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Church agency promotes anti-torture petition


An anti-torture banner covers the signboard at the United Methodist Building in Washington. A UMNS file photo by Wayne Rhodes.
 
By Wayne Rhodes*
May 12, 2009 | WASHINGTON (UMNS)

The United Methodist Board of Church and Society is soliciting signatures to send to President Obama and the U.S. Congress urging an independent commission of inquiry into allegations of torture by the U.S. government.

The petition campaign is in response to Obama’s statement that prosecution of anyone involved in torture may not occur because of “very complicated issues.”

The campaign also is taking on urgency in light of a recent survey that shows more than seven in 10 Americans continue to believe there are circumstances in which the torture of suspected terrorists is justified.

The survey, “The Religious Dimensions of the Torture Debate,” released April 29 by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, also found that the more often a person attends religious services, the more likely he or she is to say torture against suspected terrorists is sometimes justified. Pew said white evangelical Protestants are the most likely group to offer at least some support for torture, while those not affiliated with a religious denomination are the least likely to do so.

Only 25 percent of respondents said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is never justified.

“Shame. Shame. Shame on any Christian who could imagine there is justification for torture against any human being. I cannot conceive in my wildest dreams of Jesus Christ giving any blessing to torture,” said Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

The Board of Church and Society is part of a larger campaign raising the voices of religious communities opposed to torture.

“It's time for people of faith around the world to stand up and let their voice be heard,” said Bill Mefford, director of the agency’s human and civil rights work area. “Torture in any form, whether psychological or physical, is dehumanizing to the victim and to the perpetrator.”

Red Cross report

A report from the International Committee of the Red Cross has documented U.S. activities that it characterizes as torture. The report demands U.S. authorities investigate all allegations of ill treatment and take steps to punish the perpetrators where appropriate.

Last month, a Senate Armed Services Committee report said senior officials in the U.S. government solicited information on “aggressive techniques” to use against detainees. It said Justice Department memos attempted to set a legal precedent for torture, where there was none, after the aggressive interrogations had already begun.

Some political figures, including leading Democrats, have argued against a special commission of inquiry because they said it would appear less of a bipartisan effort to seek the truth than a Democratic effort to seek “retribution” against the former administration.

The United Methodist Social Principles state torture for any purpose violates Christian teaching and must be condemned. Much of the national policy debate has centered around which activities constitute torture, and whether there is a moral argument for more aggressive interrogation practices if they can prevent the deaths of innocents.

The Board of Church and Society supports an independent inquiry.

“How do we bring reconciliation and healing if we avoid looking for the truth behind how it happened?” asked Mefford. “We must acknowledge our corporate sins that allowed torture to happen and move forward so the truth will set us free from our tortured past.”

Signatures for the petition are being gathered at www.umc-gbcs.org/UMsDoNotTorture. The campaign coincides with June “Torture Awareness Month.”

The June observance is a program of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. In three emphases for the month, the campaign said it will lobby for a commission on inquiry, putting into law key provisions of Obama's executive order banning torture, and expanding the belief that torture is always wrong.

‘Truth will set us free’

Mefford said last year’s emphasis was to end torture by U.S. authorities. “This year’s is to open an inquiry into whether persons should be held accountable for what the previous administration has acknowledged as ‘enhanced interrogations,’” he explained.

Most attention on the United States use of torture has focused on its signing the 1949 Geneva Conventions that protect prisoners from “cruel treatment and torture.”

The United States also signed the “U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, Degrading Treatment or Punishment.” That convention specifies each nation shall ensure acts of torture are offenses under its own laws.

The convention also declares “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

The petition calls for a commission of inquiry, but also includes a personal pledge to educate, empower and engage others in the signers’ communities about the issue of torture and shining a light on past actions.

The campaign’s Web page, www.nrcat.org, offers activities congregations can do during Torture Awareness Month.

Mefford encourages people of faith, particularly in light of the Pew research, to take a minute to add their name to “The Truth Shall Set You Free” petition.

“We want you to be a part of this statement of faith,” he said.

* Rhodes is director of communications for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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The Religious Dimensions of the Torture Debate

Public remains divided over use of torture

Resources

United Methodists Do Not Torture

National Religious Campaign Against Torture

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