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Iraqis ask religious delegation: why war?

3/11/2003 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

NEW YORK (UMNS) - When the Rev. James Fitzgerald, a United Methodist pastor, visited Iraq in early March, the people were friendly, but many asked the same question: "Why does the United States want war with us?"

Whether he was chatting with a Baghdad taxi driver with three children in the Iraqi Army or listening to a Syrian Catholic archbishop urging his flock to wait for the "salvation of God," Fitzgerald found the Iraqis to be resilient but resigned and - at a deeper level - in a panic about the threatened U.S. military attack on their country.

"It appears that not many people are leaving (Baghdad)," he told United Methodist News Service. "Of course, where can you run? People are just feeling very trapped."

Fitzgerald, who serves as the minister for mission and social justice at Riverside Church in New York, was part of a multiracial, multifaith group that made a "Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace" to Iraq. Goals included carrying the message that all parties involved in the conflict must do everything possible to avert war and seeing, firsthand, the effects of long-term sanctions against the Iraqi people.

The March 1-7 trip was preceded by meetings with the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations and U.N. and U.S. State Department officials, as well as prayer vigils in Washington. The Rev. Traci West, a United Methodist pastor and professor of Christian ethics and African-American studies at the church-related Drew University School of Theology in Madison, N.J., also was a member of the delegation.

Fitzgerald said he was most surprised by the "normalcy of life" that continues in Baghdad, despite the ever-darkening threat of war. He also found that people did not hold him, as an American, responsible for that threat but instead "were polite, respectful and cordial."

But whether direct or implied, West said, the question always came: "What did we do to you to deserve the sanctions and now the bombing?"

"There just was no answer," she added. Instead, she felt powerlessness and deep pain "at knowing my tax dollars are going to pay for this bombing."

As an African American, West said she felt "tremendous solidarity" with the Iraqi people "whose lives are being disregarded as we plan this attack." Just as their suffering is being met with indifference by Iraqi, U.S. and U.N. officials, she pointed out, so has the economic suffering of African Americans been historically ignored by U.S. policy-makers.

The human cost of the longtime sanctions and the possibility of imminent bombing seem to portend not so much a war as a massacre to West. She said she couldn't forget the throngs of hungry, impoverished people who fill the streets of Baghdad and would be affected by any military strikes.

Fitzgerald said he was haunted by the fact that some of the people he talked with could be dead in a month or two. That feeling was reinforced by the group's visit to the Al-Admiryya Shelter Memorial in suburban Baghdad, where the outlines of human shapes can still be seen against the walls of the shelter, struck by two U.S. smart bombs on Feb. 13, 1991.

Fallout from the 1991 war also was visible when the group visited the Saddam Pediatric and Maternity Hospital, where patients lack basic medicines prohibited by the sanctions. Doctors told the delegation that patients are more prone to incidents of childhood leukemia and skin cancer because of exposure to depleted uranium from warhead tips stuck in the desert sand.

West said she does find hope in the preparations being made by the Middle East Council of Churches and other religious organizations to provide relief "and stand with the people after all the bombs have fallen."

Other delegation members were the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, national presiding minister, House of the Lord Pentecostal Churches, Brooklyn; the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, president, National Black Leadership Roundtable, and pastor, New Bethel Baptist Church, Washington; Imam Shaker Elsayed, secretary general, Muslim American Society, Washington; the Rev. John Mendez, representative, Progressive National Baptist Convention, and pastor, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C.; Imam Faiz Khan, M.D., board of directors, ASTHMA Society for Islamic Culture and the Arts, New York; and the Rev. Edgar Nkosi White, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York.

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