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In Their Hour of Need, Prayer

Times Staff Writer

McLEAN, Va. -- In the plain, white room where Tom Fox had attended Quaker meetings, his friends greeted the deadline laid down for his execution Saturday as they believed he would have wanted them to -- in silent communion.

They prayed for Fox, a 54-year-old grocer who had quit his job at the Whole Foods Market in Springfield, Va., two years ago to undergo training as a peacemaker and who was kidnapped in Iraq on Nov. 26.

They prayed for his fellow hostages, all members of the antiwar group Christian Peacemaker Teams: James Loney, 41, a Catholic activist from Toronto; Norman Kember, 74, a retired medical professor from London; and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, a Canadian electrical engineer.

And, as the deadline of midnight in Baghdad -- 4 p.m. in Virginia -- passed without news of whether the hostages would live or die, the Quakers also prayed for the kidnappers.

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“Imagine what it would be like to have your soul be so tortured that you would be driven to do something like this,” said Marge Epstein, a friend of Fox’s. “If we answer it back out of fear and anger and revenge, all that we’ll do is perpetuate it.”

A previously unknown group called the Swords of Righteousness Brigade claimed to have kidnapped the four Westerners and has accused them of being American spies. Footage of the four, with their hands shackled and wearing orange jumpsuits reminiscent of those worn by inmates at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was aired on the Arab television network Al Jazeera three days after their abduction.

The group had announced that it would execute the hostages on Thursday unless all Iraqi prisoners were freed, then extended the deadline until Saturday. Friends said they had no idea who was holding the captives, and there was no news Saturday from Baghdad of their fate.

Friends and family of the Western peace activists have kept a low profile until recently, preferring to work through back-channels and, particularly, to ask Muslim leaders in the U.S. and in Iraq to speak out for the captives, said Mary E. Lord of the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia and a longtime friend of Fox’s.

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Lord said a number of Islamic religious leaders, as well as representatives of Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, have signed statements calling for the hostages to be spared.

In Iraq, Fox and his colleagues were working to promote nonviolent conflict resolution between Sunnis and Shiites. They were also helping families of Iraqi prisoners held both by U.S. forces and by Iraqis and were reporting back to faith-based communities in the United States about the impact of U.S. policies in Iraq.

Fox and another member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams signed a statement before leaving for Iraq saying they understood what they were doing was dangerous but were convinced the risks did not outweigh their purpose in being in Iraq. They said they rejected kidnapping and did not wish any ransom to be paid should they be taken hostage.

If kidnapped, the 2004 statement said, they “will attempt to communicate with the hostage-takers or their sponsors and work against journalists’ inclination to vilify and demonize the offenders. We will try to understand the motives for these actions, and to articulate them, while maintaining a firm stance that such actions are wrong.”

Fox’s statement also said he did not want force to be used to free him or any violence used to punish anyone who harmed him.

“He is quoted as saying there are far too many people willing to die in war than to die for peace,” said Ken Epstein, 58, of Arlington, Va. “I think that’s what it’s all about: He feels called by God to do this.”

In Virginia, friends of Fox and his two grown children have held prayer vigils and meetings to try to get his message across. One was held jointly with the All Dulles-Area Muslim Society, which has developed a relationship with the Quakers since Sept. 11, 2001, and whose members have tried to spread the word to Iraq and elsewhere in the Mideast about the Quakers and Fox.

“These people who kidnapped our friends don’t represent the Iraqi people, and they clearly don’t represent the Muslim people,” said Georgia Fuller of Arlington, who has known Fox for 15 years. “The Iraqi people have certainly had more to fear than we have had to fear and more reason to be angry than we have had.”

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It is not easy to forgive Fox’s kidnappers, Lord said, but it is the Quaker task to “separate the behavior from the person.... There’s no justification in our mind for killing, period, " Lord said. “The kidnapping or threat of executing innocent persons is not excusable, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t forgive persons, because we believe in the presence of God in all of us. We believe that these persons who are threatening to do these things still can be transformed.”

In the blog he wrote from Baghdad -- www.waitinginthelight.blogspot.com -- Fox struggled to make sense of the suicide bombings, kidnappings and assassinations around him in Baghdad and of what it meant to stand firm as a pacifist. In April 2005, he wrote: “The ability to feel the pain of another human being is central to any kind of peacemaking work. But this compassion is fraught with peril. How do I stay with the pain and suffering and not be overwhelmed? How do I resist the welling up of rage toward the perpetrators of violence? How do I keep from disconnecting from or becoming numb to the pain?”

In an earlier blog, he wrote: “I struggle to stand firm, but I’m willing to keep working at it.”


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