Religious leaders at front of war protest

Growing numbers decry pre-emptive strike against Iraq

By Julia Lieblich and Lynette Kalsnes
Chicago Tribune staff reporters

October 13, 2002

Mainstream religious leaders who largely remained silent during the military campaign in Afghanistan are protesting a pre-emptive strike in Iraq with an organized outcry not witnessed in the United States since the Vietnam War.

Many are issuing action alerts urging congregants to attend rallies, contact legislators and pray for peace. In Chicago, numerous churches are taking part in protests and prayer vigils, holding teach-ins and sending delegations to Iraq.

"I have never seen the broad-based religious community so united," said Joseph Fahey, professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in Riverdale, N.Y. "Usually peace groups take time before they make statements."

Not all religious communities disagree with President Bush's stand on Iraq--some Jewish groups and Christian evangelists have supported the war effort.

Still, in addition to the peace churches--the Quakers, the Brethren and the Mennonites--the leadership of the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalists, the Reformed Church in America, the Disciples of Christ, the National Baptist Convention and the Alliance of Baptists have all publicly opposed a pre-emptive attack on Iraq.

On Friday morning--following a vote in Congress to authorize Bush to use military force in Iraq--the general secretary of the National Council of Churches and more than 60 other church leaders from the United States and the United Kingdom released a statement calling a possible war "illegal, immoral and unwise."

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote to Bush last month saying, "We conclude based on the facts that are known to us, that a pre-emptive, unilateral use of force ... is difficult to justify at this time."

Said Fahey, "I've never seen the Catholic bishops come out so fast."

The involvement of prominent leaders ensures the antiwar sentiment is not dismissed as a fringe position, said Lester Kurtz, a University of Texas professor who specializes in peace studies.

"People have to listen when the United Methodist or Roman Catholic bishops speak."

Observers also said the level of organized interreligious opposition is unprecedented for a war not yet begun.

"It was well into the [Vietnam] War before any major organizing event," Kurtz said. "Now the war hasn't even started, and there's a substantial infrastructure ... opposing the war. And it's not just the Christian churches. You have Jewish groups, Muslim groups and Buddhist groups."

Mainstream Jewish organizations are divided on the issue, with several supporting the Bush administration's position, among them the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and the Union of Orthodox Jewish congregations. But the grass-roots Jewish Peace Fellowship said war will create more problems than it will solve.

And although several evangelical Christian leaders have joined the protest, five signed a letter backing Bush's "bold, courageous and visionary leadership" on Iraq, including Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. The convention itself has not taken a position.

Leaders who oppose the war are protesting strikes that are pre-emptive rather than defensive, and they want the U.S. government to exhaust diplomatic measures and seek United Nations support rather than unilaterally overthrow a foreign regime.

Opponents of the Bush measure fear large numbers of casualties and the economic impact on the Iraqi people in the aftermath of sanctions, as well as further instability in the Middle East. They oppose spending money on war instead of on feeding and housing the poor.

"We want to be sure we do not take action that imperils all of these millions of innocent lives," said Kareem Irfan, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, "and we want to be sure our country joins the rest of the world and takes a consensus approach."

It's not that religious leaders want Saddam Hussein in power.

"We believe the regime of Hussein is despicable, and tragically, only one of a number of despicable regimes on this Earth at this moment," said Rev. Paul H. Rutgers, a Presbyterian minister who heads the interfaith Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, which has not taken a position on the war. "It's not a question of not wanting to see him go, but a question of how we do it and what the aftereffects would be."

After the Sept. 11 attacks, few churches objected to military action in Afghanistan, said William French, a religious ethics professor at Loyola University Chicago.

"We had just been attacked, and the American attack on the Taliban seemed to be legitimate.... We were trying to defeat a regime that was providing coverage and sustenance to a terrorist organization, and this terrorist organization had just proven itself massively capable of inflicting huge harm."

But the churches are differentiating between the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, French said. Unlike the previous Gulf War, French said, the United States may act alone, without United Nations sanction and without a provocation such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

"They worry that a pre-emptive attack on Iraq is an offensive assault," French said. "Their concern is not just the rush to war, but it's the unilateral rush potentially by the United States standing alone."

Michael McConnell, regional director of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, said a first strike without immediate provocation "changes the whole calculus around international law and protocols."

Many religious leaders invoke a just-war theory, which sets conditions under which war is morally justifiable. These include an exhaustion of non-violent resolution methods and an assurance that the potential good outweighs the harm.

Cardinal Francis George of the Chicago archdiocese said Wednesday that the Catholic bishops are not ruling out military action.

"But we're saying in this case war should be a last resort," he said.

Some churches, French said, worry that an attack could lead to unintended consequences, such as splitting Iraq between competing ethnic groups, further destabilizing an already troubled region and establishing a risky new model that would allow the U.S. to overthrow regimes. "It's a very rough world order to maintain," French said. "It sets a very dangerous precedent."

Churches that follow just-war reasoning are not ruling out war as an option, Rutgers said. But they are urging the government first to seek other means of Iraqi compliance, to get international support and to engage in serious public debate.

"I think that's where most of us are," Rutgers said.

A Presbyterian Panel survey released this month said 43 percent of Presbyterians think that "to pre-emptively destroy weapons of mass destruction" is a just reason for the United States to attack Iraq. But it is too early to tell, Fahey said, how many parishioners will follow their leaders in opposing a war.

Parishioners he has encountered reject absolute pacifism. But they're not rushing to support a first strike, either. When it comes to war, he said, "they want to know the greater good is being realized."

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune

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