up hope at all. They may be working on some way of getting off the hook without losing face. It's quite possible they may be preparing a video to say why they are releasing them.'
One hundred supporters of the four abducted peace workers endured cold and snow in Ontario yesterday to maintain a vigil outside the US embassy. Pax Christi and others are organising another in London tonight.
The focus of the waiting and watching for the Christian friends of the men, including Dr Kember's on Baptist Church in Pinner, is the season of Advent, when believers reflect on the impending birth of Christ into the world - celebrated at Christmas.
Commented Simon Barrow, co-director of the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia, which is associated with CPT: 'The courage of Norman, Tom, Harmeet and Jim is extraordinary. They believe that active love and peacemaking is in the end the only way to challenge hatred, violence and injustice.'
He continued: 'As followers of Jesus who respect all people, they know that he was killed, but could not be silenced by death. We desperately hope and pray that they will be spared - but whatever happens, their testimony to life has brought together in common humanity people who are called enemies. There is no going back on that.'
Meanwhile, a member of the peacemaking group from the USA has delayed her return to that country because of the hostage situation, reports the Athens County News.
Peggy Gish, who with her husband, Art, is a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), says that she was in San Francisco visiting family when she learned that four CPT members had been abducted in Iraq. She got the news 'just three days before I was scheduled to return to Iraq for another four-month time.'
Gish commented, 'I know Tom Fox and Jim Loney personally through working with them in Iraq. Even though we knew it could happen at any time, it is still a shock when it happened. I realized it could easily have been me if I had been there at the time. It seems a bit ironic that they were taken after leaving a meeting with an Iraqi organization to work together on documenting the abuses of prisoners by Iraqi forces.'
She said she has been asked by CPT to stay out of Iraq 'for an undefined time to be a support person' in nearby Jordan while the hostage situation is worked out, though she would personally prefer to be inside Iraq right now.
'It's like wanting to be with your family when it's going through a crisis,' she explained.
The abducted CPT men are Tom Fox (USA), Norman Kember (UK), James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden (Canada).
Pleas for them have been made from prison by Abu Qatada (who has been accused by intelligence agencies of being Osama bin Laden's ambassador in Europe, a claim he denies) and by former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg.
Meanwhile, the body of Egyptian engineer Ibrahim Sayed Hilali has been found, a day after he was seized by gunmen in Tikrit. His capture was separate to that of the four peacemakers.
A German engineer, a French Muslim aid worker and hundreds of Iraqis have also disappeared.
[Advent reflections on Iraq and beyond: Why are we here? (a reflection by Tom Fox of Christian Peacemaker Teams, the day before he was abducted in Iraq), 05/12/05; Advent hope for Iraq, captives and Limbaugh (Ryan Beiler, Sojourners) 10/12/05; What on earth are we waiting for? (Simon Barrow) 12/12/05]