Magazine article The Christian Century

Seafarer Chaplaincy Confronts Piracy Fears

Magazine article The Christian Century

Seafarer Chaplaincy Confronts Piracy Fears

Article excerpt

The recent dramatic high seas rescue of a merchant ship captain held hostage by Somali pirates stirred a public debate on whether cargo vessels should be armed. It also drew attention to the more than 1 million mariners who are essential in transporting 90 percent of the world's traded goods, including humanitarian aid to needy countries. And it gave voice to the little-noticed chaplains who provide hospitality to mariners at ports in 126 countries.

The U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama was headed April 8 to Kenya with relief shipments from USAID, the World Food Program and other relief agencies when the ship was boarded by four pirates some 300 miles off Somalia. The crisis ended days later when U.S. Navy sharpshooters killed three of the pirates.

At a U.S. Senate committee hearing April 30, the skipper, Captain Richard Phillips, said it is the U.S. government's responsibility to protect any ship flying an American flag. Phillips said an armed brigade of specially trained crew members might deter pirate attacks. But John Clancy, chair of the private shipping line, differed in his testimony, saying that arming and training crew officers would be too expensive and could escalate a deadly arms race with already well-armed pirates.

At the New York--based Seamen's Church Institute, the largest and most comprehensive of U.S. maritime ministries, the "consensus is that arming merchant ships is probably not the best solution," said Douglas Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers' Rights.

"There are no simple answers," he said, adding that both the Episcopal Church-related Seamen's Church Institute and the International Christian Maritime Association have studied the growing peril for years. Since 2003, more than 1,660 merchant mariners have been kidnapped or taken hostage, according to industry figures.

"Somalia-based pirates want to keep their captives alive [to demand ransom money], whereas in waters off Southeast Asia or Nigeria you are in an armed robbery situation," said Stevenson. Deterrence would be limited: "Many ports prohibit merchant vessels that carry weapons."

Due to an upswing of pirate attacks off East Africa, Lutheran World Relief is not planning at present to send shipments to either Kenya or Somalia, said a spokesperson May 6 at the LWR headquarters in Baltimore.

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Observing that shipping lines are evaluating all options to protect their crews, Trevor Knoblich, LWR program associate for material resources, said in an e-mail that "piracy, terrorism and violence between tribes often stems from severe poverty" and that the people of Somalia and Kenya desperately need assistance.

"While we are working to avoid risks, we cannot eliminate them entirely," Knoblich said. "We also do not want our work to be dictated by a fear of piracy-there are legitimate needs and many peaceful, deserving people in those areas."

In the larger picture, threats of piracy are regionally limited--and not the only concerns for the 1.2 million merchant mariners operating 100,000 vessels that deliver the bulk of world trade, according to maritime leaders. …

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