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
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. . . ."
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