An ecumenical group is calling on churches in the United States to sign an open letter and schedule prayer vigils seeking safe release of human rights workers being held hostage in Iraq.

Christian Peacemaker Teams, an international group devoted to nonviolent peacemaking, confirmed Nov. 29 that four workers kidnapped in Baghdad were associated with the organization, which established a long-term presence in Iraq six months before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

Shanta Premawardhana, associate general secretary for interfaith relations at the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, last week circulated an e-mail asking churches to sign on to a letter asking for the hostages’ release.

Through late Tuesday, more than 9,000 persons added their names to the letter, which also was distributed by Faithful

Addressed “To those who are holding the Christian Peacemakers Team in Iraq, and to people everywhere of all Traditions of Faith and Peace,” the letter reads:

“We who write you affirm what all the traditions teach that trace their spiritual origin to Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all teach explicitly that to kill even one human being–-even more strongly one who is doing no harm, most especially one who is seeking peace and nurturing human bodies and communities–is to destroy a world. All other religious traditions agree about the holiness of human lives.

“This teaching applies to all innocent Iraqis and foreigners who have been killed or taken away in Iraq out of anger against the U.S. occupation–and it applies with special clarity and strength to the members of the Christian Peacemakers Team who are being held in Iraq. Like us, they too opposed the U.S. attack. They came to serve the Iraqi people. They came not only to urge peace but also to live peace.

“We who have opposed the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq call on all who live in Iraq to seek the release of these people into safety and freedom. And we call on all people of good will everywhere to join in this call.”

The captors have threatened to kill the peace activists unless all prisoners in U.S. and Iraqi detention centers are released. Because of the delicate nature of the situation, Premawardhana said, religious organizations in the U.S.–including Muslim groups and peace organizations–at first refrained from making statements. After further consultation with CPT, the NCC late last week called on houses of worship to prayer during the weekend and sought signatures for the interfaith open letter.

“No doubt, those who planned and executed the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq will cite this action as evidence for the rightness of their action,” the letter continues. “We utterly reject this logic, and affirm that the war undertaken by the U.S. has multiplied the violence it pretended to oppose.

“We hold morally responsible for the lives of these Christian Peacemakers both those in Iraq who have taken them, and those who have brought about the deaths of thousands of Iraqis and Americans by pursuing this war.

“Once again, we call for a swift end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq and for peaceful action by the entire human community to assist Iraqis to achieve their own self-government. And we send our loving prayers to those who have become victims of their own loving commitment to peace, justice, and healing.”

Premawardhana is an ordained Baptist minister and former pastor in Chicago. As of Tuesday afternoon, several other Baptists had added signatures via his Weblog.

They included Bonnie Dixon, director of JourneyPartners in Franklinton, N.C.; Jim Hopkins
pastor of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif.; Nancy Lively at Broadneck Baptist Church in Annapolis, Md.; Michelle McClendon and Laura Shelley of First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C.; Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics; Susan Parker at Wake Forest Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Marcus Pomeroy of Central Baptist Church in Wayne, Pa.; Devaka Premawardhana of Igreja Batista Esperança in Salvador, Brazil;  and Karen Thomas Smith, a Christian chaplain at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco.

More than 100 vigils were scheduled on three continents.

The four hostages are: Tom Fox, 54, of Clearbrook, Va.,;Norman Kember, 74, of London; James Loney, 41, if Toronto, Canada, and  Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, a Canadian. A video posted Tuesday on Web sites showed the four Western hostages, who thanked their captors and said they were being treated well.

Christian Peacemaker Teams have programs ongoing in Africa, Canada, South America, Hebron, the UK and the U.S.

The current focus in Iraq, according to a Web site, is documenting instances of abuse and denial of human rights to detainees, along with efforts to end occupation and seek nonviolent and just alternatives for a free and independent Iraq.

On Tuesday the group issued a statement saying:

“We are very concerned about our friends. We would very much like to know that they are in good condition. It is our most sincere wish that you will immediately release them unharmed.

“While we believe the action of kidnapping is wrong, we do not condemn you as people. We recognize the humanity in each person, and respect it very much. This includes you, our colleagues, and all people.

“We believe there needs to be a force that counters all the resentment, the fear, the intimidation felt by the Iraqi people. We are trying to be that force: to speak for justice, to advocate for the human rights of Iraqis, to look at an Iraqi face and say: my brother, my sister,

“Perhaps you are men who only want to raise the issue of illegal detention. We don’t know what you may have endured.

“As you can see by the statements of support from our friends in Iraq and all over the world, we work for those who are oppressed.

“We also condemn our own governments for their actions in Iraq.

“Please, we appeal to your humanity to show mercy on our brothers and let them come back safely to us to continue our work.

“May God spare our friends, and all the people of Iraq any further suffering.”

Muslim leaders also called for their release.

On Sunday, Al-Jazeera reported that the largest Sunni Muslim party in Iraq, the Iraqi Islamic Party, called for the release of the hostages, saying that the “kidnapping is a dream opportunity for the supporters of the war against our country who say that Iraqis cannot tell the difference between those who support them and those who oppose them.”

On Monday, meanwhile, gunmen abducted a French engineer outside his home in Baghdad, in the third kidnapping of Westerners in the last 10 days.

There is no evidence the kidnappings were coordinated. Different groups are claiming responsibiliy, but the incidents appear to be timed either with Saddam Hussein’s trial and the run up to parliamentary elections on Dec. 15.

Bob Allen is managing editor of 

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