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Gainesville man travels with peace in mind, aid in hands
James Jennings founded humanitarian group, Conscience International
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James Jennings of Gainesville talks about Conscience International, a humanitarian relief group he founded.

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James Jennings of Gainesville talks about meeting with high-level officials in Middle East countries.

As he combed through archaeological digs in the Middle East, James Jennings learned to speak conversational Arabic and found a tugging at his heart to help people in the embattled region.

Jennings, who now lives in Gainesville, had taught Middle East studies at several universities for 25 years, as well as conducted surveys in Iraq and led excavations on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and at the pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

"Then I got interested in the humanitarian needs (of those countries), particularly following the wars over there," he said in an interview last week.

Since 1982, as founder and president of Atlanta-based Conscience International, Jennings has made a life out of traveling the world to regions torn by war and natural disasters.

Jennings also heads US Academics for Peace, which tries to engage in peace talks with government officials in countries where there is strife and division.

"We were doing that in Iraq before the war (and) when the CIA couldn't get in there," Jennings said. "We have met with (Palestinian militant group) Hamas and the government of Sudan, which everybody is condemning."

He shows pictures of meetings he has had with such leaders as Iran's former President Mohammad Khatami and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Talks with terrorists, and whether to set preconditions, has become a campaign issue in the race for president between U.S. senators John McCain and Barack Obama.

"What we found out is these (foreign leaders) are human beings with a particular ideology and they're not all aiming guns at you," Jennings said. "Many of them are highly educated and highly articulate.

"Some were educated in Western universities. They have a different point of view and what we try to do is deal with them as human beings rather than as ‘terrorists.' "

He has led academic conferences at Baghdad University, Tehran University, the Iranian National University, Damascus University and Khartoum University.

Jennings, 71, hasn't found just smooth sailing in those countries, however.

Knowing how to speak Arabic has "come in very handy because it has saved my life on more than one occasion," he said.

"I was arrested by death squads in Sudan and talked my way out of it. ... I've been picked up by the (Palestinian Liberation Organization) in the middle of the night."

Jennings also has co-founded a Muslim-Christian dialogue group in Chicago and met with religious leaders in Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Sudan. He has been a featured speaker at the Bishop of London's conference on Muslim-Christian dialogue.

In his humanitarian work, Jennings has led medical teams that performed surgery on children in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and trained 500 doctors and nurses in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul, Iraq.

He has led teams following earthquakes in Turkey, Pakistan and Iran, as well as aiding refugees in Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Sudan.

Jennings most recently returned from war-torn Georgia in the Caucasus region between Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Russia invaded Georgia in August over hostilities involving two breakaway regions in the area, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The privately funded Conscience International spent time mostly helping refugees in Gori and Tbilisi, Georgia.

The group brought medical supplies, mainly critical drugs targeted for children in pediatric hospitals, Jennings said.

The group also worked with the Georgia Red Cross in providing financial aid and logistical support so they could take trucks to shelters where people were staying.

Seeing relief come to very desperate people is the "payoff" of his work, Jennings said.

"What I've found is when you listen to your conscience and you follow it, that gives you a great deal of satisfaction and it energizes your work," he said. "And people respond to that."

Jennings said his next project involves setting up a "high-level meeting" in Sudan to help resolve issues in Darfur, where some 40,000 civilians have been displaced in the past two months by fighting between Sudanese government forces and rebels.

"It's really the greatest humanitarian problem in the world right now and has baffled everybody's attempts to solve it," he said.

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