Actions speak louder . . . Canada in Iraq and Syria

“Our new policy in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding region reflects what Canada is all about: defending our interests alongside our allies, and working constructively with local partners to build real solutions that will last.”

These words were spoken by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on February 8, 2016. Flanked by the Ministers of Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development, Trudeau sought to reshape Canada’s involvement in Syria and Iraq—or at least re-shape the messaging of Canadian foreign policy.

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Prime Minister Trudeau with Ministers of Defence, International Development and Foreign Affairs, February 8, 2016. Photo credit/Government of Canada.

Canada’s current involvement in the Global Coalition fighting against ISIS in Syria and Iraq is set to expire on March 31, 2017. Speculation is abounding: Will Canada extend its mission? If so, what will the mission look like? What will the messaging be?

The current context of Iraq and Syria calls for urgent action. There are millions of internally displaced peoples, ongoing strikes including in Mosul; the continued targeting of Yezidis and other vulnerable minority groups; and destruction such as we have seen in Aleppo.

On February 8, 2016, when Trudeau launched Canada’s revised mission, he emphasized integrated government programming to the tune of $1.6 billion over three years. While the Canadian military would still have a significant role, the vast majority of funds was earmarked for humanitarian response and long term development, $840 million and $270 million respectively. The termination of direct participation in airstrikes was arguably the most significant shift.

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A woman and her granddaughter—internally displaced by the Islamic State group in 2014—receive food assistance through MCC and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. MCC photo/Kaitlin Heatwole

Military action, on the contrary, was the priority the previous government emphasized above all others. This included airstrikes, but also the arming and training of non-state actors like the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. Of course, humanitarianism was also a significant part of the previous government’s mission; Iraq was named a partner country for long term development in 2014. But the need to protect Canadians and the world from “imminent” terrorist threats through military efforts took centre stage.

MCC Canada wrote twice to the Harper Government on Canada’s mission—at the beginning, in October of 2014, and during the first renewal in March of 2015.  Our most significant concern was Canada’s involvement in airstrikes. In 2015 we wrote:

“[N]ot only will air strikes in Iraq and Syria fail to address the deep-rooted ethnic and religious divisions underlying the present violence, but they will exacerbate existing—or create new—economic, social, and political grievances.”

But did things really change under Trudeau?

One glance at Operation Impact’s website, the official government website on the military part of Canada’s ongoing mission, shows the continuing flight missions, or sorties as they are called, of Canadian aircraft. Since February 2016 Canadian fighter jets have not conducted direct airstrikes, but they have continued to regularly participate in refueling and reconnaissance missions. Though not directly striking, Canadian aircraft are gathering intelligence and refueling other aircraft for the purpose of carrying out airstrikes.

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MCC supports this Kindergarten in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan for children displaced from their homes by the conflict with the Islamic State group. MCC photo/Kaitlin Heatwole

In other words, the impact of airstrikes has not lessened because Canada is not directly participating. In an MCC letter following the launch of the revised mission in February 2016, MCC again lamented the devastating impacts of airstrikes to destroy life, and vital health and education infrastructure, leaving cities “virtually uninhabitable and fueling massive displacement.”

A final point of contention is the arming of fighters in the region, particularly non-state actors, and the consequences and complexities of this. This question has come up time and time again—from Afghanistan to Libya and now Iraq, particularly with the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. Canada, under Trudeau, has continued to arm state and Kurdish forces.

What happens when the “official” fighting is over? What about the demands of these different groups—and what about the dynamics with other groups in the area? In the case of the Iraqi Kurds, how will arming these groups impact, for good or ill, a unified government in Iraq? A unified and functional government is essential for long term sustainable development. The question is, will providing arms to the Kurds help create this functionality? Or will it continue to destabilize the region? Will it lead to more bloodshed?

In addition, the arming of the Iraqi forces has also raised alarm bells, as both the government forces and minority armed groups have been implicated in violations of human rights.

MCC Canada raised this issue in the first letter to the Trudeau government on this mission and it was the main subject of the most recent letter, from February 2017:

“Training and weapons transfers from the international community are counterproductive to building a unified Iraq in that they are fueling sectarian divisions at the political level and amongst minority groups; contributing to human rights and laws-of-war violations; and further destabilizing the country.”

Where does this complicated situation leave us?

As the Canadian government considers possible renewal of its mission in Iraq and Syria, one lesson we can surely take is this: It is important to look far beyond the messaging of government.  We need to think critically about government actions and their impacts on the region. It may be cliché, but on this and any other government policy, despite what is said we need to adopt that all-critical perspective. Actions speak louder than words.

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the Ottawa Office.

 

 

In the face of fear, choose joy

This Christmas greeting to MCC’s supporters, constituents and friends was prepared by Don Peters, executive director of MCC Canada. 

During this season of Advent, we wait expectantly for the coming of Christ. We long for God’s justice, peace and mercy to be fully revealed on earth.

Today, it is easy to be consumed by fear. Fear is all pervasive. Fear of terrorism. Fear for the economy. Fear of people who are different from us. Fear can entangle and paralyze us.

Christmas Iraq

The grounds of Mar Elia Church in Ankawa, Iraq, are a makeshift home to many people who fled violence elsewhere in Iraq. Last Christmas, this life-size nativity was set up in a canvas tent that housed displaced Iraqi families before the sturdier tents in the background were constructed. “Jesus’ tent” is written in Arabic on the tent flap. Placing the nativity in the tent was a powerful symbol linking families’ suffering with the suffering of Christ. (MCC photo)

But our faith encourages us to embrace an impassioned, joyful and trusting response to life. Isaiah 12:2 says: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” And in the first two chapters of Luke, there are four references to fear and three references to joy, often only a verse or two apart. Fear and joy are not incompatible ideas. From my work with MCC, I see daily that this is true. 

Despite the fear of terrorism, we’ve witnessed your deep desire to welcome refugees. The MCC offices have been inundated with calls from churches, families, neighbourhood associations and community groups who want to bring refugees to safety and welcome them to a new life in Canada. In her poem “Home,” Warsan Shire writes:

you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.

who would choose to spend days
and nights in the stomach of a truck
unless the miles travelled
meant something more than journey.

We are thankful for all of you who have heard the call to walk with refugees on their journey and welcome them warmly into your congregations, homes and communities.

Despite fears of scarcity and a bad economy, we’ve seen you give generously to help those in need. Thanks to your support, we’re able to provide relief to people affected by violence or disaster around the world. Our partners are distributing winter supplies to families in countries from Syria to Nepal. With your help, we’re providing education in places like Lebanon, South Sudan and here in Canada. And because of your generosity, we support courageous peacebuilders in places like Afghanistan and Honduras. We are thankful to all of you who have chosen generosity in the face of scarcity.

When faced with fear of the other, we’ve seen you choose friendship. In the media, it’s easy to see prejudice and fear of people who are different from ourselves. But time and time again, we’ve seen you choose friendship. Christian churches have partnered with Muslim groups to sponsor refugees. Churches have spoken out in support of reconciliation and the rights of Indigenous peoples. And volunteers have helped people reintegrate in their community after serving time in prison. When presented with the choice to fear the unknown, we’ve seen you build bridges and love your neighbour, no matter who that neighbour might be.

In this season of Advent, we bring our fears to God. We long to be released from the power of fear over our lives. As you’ve shown us repeatedly, fear cannot stop us from reaching out with compassion to help those in need. Thank you for the many ways you have helped us share relief, development and peace in the name of Christ.

Sincerely,

Don Peters
Executive Director, MCC Canada

The price of peace

This week’s guest writer is Nathan Hershberger. Nathan is from Harrisonburg, VA, USA, and studied theology and history at Eastern Mennonite University and the University of Virginia.  He is currently serving with MCC as an English teacher in Ankawa, Erbil, Iraq.

The Islamic State group or ISIS is a difficult topic for pacifist Christians, and rightly so. It seems impossible to argue against U.S. or Canadian airstrikes when they are arguably holding back religious cleansing. I have lived in Iraq with MCC for about a year and I still don’t know quite what to say. A seminary student showed me a photo of an Iraqi Special Forces soldier who has reportedly beheaded a number of ISIS fighters and said to me, “This man is a hero.” I was left speechless. This student is a kind and generous man who loves Iraq and wants to remain in his country—a rare and precious thing in his generation. Is brutal war against ISIS the price of peace here?

MCC's partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These materials -- including blankets, infant care kits, hygiene kits, and relief kits -- were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities. Iraqi al-Amal Association supplemented the MCC-donated materials with other materials purchased in Iraq, providing a well-rounded distribution to meet the immediate needs of the recipients. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

MCC’s partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These materials — including blankets, infant care kits, hygiene kits, and relief kits — were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities.  (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

Fighting ISIS with any and all possible means seems so self-evidently necessary.  I confess that when U.S. airstrikes began in August and seemed to cut off an ISIS advance that threatened Erbil (where I live), I felt safer. If ISIS had made it to the city, it would have triggered the displacement of over a million additional people and left more Christians, Yezidis, and other minority groups vulnerable to ISIS.

This feeling of necessity is true not just of airstrikes in Iraq, but Western-led military interventions in the Middle East since the Arab Spring. On its own terms, each airstrike, weapons shipment, and campaign seems limited, efficient, and completely justified.  In Libya, strike the army of Muammar Qaddafi before it can massacre the population of Benghazi. In Iraq, destroy an artillery piece aimed at Erbil in order to ensure that Kurdish Peshmerga can defend the city from ISIS. In Syria, ship weapons to rebels to help them push back both ISIS and Assad.

With the greater caution of the Obama administration, Western powers seem united behind a foreign policy of surgical strikes. What the West seems to be faced with is not only an enemy that personifies evil itself, but the means of fighting it with a precision and economy that leaves our hands feeling clean, mostly.[1]  What can a Christian pacifist say to that?

MCC's partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Heads of households register their families in order to receive materials, with the number of hygiene kits, blankets, and infant care kits distributed according to the number of family members. These materials were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

Heads of households of displaced families register in order to receive materials, with the number of hygiene kits, blankets, and infant care kits distributed according to the number of family members. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

But despite the new sense of distance and control, Western-led intervention in the Middle East is intimately trapped in a spiral of conflict. We are fighting an endless war where each victory makes the next battle necessary and seemingly inevitable. ISIS itself is a product, in part, of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In Libya, where a seemingly surgical intervention in 2011 appeared to have scored a victory, chaos and civil war now reigns, inviting further intervention. Each of these campaigns seem necessary, but all together they are tracing a slow spiral of destruction in which war and peace are indistinguishable.

What, then, is the alternative?

The conflict in the Middle East, with the war in Syria at its heart, has turned more and more into a regional war, and thus, the solution—short of total victory for one side or another—has to be regional and diplomatic. Additionally, relief aid and economic development throughout the region must be higher priorities for the international community both immediately and in the long-term.

But these answers feel deeply inadequate when I am speaking with students forced from their homes by ISIS.  All I can think of in those situations—but don’t usually have the courage to say—is what Father Ibrahim,[2] a local Orthodox priest, said in a sermon on the Good Samaritan a few weeks before Easter. “We are Christians. We have to love the stranger. We have to love ISIS. And we have to love the next ISIS too.”


[1] Despite their increasing precision, airstrikes do continue to kill civilians.  A few weeks ago, the U.S. bombed a power plant in eastern Mosul and an apartment building next door collapsed, reportedly killing 68 people. UN-SSI Daily Security Brief, April 22, 2015, UNAMI.   As the bombing campaign intensifies in urban areas like Mosul and Fallujah, and as ISIS begins to use human shields, such incidents will almost certainly increase, driving those affected to identify more with ISIS.  The U.S. Department of Defense has failed to adequately investigate these incidents.

As to the economy, according to the U.S. Department of Defense current military operations in Iraq and Syria since last August have cost over $2 billion.  (For current reports of the U.S. bombing campaign and its costs and targets, see http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2014/0814_iraq/). Canada budgeted $122.5 million for its military operations in Iraq in 2014-2015.  For its expanded mission in Iraq and Syria, it has budgeted $406 million for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. These costs are above and beyond salaries and the routine costs of maintaining an army. See http://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/canada-s-anti-isis-mission-in-iraq-syria-to-cost-528m-in-coming-year-1.2307991.

[2] Name changed for security reasons.

A light to the nations

This week’s guest writer is Carolyne Epp-Fransen of Winnipeg. Carolyne and Gordon Epp-Fransen serve as MCC Representatives for Jordan, Iraq and Iran and live in Amman, Jordan.

“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”  Isaiah 42:6-7

It’s a privilege – a conflicted privilege, to be sure – to meet and visit with refugee and displaced Iraqi families who are so destitute and then to go back to our plenty. Our lives are not worth more than theirs and so we do need to step into their lives when we can.

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Internally displaced persons living in Enshika camp, NW of Dohuk, Iraq, where an MCC partner distributed food rations recently.

In October we met Christian families displaced by the sudden and brutal advance into northern Iraq of the group that calls itself ISIS. These displaced families are still in shock. They are grateful to be alive. They are living in conditions they could never have imagined. They are realizing that homes, businesses, and livelihoods are gone. Their hopes and dreams for their lives and the lives of their children are, at best, uncertain.

It is here, among these displaced families, that I am learning about what it means to be a light to the nations.

The Chaldean and Syriac Catholics are a small minority in Iraq, the cradle of civilization. Their faith and language (neo-Aramaic) descend not from recent missionary efforts but from the time of Jesus. They have lived peaceably with their neighbours – Sunni, Shia, Yazidi, Turkman – over centuries. They want to remain in Iraq among these others to be a light. Despite decades of war and the violence and hatred it breeds, the Church wants to stay.

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Carolyne with new friends, Christian refugees from Mosul and Nineveh, living in a church yard in Ankawa, Iraq.

Father Douglas Bazi is a priest in the Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil, Iraq. He met us in his office in the midst of tents for displaced people on the church grounds. He is charged to meet the needs of over a hundred families. He laughed as he described his unfortunate choice of shampoo for the young ladies. Our meeting was interrupted by a boy about age 8 who came in crying. Father Douglas tenderly cleaned his scraped leg and applied a bandage. Father Douglas said, “My heart is full of pain because I am taking the trauma from the people. This is the time to show who we are (the Church); in 15-20 years I do not want to be ashamed for this time.”

Together with his church, Father Douglas wants to care for the displaced people so these Christians can stay in Iraq and be a light to the nations.

The displaced people of Iraq remind us of what is important – to be alive, to have faith. As we hear their stories, we come to realize the extent of the evil they have fled. We encounter the trauma that they are experiencing. Displaced families, of necessity, must seek out shelter, food and work. The focus of a first generation is on coping, adjusting and transition. The Chaldean Catholic Christians are being encouraged, even in these difficult times, to remember their faith and heritage. They are asked to consider their important role in the greater history of Christianity and the region. The leadership of the Chaldean church sees a calling for Christians to remain in Iraq, to live with, work beside and share with their neighbours.

Advent-2012The displaced people of Iraq remind me of my own Anabaptist history of persecution and fleeing from evil. Only a generation or two ago, my people were frightened, homeless and hungry. Now that we are safe and warm, how are we bringing light to the nations? I fear that we have not always lived up to this part of our calling. Most of us are no longer first generation newcomers. It is time to look beyond our own needs to see how we can be a light to the nations around us.

Advent is a festival of lights. We light candles for four weeks to symbolize core elements of our faith. The lights shine in the darkness of winter. As servants of God we are called to be light to the nations.

A prayer for peace in the Middle East

This prayer was written by Steve Plenert, peace program coordinator for MCC Manitoba.  Through the month of August, MCC Manitoba has organized weekly gatherings for staff and constituents to pray for peace with justice in the Middle East.  This prayer was written for use on August 29, 2014.

Volunteers wearing MCC and Al Najd Development Forum vests deliver mattresses to families who opened their homes to other Gazans displaced by the Israel-Hamas conflict. MCC provided $35,000 of bedding and related supplies that were distributed through partner organization Al Najd in late July. (Photo courtesy of Al Najd Development Forum)

Volunteers wearing MCC and Al Najd Development Forum vests deliver mattresses to families who opened their homes to other Gazans displaced by the Israel-Hamas conflict. MCC provided $35,000 of bedding and related supplies that were distributed through partner organization Al Najd in late July. (Photo courtesy of Al Najd Development Forum)

Lord God,

We pray to you for peace in this day.  We give you thanks for life, for love, for hope and for goodness.  And we give you thanks for peace.  Sometimes it feels that peace is elusive both within our hearts and in the world.  We ask that we might know and understand your peace and your way of peace.  We pray that our world – your world – would experience true peace in the ways incarnated in Christ and in ways that reflect your coming Kingdom. Forgive our doubts, our faintness of heart, and our complicity with structures of violence. Guide us and all the earth into the ways of peace.

O God, we give you thanks for the ceasefire in Gaza. We grieve the deaths of Palestinian civilians, especially children, even while we mourn the loss of all human life and are grateful that the bombs have stopped.**  We pray that the blockade of Gaza will end. We pray, O God, that against all odds and predictions, this ceasefire would lead to a lasting truce with the conditions for true justice and reconciliation for Israelis and Palestinians, Christians, Muslims and Jews.  We pray that as children of Abraham we would all learn to see each other as a blessing to all nations.

Our hearts remain troubled with the plight of the Yazidi people of Iraq. We pray for mercy, kindness and justice for them and for all. We pray that the Yazidi would experience alleviation of their distress. O God, the fruits of your Spirit are needed in every region, in every corner of this world.  We pray that we would live by these fruits and be known by them also.

O Lord, for many of us these situations are distant and do not impact our day to day lives.  For those living in many parts of the Middle East the impacts are much more tangible.

For those who have lost homes – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have lost family members – we pray to you, O God.
For those whose lives and potential have been lost to their communities – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have killed in the name of their religion – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have killed in the name of the state – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have ordered killings – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have killed because they saw no alternative – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have sought to bring peace in the Middle East – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have labored to heal those injured and traumatized – we pray to you, O God.
For those who provide humanitarian assistance to those in need — we pray to you, O God
For those who negotiate ceasefires – we pray to you, O God.
For those whose lives are indirectly impacted by these conflicts – we pray to you O God.

We pray for the healing of the nations, for the healing of our own souls and for the healing of people in the Middle East.  Lord have mercy on your children.  Listen to your children praying.  Amen.

 

** As of August 28, 2014, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the  Occupied Palestinian Territory  noted the following: “Palestinian fatality toll is 2,104, of whom 1,462 have been identified as civilians, including 495 children, according to preliminary assessments… As of August 20,  10,224 Palestinians, including 3,106 children and 1,970 women and 368 elderly, have been injured. The cumulative Israeli fatality toll is 69, of whom at least four were civilians, including one child, in addition to one foreign national killed in Israel.”

Saying No to War

by Esther Epp-Tiessen

In the early months of 2003, ten years ago, the drums of war were beating menacingly.  Many of us were trying hard to prevent the U.S. from going to war against Iraq.  If we could not stop the war, we Canadians at least hoped Canada would not join.

Iraqi women

This photo of Iraqi women, taken around 2002, inspired MCC Canada to launch a women’s fast for peace in 2003. For three months, over one thousand women (and some men) fasted each Wednesday as a way of witnessing against war.

We lit candles, fasted and uttered countless prayers for peace.   We gathered signatures for letters to the Prime Minister.  We participated in vigils and rallies and marches. We took out newspaper ads.  We posted peace messages on our church buildings.  We joined with the larger Christian community and like-minded coalitions to speak out for peace.

Other people around the world acted in courageous ways to resist the war.  An MCC colleague in the U.S. fasted from food for a full 40 days, each day also sending a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush, urging diplomacy.  Many people engaged in civil disobedience.   On February 15, 2003, millions of people rallied simultaneously around the globe with a clear message:  No to war.

Despite the pleas of people worldwide, the U.S. and a “coalition of the willing” launched a massive air assault on March 19 and invaded Iraq with ground troops a short time later.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Numbers can never express the terrible toll of war on the lives of individuals and communities.  But they are staggering nonetheless:  Over 120,000 Iraqi civilian casualties and 10,000 military and security casualties. Some 4,500 U.S. soldiers killed.  Some 5 million Iraqis displaced from their homes.  I feel a profound sadness, as I contemplate the terrible legacy of death, disability, displacement, psychological trauma, and environmental devastation.

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Ontario Mennonites participate in a public peace witness, 2003.

In some ways, perhaps, the Canadian churches can take some credit for keeping Canada out of the Iraq War.  Prime Minister Jean Chretien reportedly acknowledged that the voice of the Canadian churches factored into his decision not to take Canada into the war.

In other ways, however, the “victory” rings hollow.  Canada, though officially not at war, nevertheless participated unofficially through significant numbers of special military personnel and through arms sales.

Nonetheless, to my mind, our humble witness against war was absolutely necessary.  History is increasingly judging those who counseled against war as right and correct.  More and more analysts are now calling the invasion of Iraq a foreign policy disaster or, more gently, a major error.  Prime Minister Chretien is being lauded for his decision not to officially support the U.S. war effort.

For people committed to the way of Jesus, however, more important than the judgment of history is the judgment of the One who calls us to love our enemies and do good to those who threaten us. When the nations march to war, followers of Christ simply must say No.

Esther Epp-Tiessen is public engagement coordinator for MCCanada.  She visited Iraq in 2002.