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United Methodist bishop talks peace with Tony Blair

2/19/2003 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

NOTE: This report is accompanied by two sidebars, UMNS stories #088 and #089. A head-and-shoulders photograph of Bishop Melvin Talbert is available.

By Kathleen LaCamera*

LONDON (UMNS) - The results of war with Iraq would be catastrophic, a group of church leaders, including United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert, told British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a face-to-face meeting Feb. 18.

Only days after U.N. Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix presented his latest report to the U.N. Security Council and more than 6 million peace protestors took to the streets worldwide, a U.S. National Council of Churches delegation visited Blair to express deep concern about a military response against Iraq.

During the 50-minute conversation at Blair's 10 Downing Street offices, delegates told the prime minister that the major U.S. churches have never been so united against a war. Only the Southern Baptists have issued a statement supporting military intervention.

The delegation also met separately with Britain's international development secretary, Clare Short, who has been one of the most prominent voices within the Blair Cabinet calling for military restraint. Short's department administers several billion dollars' worth of international aid distributed by Britain each year.

At the press conference that followed, Talbert and the six other members of the NCC delegation called the discussions "engaging, productive and honest."

"I found Blair cordial, very frank and someone who was genuinely listening to us. We came not to badger but to encourage the prime minister to use his leadership for peace and justice," Talbert said.

Jim Wallis, delegation leader and editor of Sojourners magazine, said that a "real relationship was established" with Blair during what he called a "crucial" conversation.

"The British government and the British people are in a position to shape this decision (about war with Iraq) more than any other people or government in the world," said Wallis. "I believe that the prime minister may be the best person in the world to open up the possibilities of a better way beyond the deadlocks we're now experiencing."

The Rev. Dan Weiss, of the American Baptist Church USA, explained that what was supposed to be a 15-minute conversation turned into a discussion that lasted for almost an hour. "We were delighted to meet the prime minister, even as our own president won't see us," Weiss said.

The White House has yet to respond to a request by church leaders for a similar face-to-face meeting with President George W. Bush.

"We will go home and ask for another meeting with Bush, based on the success of this meeting with Tony Blair," Wallis said. "(Bush) needs to take the interfaith, ecumenical community seriously. He hasn't up to this point; quite clearly, the British government has."

Wallis and others in the delegation expressed concern that Bush, a United Methodist, has "walled himself off" from critical voices. They are disappointed that the president has been unwilling to meet on this "faith-based initiative for peace" with leaders whom he has previously met with on other issues.

Of equal concern to Bishop John Chane of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington is the fact that there has been virtually no debate within Congress on a war with Iraq. "The churches are bringing that debate to the center of the public forum," he added. "We are hopeful about that."

Officially, the meeting with Blair was "private and off the record." Wallis reported that during their conversation, Blair and the delegates spoke candidly as fellow Christians sharing mutual and moral concerns about global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Key to their discussions was the central role that the United Nations must play in resolving these crises. The delegation also made clear its conviction that a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is crucial.

"Find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and you will isolate Saddam Hussein," Chane said. "That's an issue that's not even being addressed back in the U.S."

"We, as an American, British and international delegation, feel these issues should not be resolved by the last remaining superpower but by collective international efforts," Wallis said.

While delegation members urged the prime minister to take the lead in "helping the world to solve problems differently," they admitted no one could afford to walk away from the problems that have led to calls for military action. Their discussions identified practical solutions, including the possibility of the need for U.N. protectorates and international courts with strong enforcement mechanisms against the Saddam Husseins and Slobodan Milosevics of the world.

"This is a peace pilgrimage. We're not supporting Saddam Hussein. We're not identifying with the outlaw," Talbert said. "We are very concerned about what will happen to innocent people in Iraq in the rush to war. Over half the population of Iraq is under the age of 15."

Talbert has twice visited Iraq and as recently as January met with Christian and Muslim leaders there as well as with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.

During two full days of events in the United Kingdom organized by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, delegation members also met with a range of British religious leaders including the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Delegation participants included Talbert; Wallis; Chane; Weiss; the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk, Presbyterian Church USA; the Rt. Rev. Clive Handford, bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf; the Rt. Rev. Riah Abu El-Assal of Jerusalem; and the Most Rev. Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town, South Africa.

Accompanying the delegation were Bishop Peter Price, Anglican bishop of Bath and Wells; Bishop John Gladwin, Anglican bishop of Guildford and chairman of the Board of Christian Aid; the Rev. David Coffey, general secretary, Baptist Union of Great Britain; the Rev. John Waller, moderator, United Reformed Church; the Rev. Keith Clements, general secretary, Conference of European Churches; David Goodbourn, general secretary, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland; and Paul Renshaw, coordinating secretary for international affairs, CTBI.

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*LaCamera is a United Methodist News Service correspondent based in England.

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