From a faith Nakba to a theology of liberation

“When we most needed our faith, it wasn’t there for us,” says Cedar Duaybis, recalling the deep pain of the NakbaDuaybis is one of the co-founders of Sabeel, a Palestinian Ecumenical Christian Liberation Theology Center. She was speaking to three of us from MCC’s advocacy offices who were visiting our staff and partners in Palestine and Israel this past March.

Nakba means catastrophe in Arabic. It refers to the period from 1947 to 1949 when over 700,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes by Zionist militias in connection with the establishment of the modern State of Israel. Over 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed in the process, thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands shut out from their homeland indefinitely. On May 15 every year, Palestinians commemorate Nakba Day and again call for justice.

But Nakba is much more than losing one’s homeland, which in itself was and continues to be so devastating. It is also about losing an identity, as family members, friends and communities were separated in the chaos and scattered across the region. And for many Palestinian Christians it was also about losing the depth of their faith. That is what Duaybis was talking about – the Faith Nakba. As she puts it, “[O]ur Holy Book was used as justification for our suffering.”

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Sabeel (Palestinian Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center) co-founder and author Cedar Duaybis speaks about the faith Nakba and the impacts on Palestinian Christian communities. MCC photo/Doug Hostetter, March 2018

For decades Christian Zionists, especially in the West, have used the promises of God to Abraham and conquest narratives in Joshua and other biblical books, to justify the actions of the modern State of Israel, despite the displacement, dispossession and suffering inflicted on Palestinians. Many Palestinian Christians could find little hope in the Scriptures for changing their current situation. Duaybis was a young girl at the time of the Nakba, but the memory of that time and the years of a faith struggle among the community of Christians that followed have shaped her whole and vocation life.

Palestinian Christians, like Duaybis and so many others, have long felt ignored or forgotten by the global Christian community. Their numbers are small, but their voices cry out for justice and solidarity. Plus, most Palestinian Christians, like the Rev. Dr. Munthur, Dean of Bethlehem Bible College, remind us that “The Palestinian Christian struggle is the Palestinian struggle.” In other words, like their fellow Palestinians, the principal struggle of Palestinian Christians and churches is the struggle against occupation.

Yet in those first few decades after the Nakba, the Palestinian Church had developed almost a theology of resignation.

During the First Intifada (1987-1992) Palestinians began resisting the occupation en masse, predominantly through non-violent means. At that time, a group of Palestinian Christians, led by the Rev. Naim Ateek, Canon of St George’s Anglican Cathedral, began meeting after Sunday worship to talk theology and the realities of their context.

Like Duaybis, Rev. Ateek experienced the Nakba as a child and the memories of that experience have been forever ingrained in his psyche. He called these Sunday reflection times “theological debriefings” – opportunities to ask the tough questions, to explore the meaning of Christian faith in a context of suffering, and to challenge the idea that God desired their meek resignation to that suffering.

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The Rev. Canon Naim Ateek, co-founder of Sabeel, a Palestinian Liberation Theology Center, Photo, Canadian Friends of Sabeel: https://friendsofsabeel.ca/event/cross-canada-book-tour-with-naim-ateek/

It was during these meetings that people re-discovered Jesus and his response to the military occupation of his day. They encountered Jesus’ proclamation of an upside-down kingdom founded on justice, human dignity for all, and active nonviolent resistance, rather than political and military might or passive resignation.

It was out of these times of reflection that Sabeel was born as an ecumenical movement to resist the injustice of occupation and oppression as a vocation of faith, nonviolence and the search for a peace with justice for all in the region. Rev. Ateek, Duaybis and the other founders of Sabeel recall their profound awakening and their renewed hope in the Christian faith.

These past few weeks Rev. Ateek has been traveling across Canada, speaking to Canadians from the West Coast to Atlantic Canada, while launching his new book on the history and theology of this grassroots movement: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice and the Palestine-Israel Conflict. Several of us were able to join Rev. Ateek in Toronto, and other colleagues heard him on his various stops across the country. Despite facing harsh opposition, his message spread.

The essence of his message is this: “Indeed, Christ is our liberator, and God in Christ wills that we should be free. Therefore, we need to stand firm and must not submit to anything that dehumanizes or enslaves us… Our response to suffering must extend beyond meeting basic needs to naming the injustices that perpetuate suffering, challenging political systems, and acting to ensure a more just and equitable world” (p. 6). While at the same time, following in step behind the non-violent teachings of Jesus. “For us, walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and using his non-violent methods can make a difference in spite of the thorns and hurdles along the road” (p. 5).

Across the world many people of faith living under injustice and oppression have found a liberating and lifegiving word in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Rooted in a deep commitment to Jesus, they have given birth to movements of non-violent resistance, liberation and justice. Their voices have been central in the resistance against Apartheid in South Africa, in the rallying cry against oppressive regimes across Latin America, and in the diners and buses of the civil rights movement in the American South.

As Rev. Ateek says, “When Palestinian Christians recognized and accepted [Jesus Christ’s] full humanity, it was a turning point that drove us directly back to the Gospels to study Jesus’s life and teachings. Such an exercise inspired and encouraged us to commit ourselves to the work for justice and peace” (p. 42).

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The sun rises over the Old City, Jerusalem, March, 2018, MCC photo, Doug Hostetter

Now Rev. Ateek and our other Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ look to us to stand with them in their struggle for justice and liberation. How will we respond? In our churches, in our communities, with our Canadian government policies?

Bekah Sears is the Policy Analyst for MCC Ottawa

See also MCC Canada’s Cry for Home Campaign in Palestine and Israel for more resources and ways to get involved.

 

“How long, oh Lord…” The war in Syria enters its eighth year

Once again, we find ourselves at the pinnacle of Lent. Holy Week is upon us. It is a week that evokes deep emotions: grief and desolation followed by profound joy and hope. Amidst the darkness all around, hope persists and breaks through.

Every year we know this is coming. We know for certain that after 40 days, Lent ultimately culminates with Easter and resurrection. There is an empty tomb – He is Risen! – for which we say a resounding Thanks be to God!

But what about the seasons of Lent in our own lives here and now? The times of darkness and confusion? Times of injustice, violence and grief? Times when it seems like there will be no end to human suffering around the world? How can the light even begin to break through in the moments when all hope appears to be gone?

“How long, oh Lord?” cry the Psalmists and the prophets – speaking out of places of deep suffering and isolation, as those who would cry for an end to violence and injustice.

A few weeks ago, I was in Lebanon with two colleagues from MCC’s other advocacy offices, meeting with several of MCC’s partners in the region, including some of MCC’s Syrian partners. We were so privileged to meet with Archbishop Matta Al Khoury of Damascus and Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Al Nemeh of Homs, both from the Syrian Orthodox Church – a longstanding partner of MCC – who drove in from Syria just to meet with us at their monastery in the mountains.

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Archbishops of the Syrian Orthodox Church came to Lebanon to meet with representatives from MCC’s Advocacy Offices and speak to the current political and humanitarian context within Syria. (left to right, Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Al Nemeh of Homs for the Syrian Orthodox Church; ; Archbishop Matta Al Khoury of Damascus for the Syrian Orthodox Church; and Garry Mayhew, MCC Co-Representative for Lebanon and Syria: MCC photo, Doug Hostetter)

The Syrian war is about to enter its eighth year, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of people, forcibly displacing over 13 million people – often multiple times – in a protracted and seemingly unending conflict that has resulted in a humanitarian crisis beyond measure. Bishops Matta and Selwanos and their surrounding communities have lived this crisis from the beginning: offering food and comfort, shelter and little bits of hope where they can.

Eight years. I can’t even begin to imagine. A conflict shifting and moving throughout the country; sectarian violence and regional powers fighting a proxy war on Syrian territory on over a dozen fronts; countless bombings and the physical markings of destruction; trauma and re-traumatization, as no one is untouched; a generation of children knowing no context other than war, destruction and displacement. In this past month alone, devastating attacks overwhelm the people in rebel-controlled East Ghouta, while deadly shells and rockets wreak havoc in government-controlled Damascus.

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Destroyed buildings line a street in an area of Homs, Syria, that was devastated by mortar shelling. (MCC photo/Doug Enns, March 2017)

As the Bishops outlined the crisis and some of the main challenges one phrase really hit home: “There is hope, but it’s very small among Syrian people. How long, oh Lord…?”

Yet the Bishops insisted that the sheer fact that people outside of Syria are noticing, are speaking up, are wanting to stand in solidarity, provides them just a little more hope. Our visit with them inspired us and stirred within us new energy to speak and to act.

As we as MCC advocacy workers come home and share these stories and messages with our friends, churches and communities, we want to lament and pray and stand in solidarity with our partners. In this Lenten time and period of waiting and uncertainty let us all cry out for justice and peace to come.

As advocates we invite our supporters to speak truth to power and raise these voices up in the halls of power. Our group asked the Bishops what message they wanted us to bring to our respective governments. They replied, simply “peace comes first.” Priority must be given to negotiating diplomatic peace as soon as possible, without the continuing support to military efforts, beginning the long process of sustainable peacebuilding, justice, healing and reconciliation.

In such a protracted conflict, the Bishops outlined, every party carries its own economic and political interests and objectives, but above all they must be urged to seek the welfare and human dignity of the people. Sectarian, political, religious and national divides have brought about acts of horror on all sides, and are often manipulated and have been exacerbated by armed actors and by intervening countries, such as Iran, Russia, the U.S. and Canada. The act of supporting a military solution, both in words and in actions – which Canada and the U.S. are intent on – will only fuel these divisions and carry them into the future.

Long-lasting peace, instead, comes with addressing the root causes of violence; promoting genuine immediate and long-lasting dialogue between religions, national, political and sectarian groups; supporting the urgent humanitarian and development needs. Inclusive and immediate diplomacy is paramount.

There is by no means an easy or quick-fix solution. MCC’s partners in Syria and the region have long been responding to humanitarian and development urgent needs. MCC’s response to the crisis Syria and the region is our biggest humanitarian response since World War II. Partners are also highly engaged in peacebuilding, bringing together people from different communities, sects and religions, seeking to build peace from the ground up.

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Flowers bloom amid the destruction in Homs, Syria, a site where MCC partners with the Syrian Orthodox Church in supporting orphans and providing monthly allowances. MCC photo/Doug Enns, 2017

As this year’s Lenten season draws to a close, I pray we all can be renewed again with the hope of Easter. And may that hope somehow spread out into what often seems like never-ending darkness, and may this hope of resurrection give us all strength to continue to cry out for justice and peace. “How long, oh Lord…”

Bekah Sears is the policy analyst for MCC’s Ottawa Office

Voices of the Peacebuilders Part 2: Hope amidst the rubble

This is the second of a two-part series called Voices of the Peacebuilders, focusing on the importance of magnifying the voices of individuals and organizations working for peace at the grassroots. Very often these voices are overlooked or excluded from high-level policy tables when it comes to resolving conflict and building peace around the world.

In October, I was in my hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick where I gave two public lectures at the University of New Brunswick. This two-part blog series outlines points from each lecture and provide a video link. The second lecture, held on October 17 and hosted by the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society, was entitled: The Role of the Peacebuilders: Iraq, Syria and Beyond.”

Years of protracted conflict in Iraq and Syria have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and disappearances, and millions of forcibly displaced peoples.

Just under the surface are deeply rooted grievances based on: ethnic, national and religious divisions; multiple and overlapping conflicts and quests for political power and control of rich natural resources, such as oil; alliances and interests of the global superpowers; and even climate change.

In these circumstances, how do we even begin to think about solutions or possibilities for peace?

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Destroyed buildings line a street in an area of Homs, Syria, that was devastated by mortar shelling. (MCC photo/Doug Enns, March 2017)

Perspectives that are often missing in the reporting on Iraq and Syria are those from the grassroots. These include voices caught in the crossfire and even deliberate targets of violence. But they also include voices and movements of local leaders from the grassroots – individuals, communities and organizations – who are seeking to address the complex roots of conflict and build peace from the ground up.

These are people that have been dedicated to building peace long before the world took notice of escalating conflict. They are standing firm at the height of violence and they are committed to continue long after the world’s attention has faded. Their voices and their work bring a renewed sense of hope amidst the rubble.

MCC has been working alongside local partners in the Middle East for about 70 years, and in Syria and Iraq specifically for over 25 years. I want to introduce you to some of these peacebuilders and their projects, who at great personal risk to themselves and their families, exemplify the dedication, courage and commitment necessary for long-lasting peace.

Aleppo, Syria

At the end of 2016, the world watched as the Syrian government and its allies doubled down on its siege on Aleppo. The images flashing on the TV screens was one of destruction and civilians trapped in the crossfire. And, while these images ring true at a certain level, they do not tell the whole story – that of non-violent peacebuilders, like MCC’s partner Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD). As much of the international community fled Aleppo, and Syria in general, FDCD remained.

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Participants from MCC partner’s FDCD interactive theatre production in Aleppo, Syria promoting reconciliation and peacebuilding. In December 2015, amidst airstrikes, suicide bombs and fighting making headlines – not to mention restrictions on public gatherings – some 1,200 people attended the three shows. (Photo courtesy of FDCD)

FDCD, working in multiple urban areas across Syria, focusses on peacebuilding through ethnic and inter-faith bridgebuilding, tackling deep-seated divisions. From 2015-2016, as fighting intensified in Aleppo, FDCD organized and ran a theatre and education program for the public, promoting inter-faith dialogue between Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and others.

The theatre production, funded in part by the Canadian government, attracted over 1200 people in Aleppo, much more than anticipated. As one representative of FDCD told the National Post in 2016: “Now [Aleppo is] the most dangerous city on earth. You can hide and cry, or you can fight, or you can try to make a positive change.”

Bashiqa, Northern Iraq

The Yezidi people, an ethnic and religious minority from Northern Iraq, have suffered unspeakable acts of violence and torture throughout the conflict in Iraq, especially at the hands of ISIS.  Bashiqa, in northern Iraq, has a significant Yezidi population and was under the brutal control of ISIS for three years. But despite great suffering, MCC partner Yezidi/Azidi Solidarity and Fraternity League (ASFL) is seeking not only to provide material and psycho-social relief to survivors, but empower local Yezidis to be agents of change and reconciliation.

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Pictured from left to right are Yazidi youth volunteers Sadolla, Jilan, Barakat, Khairie, Rivan, Omeid, Sardel, Saif, and Sarmed (last names withheld for security reasons), participants in ASFL’s “Forward Together”* campaign, in Bashiqa Iraq; restoring public spaces, including painting murals that include messages of peace, inclusivity and hope. (Photo courtesy of ASFL)

As part of a campaign, “Forward Together,” ASFL in sending out teams of volunteers to help in the reconstruction and beautification of Bashiqa. These reconstruction teams specifically reach out to neighbourhoods with people of different religions and ethnicities – Muslims, Christians, Arabs and Kurds – to promote reconciliation and a portrayal of Yezidis as not only victims of conflict but agents of change.

One participant reflected: “We felt very relieved to help people from other religions. Working in this campaign broke the boundaries that were created by the events on Sinjar Mountain [notorious massacre and torture site of Yezidis by ISIS] and in other areas. It felt amazing.”

Southern Lebanon

Finally, in southern Lebanon, MCC partner Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) is supporting both Palestinians in Lebanon and Syrian refugees (including Palestinians from Syria), with food baskets, vouchers and other provisions, while also bringing these groups of people together, to share and find healing together.

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Faten Faour (Right), an animator for psychosocial activities run by MCC partner Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) in southern Lebanon for Syrian and Palestinian refugees (MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky).

The influx of over 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon has no doubt had significant economic, social and political impacts. To meet physical needs while promoting reconciliation, PARD supports refugees and their host communities struggling with economic needs. Bringing together these groups in formal and informal settings, PARD hopes to foster positive relationships between communities, providing necessities, easing tensions and building peace from the ground up.

Looking Forward

As Syrian peace talks stumble and drag on in Geneva, as government forces clash with Kurdish forces in Iraq, and millions of people remain displaced throughout the region, the situation remains grim. But there is hope amidst the rubble in the persistence, courage and dedication of those who work for peace from the ground up.

See a full link to the lecture here.

Rebekah Sears is the MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst

Voices of the Peacebuilders, Part 1: Women as Peacebuilders

This is the first of a two-part series called the Voices of the Peacebuilders, on the importance of magnifying the voices of individuals and organizations working at the grassroots, within communities. Very often these voices are overlooked or excluded from high-level policy tables when it comes to resolving conflict and building peace around the world.

In October, I was in my hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick where I gave two public lectures at the University of New Brunswick. This two-part series will outline points from each lecture and provide a video link. The first, held on October 16 and hosted by the Faculty of Education, was entitled: “From the Grassroots to the Negotiating Tables: The Case for Women as Peacebuilders.”

Women are so often excluded from the high-level peace negotiating tables and their efforts for peace are largely ignored in the mainstream news, despite making up half of the population, and often bearing the brunt of conflict. Yet this has not stopped women from being innovators and champions for peace within their communities, including within MCC’s partners.

We must bring these voices to the table and make the case for women as innovators and leaders, working for peace, from the grassroots to the negotiating table.

Join me on a brief world tour to see snapshots of some of this work, and let me introduce you to some of these women peacebuilders, from Colombia to Nigeria and from South Sudan to Palestine and Israel.

Mampujan Colombia: Weaving history and speaking peace

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A quilt depicting the forced displacement of 2000. MCC Colombia’s office in Bogota.

On Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, meet the Women Weavers of Dreams and Flavors, a group of women from the small Afro-Colombian community of Mampujan. In 2000 this entire community was forcibly displaced, as part of Colombia’s 50+ years armed conflict, leaving the community traumatized.  In response, MCC’s partner, Sembrandopaz, together with the community, developed a healing project in which women, working together, sewed quilts, depicting the story of their displacement. As the women stitched, they shared their hurts, and, in doing so, they not only found healing, but a passion to work for justice.

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Women Weavers of Dreams and Flavours of Peace of Mampuján win a national peace prize in Colombia, 2015. Photo, Anna Vogt, thellamadiaries.com

The women then decided to create a series of quilts, depicting the entire history of their community, including ancestors arriving on slave ships, independence, forced displacement, and dreams for the future. They have shared these quilts with other Colombian communities who have also undergone trauma in the armed conflict, and the women of Mampujan have received national and international recognition for these efforts. Much work remains, but the women of Mampujan have led the way in a movement for healing, peace and justice. Read more about Mampujan’s story here.

Jos, Nigeria: Inter-faith bridgebuilding for a common goal of peace

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Amina Ahmed (second from the right) with MCC staff (left to right) Charles Kwuelum (MCC Washington, D.C.), Kati Garrison (MCC UN) and Bekah Sears (MCC Ottawa) on a 2016 visit to Jos, Nigeria. Photo, Ben Weisbrod.

In Jos, Nigeria we meet Amina Ahmed, a local leader in interfaith peacebuilding, and an avid supporter of MCC partner Emergency Preparedness Response Team (EPRT), a joint Christian and Muslim organization responding to crises by addressing conflict at its roots. Because Jos is on the dividing line, of sorts, between the Christian South and Muslim North in Nigeria, it has often been at the epicenter of multiple acute outbursts of violence between Christians and Muslims, creating deep animosity. Yet Amina, along with others, are seeking to change these dynamics and bring people together in peace.

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Amina Ahmed, director of a women’s peace organization, leads a nonviolence training supported by MCC in Jos, Nigeria, 2015. MCC photo, Dave Klassen.

But Amina was not always a leader in these efforts. As a Muslim, Amina was traumatized by violence carried out by Christians against Muslims, including her brother’s murder in 2001. For months she felt deep rage and fear, wanting revenge, seeking out groups planning violent attacks against Christians. But, at her father’s urging, Amina attended an interfaith peace workshop. Seeing both Muslims and Christians working together for peace, Amina’s heart was transformed. Since then she has become a champion for peace across religious or ethnic divides in Nigeria. Read more about Amina’s story here.

Rumbek, South Sudan: “The weak become strong”

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Loreto Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution, Rumbek, South Sudan, 2017. Photo, Candacia Greeman.

On to Rumbek, South Sudan, where leadership in peacebuilding comes from a group perceived as the “weakest” in society, i.e. girls and young women. South Sudan has been engulfed in civil war since 2013, displacing millions and civilians are often the deliberate targets of violence. But there are also deep cycles of violence and oppression within communities, particularly targeting girls. This includes early forced marriage, deeply tied to the importance of cattle ownership. Male relatives force girls into marriage to reclaim the cattle debt the girls’ fathers would have accumulated for their own marriage dowries.

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Loreto Peace Club members, Rumbek, South Sudan, 2017. Photo, Candacia Greeman

At the Loreto Girls Secondary School in Rumbek, MCC supports peace clubs aimed at fostering inter-personal conflict resolution skills, in the recognition that lasting peace begins at the community level. Peace club members then initiated community-based trauma healing and reconciliation groups, within the wider community called Listening Circles: safe spaces to share trauma and grievances, while fostering reconciliation. An MCC worker describes these young women as “a source of hope for South Sudan, and a reason to hope in South Sudan.” Read more about Loreto peace clubs here.

Nazareth, Palestine and Israel: Stitching reconciliation and standing up for human rights

The final stop takes us to a church basement in Nazareth with Violette Khoury, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and the director of MCC partner Sabeel’s Nazareth office. Palestinian citizens of Israel make up 21% of the population of the country. Although Palestinians are citizens, Violette describes state laws which discriminate against them with respect to land and housing rights, education rights, cultural and language rights and more. But most of all, Violette laments both deteriorating relations in between Christian and Muslim Palestinians in Nazareth, as well as a dominant narrative that denies the history and roots of the Palestinian people in the region.

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Violette Khoury shows traditional Palestinian embroidery to MCC visitors from Canada. Khoury is the director of Sabeel Nazareth, the Nazareth office of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, an MCC partner that provides a theological and spiritual resource for the Palestinian church. Violette leads a program that brings together local people, particularly women, of different faith traditions, to share and preserve their common Palestinian heritage with activities like embroidery. (MCC photo/Elizabeth Kessler)

In response, Violette started a project for local women, both Christians and Muslims and even Jewish Israelis, to learn ancient stitching techniques that were once commonplace in Nazareth. In this project Violette hopes to bring unity and reconciliation, all while reclaiming the history of the Palestinian people in the region. She says, “There is denial of us being a people and having a heritage. But we do exist; we have roots; we are here!” In addition, by inviting Jewish Israelis she hopes to extend reconciliation efforts and cross barriers that seem insurmountable. Read more of the context in which Violette works here.

Conclusion: Will we follow their lead?

On November 1, 2017, after many consultations and civil society and parliamentary input, the Canadian government launched its second Canadian National Action Plan (C-NAP) on implementing the UN’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. This is hopeful news.

The first objective of the CNAP – one which our Ottawa Office staff will be watching closely– calls for the “increase of meaningful participation of women, women’s organizations and networks in conflict prevention, conflict resolution and post-conflict state-building.”

In the meantime, in addition to monitoring governmental action on women and peacebuilding, our task is clear. We continue learning, telling the stories, spreading the word, and standing in solidarity with these and other peacebuilders around the world, making the case for women peacebuilders, from the grassroots all the way to the negotiating tables.

Watch the full lecture here 

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Dr. Ottilia Chareka (Photo St FX University) This lecture, the 6th Annual Dr. Ottilia Chareka Memorial Lecture in Education and Social Justice was given in her honour. Tragically, Ottilia was killed in 2011. Ottilia was a long-time friend of mine (Rebekah) and I was both humbled and honoured to help carry on her legacy.

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the MCC Ottawa Office

Peace for the long run in Syria

“We’re all fed up with these muscle-flexing exercises… [We need to try] to solve our problems with the mind or the heart, not the muscles”- Rev. Nadim Nassar, Syrian priest of the Church of England

For the past six years the Syrian people have been at the epicentre of multiple complex conflicts, which have drawn in powerful regional and international players.

While the western media focuses on the conflict between the Assad government and groups such as ISIS, the situation is far more complex, with intra-rebel fighting, battles between ISIS and the many other armed groups, regional Sunni-Shia divisions, the Kurdish struggle for a homeland, and so on.

The result: hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed since 2011, and millions of people – 65 percent of Syria’s population – have been forcefully displaced from their homes. This includes over 6 million internally displaced peoples and 5.5 million refugees.

In light of these tragic circumstances, how does one even start to think about the possibilities for long-term peace?

A dominant narrative among political decision makers, including in Canada, is that military intervention (or the threat of it) is essential to ending the Syrian crisis. This narrative is echoed by much of the Western media and the general public.

Canada, as part of the Global Coalition against [ISIS], has at certain points called for the removal of President Assad and promoted Canada’s commitment to the defeat of ISIS through the military component of its approach in Syria and Iraq. Like MCC partners,  Rev. Nadim Nassar, a Syrian priest in the Church of England, claims that when it comes to Western-led military interventions in the Middle East, there is often little understanding of the complex context, the ripple effects of such actions on the ground, and what approaches might truly be needed to create long-term peace. Yet, as he laments in a radio interview with CBC’s The Sunday Edition in April 2017, the dominant narrative often takes precedence, drowning out the voices that promote other approaches to building peace.

MCC has been supporting and walking alongside local partners in Syria for over 25 years. These local partners include churches and other organizations with strong roots in their communities and a deep understanding of the complexities of the ever-changing context. Despite the exodus of international NGOs and diplomats, these partners have chosen to remain in Syrai in the midst of conflict, deeply dedicated to long-term peace in their country.

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In Damascus, Syria, former MCC representatives Doug and Naomi Enns stand on Straight Street (the street we read about in Acts where the Apostle Paul was staying after being blinded on the road to Damascus). Photo courtesy of Syrian Orthodox Church

In April 2017, former MCC representatives for Lebanon and Syria, Doug and Naomi Enns, entered Syria for the first time in five years, spending five days with partners in their home communities. They saw loss and destruction, but they also saw the work for peace and the rebuilding of hope.

They witnessed that life persists: “We saw acts of solidarity between people of various faiths and backgrounds. We saw hope, we saw resilience. We saw hardship and terrible loss. And we saw people really wanting to live.”

MCC and its partners in Syria and the surrounding region believe that the key to long-lasting peace lies in addressing the deep rooted political and socio-economic grievances.

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During their visit, Doug and Naomi Enns were thanked by many partners, including this group at the Damascus office of Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD). Photo courtesy of FDCD

Such work involves things like building bridges between different faiths and ethnic groups; supporting those struggling with both physical and mental trauma so they aren’t drawn into cycles of violence; trying to create a sense of belonging for children and promote hope for the future generations; and providing emergency support while investing in long-term development.

MCC’s partners engage in these acts of peacebuilding and resistance even amidst the violence.

As part of their trip, Doug and Naomi visited the city of old Homs – a shell of the old city all but reduced to rubble in a brutal siege in 2012. Despite the destruction all around, they saw hope at a Syrian Orthodox Church – a church that can trace its roots back to 59 AD. Though sustaining significant damage in the conflict, somehow the church continues to thrive. Weekly services continue and the community programs persist, allowing the congregation to reach out and walk alongside the most vulnerable within the community.

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Flowers bloom amid the destruction in Homs, Syria, a site where MCC partners with the Syrian Orthodox Church in supporting orphans and providing monthly allowances. MCC photo/Doug Enns

MCC welcomes and supports some of the Government of Canada’s work in the region, including its long-term development and humanitarian relief, and its stated commitment to diplomacy. But the military mission against ISIS, which was recently renewed until spring 2019, is a great concern to MCC. Our faith commitments and our experience around the world over decades have taught us that war does not bring true and lasting peace.

Additionally, along with many Canadians, we note that there is little-to-no transparent direction or specific goals for Canada’s extended military mission. More importantly, MCC’s partners and staff in and around Syria see the military response as counterproductive, failing to address the roots of the conflict and leaving destruction in its wake.

MCC’s partners in the region know that working for long-term peace in Syria is neither easy, nor quick. Syrian peacebuilders do not pretend to know all of the answers. Yet they long to stay and to see the day when their children can live in peace.

Like the slow but steady rebuilding of the ancient church in Homs, peace comes slowly, one brick at a time.

 

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the Ottawa Office

Welcome as a prelude to peace in Colombia

Alix Lozano is a Colombian  Pastor and Theologian and the Co-founder of the Ecumenical
Women’s Group of Peace-Builders (GemPaz). This piece was originally published on the MCC LACA Advocacy blog on June 21, 2017. This reflection is taken from the Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia worship packet.

All people at different stages and different moments of life seek spaces of welcome, healing spaces, spaces of acceptance, inclusion, and transformation. Political violence, delinquency, invisibility, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and poverty are some of the sources of stress, isolation, and trauma present in the realities of the Colombian people.

At this time, Colombia is experiencing a peace process, where the reintegration of ex-combatants in civil society is fiat accompli. The role of spaces, circles, and groups as instruments of the welcoming and transforming love of God is very pertinent, both in times of peace and in times of peace-building. We remember the biblical text of 2 Corinthians 1:4 which says: He consoles us in our suffering that we may console those who suffer, giving them the same comfort that he has give us.

Hospitality is an essential practice and value in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, as a lifestyle and as teaching. Hospitality, understood as unconditional welcome of the most needy, is an act of unconditional love.

In fact, throughout the New Testament, much emphasis is given to the Greek concept of philoxenia, defined as love of the stranger. Philoxenia is more than just tolerating the other, without loving her or him; it is desiring his or her good. Xenos, which means “strange” as well as “stranger,” refers to the foreigner, the immigrant, and the exiled. It can be attributed to any human being who is a stranger, who needs welcoming in a strange land. This word is also the root of the term Xenophobia, which means rejection of the stranger, the foreigner. In diverse parables and teachings of Jesus, one finds reference to the responsibility to welcome others and offer them a home.

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Gathering of Colombian peacebuilders; Photo credit, Anna Vogt

In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus is on the road and is received in a home, the home of his friends. He rests and is served and welcomed. He takes advantage of the friendly atmosphere to teach with love. The women, Martha and Mary, have a special moment with the Teacher which gives us much to reflect on. In that home, Mary and Martha experience conviction and special strength.

Martha and Mary each have a distinctive way of welcoming and showing hospitality to Jesus. Martha does this through her concrete responsibilities as lady of the house, from the starting point of what is “normal,” that is, the norms of hospitality and welcome; she is a symbol of those in society who believe that everything is solved by fulfilling one’s duty. Thus the criteria for judging the behavior of others is simply to determine whether or not they have done their duty.

Mary also fulfills the custom of welcome and hospitality, but she does it in a very different way, with a novel attitude born from her heart. She is attentive to the presence of the other, in this case Jesus, by sitting by his side, listening to him, and offering him a personal relationship; but she does this outside of the social norm, what is legal or cultural. In doing so, Mary chooses “the better way,” breaking with tradition. She acts from what is human, from what is closeness, from what is a posture of listening and seeing the needs of the other, which were also her own needs.

It is important to note that Jesus does not judge Martha, as sometimes is believed, but rather invites her to see, hear, and listen for new ways of relating – a welcome that humanizes, where BEING is more important than DOING.

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Gathering of Colombian peacebuilders; Photo credit, Anna Vogt

The call of the Spirit, the Ruah, is to be welcomed, to give welcome, and to offer peace to people who come from different spaces as a prelude to the path of reconciliation in Colombia, which has taken on this peace process, where government and guerrillas have decided to put an end to the armed conflict.

PRAYER FOR PEACE

God of life,
God of hope,
God of justice,
God of peace,
Our voices today unite in one cry,
A cry born from the depths of the heart
Of a humanity and creation wounded by war
That asks you to accompany our history
And knock down barriers that separate us so
that
Dialogues may come about that take us to
peace.

God of life,
God of hope,
God of justice,
Our hands, our emotions
And all that we are
Unites in one dream of love
To walk with all those
Who suffer in our world and who,
Through processes of
Resistance, create peace.
Come Lord, fill us with your strength and
Carry us in your arms when
Our feet can no longer walk.
Come Lord.

– Inter-faith Dialogue for Peace, Peacebuilders in Prayer Liturgy.

We invite you and your congregation to join in with MCC partner organization, Justapaz, in celebrating Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia this summer. A packet of resource and worship materials is available here.

This post is also available in Spanish