Former Iraq hostage aims to reforge link
10 October 2006
The words don't fit together very well these days. It's hard not to feel that religion is fuelling, or at least exacerbating, most of the military and cultural conflict in our world.
Shia and Sunni forces square off in Iraq. Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils fight it out in Sri Lanka. In Sudan, the civil war is Christian versus Muslim. In Israel and Palestine, it's Muslim versus Jew.
This is not just some post-9/11 phenomenon. Let's not forget those decades of Protestant versus Roman Catholic violence in Northern Ireland. Or those Sikh extremists who blew up Air India flight 182. Or the Christian fundamentalists who blew up the Federal building in Oklahoma City or gunned down abortion doctors.
So how do you redeem the world's religions from the clutches of the extremists? Or from the naked opportunists who manipulate religion as a tool to advance their own political agendas?
"Just by hanging in there," says James Loney.
"By not letting the extremists have the final say on who God is, by not letting them be the final voice of God.
"This story is as old as the hills, where God has been used to bless and sanctify war and oppression," adds the Catholic social activist. "Religion has often been used by the powerful as a sacred canopy to sacralize the existing order, to keep people in their place. But religion can also be used to subvert and critique violence and oppression. That's where the voice of God is acting."
Few have had more experience with the opposing faces of religion than James Loney.
The aid worker, a member of the humanitarian group Christian Peacemaker Teams, became an international cause celebre last November, when he and three of his teammates were kidnapped in Iraq by an Islamic militant group called the Swords of Righteousness Brigade. Loney and his colleagues were held for four months while their captors taunted the world with videotapes in which they threatened to kill their hostages.
On March 10, the body of one of the hostages, Tom Fox, was found in a Baghdad garbage dump. Two weeks later, an elite force of American, British and Canadian operatives rescued the remaining three hostages.
The irony, that a group of committed religious pacifists had to be rescued from Muslim extremists by military force, was not lost on neo-conservative commentators, who mocked the Christian Peacemaker Teams workers for their naivete. But Loney continued to make headlines after he arrived home in Ontario.
He revealed that he was gay, and that his longtime partner and his family had hidden that fact, for fear Loney would be executed if his devout captors learned he was a homosexual.
And Loney stayed in the news - publicly denouncing the attitude of the Roman Catholic church towards homosexuality and agitating for the release on bail of suspected al-Qaida terrorists, who've been held for years without charge on security certificates. He's been celebrated by some. Excoriated by others. And, in another irony, shunned by many leaders in his own church because of his sexuality.
It's all been a big adjustment - for him and his partner, Dan Hunt, who suddenly found themselves the most famous, or notorious, gay couple in Canada.
"Our lives were kind of thrown into upheaval and we're still not back into a rhythm where we can just do chores around the house," he laughs. "It's still not a regular rhythm of life.
"Events kind of pushed me more into the public eye than I would have chosen, in a magnitude I wouldn't have chosen. It's all still a very new thing to me, this public profile. I'm still figuring out what it means."
But Loney, 42, feels a moral imperative to make use of his accidental fame.
"I don't want to say I feel called to do this. That sounds kind of grandiose. But let me put it this way: There's a big rock that needs to be moved, and we all have different-sized sticks or levers to move it. This kidnapping handed me a bigger lever to do what needs to be done, a bigger voice. I feel that it's a gift. But it's a responsibility, too."
Loney will be in Edmonton next week as the keynote speaker at a conference on peace, religion and human rights being hosted by the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights. For him, it's the start of a national speaking tour on peace and justice issues. He's also been working as a columnist for the Catholic New Times and mulling over several approaches to write a book about his experiences as a kidnap victim in Iraq.
"I feel really lucky that I don't have post-traumatic stress," he says quietly. "Though I do still startle easily when I hear loud noises. But I don't have any nightmares or anxiety attacks or emotional numbness. I can easily imagine I'd be a complete mess if they'd tortured us, physically or psychologically. Instead, it was just this amazing experience to go from this bleak struggle to exist into freedom, to return to my family and friends, to get so much support and love. I'm very, very lucky."
Would he ever go back to Iraq? No, he says. He'd be too tempting, too high-profile a target. But he is considering another overseas peace mission, perhaps to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
"It will be scary to go. It's always scary to go and it will be scarier next time."
Conference - Building World Peace: The Role of Religions and Human Rights, an international conference hosted by the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, runs from Oct. 20-22 at the Shaw Conference Centre. James Loney will be the keynote speaker Oct. 20 at 7:15 pm.