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Churches, workers voice global concern about war's impact


Mennonite Church Canada/Mennonite Mission Network Joint release
For immediate release
April 10, 2003
-by Tony Krabill

ELKHART— Leaders and members of Mennonite churches around the world have been stating publicly their opposition to war in Iraq as well as grave concerns about the war's long-term effects. They have joined many of their counterparts in the United States, helping Mennonites live up to an identity as one of the "historic peace churches."

So are expatriate Mennonite workers, who report public opposition in the countries in which they serve to be at percentages comparable to Americans' support for the war, which has been hovering around 70 percent. They also emphasize that a government's public support for the war as a member of the "Coalition of the Willing" has not necessarily translated into affirmation of such action by its people.

In Spain, two recent polls show opposition to the war at just over 90 percent, according to Dennis and Connie Byler, serving jointly with Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network in Burgos, Spain.

"This bodes ill for the present (Spanish) government, with its pro-war stance," Dennis Byler said. "As the country gears up for municipal elections this summer, there has been a massive shift of voter intent away from President Aznar's Popular Party, and their headquarters in just about every city have been vandalized by angry mobs, shouting, 'No a la Guerra' (No to war)."

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's support of the war in Iraq also is quite unpopular, according to Rudy and Helen Baergen, who are serving in Colombia, with Witness and Mission Network.

"One poll I saw indicated around 65 percent opposed to the U.S. action," Rudy Baergen said. "El Tiempo, which is usually quite supportive of President Uribe, has run several biting editorials."

"Many Colombians have been distracted from their own war by the 'shock and awe' in Iraq," said Janna Bowman, Mennonite Central Committee worker in Colombia with JustaPaz, the peace and justice ministry of the Colombian Mennonite Church.

"There's a sense of doom and a deep ache among the people I associate with most closely," Bowman said. "They are too familiar with war and militarism in the name of peace and security."

Others in Latin America have responded similarly.

"The noisy Chacabuco Park in Santiago, Chile, welcomed its first peace protest in a decade," said Jodi Read, who works with 5&2 Multiplying for All, a nonprofit organization in the northern sector of the city, which offers education and social services. She is supported by MCC and is a mission associate with the Mission Network.

Read and Baptist pastor Cristian Cabrera organized an ecumenical Christian event that offered "a public testimony for peace and reflect(ed) churches' concern for social problems" in light of the U.S. call to war in Iraq. The gathering attracted more than 20 people from area churches. Cabrera encouraged the small Christian group to take specific actions for peace in their community.

Carmen Flores is a monitor at the Center for the Attention and Prevention of Family Violence, one of 5&2's programs.

"I have an individual and collective commitment to work for nonviolence and peace and this concrete event was an opportunity to show that I am not in agreement with war," she said.

Members of the Mennonite Church in Trenque Lauquen, Argentina, define themselves as a community in service for peace. They responded to the outbreak of war in Iraq with a letter calling "all Christians, members of other religions and human beings of good will in Trenque Lauquen to pray, educate and work for peace." The letter was sent to Argentinean media and was printed on posters.

The executive committee of the Argentine Mennonite Church prepared a statement that concluded, "We pray fervently for our brothers and sisters in the faith that they can transmit hope in the midst of desperation and can continue 'announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ who is Lord of all.'" (Acts 10:36)

The Peace & Justice Project of the Honduran Mennonite Church issued this statement: "We lament profoundly the decisions taken by the government of Honduras with regard to this worldwide crisis."

The letter, signed by project director Ondina Murillo, said, "Since our country is one that most suffers hunger in Central America, we can imagine the crude reality of the Iraqis in this time of war."

Meanwhile, Mennonites in Africa are concerned that the war in Iraq will exacerbate "already tenuous relations between Christians and Muslims," in parts of that continent.

"We have convened in Tanzania, a country that has tasted the bitter fruit of Osama bin Laden's terrorism, as has neighboring Kenya," said a Feb. 15 letter to President Bush from the Council of Eastern Africa Mennonite Churches. "We also meet in circumstances that are affected by Islamic militancy as in Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

"There is profound concern that Muslim militancy in response to war may overwhelm some of the Christian communities and destabilize secularist national governments, as in Ethiopia," the letter said.

According to a Mennonite worker in Afghanistan, the long-term impact on relations with Americans in the Muslim world is uncertain. "I have tried listening to VOA (Voice of America) and BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). You get two totally different views of the current conflict when you listen to them," said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous.

"VOA interviews Iraqis who are absolutely adamant that this (war) is justified," he said. On the other hand, BBC interviews "Iraqi people who are just as adamant that this is an invasion, that despite oppression for some, there is absolutely no justification for the action, and that this will harm relations between Arabs and Americans for many years to come. The reality on the ground is probably that the impacts will be as mixed as the media reports are," the worker said.

Byler said he is concerned about the implications President Bush's persona of Christian faith, coupled with a foreign policy of threats and actions for war, has on the openness to the gospel of people in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. Workers in other parts of the world have also been asked how President Bush could possibly link his actions to his Christian faith.

"They find it very difficult to understand what kind of personal piety, so publicly proclaimed, can be compatible with the imperialistic violence of (Bush's) international politics," Byler said. "It struck me that such cynicism about claims of religious experience by those who find warfare and the death penalty acceptable is one of the reasons it is so difficult for evangelical Christianity to make headway in Spain."

Byler said he hopes that such scrutiny will bring a more passionate commitment to the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ.

"I believe such a gospel, whenever and wherever it is preached in this country, will not only elicit a fair amount of ridicule and rejection, but also a joyful response of faith from those who are willing to be transformed by rebirth into the likeness of Jesus," Byler said.

The worker in Afghanistan said, "I am convinced there are models other than force which can change regimes. But how do we influence governments to adopt such models and bring justice in places where there is much injustice?"

A rainy Bogotá evening failed to extinguish the light and persistence of participants in an anti-war vigil there, including those who have been working relentlessly to bring such influence for peace and justice to Colombia.

"As the rain increased, the candles went out and several people took up the task of relighting them," said Janine Martin, a Mission Network intern in Colombia. "I watched the faithful continue to relight these little flames again and again in the midst of the torrent and thought of how similar this act was to the act of peacemaking.

"I pray that we will not be discouraged. I pray that all of our flames will continue to be re-lit and these flames used to light more," Martin said.

Mennonite Church Canada Witness, together with Mennonite Mission Network support international ministries in more than 42 countries.