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Middle East meetings stress need for protection, aid


By United Methodist News Service

A gathering of Iraq's religious leaders and meetings with heads of government in Lebanon and Iraq have led executives of the U.S. National Council of Churches to renew their call for nonviolent solutions to the Middle East's problems and for more humanitarian aid.

The Rev. Robert Edgar, staff head of the NCC and a United Methodist clergyman, and Antonios Kireopoulos, who heads the NCC international affairs and peace area, were among the international religious leaders, intellectuals, diplomats and officials from humanitarian aid agencies who attended a May 27-28 meeting in Amman, Jordan.

The meeting of Iraq's religious leaders, including Shi'ite, Sunni and Christian representatives, to address the Iraqi crisis was convened by the World Conference of Religions for Peace.

"The Iraqi religious leaders - Christian and Muslim - met together and really reported that there is danger on the streets of Baghdad and throughout Iraq, and they shared a strong conviction that the international community must help," Edgar said. He added that he's sure the leaders will be heartened by the decision of the countries represented at the G8 summit in France to support the rebuilding of Iraq.

"What was important (at the meeting) was to receive confirmation that chaos has broken out in Iraq following the military action, and that going to war might be easier than securing the peace." Edgar reported.

In what was believed to be an unprecedented meeting, the Iraqi Muslim and Christian leaders urged that humanitarian aid organizations increase their assistance through Iraqi religious and other social institutions, that the occupying forces provide security to the civilian population as they are obligated by international conventions and that a temporary Iraqi government be formed as soon as possible.

Their joint statement, issued May 28, asked that a permanent Iraqi government be based on free, democratic elections and that a constitution be adopted that would protect all religious, ethnic and national groupings while maintaining the nation's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

"I have to say that the United States and Great Britain did not help themselves by not being prepared for what would take place after the military action, and that was clearly in the hearts and minds of the religious leaders who came to Jordan," Edgar observed.

"On the positive side, I think there is a very important moment right now in the Middle East," he said. It's important for Christian, Muslim and Jewish moderates to assist in the peacemaking in that region, he explained.

Meetings with Lebanon's prime minister and Syria's president, as well as regional Christian leaders, made "very evident that they believe there is a role for the international religious community, as well as the government officials, to develop nonviolent and peace strategies for the region," Edgar said.

The Rev. Riad Jarjour of the Middle East Council of Churches - an organization of Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches in the Middle East - coordinated the visits. He and the two NCC executives were joined by William Vendley, president of World Conference of Religions for Peace.

President Bashar el-Assad of Syria thanked the NCC and the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops for opposing war in Iraq and, more importantly, Edgar said, for "communicating to the broader community in the Middle East that the ultra-extremist Christians in the United States - the fundamentalists - don't represent the total religious view."

Edgar said that the primary purpose of the visits to the three countries was to communicate "that the moderate-to-progressive (U.S.) community stands for nonviolence and wants to work for peace in the region."

Kireopoulos said their purpose was to bring a voice of moderation, tolerance and mutual respect to the region.

Middle Easterners of both Christian and the Islamic viewpoints see the proselytizing efforts of U.S. Christians in the Middle East as possibly more destabilizing than even the war itself, Kireopoulos said. "To them, that translates into a clash of civilizations or a crusade and that sort of thing.

"Both the Christians and the Muslims saw (our voice of moderation) as a note of hope and not a rush to cultural and religious war," he explained.

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