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International church leaders plead for peaceful solution


NOTE: A sidebar, UMNS story #108, and photograph are available.

By Joretta Purdue*

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
The Rev. Bob Edgar, a United Methodist who heads the U.S. National Council of Churches, opens a Capitol Hill briefing in which four European ecumenical leaders (immediately flanking Edgar) and three other U.S. religious leaders told congressional staff and media representatives they were united in their message to stop the move toward war with Iraq. A UMNS photo by Lionel Meyer. Photo number 03-64, Accompanies UMNS #107, 2/27/03
WASHINGTON (UMNS) - Congressional legislative staff and media representatives crowded a room in a Senate office building to hear top-level ecumenical representatives from Europe express solidarity with the people of America and call for a peaceful solution to the conflict with Iraq.

Two United Methodists were among the four U.S.-based religious leaders who also spoke at the one-hour briefing Feb. 26. They advocated for a peaceful solution to the standoff with Iraq, which has resulted from dictator Saddam Hussein's alleged buildup of weapons of mass destruction.

"As people of faith, we are one in our concern about the rush to war. We are one in our opposition to thinking war is an option," said the Rev. Bob Edgar, who moderated the event. Edgar, a United Methodist, is head of the National Council of Churches staff.

A former congressman from Pennsylvania, Edgar stressed that none of the speakers favored the policies of Iraq's government. "But we believe the president of the United States and the U.N. have won," he declared. "The inspectors are there; let them inspect. If we need more inspectors, bring more inspectors in. If we find weapons of mass destruction, destroy them.

"We don't need to go to war to (settle) the issues that are presented to us in relation to Iraq," he said. Edgar described his experience in Baghdad, which he visited during the New Year's holiday with a group of 13 people. He displayed a picture of a 4-year-old Presbyterian Iraqi that he had met, and warned of the damage to children there and everywhere in the event of war.

"The prevailing assumption in the United States government is that war with Iraq is inevitable," said Jim Winkler, staff head of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the denomination's international agency for advocacy and social justice. "As a Christian, I find such sentiment to be unacceptable." He urged Christians to face up to the choice between their willingness to participate in war and their faith in God and Jesus as the prince of peace.

Winkler has traveled to Baghdad and Germany in the last two months with NCC-led groups of U.S. church leaders. Such groups have met with government leaders in Great Britain, France and Italy, and plans are under way for a March trip to Russia.

"The only government that refuses to speak with church leaders is our own," he said, after noting that both President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are United Methodists.

"The notion that the United States can remake Iraq and, indeed, the entire region into a democratic, pro-Western zone through a military invasion is a fantasy," Winkler declared. "No matter how contemptible Saddam Hussein is, the people of Iraq do not want a U.S. Army general as their new dictator, viceroy or proconsul. Further, the nearly complete lack of willingness on the part of our government to address the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not bode well for an absolutely necessary regionwide settlement."

The Rev. Jean Arnold de Clermont, president of the French Protestant Federation, defended his country's call for allowing the U.N. weapons inspectors more time to do their work. "We are hurt and shocked when the position taken by France is considered hostile to the United States," he said. "Your best ally is not one who guides you into error but helps you find the road to peace."

He also warned that such a conflict would play into the hands of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. "A war in Iraq would be a catastrophe for the moderate American and Muslim world," de Clermont said. "This is exactly what bin Laden is hoping for."

"We are not anti-American," asserted Bishop Manfred Kock, president of the Council of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (Germany). His church has stated that it rejects an attack on Iraq "for reasons of ethics and international law."

"War is contrary to the will of God," and it must be a last resort of policymakers, Kock said. All war brings distress to innocent people and often does not achieve its goal, he added.

"It's not for the United States of America or the United Kingdom to decide when we should go to war, but for the United Nations to decide about peace," said the Rev. Alan D. McDonald, with the Church of Scotland.

McDonald, representing the churches of Britain and Ireland, said the people in those countries held unprecedented protests. "The overwhelming majority of the denominations of the United Kingdom have spoken out clearly and decisively against the rush to war with Iraq," he said. That's despite Prime Minister Tony Blair standing shoulder to shoulder with President Bush on the matter, he noted.

"Peace is a long-term process without politically manipulated timetables," said Salpy Eskidjian, a program executive with the World Council of Churches. The council includes 342 churches and denominations in 120 countries with a membership of 400 million Christians. The United Methodist Church is a member.

Saying the international ecumenical fellowship is united in its message to stop the war against Iraq, she asserted that "war is not the work of God but a sin against God and a degradation of humankind."

"U.N. diplomacy is not flawless," said Eskidjian, a native of Cyprus. "But if diplomacy is flawed and frequently stumbles or fails, war is most certainly a flawed instrument. Indeed, war is not an alternative 'solution'; it is the absence of a solution."

Pax Christi, an international Catholic peace movement, has repeatedly condemned a pre-emptive war with Iraq, said Marie Dennis, a vice president. One reason is that the lives of 1.26 million children in Iraq will be endangered as "more than 60 percent of Iraq's population depend heavily on the U.N.'s Oil for Food program, which will not be sustained - or will be very difficult to sustain - in the event of war."

"The burden of war will once again be carried by the poor and vulnerable as military expenditures steal funds from social programs in the U.S. and around the world," she said.

Even the suggestion that the United States would use nuclear weapons "would, we believe, unleash a destructive force," she said. Pre-emptive war in Iraq will further destabilize the region, causing more deaths; "increase the threat of terrorist attacks around the world, including on U.S. soil"; cause ecological devastation; and open the door to similar acts of aggression by other countries.

"We urge the U.S. Congress to withdraw its support for war in Iraq and demand answers from the Bush administration about the potential cost and consequences of a U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq," she said.

"The world is desperate," asserted Jim Wallis, executive director and editor of Sojourners magazine. He led the NCC delegation that met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "We're desperate" to find an alternative course of action that is neither war nor inaction, Wallis said.

He suggested that if the inspections imposed are not strong enough, they need to be strengthened. "If there are concerns about how effective they are, how might we make them more effective? If resolutions are not being enforced, how might they indeed be enforced?" He said the focus should not be on attacking the people of Iraq but on addressing the problem: Saddam Hussein.

Said Wallis: "We must find a way to respond to Iraq without bombing the children of Baghdad."

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*Purdue is United Methodist News Service's Washington news director.

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