Category Archives: International Peacemaking

Blog: Tragedy in Baghdad Church

Blog: Tragedy in Baghdad Church

Sister Beth Murphy, OP, Catholic Services of Macomb, Outreach Coordinator for the Office of Refugee Resettlement
Nov 07, 2010

Thursday night last week, I finally got around to preparing for the Saturday catechism class at St. Toma Syriac Parish. I grabbed my Bible to check the Sunday scriptures – today’s scriptures – and my heart skipped a beat. There it was, in front of me, the same story that my Iraqi friends and family had been living all week: the story of the heinous torture and murder of seven Macabbean martyrs and their mother (2 Maccabees 7). In the Old Testament accounts, seven brothers were slaughtered in unspeakable ways as their mother watched, until at the last, she also was killed. Even the much edited, less terrifying version of the story read on the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle C is difficult to hear under normal circumstances.

But these are not “normal circumstances.”

A week ago today the little kids who attend the English Mass at St. Toma were on “high G” thinking about costumes, candy, and trick-or-treating. I was trying to enrich the conversation with little tidbits about the Christian perspective on All Hallows Eve – the night we Christians prowl the earth in cognito to ward off the evil spirits in preparation for the great feast of All Saints the following day. Yes. And while we were laughing and joking and enjoying ourselves, 6,000 miles away the relatives and friends of these little American kids were being terrorized and tortured in their sister church, Our Lady of Deliverance, Baghdad.

When the 5-hour ordeal ended at least 58 people were dead, many more were wounded. Most of America will have noted the tragedy and moved on, if they were aware of it at all. From where I stand, however, it is impossible not to be aware of the waves of grief that have enveloped the world, surging along the fault lines created in Iraqi society by the displacement of tens of thousands of Iraq’s Christian minority who have fled what is clearly a growing genocidal threat.

For my Iraqi Dominican Sisters and Brothers, many of whom lost relatives, co-ministers, and dear friends in the massacre, the effect has been numbing. An entire family, neighbors to the sisters who lived in a nearby parish, died together in the church. “There was no one left to bury the dead,” my sister told me. “Only us. The sister and friars buried the family.”

As the stories of the survivors unfold, I am overwhelmed by the selflessness, heroism, and truly Christ-like responses of those in the Church. One survivor was asked by a reporter, what do you say to the terrorists. Through his tears he said “We forgive you.”

The two young priests were both killed early during the attack, as they attempted to calm the situation and protect the many worshipers in the church. This morning at St. Toma Father Safaa Habash told those gathered for the English Mass that one of the young men was hearing confessions as the massacre began, and the other, presiding at the altar, had just finished reading the Gospel for the Feast of All Saints. “They completed their mission,” he said, “and became themselves the sacrifice of the Eucharist on the altar.” They and their parishioners with them.

Among the victims of this senseless tragedy was a little boy named Adam. According to a friend, who has been interpreting for me some of the Arabic language testimony of the survivors, 3-year-old Adam witnessed the horror of dozens of deaths, including that of his own parents. He wandered among the corpses and the blood, following the terrorists around and admonishing them “enough, enough, enough.” According to witnesses, this continued for two hours until little Adam was himself murdered.

As angry and despairing as I am tempted to be in the face of such senseless acts of violence, I do not have that luxury. How can I remain silent in the face of little Adam’s prophetic call for peace? How can I turn my anger inward and allow it to immobilize me when the victims of the tragedy themselves call for forgiveness?

If you would like to raise your voice in support of Prophet Adam’s mandate to end the violence and killing, here are some ways to start:

  • The Syriac community around the world has organized a simultaneous rally in support of the Iraqi Christian community. If you can’t make one of the rallies, you can join us in prayer, fasting, and advocacy.
  • Sign a petition.
  • Write or call Secretary of State Clinton and your members of Congress in support of the call to develop a comprehensive policy to protect Iraq’s minority populations.
  • Send a condolence letter to the Syriac Christian community. You can send it through me (15945 Canal Rd, Clinton Twp, MI 48038 or [email protected]).
  • Contribute to the support of Iraqi refugees displaced in Syria, Jordan, and Turkey through the Adopt-A-Refugee program.
  • One of the consequences of this tragedy will no doubt be the flight of more Christians from Iraq. As the refugee crisis wears on, my colleagues in the refugee resettlement office and I notice a trend among the new arrivals: they are less physically healthy, have less emotional resilience, and are arriving with less support. You can help. Send checks made payable to Office of Refugee Resettlement to my attention at 15945 Canal Rd, Clinton Twp, MI 48038.

Finally, wherever you go, bear witness to the words of Prophet Adam: Enough. Enough. Enough. Thank you and God bless you for your concern and care for the people of Iraq.

Blog: Read the Compelling History of an Iraqi Community of Dominican Sisters

Blog: Read the Compelling History of an Iraqi Community of Dominican Sisters

Stephanie Niedringhaus
Nov 16, 2010

Over the years, we have been privileged to have a close relationship with a remarkable—and courageous—congregation of Dominican Sisters in Iraq. Articles about their peace-building work have appeared regularly in the Connection, and we have worked together to present their views about peace in Iraq on Capitol Hill and to White House officials.

Their 133-year history is a compelling story, and we are pleased to recommend a just-completed book by Sister Marie Therese Hanna, OP, a former prioress of the congregation. She tells about their founding and how their work for peace continues today despite ongoing threats and the violence around them. The book, entitledDrawn by Love: A History of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, will come out in English and Arabic on December 3. Adrian Dominican Sisters Carol Coston (a NETWORK founder) and Elise Garcia helped with the book’s publication, and proceeds from the sale will help finance higher education for the Iraqi congregation’s young Sisters.

Click here for more information, and please consider ordering copies as Christmas gifts for others!

Blog: All Signs Point in One Direction – Out of Afghanistan

All Signs Point in One Direction – Out of Afghanistan

By David Golemboski
May 10, 2011

In November 2009, President Obama announced a surge of U.S. troops to Afghanistan with the commitment that the U.S. troop withdrawal from that country would begin in July of 2011. As that date approaches, the president has yet to clarify at what pace the pullout will occur. Our faith convictions, our national economic situation, and our concern for the Afghan people all lead us to the same conclusion: it is time for the U.S. to end the war in Afghanistan and turn its attention to building up Afghan civil society through diplomacy and development.

Our faith tells us that violence begets violence and that war is not the answer. We are guided by Catholic Social Teaching and the Christian peacemaking tradition, and we know that there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. The last ten years have demonstrated that the U.S. cannot broker peace in Afghanistan – only the Afghan people can do this.

Our nation cannot sustain the financial costs of this ongoing war. The U.S. plans to spend over $100 billion in Afghanistan in 2012. At the same time, important domestic and foreign aid programs are being slashed in the name of fiscal responsibility. We simply cannot afford to continue this expensive and misguided war.

The Afghan people need the freedom and ability to build the society they want. The president was right in 2009 when he said that the way to encourage Afghanistan to step up was for the U.S. to transfer responsibility to the Afghan people. Our most meaningful investment in Afghanistan will be development assistance to create opportunities and build a stable civil society. We need a timeline for handing over responsibility and a commitment to support Afghanistan with civilian development professionals.

The U.S. initiated its mission in Afghanistan in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, but it has mutated into an open-ended war against a Taliban insurgency that is now largely motivated to drive out foreign troops. Nearly two-thirds of Americans think that the war is no longer worth fighting. Our faith principles demand that we work to build peace and not war. Our domestic fiscal situation requires that we invest in smart and cost-effective initiatives here and abroad. The Afghan people deserve to take responsibility for building their society. All the factors point to one conclusion: For the sake of both our nation and the Afghan people, we need to end the war, transfer responsibility to Afghans, and invest in development and diplomacy for that war-torn nation.

Blog: Democrats and Republicans Agree – It’s Time to End the War in Afghanistan

Democrats and Republicans Agree – It’s Time to End the War in Afghanistan

David Golemboski
May 16, 2011

Over the past two weeks, a number of members of Congress have spoken out about the war in Afghanistan, often side-by-side with colleagues from the opposite party. In Washington, D.C. This is no ordinary occurrence! What has brought these lawmakers together? They share the conviction that it is time for the U.S. to bring the war in Afghanistan to an end.

On May 5, Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) introduced a bill titled the Afghanistan Exit and Accountability Act, which calls for a concrete plan from the President on the accelerated transition to the Afghan government of U.S. military and security operations in Afghanistan. The bill was introduced with 16 original co-sponsors, 9 of whom were Democrats and 7 of whom were Republicans.

On May 9, eight representatives – four Republicans and four Democrats – sent a letter to President Obama calling on him to withdraw troops from Afghanistan immediately. In conjunction with the letter, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) said, “We cannot continue down this road of permanent warfare.”

These members of Congress from both sides of the aisle know that it is time for the U.S. to end the war in Afghanistan and turn its attention to building up Afghan civil society through diplomacy and development. Our faith tells us that violence begets violence and that war is not the answer. Our nation cannot sustain the financial costs of this ongoing war. The Afghan people need the freedom and ability to build the society they want.

NETWORK joins these diverse lawmakers in their unified calls to bring the war in Afghanistan to an end and to reinvest in diplomacy and development for the region.

Blog: Victory in the House – It’s Time to End the War in Afghanistan

Blog: Victory in the House – It’s Time to End the War in Afghanistan

Andrea Pascual
May 27, 2011

This week, the House of Representatives prepared to vote on H.R. 1540, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012. It was a critical debate in which Republicans and Democrats wanted to send a strong message to the Obama administration on their feelings towards the present defense strategy.

Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) offered an amendment (#55) similar to H.R. 1735, the Afghanistan Exit and Accountability Act. It required the Obama administration to submit a plan for ending the U.S. war in Afghanistan, including a date for the end of the war.

Yesterday, May 26, the House did not pass the McGovern-Jones amendment, but the 204 votes that it received were victory enough. Last year, the same language had received only 162 votes, which shows that opposition to the war is rapidly growing. In yesterday’s vote, 26 Republican members voted in favor and only eight Democrats voted against the amendment. Representative McGovern spoke in favor of his amendment, stating:

“We need to safeguard our national security…but many of our greatest problems aren’t halfway around the world, they’re halfway down the block. And rather than nation-building in Afghanistan, we need to do some more nation-building right here in the United States”

Although the McGovern-Jones amendment did not pass, it is the force behind the vote that makes yesterday victorious. Both parties made their roar telling the president that he needs to take more action towards a transition out of Afghanistan.

NETWORK thanks all the members of Congress who voted in support of the McGovern-Jones amendment. We hope that the president receives this as a message that the country knows we need to change course in Afghanistan. As Representative John Conyers (MI) stated, “It is time to engage in smart security where diplomacy, human and economic assistance are used instead of bombs and weapons.” NETWORK will continue its work over the coming weeks and months to build momentum for a fresh approach to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

Blog: NETWORK Salutes Senators Calling for Withdrawal from Afghanistan

NETWORK Salutes Senators Calling for Withdrawal from Afghanistan

By Andrea Pascual
June 21, 2011

Last week, on June 15, the Senate sent a bipartisan letter to President Obama asking for an accelerated withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. Twenty-four Democrats, one Independent and two Republicans signed on, sending another strong message to the administration that Congress is ready to end the war and refocus on securing our own nation. The lead authors of the letter were Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OH), Tom Udall (D-NM) and Mike Lee (R-UT). One of the Democrats who signed was Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who introduced S. 186 Safe and Responsible Redeployment of United States Combat Forces from Afghanistan Act of 2011. In the previous year a similar letter only received 17 signatures. Additionally, Senators Chris Coons (D-DE), John Kerry (D-MA), Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Carl Levin (D-MI) sent individual letters to the president regarding the July drawdown. This makes a total of 31 Senators who have urged the president to significantly reduce U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

It was not too long ago that the House also sent their message to the president after 204 members voted on an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill asking for President Obama to submit a plan to end the war in Afghanistan, which included confirming a date for the end of the war. Although the amendment failed to pass, the close vote indicated to the White House that even the House is growing restless with unending war.

NETWORK thanks all those senators who signed the letter (or sent their own) and urges the president to choose a drawdown plan that calls for a substantial troop withdrawal from Afghanistan this year and a timetable to end this military operation soon.

Blog: Our Reaction to President Obama’s Afghanistan Speech

Our Reaction to President Obama’s Afghanistan Speech

Simone Campbell, SSS
June 23, 2011

President Obama announced his plan for drawing the Afghanistan war to a close…eventually. We at NETWORK believe that this war should end soon. Military leaders have said that there is no military solution to stability in Afghanistan. The president said that long-term peace is up to the Afghan leaders. So why the long timeline and no final withdrawal date?

It seems to us that it is because of “mission creep.” What started out as crippling Al Qaeda (which the president says is accomplished) has changed to be ending Taliban rule. This is not a mission that the U.S. has a strategic interest in pursuing.

While the president says that we are being “strategic as we are resolute,” it is imperative that there be real peace negotiations among all of the players in the country and the region.

In our view, the pressure to achieve a lasting peace would be enhanced if there was not the specter of 3 more years of war. A real end date in the next 18 months would focus the attention of all parties to take responsibility for their country.

NETWORK’s checklist for what should be in the speech:

  • Troop withdrawal of at least 30,000 troops in the next 6 to 9 months. The president called for a reduction of 33,000 troops in 14 months.
  • A plan for investment in development efforts which includes supporting democracy in Afghanistan and training Afghan forces to secure the state. The president referenced the need to support the Afghan government, but did not announce a plan for how to do it.
  • A plan for political negotiations in Afghanistan which includes engaging all regional actors. The president spoke of a summit in Chicago in May 2012 hosted by NATO allies and partners. It was not clear if this would include regional actors as well and if this would be larger than a military summit. We urge the president to use this announced meeting to move ahead on the diplomatic front and end the military operation.
  • A timeline for total U.S. troop withdrawal and a shift of security and leadership over to Afghanistan by at least January 2014. The president did use the 2014 date for a complete shift of responsibility to the Afghan government, but did not specify when in 2014. The United States does not need three more years in which to accomplish a transition to Afghan control.
  • A long-term peacemaking plan that supports a democracy by the people and for the people of Afghanistan. There was no mention of a specific plan for the support of democracy in Afghanistan. The president referenced that as a desired result by did not put forward any specific initiatives.

Reflection about War

Reflection about War

By Matthew Shuster
December 20, 2011

I remember sitting in my junior high gym class in Northern Virginia when the principal’s announcement came over the loudspeakers that a plane had hit one of the Twin Tower buildings in New York City and that another had also crashed closer to home, into the Pentagon.

At first, I thought it was maybe some sort of freak accident, but quickly realized that it was indeed an attack. I also realized how serious the situation really was, especially after seeing how nervous and sad my teachers seemed and how all the other students were calling their families to see if any of their family members staying or working in Washington or New York were okay.

As terrible as the attacks of 9/11 were, I do remember thinking how weird it was that so much violence and war followed so soon after the attacks. Later, I thought about how we went into Iraq with an unclear, non-transparent cowboy search for the terrorist group Al Qaeda and for weapons of mass destruction even though Osama Bin Laden was known to be in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is a name that I have been hearing pretty much my whole life on the mainstream news—so much so that it makes me wonder if my parents were as sick of hearing about “Red Communists” during the Cold War period as I was about hearing about Al Qaeda.

As a kid, I learned some about the Vietnam War and how upset my parents’ generation was with how long such an unpopular war had lasted. How could we allow another long conflict without an honest justification happen?

Most kids growing up with me would not have even have been able to tell you exactly whom we were fighting or what we were even doing in Iraq after the first couple of years after the invasion. I do not think it was because we were too young to understand, but a lack of truth in connection with the awful reality of violence in Iraq.

I do not think the Iraq conflict should even be called a war, because it sounds like we were attacked by Saddam Hussein with a weapon of mass destruction and responded out of defense, although the cynic in me worries that the history books in school will make our invasion sound like it was indeed a justified war.

Thankfully, the troops are leaving and according to a White House conference call with Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, we will soon have the lowest number of American troops in the Persian Gulf region in twenty years. However, there will still be a military presence in Kuwait and a strong naval presence in the region. Nonetheless, it is a good sign that our approach toward foreign affairs could become more peaceful and less intrusive.

Blog: Sisters Building Peace In Iraq And Around The World

Sisters Building Peace In Iraq And Around The World

By Simone Campbell, SSS
May 23, 2012

Last evening, I attended a reception for Iraqi Dominican Sisters here in Washington. It was hosted by several former State Department employees who met the Sisters in Baghdad and are trying to help them develop their ministry.

I was so struck by speakers from the United States who spoke about protecting the Christian minority in the Middle East. But when the Sisters spoke, they repeated over and over that they serve everyone and that the only way forward is through reconciliation of all people. They said favoring one over another was not good for peace, so they are trying to serve all.

Mother Marie Therese spoke of the expanding ministry and said that she is so happy that they have two novices and a candidate. She also talked about the maternity hospital in Baghdad that Sr. Bushra runs. They see 50 women a day, which is more than their 56-bed hospital can handle. She said that an expansion is in process.

Mother also rejoices that Sisters they had sent to the United States for safety and studies are beginning to return to ministry. The Sister who was translating for Sr. Marie Therese just graduated from Chicago Theological Union with a PhD in Theology, and she is going back to Iraq to work with women. She told me that she wants to help women find their voices so that they can be peace-builders there.

Our discussion was such a contrast to our Bishops’ approach to what they perceive as religious intolerance. Rather than continuing the fight, the Sisters are trying to find common ground and build a new country. Their message of peace and engagement eased my heart and gave me joy. Yet again, I know the value of the witness of Women Religious all over the world. We live close to the pain of the world so we strive for hope and healing for our fractured world.

When I left, I asked that the Sisters remember all of us in prayer as we remember them. We spoke of our challenges in the U.S. Church and theirs in Iraq. I promised my prayer for them and invite you to hold these amazing peace-building women in your heart.

May we follow their witness to live in love with courage and grace according to the Gospel. That life will build peace and reconciliation.

African Palm Oil in Guatemala – A Fishy Situation

African Palm Oil in Guatemala – A Fishy Situation

Nicholas Moffa
June 30, 2015

When I first watched the YouTube video one of our Guatemalan sisters sent me, I thought the white material coating the water of the La Pasión River was some sort of foam or other foreign substance that should not be present in a river used by many Guatemalans as a source of food and water. Little did I know that the “material” coating the water used to consider the river its home: the surface was covered by thousands of dead fish!

On June 7, reports of an ecocide in the municipality of Sayaxché in the Petén department of Guatemala first started to gain national attention. Less than a week later, it was discovered that the mysterious deaths of hundreds of fish and other aquatic life had extended 100 kilometers down the La Pasión River, affecting over 30,000 people in 16 communities who depend on fishing for their livelihood and sustenance. Local fishermen immediately pointed out that this was the second time something like this had occurred in recent months, and that a palm oil company called “Reforestadora de Palma del Petén,” or REPSA, was at fault.

This immediately raised a number of questions: what is REPSA? Who owns it? How long have they been operating in Petén? And, most importantly, is this an isolated incident or symptomatic of something much larger? A quick Google search yielded horrifying results.

It turns out that palm oil was first introduced in Guatemala in the mid-1980s. Increasing demand (palm oil is now the most-consumed oil worldwide) led to skyrocketing production. The cultivated area dedicated to palm oil quadrupled in the first decade of the twenty-first century; the area now snapped up to serve as palm oil plantations roughly equals the quantity of land that 60,000 subsistence farmers could use to grow food. This exponential increase has steadily transformed Guatemala into the ninth-largest palm oil-exporting country in the world and the second-largest in Latin America.

Doesn’t sound too bad so far, right? Well, the ownership is where things start to become a bit fishy: no more than eight Guatemalan companies control the entire palm oil production process, from farming to commercialization. According to Oxfam, these companies “operate like a cartel, as they avoid competition and dominate production, sales and prices.” Concentration of power in the hands of such a small number can often lead to dangerous human rights violations, and the African palm oil sector is no different. The cultivation of African palm in Guatemala has resulted in severe environmental damage, labor violations, unjust land grabs, and dangerous health and safety risks for workers and those who live nearby, just to name a few.

Land for palm plantations is often acquired through the “direct purchase” of territory. This process, organized by land agents sent by larger agribusinesses, displaces local families and small farmers. In one instance, agents paid indigenous Q’eqchi families about $190 on average for hectares of farm land valued at almost $900. They get away with such extortion through threats, with agents telling people that if they refuse, the agents “will return later to negotiate with your widow.” People who used to work in subsistence agriculture are then forced to seek employment in the palm oil sector, which is less labor-intensive than other agricultural sectors and provides fewer job opportunities.

Even for those who have jobs, the pay is incredibly unjust: men who work on the plantations earn about $7.50 per day, while women earn even less ($5.00 per day). Overall, as the leader of a local environmental group explained: the national and transnational palm oil companies “pay workers poverty wages, contaminate the ground and water supply with agrochemicals, encroach on protected areas, and take land away from producing food for people here to eat.”

So what do the companies say about these violations? According to Felipe Molina, the owner of the largest producer of palm oil in Guatemala, Grupo Olmeca, labor leaders are trying to stir up trouble among the workers. Instead of refuting claims of human rights violations with evidence, he insulted the intelligence of those who work for him: “these [workers] are not making semiconductors, so people of this intellectual level are easier to influence.” And guess what? His conglomerate, Grupo Olmeca operates under several names throughout Guatemala, including Hame, Santa Rosa…and REPSA!

REPSA (and, indirectly, Mr. Molina) remains under fire in Sayaxché, Petén for the ecocide in the La Pasión River. On June 8, the departmental government, the National Coordinator for Disaster Relief, and Environment Minister Óscar Medinilla declared a type of state of emergency called a yellow alert in the region. Governor Antonio Morales Ozaeta also met with representatives from REPSA and affected community members to try to determine the cause of the mass deaths of so many fish. They also discussed the first ecocide in the region, which occurred in early May; the cause of that devastation was determined to be a pesticide called Malathion, which is toxic to both humans and animals. REPSA, meanwhile, continued to deny any role in either crisis. It also continued to claim it never used Malathion.

However, damning evidence against REPSA continued to mount when it was reported on June 11 that REPSA workers had been trying to hide all signs of the ecocide by collecting the dead fish and burying them. On June 13, the Environment and Natural Resources Ministry of Guatemala (MARN, the Spanish acronym) officially announced in a press conference that REPSA was under investigation for its role in the ecocide.

Investigations continued throughout the month of June. MARN discovered that REPSA never actually completed an Environmental Impact Study for their work in the region, and a Third Civil Court judge ordered REPSA to suspend all of its work in the region indefinitely. Despite this seemingly positive conclusion, REPSA continues to threaten community members who speak out and the federal government remains mostly hands-off. Aside from suggesting a significant government-backed military presence in Sayaxché, the Guatemalan government has failed to come up with an action plan to respond to the environmental and health effects of the disaster.

The legal battle over the events in Sayaxché, Petén are far from over. More importantly, the fight to end the human rights violations surrounding the production of African palm oil in Guatemala has only just begun. In the words of a local indigenous person, “for us, palm oil does not generate employment; it generates poverty.” It also generates unjust land grabs and environmental degradation. Hopefully, the ecocide in the La Pasión River will serve as the first step on a long road towards achieving justice for our Guatemalan sisters and brothers.

As explained above, the human rights violations that follow the cultivation of African palm oil have grown into issues of global prominence. If you are interested in learning more about the palm oil sector, Petén, or the demand for palm oil across the world, please feel free to read the following reports:

The Power of Oil Palm: Land grabbing and impacts associated with the expansion of oil palm crops in Guatemala: The case of the Palmas del Ixcán Company (2011)

Labor and Human Rights Risk Analysis of the Guatemalan Palm Oil Sector

Running from your own shadow: palm oil, narcos and peasants in Petén