Being salt and light: advocacy with those risking their lives for peace

Adapted from Bonnie Klassen’s presentation to MCC Canada.

Will we be ready? Ready to back our sisters and brothers in Colombia as they lay their lives on the line for peace, justice and reconciliation?

Last Friday – the International Day of Peace – Anabaptist churches across Colombia gathered in public places to celebrate the annual Bread and Peace Campaign. Sharing both bread and their daily commitment to nonviolence, they sang and spoke in public, thus demonstrating the every-day implications of peace-building in contexts of violence and hunger.

This yearly campaign began in 2002 when the United Nations asked the Colombian Mennonite Church to lead a public celebration for the new International Day for Ceasefire and Nonviolence. The Church had already gained recognition for her commitment to nonviolence through campaigns for including conscientious objection to obligatory military service in the 1991 Constitution.

This was a time when the government was pressuring all Colombians to become active collaborators of the State Armed Forces, and those who refused were labeled traitors and guerrilla supporters. All three Anabaptist denominations in Colombia – Mennonite Brethren, Mennonite, and Brethren in Christ – felt significant pressures, and decided to make visible their position for nonviolence by publishing a bold statement in the national newspaper. They declared that

as followers of Christ … we affirm our biblical and historical commitment to walk the path of peace, nonviolence…. We refuse to participate in any armed group, and we refuse to pay so that others do so on our behalf….

They went on to declare that seeking peace with justice involved “conversations and actions with whomever is willing to consider non-violent, negotiated solutions,” thus rejecting the Government’s framing of who is friend and who is traitor. Indeed, they called on “the government, the armed groups and the media to give up their war like attitudes and begin genuine peace talks with real concessions towards the building of a new country…”

This and other public statements have played a fundamental role in protecting the lives of Anabaptist church leaders in Colombia.

Pastor Rutilio

For example, when heavily armed paramilitary groups pressured the Mennonite Brethren churches in Chocó to pay them a “war contribution” from the community rice-processing plant the church administered, church president Rutilio Rivas responded firmly:

“Mennonite churches have been committed to nonviolence and peace-building for centuries.  We will not support any armed groups, not even the State Armed Forces.… We will not support you, even if it costs us our lives.”

Surprised by this boldness, and aware that Mennonites in Colombia have held this position throughout time, the paramilitary commander promised to respect this position.

These church-based advocacy actions and positions arise out of years of prayer and discernment.

In the early 2000s, an increasing number of partners told MCC that advocacy work was a priority for them. As churches became increasingly involved in providing humanitarian assistance and accompaniment to internally displaced people (IDP), leaders began to realise that offering food baskets was not enough. With 5 million IPDs, Colombia desperately needed policies and practice that put an end to the blood-shedding.

Growing rice, not coca

Local churches have also become increasingly involved in community food security projects whose explicit purpose is to help families overcome hunger along with helping communities stop growing illicit crops used for cocaine. Yet these attempts at creating alternatives become almost impossible when the small-scale producers have to compete with highly-subsidized, imported products, or when the land and water they have to cultivate is contaminated by the ever-expanding mining business in Colombia.

Again, their “life projects” hit up against the wall of policies: Free Trade Agreements, the government’s focus on attracting foreign mining companies at all cost, and more. Thus, Mennonite churches find themselves forced to take positions in response to public policy.

Indeed, in 2006 80% of Anabaptist church leaders surveyed asked MCC to support their churches in advocacy work.

Subsequently, MCC organized two National Anabaptist Encounters on Advocacy, with around 50 church leaders from the three denominations participating each time. The participants affirmed three main conclusions:

  1. The church is called to impact society…. Simply affirming God’s Kingship has profound political implications.
  2. The churches’ advocacy comes of out radical obedience to Jesus,… not a political agenda. 
  3. Advocacy is inseparable from the churches’ actions to alleviate human suffering, to develop sustainable communities and to build peace.

Participants also located themselves in the following options for engagement in social-economic-political realities – where they thought the church could and should be involved:

The vast majority of Anabaptist church leaders stood in the outer-most circle, meaning that they believe all four levels of engagement and risk are important.

Last week MCC Colombia’s partners again highlighted the need for advocacy.  Responding to MCC’s strategic plan towards the future, they said very clearly:

“We don’t want a relationship with MCC that only revolves around money.  We want to know that when we take risks in advocating for life, for peace and for dignity, MCC and the Anabaptist churches in the North will back us.  We want your political support.” 

They believe that this kind of theological and political backing will not cost MCC much at all.  However, lack of our support can cost them everything, for they have experienced how the voices of North American churches can make a difference.

In 1997, the Colombia Mennonite Biblical Seminary was being threatened with closure due to its program of Peace studies that allowed many students to declare themselves as conscientious objectors to military service. North American churches sent hundreds of letters to top government authorities. The Seminary remained open.

And then in 2004, Colombian Mennonite church leader and human rights lawyer, Ricardo Esquivia was being threatened with detainment on serious but false charges. Again, the international Christian community responded with a thousand faxes and letters sent to the Colombia government. Then, when country’s Vice President called Ricardo in for a conversation, he greeted Ricardo with a huge stack of letters and the words “Mr. Esquivia, you have A LOT of friends.” Ricardo was not detained or imprisoned.

Colombia is at historical cross-roads right now, with possibilities for new peace dialogues, under the best conditions seen in decades for reaching a peace agreement. At the same time, there are profound obstacles, and there are also significant enemies of the peace process.

The Anabaptist churches in Colombia will lay their lives on the line for peace, justice and reconciliation.  When they ask for MCC’s support – when they ask the Anabaptist churches in Canada and the U.S. to weigh in with their voices – will we be ready?

Are we ready for full partnership?

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”  — Jesus

By Bonnie Klassen, MCC Area Director for Latin America. Adapted from her presentation to MCC Canada’s annual delegate assembly and board meeting.

On being prophetic

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

It has now been almost two weeks since our Minister of Foreign Affairs announced that Canada was cutting off diplomatic ties with Iran. While this was a dramatic and surprising action, Minister Baird’s statement pointed out that his government’s “position on the regime in Iran is well known.” I agree.

One of the higher profile members of the government’s cabinet, Minister Baird has been rather outspoken in his criticism of leaders around the world who do things that his government disagrees with.

Hon. John Baird (official photo)

Several times every week the minister indicates that he is “disappointed,” “deeply disappointed,” “concerned,” “deeply concerned,” “troubled,” “deeply troubled,” “disturbed,”  “outraged,” or even “horrified” by the actions of another government.

He often “regrets,” “mourns,” “decries,” “stands against,” “rejects,” “deplores,” or even “proudly boycotts” these actions. The most common verb, however, is to “condemn” or “strongly condemn” a given action, and to “urge” or “call for” a change of direction.

To be clear, issuing critical statements is part and parcel of standard diplomatic practice. They did not start with the current minister, but are a routine way Canada and other nations seek to exert pressure on their peers. The frequency of critical statements also tends to ebb and flow depending upon the nature of global events.

Nonetheless, Minister Baird has been relatively outspoken in his role—by my count, he has issued more than 150 critical statements in his 16 months on the job.

In a recent speech at the annual Religious Liberty Dinner in Washington, DC, the minister emphasized that he and his government “will stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is popular, convenient or expedient.”

In that same speech Minister Baird used what appears to have become his signature line: “I’m proud to say Canada no longer simply ‘goes along to get along’ in the conduct of its foreign policy.” The point of this expression is that the current government isn’t afraid to take a clear position on issues, and to communicate that position in the clearest possible terms.

There are times when MCC also takes clear positions on issues, and seeks to communicate those positions in the clearest possible terms.

After all, MCC also stands for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is popular, convenient, or expedient.

Beyond our response to the decision on Iran, recent examples include:

MCC Photo

Quite often, however, MCC is asked to be more outspoken about situations of injustice in Canada and around the world. Our supporters are keen to see MCC “say something” or “take a position” in response to a particular situation of injustice.

There is a desire, at least in some quarters, for MCC to be “more prophetic” in our approach.

I have struggled at times to know how to best to respond to these calls.

Does being more prophetic mean we should act more like Minister Baird?

Perhaps it means Ottawa Office staff should seek to follow the pattern of Hebrew prophets, sharing words of warning and woe for our people and our political leaders. Perhaps it means we should claim to be speaking on behalf of God.

This seems rather bold to me, even though MCC does ground our program work in biblical imperatives, and we ground our political and public engagement in the voices of partners—through whom God no doubt speaks.

After all, one thing I find troubling about Minister Baird’s statements is his certainty that Canada’s position is virtuous and beyond reproach.

If I am certain about anything, it is often that the cause of a given problem—and its ultimate solution—is more complicated than the minister seems to think it is.

In any case, the larger question that lingers for me is: What impact do more prophetic statements have? Is stronger language really what we need if the point is to change the behaviour of the people being addressed, rather than to simply predict the future by further entrenching that behaviour?

To be sure, there are instances where a principled, uncompromising, and clear statement is actually intended to speak to a different audience than the person being addressed. For example, it may be intended to let an affected community know that they have been heard, and that their experience of injustice has impacted us as well.

Perhaps this desire to express solidarity is at the root of many calls for MCC to be more prophetic. Perhaps it is even what lies behind many of Minister Baird’s statements.

But I am still left to wonder: where is the line…

  • between righteous indignation and letting off steam?
  • between moral clarity and moralistic posturing?
  • between speaking truth to power and a display of cynicism?

What do you think?

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

Growing tension between Canada and Iran; MCC responds

Iran is “the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today.”

With these words the Canadian government cut all diplomatic ties with the country, closing its embassy in Tehran and expelling Iranian diplomats from Ottawa.

Don Peters, MCC Canada’s Executive Director, has expressed MCC’s concern over this decision in a letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, dated September 10, 2012 and printed below.

A shepherd with his sheep and goats in the Zagros Mountains, near Shiraz, Iran.

Dear Minister Baird,

I am writing on behalf of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to express our concern over the Government of Canada’s recent decision to suspend all diplomatic ties with Iran.

MCC has worked in Iran for over two decades, beginning with our response to an earthquake in Iran’s northwestern provinces in 1990. Since that time we have supported a variety of initiatives that emphasize people-to-people contact, including educational exchanges for university students, and religious dialogue between Mennonite Christian and Shia Muslim scholars.

Students from the Imam Khomeini Education & Research Institute in discussion with Learning Tour Delegation after viewing the Iranian film, “Baran” (rain), Qom

We understand that your position on Iran’s government has been clear and is well known. MCC’s position has also been clear. When we have had the opportunity, we have expressed concerns over Iranian government statements on the Holocaust and Israel, Iran’s nuclear program, and religious freedom in Iran. We have consistently urged both Iranian and western leaders to stop using rhetoric that defines the other using “enemy” language. And, perhaps most importantly, we have shared our appreciation for the relationships of respect and trust that we have developed with Iranians.

We recognize that MCC’s efforts have been modest, but we have been compelled to pursue them because of our deep conviction that the resolution of disagreements and dangerous situations requires more—rather than fewer—opportunities for dialogue. This conviction is deeply rooted in our Christian faith. It is expressed in one of the four core approaches we bring to our work: to build bridges to connect people and ideas across cultural, political, and economic divides. This conviction is also, we would humbly suggest, relevant for government policy.

A delegation of religious leaders from the U.S. and Canada meet with religious leaders in Iran.

The Government of Canada has made it clear that it believes that the Government of Iran is “the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today.” We are concerned about the strategies and actions your department may pursue to address this threat in the coming months. We urge you to do everything possible to de-escalate tensions and minimize the likelihood that Iran or other nations will resort to violence.

Finally, although we recognize that the future of long-standing scholarly exchanges supported by MCC is now in jeopardy, we would be grateful for the continued assistance of Canadian diplomatic staff as we seek to make these opportunities possible.


Donald G. Peters

Executive Director

Putting Faces to the Facts: The Last Five Years of the Gaza Blockade

This summer we have occasionally re-posted material from MCC colleagues
and partner organisations. This photo essay, by MCC Palestine service worker
Ryan Rodrick Beiler, was first published in the MCC Palestine Update.

A Palestinian worker scavenges for recyclable materials near the restricted access zone along the wall on Gaza’s northern border. Israeli troops often open fire on such workers and several have injured or killed. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Five years ago, Israel intensified its blockade of Gaza as a form of “economic warfare”against the de facto Hamas government which controls the densely populated Palestinian enclave. As in all forms of warfare, civilians, especially children, suffer the worst consequences of actions taken by those in power. As part of a coordinated advocacy effort by the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA), MCC has joined more than 50 other humanitarian NGOs in endorsing a simple statement:

For over five years in Gaza, more than 1.6 million people have been under blockade in violation of international law. More than half of these people are children. We the undersigned say with one voice: “end the blockade now.”

The United Nations also recently released a clear and concise fact sheet on the impact of the Gaza blockade. But while facts are important, it’s even more critical to remember that real people face these facts on a daily basis. So here are a few key selections from the UN report, accompanied by photos of Gazans struggling to overcome these conditions:

44% of Gazans are food insecure and about 80% are aid recipients.

Aysha Qaramesh and her son Ayman (6), beneficiaries in a food security project raising rabbits with MCC partner Al Najd Development Forum in the eastern border area of Gaza. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

34% of Gaza’s workforce, including over half its youth, is unemployed.

Mahmoud Abdim, age 20 (left), is a second year student studying to be an electrician through a vocational training center run by MCC partner, Near East Council of Churches Committee for Refugee Work (NECCCRW), in the Qarara area of Khan Younis, Gaza. Mahmoud did not finish secondary school in order to work to support his family which includes his parents, four brothers, and four sisters. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

During this period, nearly 2,300 Palestinians have been killed and 7,700 injured by Israeli forces, about two thirds of them during the “Cast Lead” offensive. Over a quarter (27%) of all Palestinian fatalities were women and children. Since June 2007, 37 Israelis have been killed and 380 injured in attacks launched from Gaza, 40% of whom were civilians.

Artwork by children at the Nuwar Center of MCC partner Culture and Free Thought Association depicts the bombardment of Gaza by Israeli helicopters. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

The productive capacity of Gaza’s economy has shown almost no recovery, rendering recent economic growth unsustainable. … The continued ban on the transfer of goods from Gaza to its traditional markets in the West Bank and Israel, along with the severe restrictions on access to agricultural land and fishing waters, prevents sustainable growth and perpetuates the high levels of unemployment, food insecurity and aid dependency.

(l-r) Khaled Albieri , his brother Ibrahim, and Mohammed Ashenbari use a pivot and levers to straighten iron reinforcement bars recovered from buildings bombed by Israel in Gaza City. Such recycling of building materials is necessary because of Israeli restrictions on goods entering Gaza. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

The quality of infrastructure and vital services, including in the areas of health, education and water and sanitation, have significantly declined as a result of the import restrictions and the rapid population growth. A failure to address existing gaps would increase the humanitarian vulnerability of the people. Despite the June 2010 measures to ease the blockade, international organisations continue to face challenges in responding to the most urgent humanitarian needs in these fields, due to the complex approval system for projects put in place by the Israeli authorities.

Zeina Mefij, age 1 month, bravely awaits the prick of a blood test administered by Nabila Adnan (left) and Sihan Abu Hasan as part of a well baby program at a medical clinic run by MCC partner NECCCRW in the Deraj neighborhood of Gaza City. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Since 2009, the Israeli naval forces have prevented fishermen from accessing sea areas beyond three nautical miles from Gaza’s coast, where the main sardine shoals are found. This has severely undermined the livelihoods of 35,000 people.

Gazan fishermen cast their nets off Gaza’s Mediterranean coast near Gaza City. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Farmland located within 500 meters from the perimeter fence is totally inaccessible, while access to areas up to 1500 meters is risky due to frequent ‘warning shots’ by the Israeli army.  An estimated 75,000 metric tonnes of produce are lost each year as result of limited access.

Farmer Nizar Abu-Halim of Beit Lahia points toward the northern border zone from among rows of strawberries on his farm supported by MCC partner Al Najd Development Forum. Smokestacks from a coal-fired power plant across the border in Ashkelon, Israel, are visible on the horizon. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

To learn more about AIDA’s campaign, click on the following links:

Press Release – International Pressure Mounts Over Gaza Blockade

5 Fallacies in Gaza and the Facts of Life 5 Years in to the Blockade: Trapped by Land, Air and Sea

5 Years Lost: Case studies looking back at life under blockade