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A work of peace

 Posted by on August 28, 2014  archives  Add comments
Aug 282014
 

Religious persecution has drawn the United States back into the bloody mess of Iraq. It may be more accurate to describe the mess as ancient tribal animosities in the Middle East. But whatever the label, minority religious and ethnic peoples face mortal danger from a small group of Muslim fanatics calling themselves the Islamic State.
Their campaign of religious cleansing swept into northern Iraq from Syria this summer, eliminating “infidels” along the way. Christians and other minorities were faced with demands that they convert to Islam or die.
Our media have emphasized the way this bloodletting has affected Iraq’s Christians. They have been reduced to a barely alive remnant where for centuries Christianity had its place as part of the Middle East religious bazaar. But Christians are not the only threatened minority. Members of Yazidi, members of a thousand-year-old religion in the region, have faced the same convert-or-die ultimatums.
Islamic State fighters overran the Yazidi village of Kocho earlier this month and demanded of its 80 men that they convert to Islam. All but the village leader agreed. He was executed. The others, in the end, were not saved by their fear-based “conversion.”
Women and girls were taken away and the men loaded on buses and driven outside the village. The buses stopped and the invaders fired into them with machine guns. One man survived to tell the story even after being shot twice. According to him, “First they wanted us all to convert to Islam and we said ‘yes’ just to save our lives. We were all very afraid.”
This is life where religion is misused to dominate and control; where killing is done as “the will of God.” It becomes clearer by the day that there is no military solution for the rages and fanaticism, the conflicting religious dreams and the corrupt politics which afflict the Middle East. Bullets and bombs have no power as long as people nurse historic grievances, demand an eye for an eye and believe themselves to be God’s exclusive agents.
We outsiders can try to prevent the worst abuses of innocent people, as our air support did for the Christian and Yazidi refugees. We can give material aid to forces which seem likely to stop the fanatics and prevent the collapse of civil order. Beyond that, we can only encourage and support those who see the need for tolerance.
People of the Middle East need time to work out for themselves their own way of combining religious faith with toleration. Our diplomacy should recognize the central place of religious faith and tribal loyalties among the people. We must respect the various religious histories in the region, and offer every encouragement to dialogue about ways that faith and toleration may live together honestly.
For years there have been small groups in the region demonstrating as nonviolent actors for peace. They are courageous. Sometimes they make gains against patterns of violence. But it doesn’t seem likely that real peace will settle into that part of the world until religion there accepts the “other,” the outsider, in some way. Being against violence is a beginning. Finding a way to carry faith that is felt as true and transforming while at the same time truly neighboring the other person as she or he is, not as a potential “convert” — that is the needed next step and a hard balance to find. Our own history is an example of that.
Clues to such balance, clues that shape a vision of the common good rather than sectarian advantage, are available in the great religious traditions. In the Middle East, the work of finding them is the work of peace.
Frank Wessling

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