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CURRENT ISSUE:  August 8, 2005VOL. 43, NO. 14Oakland, CA

In the face of Baghdad’s terror,
U.S. woman works for peace

Sheila Provencher knows the terror that pervades Baghdad, the fear that grips Iraqi residents, U.S. soldiers and her own group of Christian peacemakers. She knows what it means to be afraid of the bombs and shrapnel and the hostility of those on the other side.

But Provencher also knows what happens when individuals and groups reach beyond their fears and come face-to-face with their adversaries.
“I’ve witnessed transformation happening,” Provencher said during a presentation at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley last month. She has seen Shiites and Sunnis embrace, she has felt the warm welcome of a Fallujah sheikh, and she has heard of fear turned to good will between Christian and Muslim.

These daily miracles are the goal of Christian Peacemaker Teams, an ecumenical group that brings the message of peace and nonviolence to conflict-ridden areas of the world. Provencher is halfway through a three-year stay with CPT in Baghdad and visited the Bay Area on a fundraising tour.

“CPT lives in an apartment in a regular neighborhood of Baghdad,” she said. “People find it hard to believe we live without arms or guns, but our security lies in our friendships. Our neighbors watch out for us.”

Life in Baghdad is often a normal round of shopping, cooking, going to work and making family visits, she said. “It is full of ordinary people.” With her Iraqi family – where she lived for six weeks to learn Arabic – she has celebrated birthdays, played with the children and shared daily meals.

During her talk, Provencher played the recorded voices of children singing and flashed photographs of smiling children on a large screen. But daily life is “full of contrasts,” she said, playing the sound of a bomb exploding near her home and displaying the photos of wounded children and mangled cars.

CPT has been in Baghdad since October 2002, and the tasks have varied as conditions changed. At first the organization worked to prevent war, but since the conflict broke out, team members have raised awareness of unexploded ammunition, documented the abuse of detainees and recently helped launch a Muslim Peace Team.

Together with members of the Muslim team, Provencher has visited Fallujah, the scene of fierce combat between insurgents and U.S. troops. She was afraid to go, she said, because she is a U.S. citizen and she knew how much the residents have suffered. The two Iraqis were afraid because they are Shiites and Fallujah is a Sunni stronghold.

But the residents of Fallujah eased their fears. “This man,” she said, flashing the photograph of a smiling, turbaned man on the screen, “a sheikh, actually welcomed us.” He said Sunni and Shiite were “all one,” and he told her, “We know you are not like your government.”

At the same time, she said, the sheikh “didn’t hide his anger or frustration. His driver had been killed by a military convoy.”

The sheikh spread a feast in front of them, and she was reminded of the Psalm she had learned in Catholic school, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Now she realized what it meant: “If there’s food, everyone has to come and eat. I have to sit down with my enemy. I have to share what I think with them.”

By the end of the visit, Sunni and Shiite men were embracing, smiles of joy lighting their faces. “When I saw them,” Provencher said, “I knew they were brothers now – after so much fear.”

Fear of the other is so ingrained, she said, that her parish priest in Baghdad turned down a request to visit the mosque even though the imam was willing. “They might kill us,” he told Provencher.

The father of her Iraqi host family had told her of similar feelings. When he was a boy he fell out of a tree into the midst of a Christian wedding celebration. “He was afraid they would kill him,” she said, “but they dusted him off and helped him get home.”

“Fear,” Provencher said, “is part of our everyday work in Iraq.” Each time they enter a car, soldiers are afraid that they will “get too close” to a suicide bomb. Iraqis are equally afraid, and estimates say that from 25,000 to 120,000 have been killed since the war began.

The answer to fear, she said, is not to defeat the enemy but to “take a risk” and follow Jesus’ way: “Love your enemy, do good to those who hate you.”

CPT acts out this mandate by living among the people, sharing their lives and suffering and reaching out to both sides of a conflict. They listen to stories of people injured by the coalition forces and those injured by the new Iraqi security personnel.

At the same time they speak out for the 325,000 victims of the first Gulf War, who are living with permanent disabilities, for the 13,000 U.S. soldiers listed as injured in the present war, and for the soldiers serving in Iraq now.

Members of CPT, Provencher said, have to be as willing to risk their lives in the cause of peace as the soldiers who go into combat. “We try to live up to that level,” she said.

Provencher and her fellow peacemakers listen to American soldiers in Baghdad. They hear the pain of a military mother who is far from her four-year-old child and learn of the emotional suffering of those who act against their own best instincts.

A young corporal from California recently asked her what she was doing in the middle of Baghdad, and when she told him about CPT, he looked solemnly at her and said, “That sounds better than what we’re doing.”

“We talk to many who signed up for altruistic reasons and then find that what they’re ordered to do is in conflict with their conscience,” she said. “This is their deep suffering. We need to help young people find other options and help them to recover” from the emotional and spiritual wounds of war.

She has seen Iraqis who are already working for peace, members of the Muslim Peace Team, for instance, and Hannah Ibrahim, the founder of a women’s group dedicated to peace and justice. Ibrahim hopes to show Iraqis that Americans “are not just soldiers,” and she dreams of exchange programs with the U.S. and coordinated actions with peace groups here.

Provencher believes that nations can also work for peace through nonviolence, but it will take a radical change and a spiritual transformation. Nevertheless, she said, “If we come to the table to dialogue, we can realize that we are already one.”


As part of Christian Peacemaker Teams in Baghdad, Sheila Provencher visits Muslim families and shares her convictions about non-violence.


Sheila Provencher (second from right) with a group of girls she’s befriended in Baghdad.




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