Iraq Abductions Give Christian Peacemakers a Higher Profile

They draw inspiration from the Book of Acts, their guiding philosophy from the words of Christ. But listen long enough to members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams and you'll soon hear echoes of another apostle of non-violent resistance.

Iraq Abductions Give Christian Peacemakers a Higher Profile

They draw inspiration from the Book of Acts, their guiding philosophy from the words of Christ. But listen long enough to members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams and you'll soon hear echoes of another apostle of non-violent resistance. Mahatma Gandhi believed antagonists would find their way toward peaceful solutions if shown a path of non-violence - doing so, however, might mean standing in an aggressor's gun sights. Some 80 years hence, Rebecca Johnson, a 42-year-old Canadian who has served the organization in the West Bank town of Hebron, takes the same tack when confronting angry soldiers. "We insert a different way of thinking into the script, one where somebody tells them what they're doing is wrong and illegal," she says from the organization's Toronto headquarters (the Peacemakers also have offices in Chicago). "We put ourselves in the way."

This is more than mere testimony to the durability of Gandhi's ideas. In their 21-year history, the Christian Peacemaker Teams have yoked the Indian leader's teachings to Christian faith and modern notions of international peacekeeping. In doing so, they've devised a kind of "Third Way" of non-violent intervention, inserting themselves in conflicts around the world to protect the innocent, while exposing what they see as social injustices behind the disputes. As for the part about standing in someone's gun sights, well, the Peacemakers have demonstrated something close to outright zeal. In Israel's occupied lands, they've surfaced in their signature red ball caps to shield Palestinian children from the gunfire of reckless soldiers. In the mountains of northern Colombia, they've helped secure villages residents had recently abandoned to right-wing paramilitaries.

Now, after the abduction of four team members in Iraq, including two Canadians, the group faces questions that go to the heart of its mission. Is there any place for Christian intervenors in a country already suspicious of Western interlopers? And was it reasonable to think that agents of chaos in Iraq would see the group any differently than they do other Westerners? "I think idealism is eclipsing common sense here," says Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto and an admirer of the Peacemakers' work in other theatres. The passive-resistance model can serve in many circumstances, he says, "but you have to be discriminating about where you try to do this kind of thing. Iraq and the Sunni Triangle is probably about the worst place for it in the world."

In fact, mortal risk was supposed to be part of the the group's mystique since its creation following the 1984 Mennonite World Conference in Strasbourg, France. There, with the Cold War as his political backdrop, American author and theologian Ron Sider delivered a fiery speech arguing Christian pacifism is meaningless unless "we are ready to die by the thousands in dramatic, vigorous new exploits for peace and justice." Sider's apocalyptic vision never came to pass. The ecumenical peace brigade he inspired now boasts about 40 full-time and 150 reserve members, far from the thousands he was prepared to sacrifice. But Sider's notions of justice have proven pivotal to the group's identity. By allying themselves with minority populations fighting the state or its proxies around the world, the Peacemakers have become darlings of North American liberals who share the same causes. In Israel, they've won applause by siding with Palestinians against Jewish settlers in West Bank lands. In Canada, they've supported Aboriginals in their battle against fisheries officers over lobster in Miramichi Bay, and over B.C. lands never ceded in treaties.

So when the Peacemakers decided to go to Iraq in October 2002, support in their home countries was strong. No one imagined them brokering peace in such a volatile conflict, but many U.S. liberals saw them as vital witnesses to the action itself, noting the limits posed by sheer danger on the movements of Western media. Trouble is, say critics, relatively few players on the ground in Iraq shared this perception. To coalition forces, the Peacemakers were one more obstacle to quickly achieving military objectives; Sunni insurgents, it seems, saw them as meddlesome Christians in a Muslim land. And to the criminal gangs who serve the insurgents, the Peacemakers were walking dollar signs.

This is now the best guess as to why kidnappers might have snatched up the current abductees: Jim Loney, 41, of Toronto; Harmeet Sooden, 32, of Montreal; Norman Kember, 74, of London and Tom Fox, 54, of Clear Brook, Va. The four men were left in the hands of an underground group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade, which is now demanding the release of Iraqi prisoners held by the U.S. But there's good reason to think the abductors were actually freelancers who turned the men over for cash. "A lot of the kidnappers are essentially criminal gangs," says Homer-Dixon, whose institute has sent several representatives to Iraq. "These aren't groups that are reachable through some sort of dialogue about social good. They are motivated by ruthlessness, profit and greed."

They certainly couldn't have cared much about the Peacemakers' work. More than any other group in Iraq, the organization has positioned itself as an opponent of the U.S. occupation, working tirelessly on behalf of Iraqi detainees and documenting cases of abuse by U.S. soldiers. Since the kidnappings became public, the country's largest Sunni political party, as well as a group of prominent Muslim clerics, have called for the Christians' release. One Palestinian man appeared on Arab television, recalling the Peacemakers' role in securing his own freedom from an Israeli jail.

Conversely, the crisis has stirred a flurry of criticism in the right-wing blogosphere in the United States - along with plain abuse of the Peacemakers on the airwaves. "Here's why I like it," said talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh last week, in one widely played outburst. "I like it any time a bunch of leftist, feel-good handwringers are shown reality."

The Peacemakers were disturbed by the characterization. "I know there's a tendency to slot people into these political categories," says Johnson, who shared administrative duties in the Peacemakers' Canadian offices with Loney until he was abducted. "I think it's a disservice to all of us." But they also face criticism from more credible critics, who say the kidnappings have exposed the weakness of the group's peacekeeping model when applied to the splintered conflict in Iraq. David Carment, an expert on peacekeeping at Carleton University in Ottawa, says there's a place for impartial groups to bear witness against oppression and abuse. "The problem in Iraq is figuring out who's doing the targeting," he says. "How do you separate those actively engaged in violence from ordinary citizens? It's extremely difficult for the U.S. military to do this, let alone peace activists."

The incident has also left a queasy sense that the abductions have brought Peacemakers exactly the recognition Sider envisioned. As media coverage of the crisis proliferated, the organization reported a surge of inquiries from people interested in joining the group. A representative from the Peacemakers' Chicago office, which coordinates recruitment and training, said many of the calls, emails and hits to its website were from people who merely wished to donate. And the group stresses that it carefully screens candidates, training them rigorously before deciding where they are best deployed (one member who was scheduled to join the Peacemakers' delegation in Iraq was left behind because he was deemed too unstable for the environment, officials say).

But the jump in interest highlights the Peacemakers' dilemma, which may explain their attempts to downplay it. Their organization was forged amid calls for an army of pacifists, each driven by faith to make the ultimate sacrifice. Yet marshalling recruits to the cause seems a lot less noble when their blood might actually be spilled. And the recent abductions raise questions as to whether their presence in Iraq is undermining their goals. Yes, Gandhi railed against violence in all its forms, but he also described non-co-operation with evil as "a sacred duty." However you interpret those words, it's safe to assume that supplying pawns for a cruel trade in human lives was not what he had in mind.


Maclean's December 26, 2005