Anti-War Group Blames US, British Gov'ts for Iraqi Hostage-Taking

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - An "independent" religious anti-war group that demonstrates its opposition to U.S. and Israeli policies by "getting in the way" says the Bush and Blair governments are to blame for the fact that four of its members are being held hostage by terrorists in Iraq.

"We are angry because what has happened to our teammates is the result of the actions of the U.S. and U.K. governments due to the illegal attack on Iraq and the continuing occupation and oppression of its people," the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) said in a statement released in Baghdad Wednesday.

The four are being held by a group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade, which accuses them of being Western spies, according to a video clip broadcast on the al-Jazeera television network.

The North American-based CPT, which has links to the Quakers, Brethren and Mennonites, identified the hostages as 54-year-old Tom Fox of Springfield, Va.; Canadians James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32; and Norman Kember, 74, from Britain.

According to its website, the CPT has been a "nonviolent, independent presence" in Iraq since six months before the U.S.-led war to oust Saddam Hussein in March 2003.

The small group's primary focus for the 18 months following the start of the war was to document and draw attention to the abuse of detainees by U.S. forces, while its current work includes "efforts to end occupation and militarization of the country."

Wednesday's statement stressed the group's stance, saying it feared the hostage-takers had "made a mistake."

The four men "came to Iraq to work for peace and explain their opposition to the occupation," the CPT said. "They are not spies.

"We were the first people to publicly denounce the torture of Iraqi people at the hands of U.S. forces, long before the Western media admitted what was happening at [the U.S. military prison at] Abu Ghraib," it said.

"We are some of the few internationals left in Iraq who are telling the truth about what is happening to the Iraqi people. We hope that we can continue to do this work, and we pray for the speedy release of our beloved teammates."

The CPT's main Middle East focus is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has had a presence since 1985 in Hebron, an ancient city in disputed territory south of Jerusalem.

On Wednesday, "National and Islamic Forces in Hebron" held a press conference in the city, where prominent Palestinian organizations expressed their support for the CPT and called for the release of the hostages.

In their statement, which is posted on a pro-Palestinian website, they say: "We appeal to our brothers in the resistance and all those with alert consciences in Iraq, with whom we consider ourselves to be in the same trench confronting American aggression and occupation, to instantly and quickly release the four kidnapped persons ... from CPT, in appreciation for their role in standing beside and supporting our Palestinian people and all the Arab and Islamic peoples."

The statement was signed by various groups, including Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestinian Liberation Front -- all on the State Department's list of terror organizations -- as well as Fatah.

Independence questioned

Hebron is a mostly Palestinian city, but it is also highly significant to religious Jews, a small community of whom lives there close to the site of the tombs of the Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Tensions regularly erupt, and the CPT members, wearing trademark red baseball caps, see their role as reducing tensions and "getting in the way" of the Israeli army.

The group's leanings have on occasion been called into question, with Jewish settlers accusing it of siding with Palestinians in disputes between Arabs and Jews.

"Under a guise of 'violence reduction presence,' this group of anti-Semitic Israel-haters continues to incite Arabs in Hebron, and in the Hebron area, against Israelis living here," Jewish community spokesman David Wilder wrote of the CPT in 1998.

In 2002, head of the Hebron Jewish settlement Noam Arnon said the Westerners had "a totally one-sided attitude."

NGO Monitor, a project of the Israeli think tank Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said the CPT's "advocacy blames Israel for Palestinian suffering [while] ignoring terrorism and corruption."

There is a "vast gap between CPT's claims to work for peace 'through non-violent means' and its biased political agenda," NGO Monitor said in an Aug. 2005 report.

The CPT website makes its pro-Palestinian stance clear, with numerous accusations of abusive behavior by Israeli soldiers and settlers.

Political views also frequently appear on the site.

"Israel must serve an important purpose for the U.S. in the Mideast -- perhaps oil accessibility" reads one answer in a frequently asked question section.

CPT describes Hamas as "a religious renewal movement in Islam" that has "major social programs" and "a small military wing."

Elsewhere, it says: "Christian churches in Palestine are peopled by Palestinians who are occupied people, too. Many have fled to Europe or the U.S. to escape a deplorable situation."

The implication is that Christian Arabs have left because of Israeli policies, although for years, researchers have attributed the flight in large part to militant Islam.

See Earlier Story:
Bethlehem Christians Worry About Islamic Takeover in Jesus' Birthplace (May 19, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow