Iraq/Syria Brief – February 2019

Peace Is Fragile: In Times of Peace, We Need to Develop Policies of Dialogue, Peacebuilding and Economic Justice for the Common Good

By Martin Accad

 

News

As the Trump Administration announced the beginning of the pullout of its military forces and equipment from Syria on 11 January, many of the populations who have suffered at the hands of ISIS are feeling betrayed (as documented by an article in The Economist published on the 13th of January). In mid-December 2018, President Trump had signed “The Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act,” which represented a moment of victory for several lobby groups working for the protection of minorities in the conflict zones of Iraq and Syria. This would have helped restore the minority communities of these desolate regions. But the US pullout might deny the new law the space for implementation on the ground. The pullout could “open up the gates of hell,” one cleric of the Assyrian Church of the East is cited as saying in The Economist article. This would reverse the trends on the ground back in favor of ISIS.

Analysis

In a recent analysis by Mona Alami (nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council), entitled “The Islamic State Lives On,” and published on the Carnegie website, she argues that the realities on the ground in Iraq and Syria show clearly that ISIS is far from being defeated. Even as they are ousted from important strongholds, sleeper cells continue to operate and attacks are carried out daily. “On December 13, Kurdish news site Rudaw reported that in one month alone, IS attacked villages in Iraq’s disputed Khanaqin district over 143 times, forcing villagers to flee their homes.”

In a NYT article on 16 January 2019, ISIS expert Hassan Hassan’s research on the group is cited as confirming that “there are many Islamic State sleeper cells scattered around different parts of Syria and Iraq, as well as in Turkey and elsewhere. He called American involvement and presence the most important factor in the Islamic State’s demise, and said a swift withdrawal of United States forces could allow the jihadists to surge back, perhaps reclaiming as much as 50 percent of their former territory.”

Theological Perspectives

There are no easy fixes to the violent inclinations of jihadi groups. Addressing this violence with force may be the only option in the short term, but it is clearly not a long-term solution. The danger of using force to quell jihadi violence is that it gives a false sense of security so long as the peaceful status quo can be maintained, so that people forget the importance of working on longer-term solutions in times of peace.

Yet the idea of permanent peace is an illusion. The Bible tells us that this is never going to happen. “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city,” Luke tells us, Jesus “wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:41-42). Though God provides us with a path to peace, we as humans are blind to it because we are infatuated by our egotism and national self-interests.

But the church community, which was established by the Prince of Peace, needs to learn to live amidst violence and instability, our world’s usual modus operandi. Jesus, indeed, equips us with what we need to receive and dispense peace. We are called to “overcome the world” and its violence by means of our Lord’s victory over the world (John 16:33). We are encouraged by Jesus’ promise: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

Missiological Implications

Thus, we are called to promote peace even in the midst of violence. And when the rare times of peace come to our world, we need to make every effort to build frameworks for dialogue that bring reconciliation between people and God and between people among themselves, as we work toward the common good of our societies. The story of Joseph in the Hebrew Scriptures teaches us that God does not withhold knowledge of coming tribulation when he finds a servant with vision and willingness to respond to the movement of his Spirit for the benefit of all people. Through special revelation, divine guidance, and holy wisdom, Joseph was able to use seven years of prosperity in the land to prepare for and preempt seven years of famine.

Similarly, the Pax Romana was an important socio-political phenomenon that allowed for the establishment and promotion of the gospel through the Jesus community in the first century of our era. We must pray for times of peace and stability and work toward this as we seek new pathways for the gospel in our world.

Times of peace are precious and should not be taken for granted. It is easy to be critical of peacebuilding or dialogue initiatives as superfluous or not “at the core of the gospel” in times of relative peace. Without minimizing the importance of personal witness that draws people to Christ, IMES continues to take important steps to consolidate justice, dialogue, and cooperation between various groups for the common good. Without a holistic approach to the Church’s call to promote God’s mission in the world, we will do harm to the Gospel of Peace and to the Prince of Peace.