Christian activists' work praised
Appeals are being sent from all over the world pleading for the release of four peace activists, including two Canadians, held hostage in Iraq.
Kidnappers have threatened to kill the four men unless Iraqi detainees are freed from American and Iraqi jails by Thursday.
With the deadline approaching, Muslim groups in Canada and Britain have joined hundreds of concerned people who are signing online petitions, making video statements or holding vigils and demonstrations in an attempt to save the lives of the four humanitarian workers.
Jim Loney, 41, of Toronto, and Harmeet Sooden, 32, formerly of Montreal, along with Briton Norman Kember, 74, and American Tom Fox, 54, were grabbed off a west Baghdad street at gunpoint on Nov. 26.
Canada's influential Muslim organizations have called on the kidnappers to release the men, praising the Christian Peacemaker Teams' work around the world and noting their role helping to protect the rights of Palestinians.
"They have practised and demonstrated a deep respect for Islam and for the right of Iraqis, and all Arab and Muslim peoples, to pursue just self-determination. They do not work under the auspices of any government, nor do they accept money from any government or governmental agency," the Canadian Islamic Congress said in a statement.
The Muslim Association of Britain said yesterday the group should be welcomed into Iraq and "treated as honourable guests instead of being kidnapped and used as bargaining chips."
The statement included signatures from militant Hamas and Hezbollah groups and internationally respected Muslim scholars and clerics. A demonstration is scheduled for today in Hebron and a candlelight vigil in Ramallah tomorrow night.
A previously unknown group calling itself the Swords of the Righteous Brigade last week claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
The BBC, quoting a Western diplomat in Baghdad, reported yesterday that direct contact had been made with the group, but the British Foreign Office later disputed the claim.
"Sadly, while wishing that were the case, it has not happened," a spokesperson said. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said his government stands "ready to hear what they have to say."
Cases where ransom or some other attainable demands are sought have more often ended in the release of hostages, said Rita Katz, director of SITE Institute, a Washington group that tracks and translates militant activity on the Web. But if the hostages are abducted to make a statement, the appeals will fall on deaf ears, she warned.
"If it is Al Qaeda or one of those organizations affiliated with Al Qaeda, no outreach will help," Katz said in an interview.
SITE is now working under a U.S. government contract to investigate militant groups.
Katz said websites associated with violent groups, including those reportedly linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian said to be Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, have not discussed the Swords of the Righteous Brigade.
She said this leads her to believe that the kidnappers' goal in the case of the Christian peace activists is money, not politics.
"It's really not typical for these groups who carry out these assassinations to kidnap someone and not make it public."
Dan McTeague, parliamentary secretary responsible for Canadians abroad, said yesterday Canada had sent representatives to the region to help negotiate a release but would not provide specifics.
Germany and France are also trying to help release their citizens taken hostage in the latest surge of kidnappings of foreigners. French engineer Bernard Planche was abducted at gunpoint in Baghdad yesterday.
German archaeologist Susanne Osthoff and her Iraqi driver were abducted Nov. 25. Her kidnappers have demanded that Germany stop co-operating with the Iraqi government.
With files from Star wire services