Peacebuilding as presence: MCC assignments in “enemy” contexts


Individual articles from the Summer 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog twice per week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website. This article consist of five reflections which will be posted separately.

Beginning with the decision by some MCC workers from the United States to remain in Vietnam after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country on March 29, 1973, one form MCC’s peace witness has taken has been a witness of presence within so-called “enemy” contexts. Such peace witness included placing graduate students behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War tasked with connecting to and supporting churches in the Eastern bloc, assigning aid workers to live and work in Iraq before and after the U.S. invasion of the country in 2002, placing more graduate students at an Islamic studies center in Qom, Iran, seconding staff to work with health ministries in Afghanistan and sending agronomists to make extended program support visits to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea). Below are reflections from MCC workers who were involved in such peacebuilding-as-presence initiatives on the joys and challenges they faced.—The editors.


We often think of two U.S.-led wars in Iraq. One began in January 1991 in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, ending just over a month later. The second Iraq war began in March 2003 and ended in December 2011. But it is more accurate to say that it was just one long war. The no-fly zones established over northern and southern Iraq from 1991 to 2003 included multiple air strikes and dozens of cruise missiles bombing Iraqi targets, coupled with a debilitating sanctions campaign and a long legacy of depleted uranium.

I arrived in the middle of this long war. From January 2004 to June 2006, I was the MCC Iraq program manager. My job had two components. First, I was to teach English at Babel College, a Chaldean Catholic college and seminary in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. Second, I was tasked with cultivating relationships with potential MCC partners, whether churches, Islamic organizations or emerging local NGOs. In doing so, I was merely continuing the work that had begun in 1998 with Wanda Kraybill, the first MCCer in Iraq. From 1998 to 2003, Wanda, and later Carmen Pauls and then Edward Miller, were in Iraq as a gesture of solidarity, especially with the churches there. Placing these MCC workers in Iraq was a way of saying: “Not all Westerners share the U.S. government’s position and not all Christians in the U.S. think their citizenship is more important than their baptism.” MCCers worked alongside the Middle East Council of Churches, the Iraqi Red Crescent Society and the Australian branch of CARE to mitigate the effects of the U.S. sanctions and to call attention to the slow violence of depleted uranium munitions, but they did so with limited resources. Importantly, this was a time when there was virtually no Western presence in Iraq. The MCC difference was, first and foremost, simply being there as friend instead of enemy, despite our U.S. citizenship. We took a stand against the sanctions campaign, both as advocates at home in Washington, D.C., and through aid projects on the ground in Iraq.

Placing MCC workers in Iraq was a way of saying, “not all Westerners share the U.S. government’s position and not all Christians in the U.S. think their citizenship is more important that their baptism.”

But after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, all that changed. Specifically, two things shifted dramatically and both made MCC’s position harder to maintain. First, instead of a few western NGOs with limited resources, Iraq was flooded with western NGOs with billions to spend. Instead of being a lone NGO in defiance of the international community’s aggression, MCC was now just one small cog in a giant aid industry. That industry, as I came to see it after I arrived in January 2004, had three distinct factions. The first were what we might call the “occupying NGOs,” indebted to USAID and the U.S. State Department and (some eagerly, some reluctantly) a key part of the U.S. war effort. The second was what I affectionately called the humanitarian fundamentalists. These were primarily European NGOs committed to the principled tradition of humanitarian neutrality that is best represented by the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and Médecins Sans Frontière (MSF). The third were the left-wing activist NGOs who were willing to abandon the neutrality of the second group in pursuit of their anti-war agenda. 

MCC was an odd fit with these three groups. While philosophically, practically and socially most distant from the U.S. NGOs, we couldn’t get away from the fact that most of the MCCers involved were U.S. citizens. We became closest to the humanitarians and the activist NGOs, but for that to happen they had to overcome their wariness of both our citizenship and of our faith commitments. 

The second change was that aid workers were now vulnerable in a way they had not been before 2004. In April of that year, the Iraqi insurgency began taking hostages. A Wikipedia page, “Foreign Hostages in Iraq,” lists over 200 hostages, the vast majority between 2004-2006. At least eight of those were close colleagues of MCC and of those eight, three were killed. It would be convenient if the ones kidnapped were the ones with the closest ties to the U.S. and the invading military coalition. But that wasn’t the case. It was the ICRC compound in Baghdad that was attacked in 2003. In the eyes of the insurgency, we were all enemies. In other words, it became harder to imagine that MCC, or any non-coalition aid agency, was either neutral or on the side of Iraqis. The whole notion of ‘sides’ had gotten scrambled. 

Sister Elham Degaly and Sarah (age 12) in the courtyard of St Anne’s Orphanage. St Anne’s Orphanage was an MCCsupported Global Family project from 2009-2016. Sarah’s last name is not used for security reasons. Iraqi families have been torn apart by poverty and war. Some families have been unable to care for their children. Some children have watched their parents die. The Daughters of Mary of the Chaldean Christian Church provide a loving home for children (mostly girls) with traumatic childhoods. In partnership with the Daughters of Mary, MCC buys textbooks, tutoring resources and other supplies. (MCC photo/Kaitlin Heatwole)

Evacuated to Jordan, the humanitarian fundamentalist and activist NGOs had a standard explanation. “Humanitarian space,” the space in which aid agencies could carry out their mission to the most vulnerable, was only possible when aid agencies maintained their distance from the U.S. coalition power and when the U.S. coalition power respected that distance. Since so many NGOs had effectively become extensions of the occupation, whether willingly or because of USAID arm-twisting, that space no longer existed. In other words, the ICRC hadn’t been bombed because it was an enemy, but because the occupying NGOs had so muddied humanitarian space that it was no longer possible to tell the difference between the humanitarian fundamentalists and the occupation. In the space of just a year, MCC went from being the sole inhabitant of humanitarian space, to one of many organizations claiming humanitarian space, to witnessing the end of that space.

Meanwhile, the suffering of our Iraqi friends and colleagues increased exponentially. Caught between the coalition forces and the growing Iraqi insurgency, tens of thousands of Iraqis died and millions were displaced and remain displaced to this day. Those who remained had their lives disrupted and upended in all the countless ways that war wrecks societies—struggles to obtain food, healthcare, education and employment and lives of constant fear. From my apartment in Jordan in 2005, communicating with Iraqi friends and colleagues by phone and email and learning daily about the deteriorating conditions, we weighed commitments to solidarity with Iraqis alongside the risks. The former won out and MCC agreed to let me return to Baghdad, to an apartment above the flat where members of Christian Peacemaker Teams lived. CPT had never left. But just a week before my return flight, four of those CPTers were kidnapped. One, the only U.S. citizen, Tom Fox, was killed. Fifteen years later, MCC Iraq still does not maintain a presence in Baghdad.

Peter Dula is professor of religion and culture at Eastern Mennonite University. He worked with MCC in Iraq from 2004-2006.

Paticipants at an interfaith workshop in Abeche, Chad, hosted by Ethics, Peace and Justice (EPJ) in 2016, discuss challenges to interfaith collaboration in their communities. MCC partnered with EPJ for over 20 years in peacebuilding initiatives, bringing Muslim, Protestant and Catholic leaders together to foster cooperation and community resilience. (MCC photo/Mark Tymm)

Beyond doing no harm: reducing conflict through food assistance

Over ten million people in Iraq—almost a third of the country’s total population—are in need of humanitarian assistance, with food assistance being the ongoing priority need. Local, regional, national and international actors are using a variety of strategies to provide food and other assistance. However, the means of delivering this food assistance—how, when, by whom and for whom—impacts conflict dynamics far beyond the contents of the package. Tools like Do No Harm (DNH) examine how assistance is conducted in order to identify the likely negative consequences that may occur beyond immediate food consumption, but strategies for revising and shaping interventions to produce positive social impacts are more limited. Providing long-term, predictable and consistent food assistance as well as involving both displaced and host communities in the intervention are two actions that can improve security and reinforce the existing social fabric in otherwise unstable environments. These are positive impacts of humanitarian interventions that go beyond improving food consumption.

The Do No Harm framework provides tools to analyze how an intervention positively and negatively impacts its context. Distributing assistance along sectarian lines, undermining existing support systems or giving power to a certain group or individuals over others are all actions that fuel conflict. Conversely, actions motivated by respect, accountability, fairness and transparency (RAFT) serve to mitigate conflict. One of the key principles of DNH is that no negative impact is inevitable: there are always options to revise and improve programming. At the practical level, DNH recommends minimizing potential negative impact of humanitarian interventions by minimizing dividers that fuel conflict and maximizing connectors that strengthen social cohesion.

One of the main dividers that increases conflict and fuels tension in food assistance is a lack of predictable and consistent delivery. When a family receives food from different groups, in different amounts, in different ways and at different times (or not at all), they cannot predict or plan their next week, let alone future months or years. In Iraq, families displaced by the Islamic State group rely on monthly food assistance, with the World Food Programme (WFP) providing substantial funding through many implementing partners. In April 2015, a delay in its funding pipeline resulted in a missed month for all WFP-funded food assistance across Iraq. Around 1.5 million individuals did not receive food that they were counting on, with little or no advance notice. As increasingly desperate families heard about non-WFP actors providing food assistance in other areas, this funding delay triggered secondary displacement, with families relocating in search of assistance to meet their basic needs. Irregular provision like this—especially delays or changes in regular distribution schedules and alterations of the amount or type of food provided—has direct negative consequences for conflict-affected people. In this case, relocations forced many internally displaced persons (IDPs) to leave behind previous assistance (such as winterized shelters or large items like refrigerators) and likely strained resources and exacerbated host community–IDP tensions at their new locations.

To go beyond simply avoiding negative effects and instead strengthen the existing social networks of support, interventions must proactively integrate both IDP and host communities. For example, one of MCC’s partners, Zahko Small Villages Project (ZSVP), has engaged host communities and IDPs by incorporating ongoing livelihoods projects for vulnerable host community members—kitchen gardens, beekeeping and other home-based income generation activities—with monthly food assistance for IDPs living in the same and nearby towns. Collaboration between the two groups has happened spontaneously, and ZSVP encourages equal treatment and interaction (rather than segregation according to status) by drawing on IDPs and host community members alike for involvement in project volunteering, project participant selection and information-gathering. Hosts in these and other towns frequently provide crucial supplemental assistance through their individual generosity—providing their new neighbors with vegetables from their gardens, shared refrigerator space, cash and other necessities—that goes unrecognized and undocumented. With only ten percent of Iraqi IDPs living in camps, host communities across the country have absorbed displaced families—usually an additional 30-50% of their original population—and may themselves be in need of assistance. Outside interventions should seek to mitigate the strain on small host communities like these without undermining their contributions.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for good interventions. However, some practical tools can be applied in many contexts, especially regarding food assistance. Beyond improving immediate food consumption without doing harm, food assistance has the capacity to decrease conflict and promote peace by prioritizing long-term and regular distributions while incorporating social cohesion into project implementation.

Kaitlin Heatwole is a program coordinator for MCC.

Learn more:

Anderson, Mary. Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace—Or War. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999.

Do No Harm Project. “The ‘Do No Harm’ Framework for Analyzing the Impact of Assistance on Conflict: A Handbook.” Cambridge, MA: Collaborative for Development Action, Inc., April 2004. Retrieved from

“Iraq: Multi-Cluster Needs Assessment of Internally Displaced Persons Outside Camps.” Geneva: REACH Initiative, October 2015. Retrieved from

“Key Principles in Do No Harm and Conflict Sensitivity.” Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2015. Retrieved from

Conscientious objection: a U.S. veteran’s perspective

Since the U.S. military moved away from a policy of conscription, several generations of Mennonite pacifists have become somewhat apathetic on questions of conscientious objection and military service. The issue of conscience in war—once a key ethical matter central to the Mennonite faith—has lately been labeled as political, a marginal and somewhat irrelevant distraction from the other pressing needs of an active congregational life.

The challenges of war and conscience in war, however, are still very real to many Americans. Many soldiers are struggling and suffering for their new-found beliefs against war and military service. The Mennonite community should not be indifferent to their struggles. Not only does the pacifist church have an opportunity to unmask the ideology of militarism by standing with recent COs, but in helping to secure the rights of supposedly-volunteer soldiers in the present day, Mennonites will be securing those same rights for a time when the draft once again comes knocking to take their children off to the army camp.

The plight of the Iraq War CO

In late 2006, my friend Amy was deployed to Iraq with the U.S. army. She was a sensitive and educated person, but she was also a good soldier and a professional linguist. While in Iraq, Amy experienced the soul-crushing violence of military occupation and war. Like many thousands of fellow soldiers in the supposedly “all volunteer” U.S. military, she began reading in her spare time, and she knew deep down that the occupation she was participating in was wrong. In 2007, Amy wrote an essay on why she was considering herself a conscientious objector to war, and turned it in to her commander in an attempt to be recognized for what she was: a CO.

Because Amy had never once loaded her weapon in the war, and because it was a prop required for passage on the base, she did not immediately turn her rifle in to the commander, who then used this fact to deny Amy her conscientious objector status. In effect, the military told Amy that her deep convictions against war and militarism were just passing feelings. She was then punished for daring to waste the army’s time with her frivolous feelings. The day Amy’s unit returned from the war, she was told that she would be re-deploying in six months for another year-and-a-half in the occupation. Soon Amy showed up at the peace center where I was working, AWOL: a fugitive from the military. Based on my own assessment as a soldier in the war, the vast majority of the soldiers who applied for conscientious objector status between 2004 and 2008 were turned down like Amy.

Pacifist appraisal of modern conscientious objection

So what does it mean for Mennonites that during the middle stages of the occupation of Iraq, hundreds or even thousands of American soldiers were ready to jettison their careers and explore the nuances of conscientious objection? A lesson to religious pacifists who want to monopolize conscientious objection: that someone like Amy should come to a world-altering conclusion about violence and militarism without a traditional religious conversion demonstrates the universality of nonviolent truth. The nonviolent God moves in a theodicy of grace through the experience of brokenness, war and violence to renew the covenant of wholeness. By failing to engage those soldiers who struggle in a conceptual language different from ours with the transcendent truth of God’s nonviolent way, Christian pacifists share in the guilt and sin of the world that forces young people to do violence against their will and better judgment. War is, after all, really a failure of human imagination. Human violence is a demonstration of humanity’s unwillingness to trust the will of God the Creator, to suffer-with and to love enemies.

Comfortable Mennonites, whose children go unthreatened by conscription and war, sometimes talk of peace as if it were some distant eschatological fairy-tale, and not an urgent, vital need. To people like my friend Amy, peace is tangible and present, what some pacifist theologians have called the “moral grain” of the universe. My deep and abiding hope is that Mennonites will embrace veterans and military personnel in the spirit of Christian love and peacemaking, partnering with us to explore the realities of the God of peace. Together, let us worship the Lamb who reigns nonviolently, and let us proclaim God’s peace.

Evan K.M. Knappenberger is an Iraq war veteran and a Philosophy and Theology major at Eastern Mennonite University

Learn more by reading the Winter 2015 issue of Intersections – Conscientious objection.

For a timeline of peace church and broader efforts to obtain provisions for conscientious objector discharges from the U.S. military, see:

Brock, Rita Nakashima and Lettini, Gabriella. Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.

Center on Conscience & War:

GI Rights Hotline: