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US Christian Leaders Rally as Peacemakers
Published on Saturday, November 2, 2002 by the St. Petersburg Times (Florida)
US Christian Leaders Rally as Peacemakers
Faced with the prospect of war against Iraq, many in mainstream churches view the idea of a preemptive strike as morally at odds with the teachings of the Prince of Peace.
by Sharon Tubbs
 

Fifteen years have passed since the Rev. Robert Edgar stepped down from his seat on the U.S. House of Representatives. But the United Methodist minister still has his foot in the door of the Capitol's dealings.

As general secretary for the National Council of Churches, Edgar is a leader in the increasingly broad religious opposition to war on Iraq. Some are calling the movement the biggest show of solidarity against war since Vietnam.

Edgar, himself, is calling it proof of a nation's spiritual maturity. In recent months, nearly 50 Christian leaders -- bishops for the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ and the National Baptist Convention -- have sent President Bush letters opposing the war.

"It took 10 years for the (religious) community to get behind an antiwar sentiment in the 1960s," Edgar said of the response to Vietnam. "We have matured now," said Edgar, whose group includes 35 Protestant and Orthodox denominations, representing 52-million Christians. "We are able to ask some questions."

At issue for many is whether the nation should engage in preemptive strikes against Iraq, especially without the full backing of the United Nations and knowing the probability is high that women and children will be killed.

Never mind that Congress has already given Bush the go-ahead. Edgar and others believe there's still time to change military course. A protest last week drew more than 200,000 to the White House. Continually, petitions are being signed and more proclamations issued. Edgar plans to meet with at least 40 religious leaders in New York on Monday to organize protest efforts nationwide.

"Having served in the House, I think there are several months to change attitudes," Edgar said. "We're further along now than we were in the Vietnam War."

The faithful have appealed to Bush's own sense of religion. Both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are Methodists. It was no small occurrence, then, that the United Methodist Conference of Bishops issued a statement critical of Bush and Cheney, calling a move toward war "reckless."

"United Methodists have a particular duty to speak out against an unprovoked attack. President Bush and Vice President Cheney are members of our denomination. Our silence now could be interpreted as tacit approval of war. Christ came to break old cycles of revenge and violence. Too often, we have said we worship and follow Jesus but have failed to change our ways."

Others have been equally forthright in their opposition. As if to prove the church means business, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, hand-delivered a letter of opposition to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in September.

Catholics, as well as others opposed to war on Iraq, contrasted this situation to the war on Afghanistan, to which Catholic bishops were not opposed.

"We believe Iraq is a different case," the letter said. "Given the precedents and risks involved, we find it difficult to justify extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, absent clear and adequate evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks of Sept. 11 or of an imminent attack of a grave nature."

The Rev. George Regas, head of the Progressive Religious Partnership, has garnered about 150 signatures of protest from religious leaders. His group organized protests and news conferences in cities nationwide and intends to continue its efforts.

"When people begin to look at it through the lenses of their faith traditions, they become very distressed with it," Regas said. "The cost of that war in human life and resources is grossly disproportionate to what the aims are."

Some faiths have been silent on the war. Jewish organizations have remained mostly mum on the issue. Some of them fear that support for the war would be interpreted as pro-Israeli or anti-Palestinian. Several rabbis, however, were among the 150 signatures on Regas' petition.

Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida in Orlando, said his group has not protested openly to avoid a confusing message. He supports the removal of Saddam Hussein, but does not think this is the time for war with Iraq, he said.

A weak economy, the absence of worldwide coalition in favor of the strikes and other domestic issues make Bush's timing poor, Musri said.

"We're trying to fight terrorism on one hand and we're trying to take care of the homeland," Musri said. "Our hands are full."

Locally, the faithful have created a steady stream of peaceful protest outside churches, schools and MacDill Air Force Base.

Anne Richter, a member of Pax Christi, the national Catholic peace movement with a chapter in the Tampa Bay area, has helped pass out fliers to parishioners going to Mass in Tampa and demonstrated outside of the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg.

"There are many people who are not in favor of the war," she wants people to know.

Amal Kurdi was among a group of students at the University of South Florida last week who carried signs in the rain against the war. The Muslim student was encouraged by the stream of honking horns in support of their effort. But there were those, she said, who frowned on the antiwar sentiment.

One man stopped his car, got out and flailed his arms, she said. "This is ridiculous, simply ridiculous!" he said.

Indeed, not everyone in religious circles is opposed to preemptive strikes. Countering the mounting opposition, some high-profile Christians support the president, if not war itself.

The Rev. Chuck Colson, head of Prison Fellowship Ministries, said he thought the Catholic bishops were wrong for suggesting that preemptive attack could not be justified morally.

"If they (the Bush administration) can show that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, and that it is preparing to use them or put them in the hands of those who will, then a preemptive strike would be morally justified."

The Rev. Jerry Falwell urged Christians to pray for Bush, while hailing his move toward war as valiant. "The fact that Saddam Hussein -- the man President Bush said provides a 'grave and gathering danger' -- is a madman who has a cruel history of torture and stark cruelty. . . . It is apparent that our president urgently needs the prayers of God's people to support him. . . ."

© Copyright St. Petersburg Times

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