“Injustice anywhere…” Liberation Theology from Canada and the US to Palestine and Israel

by Rebekah Sears

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1964).

Last month I had the pleasure of attending a conference entitled Prophetic Action: Christians Convening for Palestine, hosted by Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) in St Paul Minnesota. It was energizing and stirring to gather with so many others focused on justice and peace-focused solutions, coming from across the US and Canada sharing information, strategies and stories of hope.

What really stood out to me was the strong emphasis from the presenters and organizers on the natural connections between peace and justice issues and the work in the US, Canada, and Palestine and Israel. This emphasis elevated the voices of people standing up against systemic oppression and injustice from Canadian and US governments – Standing Rock and Ferguson, including Black Lives Matter, to name a few – and how these voices for justice so easily connect to the voices of Palestinians working for justice.

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Prophetic Action: Christians Convening for Palestine group photo, Photo Credit: Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/fosnalive/

As the conference was based in the US, the specific examples were from the US context, but it doesn’t take much to make the connections to issues in Canada, especially of Indigenous peoples.

However, the focus of this conference was not to draw attention away from the important and urgent work in Palestine and Israel, but to:

  • Encourage people in Canada and the US to see and act against injustice in their own backyards as well as in Palestine and Israel;
  • Gain a deeper and personal understanding of the injustices facing Palestinians by seeing similar patterns and actions of oppression closer to home;
  • Seek solidarity around the world in the fight against oppression, including from a faith perspective, as something prophetic – with liberation theologies movements popping up around the world, unified in their goals of human dignity for all, especially for those who are oppressed.

These proclamations were clear throughout the conference, but I especially want to focus on two presentations early into the conference. In both, personal experiences of injustice at home lead to a greater understanding, empathy and solidarity with those in Palestine and Israel.

In her keynote address, Reverend Traci Blackmon, representing the United Church of Christ in Missouri, took us back to 2014 in Ferguson, particularly the aftermath of the shooting on an unarmed black young man, Michael Brown, by police officer Darren Wilson. What followed was a rising of justice-focused indignation from the community of Ferguson.

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Reverend Traci Blackmon, representing the United Church of Christ in Missouri, Photo courtesy of FOSNA https://www.fosna.org

Reverend Blackmon witnessed police forces constructing walls, barriers and checkpoints around community protestors across Ferguson. Meanwhile the protestors were also met with police in riot gear, with tanks and with tear gas.

At the same time, Reverend Blackmon, and other witnesses talked about a phenomenon happening on social media. Peace and justice activists from Palestine and Israel began reaching out, first to show solidarity with activists in Ferguson, but also to offer non-violent practical advice. They shared how protestors could protect themselves from the effects of tear gas attacks, among other things. For Reverend Blackmon and others this was a turning point, opening not just points of connection, but a deep understanding for the situation and work of others half a world away.

Reverend Jim Bear Jacobs, member of Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation and parish associate at Church of All Nations Presbyterian Church, gave the opening remarks of the conference. Before he started thinking about the situation in Palestine and Israel, he first had to come to terms with his own history, a history of colonialism, oppression, land loss, and erasure of the history of his people. The faith tradition where he grew up did not acknowledge any of this and emphasized that he needed to be Christian first, and to downplay his Indigenous identity and history.

When coming to terms with his own history, Reverend Bear’s faith also shifted, to focus on what Christ and the Scriptures say about standing with the oppressed. It helped solidify his own involvement with Indigenous justice movements in Minnesota, and across the country, leading to his involvement at Standing Rock.

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Reverend Jim Bear Jacobs, photo credit, Church of All Nations Presbyterian Church

While standing in solidarity for the protection of Indigenous lands and resources, demonstrators were met with water cannons, tear gas, and police in riot gear. At the same time messages of support for Indigenous communities came in from around the world, including from Palestinians. As with Reverend Blackmon, this opened a whole new perspective for Reverend Jacob to see the similarities of the struggle, and the urgency to speak out.

So, what does all this mean for our responsibility and possible response? I will bring in a quote from Reverend Traci Blackmon as a guide: “People are becoming disposable in the policies. We must see people. It’s not just physical or political constructs, but theological constructs.”

In light of this, may we see the humanity in others, at home and around the world, including in Palestine and Israel; may our actions and policies at home and abroad be informed by human experience; and may we have the eyes to see injustice in its many forms, all while continuing to challenge ourselves to speak out wherever we see it.

Rebekah Sears is the Policy Analyst for the MCC Ottawa Office.

The time is Ripe for Canada to Support a Ban on Killer Robots

Killer Robots: they’re not just features of futuristic dystopian movies, even though I’m sure the first thing that came to mind was The Terminator!

Developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has increased exponentially in recent years, from Siri to self-driving cars to autonomous drones, able to reach remote communities. So much of this technology has been marketed as improving lives and creating opportunities for all.

However, many experts within the AI community have long argued about the dangers of limitless development and use of this technology; particularly when it comes to fully autonomous weapons, aka Killer Robots. It’s not about defunding or vilifying the AI sector, but rather about ensuring that such technology will never be used as a weapon – i.e. autonomous devises programmed to kill and destroy.

These experts have joined scientists, human rights, and disarmament advocates from around the world in a campaign calling on governments to commit to a total ban on the development and use of fully autonomous weapons (The Campaign to Ban Killer Robots).

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Last week (Aug 27-31, 2018), civil society and state actors participated in a gathering at the UN in Geneva to discuss the urgent need for a ban on autonomous weapons. Activists are calling for a global ban by 2019.

Considering this, where does Canada fit – what are Canada’s global responsibilities in the movement to ban Killer Robots?

  1. Canada’s claims as a global human rights leader demands it.

“We’re Canada and we’re here to help,” exclaimed Prime Minister Trudeau in his first speech at the United Nations in 2016. In this and other grand proclamations since, the Trudeau government established itself – in words, anyway – as a global leader in protecting universal human rights.

The evidence for significant human rights concerns – from international humanitarian law to the lack of trustworthiness and ingrained bias within the technology itself – is clear and speaks for itself.

Yet, where is Canadian global leadership against the development and use of killer robots? Since 2013 26 countries have signed onto the campaign, but no action from the Canadian government thus far.

Canada has yet to clarify its own policy on the development and use of autonomous weapons. From the 2017 Canadian Defence Policy – Strong, Secure, Engaged – in 113 pages, there is only one mention of autonomous weapons: “The Canadian Armed Forces is committed to maintaining appropriate human involvement in the use of military capabilities that can exert lethal force,” (pg 73). However, appropriate human involvement is never defined.

  1. Canada has clearly named AI as an economic priority/opportunity

In the 2017 Federal Budget, the Canadian government designated $125 million for investment in Canadian-based AI companies. The government sees an opportunity for Canada to become a leading innovator in AI technology.

Again, this is not to say that Canada should not invest in such industries. But with such emphasis put on innovation in AI as a priority, it is critical that the Canadian government equally emphasize the importance of global leadership in preventing the development of autonomous weapons.

If Canada could be a leader in the movement to ban land mines in the 1990s – even though Canada did not have nor use land mines – it is even more critical that Canada, a leader in AI technology,  use such influence to also call to ban the use of AI technology to development and use of autonomous weapons.

  1. The voices of the public and the tech community

Finally, some of the loudest voices in Canada calling for the government to support a ban on killer robots are those in the field itself, including AI researchers and developers.

In November 2017, five leaders in the AI field in Canada addressed several of these concerns in an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau. Over 650 academics, practitioners, and developers then signed on. The Prime Minister has yet to respond.

“AI has tremendous potential to be a force for good in society,“ said Donna Precup, Canada Research Chair in Machine Learning, McGill University, in 2017. “As part of the AI research community, I think it is our moral obligation to ensure it continues to develop in this direction and prevent it from being mis-appropriated for harm.”

Polls in Canada and around the world show significant distrust of AI in general and even more definitive disapproval for their use in weapons. Canadians, and others around the world, are distressed at possible impacts on civilians and indiscriminate killings completely outside of any human control.

What are we waiting for?

stop killer robotsAs of now, fully autonomous weapons – Killer Robots – have not yet been fully developed or used in combat.

But as Paul Hannon, Director of Mines Action Canada argues, now is the time for Canada to come on board and ban such weapons pre-emptively, before they even see the light of day: “We know the revolution is coming and we know we can stop it, peacefully, without death or injury.”

Help to send the message: Take action in Canada and spread the word on the Global Campaign

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for MCC Ottawa Office.

“In Search of a Better World:” A revolution of empathy

“We cannot remain comfortably detached from the painful realities and urgent challenges [of our time] … There can be no meaningful change if we choose to look down at the arena of anguish from thirty thousand feet,” Payam Akhavan, In Search of a Better World: A human rights odyssey, 5-6.

Today’s world is facing a seemingly never-ending stream of conflicts and human-made humanitarian crises. It is exhausting and disheartening to even follow the news and the stories of suffering. On top of this, the punditry and competing narratives – often steeped in self-interest and cynicism – brings further the division and dehumanization of suffering. It is difficult to even imagine a way forward.

At high-level decision-making tables in Canada and around the world, policy makers and pundits debate potential solutions. There are no shortages of experts, theories and summits, but the suffering persists. Of course, there has been significant globally-led change and collaboration aimed at alleviating suffering, yet so many crises protract for years or even decades, while new crises continue to emerge.

Dr. Payam Akhavan

Dr. Payam Akhavan Aug. 29, 2016 in Toronto. Photo by Peter Bregg CM, from McGill University profile

McGill International Law Professor and human rights activist Payam Akhavan, the 2017 CBC Massey Lecturer, has spent much of his career in these high-level bodies, addressing human-made atrocities. He has served as legal counsel on numerous international courts, including the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, and in The Hague for the International Court of Justice.

Yet, Akhavan argues there is a significant element missing from many of these high-level conversations: addressing such crises from the foundation of our common humanity, coupled with a deep and personal knowledge of human suffering – moving forward with a revolution of empathy.

A resolution cannot fit in a neat policy package made “at thirty thousand feet,” comfortably detached from human suffering. The policy expertise is, of course, indispensable, but without a foundation of humanity and empathy, Akhavan envisions that even the most well-thought-out plans will fall short.

In his Massey lectures and accompanying book, In Search of a Better World: A human rights odyssey, Akhavan brings readers on a journey through his own suffering – fleeing persecution in Iran– to his career, encountering the aftermaths of atrocities. Through the lens of common humanity, he examines human rights laws, mechanisms for pursuing justice, and the Will to Intervene – for the long-run.

In the world of human rights policy, it is easy to be engulfed with analysis and punditry at the expense of humanization. There is a temptation to divide players into simple categories – “allies” and “enemies” –succumbing to the inevitability of conflict, all while making grand proclamations about the future.

Bringing perspectives and stories of common humanity to the table is not about warming the hearts of policy makers. Instead, Akhavan is calling for a significant shift in how policy ideas are conceived and developed, factoring in an understanding of suffering, with its complexities. It is about muddying the waters where policy options once seemed clear, and laying the foundation for the long road of change.

As I listened to Akhavan’s words I found myself nodding along, laughing, crying, feeling despair, but also a deep sense of solidarity and hope. I found it easy to make the connection with MCC and our work – first to embrace the Christian principle of recognizing that all human beings are made in the image of God. And second, in peacebuilding, engaging local partners, seeking just and genuine relationships.

Working in MCC Ottawa’s Advocacy Office, I regularly find myself engulfed in policy-speak and political commentary. Yet, it’s always been the human connections – visiting people face to face, hearing stories, seeing the image of God in everyone – that truly fuel my own passion and pursuit of justice and peace. An empathy-based approach is not about feeling warm and fuzzy inside. It is about seeking a common humanity, in all its complexities, and creating spaces to imagine the road to justice.

Violette Khoury

A perfect example from the ground: 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 a world of dizzying distractions and endless entertainment, where even suffering has been reduced to a spectacle, we must rediscover the profound power of the everyday, of heartfelt compassion, of the transcendent healing connections that transform our impoverished culture of indifference from the bottom up. The political pendulum swings intermittently from the superficial sentimentality of liberals to the populist rage of demagogues, and we imagine foolishly that we can trust those in power to bring about meaningful change. Such apathy is the best accomplice of evil in the world. We need to take more seriously the immense impact of our own empathy, of our own engagement – of our responsibility both to comfort those who suffer and to awaken those who suffer from too much comfort. Just as the oppressed must be made whole, so too must the complacent…The cure that a world groaning from emptiness needs most is a grassroots conspiracy of authenticity, implemented by transactions of selfless beauty,” Akhavan, In Search of a Better World, 333-334.

Moving together: Exploring our shared humanity

Today’s blog post is a re-post from MCC’s Latin America and Caribbean (LACA) blog, specifically a photo essay from MCC LACA’s Anna Vogt. In today’s political climate, it seems more important than ever to tell the stories of migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, and people on the move in order to recognize and share our common humanity.

Moving Together

Come on a journey with us to explore our common humanity with migrants, their families, and helpers, across Latin America and the Caribbean. Throughout this photo essay, you will find links that lead back to our blog for more information about the stories and people, our neighbours, featured throughout.

Anna Vogt is the Regional Advocacy Support and Context Analyst for MCC LACA.

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.

Syria and Lebanon, bishops and Garry

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.

bashiqa asfl

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