Peace is not simply words

by Anna Vogt

In November, the Ottawa Office was pleased to host Syrian peacemaker S. Laham, (full name withheld for security purposes) formerly with MCC partner Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), for meetings with Canadian policymakers about Syria. Director Anna Vogt spoke with Laham about MECC’s work and his message for Canada. Here is a condensed and edited version of Laham’s reflections.   

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(MCC Photo/Anna Vogt)

The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) has been involved in humanitarian work since its establishment in 1974 as a communion of churches in the Middle East. MECC started by supporting Palestinian refugees, then those impacted by civil wars in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as aiding refugees from Somalia, Sudan, and then again Iraqis fleeing invasions in 2003. MECC currently supports Syrian IDPs and Syrian refugees throughout the Middle East. When local churches have strength and capacity to respond where they are, we can maintain the sustainability of this work and the witness of the church in the context it serves.

We believe that all refugees should enjoy a dignified and safe return to their countries, wherever applicable. To live in dignity means that we must care about the wellbeing of every single person, regardless of background. Each person should enjoy equal life, opportunities, and social and economic justice. MECC works to enable each person to retain their resiliency.

My wish for the Canadian government is that it would look at the reality of the entirety of Syria and the many stories present in the region. Canada must play a role in peacebuilding and stability in the region, instead of involvement in military action. Military interests will not generate peace. Rather, this will generate more conflict. It will generate more sensitivities, more hatred and increased destruction of the social fabric. This will not help in the rebuilding of the social fabric or lead to civil governments.

When Canadians look at Syria, they need to see the whole reality of the story. The media may only be reflecting one perspective, but there are lots of different sides of the story. There are many people who are working and serving in a very courageous way, who don’t have the media means to share their work. We have witnessed a lot of fragmentation and destruction in our history – we need to come together again to show that Christians, whose mission and vision is based on love, can really translate that mission and vision into practice by working together.

Peace is not simply words. Peace within the Christian context is first to live in peace with God, because we understand peace from the context of our faith and theology. Peace cannot be achieved if we do not live in love. Peace goes beyond providing food and shelter rather by living according to God’s will. When we love our neighbours, especially those who are different from us, we are reflecting the peace of God.

It is also important for us to live out peace with each other as members of different churches. There are many theological differences among us and we have inherited historical differences. We should be more aware and mature, to put differences aside and work to overcome historical difficulties. We are living as minorities within an Islamic context. By living in peace and love with each other, we can give a lesson. This is how our Lord taught us, by his example, that the entire world may see that we belong to Christ, that we are disciples of Christ.

Hospitality is not a privilege that we are providing for others. We must recognize that we are all brothers and sisters in humanity. We are all created in the image of God and we are all living under the hospitality and generosity of God. If I am not a refugee today, I may be one tomorrow. Many people who provided service, hosting refugees in Syria, have become displaced. Jesus Christ was a refugee in Egypt. He was also hosted by welcoming communities who provided him with security and peace at that time.

It is the duty of the church to advocate and educate our people on how to practice our faith and turn it into action. How do we develop the concept of sharing? To what extent can we become unselfish, opening our pockets to give to others, even if we are also in need?

In the book of Acts, we read the stories of how, among the early church, everything was shared.  What we have is not our own, it is a gift of God. If we have resources, they are not for ourselves but to be shared with others. It is very important for us to train ourselves to share, not just what we don’t need, but also the precious things that we have, with others.

When beautiful comforters from MCC arrive in Syria, they are high quality. We believe that anything that is given to people should be high quality. We must respect the people whom we serve. We should support people in the way we want to live. If I want to feed someone, I should feed that person with the same quality of food I eat. If I want to clothe someone, I should clothe them with the same quality of clothes that I buy.”

 We’re thankful to Laham for sharing his work and a fuller understanding of Syria with us. To learn more about MCC’s work in the Middle East and see how you can join in, visit the MCC website.

Anna Vogt is Director of the MCC Ottawa Office

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Faith communities must show clear leadership: Abolishing Nuclear Weapons

by Rebekah Sears

“We thus make a passionate plea to the leaders of all religions, all people of good will, and all leaders of nations both with and without nuclear weapons to commit to work to eliminate these horrific devices forever,” from a statement adopted by the Parliament of the World’s Religions, November 2018, developed by Jonathan Granoff of the Global Security Institute.

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Photo courtesy of the Parliament of World’s Religions Facebook Page.

Last month I had the privilege of participating in the Parliament of the World Religions in Toronto. The Parliament is a gathering held every six years, bringing together religious leaders and organizations from around the world, with the purpose of seeking interfaith cooperation to addressing the greatest challenges and obstacles for a just peace facing our world today – challenges that transcend international borders, and that impact peoples of all ethnicities, faiths and creeds.

The theme of this year’s Parliament was: The Promise of Inclusion, the power of love: Pursuing global understanding, reconciliation and change. For seven days, thousands of people participated in plenaries and keynotes, as well as hundreds of workshops, on responding to the global forced migration and refugee crisis; protecting the rights, sovereignty and languages of Indigenous peoples; confronting violence against women and supporting greater leadership of women in faith communities; urgent, timely and coordinated action on climate change; combating social injustice, and countering hate and war; and speaking with a united voice against the looming threat of nuclear war.

Unfortunately, so often religion has been, and continues to be, used as a cover to justify political and social injustice and violence. Faith is a persuasive motivator, and regrettably has, and continues to be, used and manipulated in the pursuit of power – often as a great divider of peoples.

The message at the Parliament was aimed at countering such actions, seeking unity, in both action and conviction, calling all faith leaders to reject the use of religion to harm or oppress others, and instead applying such principles to uphold human dignity and justice.

There are so many themes, panels, workshops and keynotes that I could highlight, but one of the issues that kept coming up – from both political leaders and leaders of faith – was the looming threat of nuclear war and the call to abolish nuclear weapons.

Though only held and controlled in the hands of the few and powerful, the possible and very real and devastating threat of nuclear weapons knows no borders nor abides by international law or recognizes human dignity.

Last year, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) oversaw the final push for the adoption of a  Global Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, for which ICAN was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. The nine states that currently hold nuclear weapons refused to sign the treaty, as did many of their allies, including Canada.

The position of the leadership of the Parliament of the World’s Religions on this is clear, based on a statement released just after the conference. It was a call to action for religious leaders of all faiths to lead the way and speak truth and demand justice and peace from the powerful nations of the world, regarding the very real threat of nuclear weapons.

Representatives of ICAN were also at the Parliament itself, professors and experts Dr. Emily Welty, also of the World Council of Churches, and her spouse Dr. Matthew Bolton. At a plenary session they spoke about the often-patronizing reaction they get when speaking out to states resistant to signing the treaty, both weapon-holders and others – “It’s complicated.” Yes, like most big geopolitical issues, denuclearization is a complicated process. But to throw in the towel and ignore the potential devastating realities is just not an option.

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Photo courtesy of the Parliament of World’s Religions Facebook Page.

The message of Welty and Bolton was clear. We know, through the research and investigations – the science and testimonies – the definite devastating impacts of a possible nuclear war. As we speak, nuclear testing continues to have devastating impacts on communities on Christmas Island in the South Pacific, along with a dozen other countries where there has been nuclear testing since 1945. Locals are rarely consulted and often not even warned. As people of faith we understand the call to come together on the issues that unite us and to speak up for justice and human dignity.

 

After this plenary session, Peter Noteboom, the General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, and Cesar Jaramillo, Executive Director of Project Ploughshares co-lead a workshop called Principles to Practices: peace and abolishing nuclear weapons. Peter and Cesar presented research, testimonies and personal stories with a call to action from a Christian faith perspective. Earlier this year the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) passed a resolution outlining their Shared Principles of Peace, for all member churches. The document outlines principles of peace as part of the vocation of the church and its members, peace as means to work for justice, peacemaking as political engagement and a response to the threats of conflict.

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Cesar Jaramillo and others at a press conference when ICAN won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize: Photo courtesy of Paula Cardenas Left to right: International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) campaigners Setsuko Thurlow, Ray Acheson, and Cesar Jaramillo call on Canada to join a UN nuclear weapons ban at a press conference in Toronto on October 27, 2017. Jaramillo is the executive director of Project Ploughshares, an MCC partner.

To Peter the vocation of people of faith is clear – to be a united voice, speaking out of both practicalities and principles to demand a nuclear weapon-free world now – not after another Hiroshima…now!

Rebekah Sears is the MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst

A prayer of response to Mary’s Magnificat

The Magnificat is often understood to be a song of praise. Recorded in Luke 1:47-55, it is Mary’s response to the prophecy that, through her, God’s fulfillment will come.

I sometimes struggle to believe Mary’s strong and powerful affirmation of the coming of God’s “upside down kingdom.” Mary’s words are meant to comfort and give hope to those seeking justice, but injustice continues and at times even flourishes.

Where is the mercy for those who fear the Lord? Did I miss the proud being scattered? When I look at the leaders of the world, I still see dictators and tyrants, who remain on their “thrones” of power. I don’t see the lowly being lifted up or the hungry being filled with good things or the rich being sent away empty.

How do I respond to the intense hope and joy recorded in the Magnificat when, for so many, the world seems so bleak?

As I wrestle with these questions, I find myself praying as Mary sings.

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My soul seeks to magnify the Lord as my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for the Almighty has done good things and
though change feels slow and is sometimes hard to find,
I know that it comes. I know that it happens.

With Mary I wait for what has been promised.
I wait for tables to be turned and power to shift.
For a scattering of the proud and a tumbling of the mighty.
I wait for new life and a new world.

For those treated as social outcasts just for being who they are
or because of events outside their control,
I pray for God’s loving presence to be as real to them
as it was to Mary when she proclaimed
the Lord has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

To the Mighty One who has done great things
I pray for an open heart and unblocked ears
that I may hear the voices of the poor and oppressed
and act to share their struggle for justice.

For those who have experienced violence,
or been forced to flee their homes,
I pray for God’s mercy which Mary promised
is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.

For those who experience racial hatred
and suffer the bigotry of the narrow minded,
I pray that they might know the Lord has shown the strength of his arm
and the proud will be scattered in the conceit of their heart.

For those suffering under the oppression of tyrants and dictators,
I pray they may take comfort in knowing justice is coming
for the Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.

For the poor and hungry,
I pray they may experience what it means
to be filled with good things
while the rich are sent away empty.

To the one who helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
I pray with longing that all may have the joy of the Magnificat
as its promise is fulfilled with God among us.

By Monica Scheifele, Ottawa Office Program Assistant

Canada 150 – Two rivers

by Kerry Saner-Harvey, Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba Program Coordinator – Indigenous Neighbours. This is the second in a series of reflections on Canada 150.

For many it’s a time for celebration. Others lean towards lament. Either way, perhaps “Canada 150” can be for us an invitation to “re-imagine” our nation going forward in the next 150 years.

Historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson has suggested that nations are “imagined political communities” in which we hold in our minds a mental image of ourselves in kinship with a large number of people whom we have mostly never met. This mental image frames our identity in relation to each other, and thus we also make certain assumptions about how others in “our nation” see that relationship as well. In the case of a nation state like Canada, this also includes assumptions about our political history and relationship to the Land on which we reside.

RCAP_Logo_rev2016At a conference marking the 20th Anniversary of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Mark Dockstator from the First Nations University of Canada shared a provocative image of how European Settlers and Indigenous peoples have each imagined our histories.

Drawing upon the Two-Row Wampum from the Haudenosaunee legal tradition, he illustrated how each of us have imagined our history differently. In the almost universal Euro-Canadian paradigm up until 50 years ago, Indigenous peoples either didn’t exist at all or were imagined as “Indians” that needed to be assimilated into our historical stream or erased—essentially as “citizens minus.”

So, if I were to elaborate, while Indigenous peoples may have imagined themselves rowing their own canoe in their own river, if we Settlers perceived them at all it was to be brought aboard our steamship of civilization—or else tied on behind in some small broken-down canoe, pulled along in the wake of our river, if not already lost and forgotten somewhere downstream.

canoe on river

Unfortunately, we know that in many ways we are still taking away their paddles (or outboard motors) and dragging them along behind us.

Northern Stores and our welfare practices continue to create economic dependency. And northern mining and hydro development often care less about their consent than their compliance. I often hear that autonomy over Land remains one of the most important concerns for Indigenous communities today. Colonization is about taking away control and autonomy of a people, in whatever form that takes.

Around 1970, Dockstator suggests a significant number of Euro-Canadians began to perceive a diverging stream, as Canadian Settlers finally began to hear Indigenous claims to land and constitutional rights. Since then self-government and Nation-to-Nation negotiations not only emerged into our realm of possibilities, they began to slowly happen. We’ve begun to imagine a shift from “citizens minus” to “citizens plus” as we recognize much of the harms done and seek alternatives.

So, in our evolving Settler view of history, we look back on the last decades and see a new stream that has begun to diverge from our river. We now more broadly acknowledge that Indigenous peoples deserve to row in their own canoes. And this is significant.

But, as I think on this, I wonder if perhaps the Sepik Siawireal challenge for us Settler Canadians, looking back on the past 150 years, is to alter our perspective enough to re-imagine that Indigenous peoples have never really been traveling on our river in the first place.

Dockstator suggested that Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island have more or less always imagined themselves as sovereign. As far back as 1613, the original Two-Row Wampum (Tawagonshi) Treaty, the Haudenosaunee confederacy asserted that their Indigenous River should remain separate and parallel. Thomas King, in The Inconvenient Indian, reminds us that Aboriginal sovereignty is “a given”—and in fact has even been recognized in the U.S. and Canadian constitutions and Supreme Court decisions (194).

Perhaps we could look back across the field and see that the stream we thought has been branching from our river, has really been their own river all along. In other words, it never has been and still is not up to us to grant Indigenous peoples rights or sovereignty. To think this way is to recolonize history by assuming that we’ve been the ones to define the relationship since European contact. Rather, Indigenous Sovereignty is a continuous reality that we need to re-imagine for ourselves and to begin to act upon.

Perhaps we might even consider that our right to paddle in our river here actually emerged from the graciousness offered to us through the sacred Indigenous legal tradition of the treaties.

Of course, this is just about shifting our own Canadian Settler imaginations. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) reminds us it is Indigenous peoples’ right to journey their own river in whatever canoe or speedboat or cruise-liner they wish to travel in.

In an ever shifting political landscape, we all need to navigate carefully, but if we are willing to be intentional and creative in recognizing the two rivers flowing independently, we will hopefully find a way to reconciliation and peace in the generations to come.

A senator’s plea for friendship

We had gathered in Ottawa—eight MCC staff, along with 30 students and young adults from across the country—for our annual MCC Canada student seminar. The topic of the seminar was Gender, peace and conflict: Exploring the intersection.

One of our guest speakers was Senator Mobina Jaffer.  Jaffer has been active in promoting the Women, Peace and Security agenda for many years and she spoke about that work for several minutes. Then she asked permission to go “off topic.” She wanted to discuss what was really on her heart.

And what was on her heart was the reality of being a Muslim in Canada today.  Jaffer is herself Muslim—the first Muslim senator in Canada.  She spoke about the growing reality of Islamophobia in Canada and about her fears for the future.

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Senator Mobina Jaffer (centre) with seminar participants. Photo Thomas Coldwell.

Her words were influenced by the recent massacre of Muslims at prayer at a mosque in Quebec City, the increase of messages of hatred directed towards Muslims and others online, and the reaction to Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s motion against Islamophobia in the House of Commons.  As a result of the motion, Khalid has received thousands of harassing and hateful emails, even including death threats.

Political developments in the U.S. and the impact on Muslims is also affecting Canada. Muslim asylum seekers from the U.S. are increasingly crossing the border into Canada at points other than official border crossings so as to avoid being returned to the U.S. through the Safe Third Country Agreement. Some Canadians are sounding the alarm about the potential threat these individuals pose.

“We are having a real crisis here in Canada,” Senator Jaffer said. “The conflict is at our door.”

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Small group discussion. Photo Janessa Mann

Nevertheless, she urged the students to be ambassadors of peace and goodwill and to resist the stereotypes which paint all Muslims as terrorists and a threat to society.  “Take time to get to know your Muslim neighbours,” she urged.  “Be curious about them. Ask them questions.”

Above all, she said, “Reach out.  Ask your Muslim neighbours, ‘How can I stand with you?’”

Jaffer’s plea for friendship and solidarity was a poignant interruption in the well-laid plans of our seminar.  At the conclusion of her speech, we paused to take a group photo and a few individuals spoke with her one on one. Then we continued with our agenda.

But the “interruption” returned at the conclusion of the seminar when two of the seminar participants shared their personal stories. Both are Muslims who arrived in Canada as refugees. Both felt emboldened to speak because of Jaffer’s words.

One young woman from Syria told how, as a result of the war in her country, she had lost her dream of becoming an engineer. After one year in Canada, she is beginning to believe the dream might become a reality. She reminded us of the saying, “I am because you are.” In other words, our lives as humans are intimately intertwined.

The other young woman, a Palestinian from Iraq, dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon. She urged her fellow students not to accept life as it is, but to commit to changing it for the good. “You can make a difference in the world!” she insisted. She expressed her deep gratitude for the Mennonite congregation that sponsored her and her family’s resettlement in Canada and for the friendship experienced at the seminar.

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In front of the Peace Tower.  Photo Thomas Coldwell

MCC has long been committed to building bridges of friendship with Muslims here in Canada and around the world.  Interfaith dialogue and bridge-building is, in fact, a key way that MCC, together with the partners we support around the world, seeks to build peace where there is hostility, friendship where there is fear.

We hadn’t identified interfaith friendship and peacebuilding  as one of the intended outcomes of our student seminar. But, thanks to a senator’s heartfelt plea, that’s precisely what happened.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office.

From Canada to Reunion Island: Finding common ground through faith and compassion

This week’s writer is Cora Siebert, advocacy research intern for the Ottawa Office. Cora is a graduate of the University of Guelph in political studies. 

Over the past year I spent seven months living and working on a small island in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mauritius, La Réunion or Reunion Island. Now I’m sure you’re either wondering why you’ve never heard of this place before, or you’re having flashbacks to the major news story of Malaysian Flight 370, found on Reunion Island this past June. Even with this momentary claim to fame, Reunion Island really should be timelessly well known: because it’s amazing.

Takamaka Mountains. Photo by Cora Siebert.

Takamaka Mountains. Photo by Cora Siebert.

Yes, it’s amazing because it’s a tropical island with beautiful beaches, incredible mountains and tasty food fusions. But in my opinion, what makes it most amazing is the unique blend of people it holds. With a population of 840,000 there is a great deal of diversity within an island roughly half the size of Prince Edward Island. Ethnically, Reunion is a mix of people from African, Indian, European and Chinese origin who identify with a variety of different religions including Catholicism, Hinduism and Islam.

In such a small and isolated place like Reunion, I was not surprised by the great importance people placed in religion. I was, however, amazed by the sense of shared identity among people in Reunion Island no matter which religion they identified with. Some people practiced multiple religions, for example by attending services at both a church and a mosque. At the high school I worked at, one of my students told me that she had started to practice Hinduism as a personal choice, even though the rest of her family was Muslim. Most people were very open to talking about their religion and were interested to know about my beliefs.

Kavadi. Photo by Cora Siebert.

Kavadi. Photo by Cora Siebert.

On Reunion Island people were constantly celebrating some religious holiday, whether it be Easter or the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. While I was there I attended Kavadi, a Hindu celebration of sacrifice, which involved a huge procession of different ceremonial rituals of offering. With a multitude of different celebrations and customs practiced, there was a sense that everyone did these things from a common starting point–faith. Religion wasn’t what divided people into separate communities, faith was what drew people of various religions together. I was told the reason behind its name, “La Réunion”, was to celebrate the coming together of many different peoples.

I thought about this shared bond of faith when I came across an article in the Globe and Mail in early September. The article identifies communities of different faiths from across Canada, creating partnerships in order to sponsor Syrian refugees. Mennonite Central Committee has partnered with the Islamic Family and Social Services Association in Edmonton, so far reconnecting 32 Syrian refugees living in Jordan, Turkey and Egypt to relatives in the city. This number will surpass 150 by the end of the year. Likewise, a United Church in Perth Road Village, Ontario was looking to sponsor a refugee family, but had a hard time fundraising with a congregation of only 50 people. After partnering with 21 churches, as well as the Islamic Society of Kingston, they were able to bring a refugee family to Canada — relatives of someone from the Islamic Society.

To me, the Globe and Mail article demonstrates the positive impact of people seeking to focus on common goals they share with others, instead of letting differences leave them to work in isolation. As Canadians, we tend to pride ourselves in being a multicultural society, which we are. Yet I think it’s easy to find ourselves living our day to day lives in more of a divided fashion than we give ourselves credit for. Canada’s metaphor of a cultural mosaic may lead us into living within the social and religious lines that have already been drawn for us. We’ve become accustomed to attending certain social gatherings or being members of associations in which we have commonalties with others. And we may not recognize the commonalities we have with those outside our regular routines.

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A cross atop of Le Grand Bénare. Photo by Cora Siebert

These joint efforts to assist refugees demonstrate that compassion for others is another virtue all religions share. The notion that we should treat others as we would like to be treated is something agreed upon by peoples of numerous religious and ethnic backgrounds. And as we find ourselves living within a world which can appear to be plagued with violence and hatred between religions, this shared ideal of showing compassion to others should not be forgotten. If you haven’t heard of Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion, launched in 2008, I highly recommend checking out her website or TED talk. Armstrong is a British author, known for her writing on the commonalities among religions. In her writing she calls for people to recognize compassion as a dynamic force in an ever so polarized world.

I think the Globe and Mail article portrays real-life examples of Armstrong’s idea of positive action brought about through the shared ideal of compassion. The joint projects to help refugees shine an encouraging light on ways in which we as Canadians have and should continue to reach out to those of other religions. Faith was what caused communities I found in Reunion Island to celebrate and worship together. Likewise, a common desire to help those in need is helping to build bridges between religious groups in Canada. Faith and compassion are principles shared by billions of people around the globe. I think that’s something to recognize, celebrate, and build on.