Christian Peacemaker Teams founding father dies of heart attack

FORT FRANCES, ON—White-bearded anti-war activist Gene Stoltzfus, known around the world as the founder of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), died suddenly of a heart attack while riding his bicycle Wednesday, March 10.

"Those of us who knew him are quite stunned," CPT co-director Doug Pritchard told ChristianWeek.

Stoltzfus was 70 years old, active and healthy, says Pritchard. "It was the first bright spring day and he was eager to get out on his bike." Stoltzfus collapsed near his home.

Driven by a vision of a world without war and convinced that Christians must work to diffuse violence with the same zeal and self-sacrifice that soldiers display, Stoltzfus was appointed as the first director of CPT in 1988.

Trained teams of Christian peacemakers intervene in conflicts around the world, often physically putting themselves in the way of violent attackers and drawing public attention to human rights violations.

While U.S. forces bombed Baghdad in 2003, CPT team members stood alongside Iraqi civilians and used their bodies to protect water treatment facilities, electrical plants and hospitals.

In 2005 Iraqi militants abducted four CPT members and held them hostage for four months. Team member Tom Fox was killed in March, 2006 and British military forces rescued the other three team members two weeks later.

The CPT Iraq team met with Muslim and Christian leaders, families of Iraqi detainees and American soldiers and helped bring to light atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib.

Pritchard recalls travelling to Afghanistan with Stolzfus shortly after the September 11 attacks.

"Gene was quite fearless," Pritchard recalls. "What Gene was certain we would find, we did find—dozens and hundreds of Afghans with their own vision for peacemaking in a region the western media portrayed as mired in warlordism and violence."

CPT originally sponsored by Mennonites and Brethren Christians but has grown to draw on broad ecumenical support from many denominations who support its mandate of Biblically-based, spiritually-centred, non-violent peacemaking.

Seeds of peace

Stoltzfus came face to face with war as a volunteer with International Voluntary Service in Vietnam during the 1960s. Watching helicopters unload bloody bodies set him on the search for a more creative response to violence than killing.

His work for justice and peace took Stoltzus to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East, the Phillippines, the U.S. and Canada.

After retiring in 2004, Stoltzfus and his wife Dorothy Friesen moved from Chicago to Fort Frances, Ontario. Stoltzfus continued to travel, speak and blog about non-violence.

"He had such a strong vision of a world free of war that he didn't worry that much about money," says Pritchard. "He felt that if he shared a powerful vision people would be drawn to participate."

Stoltzfus captured a piece of that vision in his last blog post on March 3 about ongoing violence in Iraq:

"I believe trained and disciplined unarmed peacemakers in good numbers could have done without arms what armed soldiers could not accomplish," Stolzfus wrote.

"We are not condemned to surviving in a world where the law is decimated by successive generations of paramilitaries. But the answer will probably not come from the Pentagon nor from the White House…It will take an expanding world wide but grass roots culture reaching beyond national borders to fashion a body of Christian peacemakers to be an effective power to block the guns and be part of transforming each impending tragedy of war. Little by little there will be change."

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