Christian peacemakers say the work must go on
As the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) in Baghdad seeks the release of four of its team members held hostage for 12 days, former CPT activists have been reflecting on what it means to stand up for justice in the face of death, writes Alexa Smith of the Presbyterian Church USA news service.
"When we learned of the demands, we were fairly astonished," said Anita David, a Chicago Presbyterian who is part of the Baghdad team. "Our work is working with detainees and advocating (for) detainees ... with human-rights organizations."
The Baghdad CPT team has documented abuses of Iraqis by US troops in the Abu Ghraib prison. It also helps Iraqi families find out where family members are imprisoned.
Because their drivers and translators are often picked up for questioning by Iraqi police, the team also tracks them in the bureaucracy. "They're deeply trusted," David said. "We've known them for years."
The Baghdad CPT issued a statement on 6 December 2005 asking the kidnappers - the Swords of Truth [Righteousness] Brigades - to "immediately release" the hostages "unharmed." The statement condemned the US and British governments for their actions in Iraq and urged the kidnappers to "show mercy" and allow the four men to "come back safely to us to continue our work."
"We believe there needs to be a force that counters all the resentment, the fear, the intimidation felt by the Iraqi people," the peacemakers wrote. "We are trying to be that force: to speak for justice, to advocate for the human rights of Iraqis, to look at an Iraqi face and say, 'My brother, my sister.' Perhaps you are men who only want to raise the issue of illegal detention.
"We don't know what you may have endured. As you can see by the statements of support from our friends in Iraq and all over the world, we work for those who are oppressed."
Statements of support have been arriving in Baghdad from religious and political leaders, including many in the Muslim and Arab world.
PC (USA) officials wrote a letter urging the kidnappers to release their hostages unharmed. Two other Presbyterians, now back in the US, have served on the Iraqi team - and intend to return to the team's Baghdad apartment later this year.
They are Charles Jackson, a computer consultant from Austin, Texas, and a member of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church; and Beth Pyles of Fairmont, West Virginia, a recent Princeton Seminary graduate who attends First Presbyterian Church in Fairmont.
"You're always concerned about the possibility of kidnappers in Iraq," said Jackson, who, like other peacemakers, thought the biggest risk was kidnapping for ransom. "The other concern is that you're walking down the street and a bomb goes off."
Jackson said he turns often to a quote from the peacemaking team's founder, Gene Stoltzfus: "What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to non-violent peacemaking that armies devote to war?"
Pyles said Stoltzfus' question is what drew her to Iraq for seven weeks in September, and why she'll go back next year. "Do I really believe this stuff that I say I believe?" she said, citing Jesus' admonition to not just turn the other cheek, but to actively love your enemy. "If I really believe Jesus Christ, what ought my life be like? ... There's a cost to that, sure. But what a benefit."
She said the peacemakers don't wish to be martyrs, but know that there is no way to avoid risks. Pyles said she was nearly hit by a bullet from a neighbour waving a gun next-door. "That's a silly way to die," she said with a wry laugh, adding that a gun-waving neighbour wasn't a risk she'd weighed before arriving in Baghdad.
"Soldiers accept that as a risk of doing business. Harm might befall them. But do they dwell on that? I suspect not ... until it happens," she said of life in a war zone.
Jackson said his work with CPT isn't just pacifism - because lots of pacifists oppose the war while sitting in their living rooms. He prefers to be called a "non-violent peace activist."
What he said he wants to do is stop war by forcing decision-makers to find other ways of resolving conflict. "Imagine," he said, "if before the bombs dropped on Baghdad, the choir from Ebenezer Baptist Church - and a couple of big Chicago churches - went there. Do you think they'd drop bombs on the city?"
"I saw (CPT's work) in Bosnia. We weren't able to stop the war, but we stopped it for little periods of time," he said.
Pyles said the silence of US congregations has been hard to take since she got home. Local churches often avoid the subject to prevent tension, she said, sometimes even failing to pray for the enemy.
"We ought to be much louder than we are, louder in our prayers," she said. "For every dead US soldier there, there are anywhere between 10 and 100 dead civilian Iraqis."
"Not soldiers. Not insurgents. Civilians. Many of them children ... As Christians, we're not controlled by borders. ... We're called to love and care for everyone...We know the danger here," she said, "but think it is worth it."
CPT has other teams in Colombia, Palestine and Canada. According to its Chicago office, no other members have been kidnapped.
[Also on Ekklesia: Last minute appeals made for Christian peacemakers 07/12/05; Muslim detainees plead for lives of Christian peacemakers 06/12/05; Al-Jazeera releases film of Iraq peace hostages; Briefing on Christian Peacemaker Teams; WCC calls for freeing of Christian peace workers; Anti-war campaigner flies to Iraq to plead for Christian peacemakers; Christian peacemakers return to Iraq; Search goes on for Christian peacemaker kidnapped in Iraq; Muslims urge release of Christian peacemakers missing in Iraq; Palestinian bishop seeks mercy for Iraq peace workers; Adopt-an-Iraqi-Detainee programme closed; Norman Kember's wife pleads for his life]