Appearing rested, relaxed and slightly thinner than before his 117-day captivity in Iraq, freed British hostage Norman Kember attended Sunday services at a Baptist church in northwest London where he has worshipped for more than 40 years.
A candle at Harrow Baptist Church has burned since Kember’s Nov. 26 abduction, along with three other Christian Peacemaker Teams anti-war activists. Kember, 74, and two Canadians, James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, were freed by a military operation last week. A fourth hostage, American Tom Fox, 54, was found shot to death earlier this month on a Baghdad street.
“The wonderful thing is that not only is the candle still here but we have the one here for whom it burns,” Pastor Bob Gardiner was quoted as saying at the service of thanksgiving. “Our tears of sorrow have been changed into tears of joy.”
Less than 24 hours after he flew into Britain, Kember and his wife, Pat, slipped into seats at the back of the church just before services began. Afterward they posed briefly for photographers before returning to their home, where they spent the rest of the day.
“I did enjoy being back at church,” Kember said.
Gardiner told the Harrow Times he was surprised but delighted that Kember made it to church. “Norman was quite insistent, if he was free, then he should be free to worship,” Gardiner said.
Kember’s homecoming stirred controversy when the head of the British army said he apparently had not thanked the troops involved in rescuing him.
“I am slightly saddened that there doesn’t seem to have been a note of gratitude for the soldiers who risked their lives to save those lives,” General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff told a television news station.
Asked if he meant that Kember had not said thank you, Gen. Jackson said: “I hope he has and I have missed it.”
On Saturday Kember read a statement to media that said in part, “I do not believe that lasting peace is achieved through armed force, but I pay tribute to their courage and thank those who played a part in my release.”
Kember said he is not yet ready to talk about his ordeal but kept a diary. He said he now wants to reflect on whether he was “foolhardy or rational” in his experience.
The Christian group behind Kember’s mission to Iraq refused to withdraw from Baghdad amid criticism that it was irresponsible for them to be there and wasted of army resources. Jan Benvie, a British peace activist planning to return to Iraq in July on a Christian Peacemaker Team, signed a waiver asking troops not to intervene if she is kidnapped.
“We are aware of the dangers and we do not want these people’s lives to be put at risk on our behalf,” she said.
One military leader called Kember a “bloody lunatic” for being in Iraq in the first place.
Kember’s minister defended his parishioner’s decision. “The Gospel makes us all take absolutely irresponsible risks for the Kingdom,” Gardiner said. “People need to choose whether they want to ‘sit and wait’ or make a difference.”
Graham Sparkes, head of the Faith and Unity Department of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, said Kember was well aware of the dangers he faced in Iraq.
“There are always those that will say that someone like Norman and the steps he took are irresponsible,” Sparkes said, quoted on Life Style Extra. “But Norman understood very well what he was doing. He knew the costs he was paying but he still tried to take the steps to make peace.
“The irresponsibilty lies with those who create wars and start violence.”
David Coffey, president of the Baptist World Alliance and general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, predicted Kember’s kidnapping will have a positive impact on the peace process.
“The kidnapping has exposed the tremendous amount of peace-making that goes on,” Coffey said. “Norman’s story will be very powerful. He is a very radical Christian and we will have to wait for his story.”
Coffey said he phoned the office of Anas Altikriti, British Anti-War Movement envoy to Iraq and
former president of the Muslim Association of Britain, to thank him for his efforts at securing Kember’s release.
“I don’t believe that Norman would have been released without the help of the Muslim community,” Coffey said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.