Dateline ACT Iraq 02/03: Churches pray for peace, but fear for the future

By Callie Long
(With information provided by Lennart Skov-Hansen, Relief Coordinator, DanChurchAid)
Geneva, March 5, 2003 - There are people in Iraq who still believe that war can be avoided. Among the many voices raised up in hope for peace, are those of the churches of the Middle East and a local member of the global alliance Action by Churches Together (ACT) International, the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC).

MECC's general secretary, Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour, says that the churches in the Middle East refuse to believe that military action is inevitable and will continue to advocate for a peaceful UN-based process. Yet in spite of the hope that a peaceful resolution will save the day, Rev. Jarjour says that it would be "irresponsible not to prepare for the humanitarian disaster war will bring" to the region.

Edward Ishu, MECC's relief coordinator in Iraq, has been working on a humanitarian response plan for his agency and the network of churches that exist in the country. The challenge is how best to organize the participation of local churches in a humanitarian emergency aid operation, should it be needed.

The majority of the approximately one million Christians in Iraq, live in Baghdad. They worship mainly in the Orthodox and Latin faith traditions, although the Presbyterian Church, a relative newcomer to the region, also has many followers. In spite of their diverse traditions, the churches of Iraq have for many years worked together alongside MECC. In times of crisis, they have also been involved in helping those in need - regardless of religious or political affiliation.

With the threat of war hanging over them, the churches in Baghdad and in Mosul and Kirkuk in the north of the country have formed relief committees with the help of MECC. The committees are responsible for getting a network of churches, affiliated church organizations, and in some instances also mosques, up and running, to ensure that relief items can be distributed. Several main church centers have been identified as places where relief items can be stockpiled.

MECC has also trained 75 volunteers to help people who are either displaced or forced to flee to neighboring countries by military action. Rev. Jarjour says that in line with international standards and procedures, the volunteers were trained in how to provide adequate shelter, food and other necessities in the event of hostilities.

A delegation from DanChurchAid (DCA - Denmark) - a member of ACT International, who is on a visit to Iraq, reports that the churches do not have enough money to buy and stockpile relief items, should the conflict escalate into war. This would include blankets, first aid and hygiene kits, protein biscuits, heaters and kerosene. "Many of these items are still available on the local markets and can be acquired with short notice" says Peter Lodberg, DCA's general secretary. "And although the Iraqi government has provided extra food rations to people, these may need to be supplemented."

The delegation examined the eight main churches identified as places where the relief items can be stockpiled. "In the event of war, internally displaced and affected people in general are expected to seek refuge and protection in churches and in mosques", says Lodberg. Adding that the delegation's impression is that these "partners of ACT are well prepared, well organized and trained to provide humanitarian assistance".

MECC is also organizing the drilling of water wells and installing pumps at the distribution sites. "Each pump costs an average of $100 US and a total of 50 pumps will be installed during the coming days" says DCA's Lodberg, "but many more are needed to serve the thousands of people who will be needing water if the regular water supplies are destroyed". Access to water is already an enormous problem for Iraqis and fears have been expressed that a devastating consequence of a war will be the destruction of the country's water supplies.

Rev. Jarjour said that MECC was grateful to the churches, ecumenical councils and partners in the West for their stand against the war, while DCA's Lodberg said, "Let us not wait till the situation in Baghdad and other cities in Iraq become desperate". "The churches, who themselves may be victims of a war, need our most urgent cooperation and financial support to be able to help others in need."

For further information, please contact:

ACT Communications Officer Callie Long (mobile/cell phone +41 79 358 3171)
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