Mid-east Christians still hope for peace, but prepare to open churches as shelters from war

[Reported by Callie Long in Geneva and Lennart Skov-Hansen in Baghdad, who work for Action by Churches Together and DanChurchAid, respectively.]
Baltimore, March 7, 2003 -- The churches of the Middle East refuse to believe that military action is inevitable and will continue to advocate for a peaceful UN-based process, but also call it "irresponsible not to prepare for the humanitarian disaster war will bring," according to Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour, head of the Middle East Council of Churches.

Churches in Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk have formed relief committees with the help of MECC and are setting up a network of churches, affiliated organizations, and in some instances also mosques, to ensure that relief items can be distributed. Several church centers will serve as relief depots. "In the event of war, internally displaced and affected people in general are expected to seek refuge and protection in churches and in mosques", said DanChurchAid general secretary Peter Lodberg, who visited Baghdad recently.

MECC, a long-timer partner of Lutheran World Relief, has also trained 75 volunteers to help people who are either displaced or forced to flee to neighboring countries by military action.

Iraq's churches are short of funds to buy and stockpile relief items - including 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 on short notice," Lodberg said.

MECC is also drilling wells and installing 50 pumps at the distribution sites to serve the thousands of people who will need water if regular water supplies are destroyed. Access to water is already an enormous problem for Iraqis and a war could further disrupt supplies.

An MECC relief coordinator in Iraq has been working on a humanitarian response plan for his agency and Iraqi churches. The coordinator, Edward Ishu, says his main challenge is how best to organize local churches for emergency aid work, should that be needed.

Iraq's Christians (estimates range from half a million to one million) are mainly Orthodox or Catholic, although the Presbyterian Church, a relative newcomer to the region, also has many followers.