Who Are the Christian Peacemakers?

March 23, 2006 — -- The rescue in Iraq of three members of Christian Peacemaker Teams provided much of the world with some very welcome good news. But many also wondered: Who are these people and why did they put themselves in harm's way?

Three churches -- Quaker, Mennonite and Church of the Brethren -- founded CPT in 1984. At the founding conference in Techny, Ill., CPT said it would offer organized, nonviolent opposition "to war and other forms of lethal inner-group conflict." The group now claims support from several other Christian denominations, including Baptists, Presbyterians and Catholics.

CPT, which has offices in Chicago and Toronto, was in Baghdad even before the war started, first sending members there in October 2002. The group says that after the invasion, Iraqis began asking for help in finding their relatives.

As CPT became more involved, it saw that the number of detainees held by occupation forces was increasing, and the group charged that these detentions violated international law. CPT took part in demonstrations in Iraq and tried to convince other countries that people held without formal charges should be released.

Two years ago, shortly before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, CPT published a lengthy report alleging that U.S. forces were abusing detainees. CPT co-director Doug Pritchard told the BBC: "We were the first to publicly denounce the torture of the Iraqi people held by occupation forces." The organization has called for an end to what it still calls the occupation.

Anti-War Mission Hasn't Protected Them

All this might have persuaded insurgents and terrorists that CPT should be left alone to work for the withdrawal of coalition troops, but that hasn't been the case for CPT or other foreign groups with similar aims. It is still unclear why four members of CPT were kidnapped four months ago by what the U.S. military has called an insurgent kidnapping cell.

Three of the peace activists were rescued today from a Baghdad home by U.S. and British forces. The body of one, Tom Fox, was found in Baghdad on March 10.

Even though it is a Christian organization, CPT says it does not participate in any missionary activities. The group's Web site says: "While CPTers have chosen to follow Jesus Christ, they do not proselytize."

How, then, is the group different from other peace groups that have no religious ties?

CPT says it is different from secular peace groups in some ways but similar in others. All the groups resemble one another other in that they all work to stop violence, but according to CPT's Web site, it has an advantage over secular groups: "In Muslim areas, the Christian nature of CPT helps to create confidence because of a shared sense of monotheism." The group does not believe that its Christianity might also put it at a dangerous disadvantage in areas of the world where religious tensions run high.

CPT isn't a large group -- it claims only 36 full-time peacemakers and 152 part-time volunteers. Volunteers pay their own expenses. CPT says it accepts money only from churches, church congregations and individuals, and not from any government. In 2004, CPT income in Canada and the United States totaled $806,000.

Why do its volunteers expose themselves to danger as they do in Iraq? They say they have to go where they will be most effective and have to face the same dangers that American and British soldiers face. Doug Pritchard said even though CPT believes those soldiers are doing wrong by taking part in war, it respects the risks the troops take.

The CPT has also said that if its members were kidnapped, rescuing forces should not use violence to try to free them. In this case, violence wasn't needed, since the kidnappers left their captors alone.