rural area north of Baghdad ending a near four-month ordeal, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw confirmed.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry said earlier that Briton Norman Kember, 74, and Canadians James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, were rescued in a joint US-British operation between the towns of Mishahda, 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Baghdad, and the western suburb of Abu Ghraib, 12 miles (about 19 kilometers) from downtown.
The men, members of the Chicago and Toronto-based conflict resolution group Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), were kidnapped November 26 along with their American colleague, Tom Fox, 54, whose body was found this month. A previously unknown group, the Swords of Righteousness Brigades, claimed responsibility for kidnapping the four workers.
In Toronto, Canada, CPT’s Co-Director Doug Pritchard was the first to report that "no shots were fired" during efforts to free the hostages. He told journalists that "the captors were not present" when military personnel raided the area, but in London Straw refused to confirm that information.
British and other officials said however that no one was injured during the rescue operation. Straw described Kember as being in a "reasonable condition" in Baghdad’s Green Zone, but said the two Canadians needed briefly hospital treatment, apparently because of their earlier ordeal. They were later moved to the British embassy, suggesting their medical condition was not life threatening.
Till the last moment CPT had urged coalition forces not to use force to free its staff members, as the organization rejects violence on principal grounds. "Our faith [in Christ] compels us to love our enemies," explained Pritchard Thursday, March 23. He stressed that the hearts of CPT co-workers are "filled with joy because of their release." He said CPT had "endured uncertainty, hope, fear, grief and now joy during the four months since they were abducted" in Baghdad.
"We rejoice in the return of [Canadian] Harmeet Sooden. He has been willing to put his life on the line to promote justice in Iraq and Palestine as a young man newly committed to active peacemaking," Pritchard said.
"We rejoice in the return of [Canadian] Jim Loney. He has cared for the marginalized and oppressed since childhood, and his gentle, passionate spirit has been an inspiration to people near and far. We rejoice in the return of Norman Kember. He is a faithful man, an elder and mentor to many in his 50 years of peacemaking, a man prepared to pay the cost," the CPT official added.
But Pritchard cautioned that CPT’s "gladness is bitter sweet as Tom Fox is not here to join in their celebration." He said, "With Tom’s death we felt the grief of the loss of our beloved friend…However, we are confident that his spirit is very much present in each reunion." His body was discovered March 10 near a west Baghdad railway line with gunshot wounds to his head and chest, according to military officials.
The hostage drama raised questions over CPT’s way of working in Iraq. It rejected military protection, making staff members an easy target for potential kidnappers. Pritchard said however CPT wanted to be "close to Iraqis" and that the organization "trusts in the loving God."
He stressed that during the captivity of his colleagues CPT "tasted the pain that is the daily bread of so many Iraqis." Pitchard claimed that his colleagues conveyed to the militants "they were people of great faith." Kember’s friend, Bruce Kent, said the release was an answer to prayers. "We had a [prayer] vigil yesterday."
Pitchard added that international concern, including from Muslims, also attributed to their eventual release.
The CPT team members came to Iraq "in a show of solidarity" with "suffering Iraqis" and to be "bridge builders for peace," the organization said. They supported families of Iraqi prisoners held by the US-led coalition forces and campaigned against "the occupation of Iraq," which they see as the root of current violence in Iraq. Pritchard said there would be an evaluation of future activities in Iraq after his freed colleagues were questioned by British officials, a procedure known as "debriefing."
While Secretary Straw said he did not agree with CPT’s opinions about the circumstances that led to the war in Iraq, he was "impressed" with what he called the "Christian" attitude shown by the wife of freed hostage Norman Kember, a retired British professor. "I have spoken with her several times…She could easily have condemned the government, but she didn’t," Straw said about Pat Kember, who is 74.
She was among those making a televised appeal for the release of her husband and his colleagues, which was aired by the Arabic network Aljazeera. "Throughout his life he bravely fought against all kinds of injustice," she explained at the time. "He went to Iraq to help the Iraqi people to stop the spread of abuse and to understand the situation in order to make Iraq a safer place."
Although the kidnapping of these Western Christians made world headlines, religious rights groups say they are not alone. Barnabas Fund and other advocacy groups have reported that Iraqi Christians have been kidnapped throughout the country since hostilities began three years ago.
Thousands of Iraqis have been kidnapped since the 2003 US-led invasion, according to observers. Among the 200 foreigners kidnapped in this period, fifty-five foreign hostages are known to have been killed. Two Germans, two Kenyans and American journalist Jill Carroll of the Christian Science Monitor newspaper are still being held.
Religious rights groups fear the security situation will worsen for both foreigners and the Christian minority because of growing religious strife in Iraq, at a time when the country struggles to build a government of national unity. Straw said Thursday, March 23, Britain would do all it can to encourage such a government amid international concern that the country could plunge into civil war.
There were more signs of civil unrest Thursday, March 23, as at least 20 people were killed in three bombings in Baghdad, an almost daily occurrence in the troubled nation. Christians comprise about three percent if Iraq’s mainly Muslim population of roughly 26-million people, according to official estimates. But religious rights groups say the real figure could be higher as thousands of Christians have fled. (With reports from Baghdad, London and Toronto as monitored by BosNewsLife News Center with BosNewsLife Research. Coverage continues on BosNewsLife).