A coalition of church leaders on both sides of the Atlantic yesterday urged President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to pull back from the spiral toward war with Iraq, saying the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, though real, is not imminent enough to justify military action.
The heads of more than 60 Christian organizations issued a statement opposing a preemptive war on both moral and practical grounds. They included leaders of Bush's and Blair's own denominations — the United Methodist Church and the Church of England, respectively — as well as other major Protestant groups, Catholic men's and women's orders, humanitarian agencies and seminaries.
Several religious leaders said they were hoping to spark a much more vigorous public debate after failing this week in a last-ditch effort to persuade Congress not to authorize the use of force.
About 450 ministers, priests and nuns from across the country had fanned out on Capitol Hill in the three-day lobbying and prayer campaign, according to former representative Bob Edgar (D-Pa.), a Methodist minister and general secretary of the 36-denomination National Council of Churches.
"A congressional decision has been made, and many regard this as the end of the national debate on war with Iraq. We are here to say the vote in Congress is simply the beginning of the debate," said Jim Wallis, editor of the evangelical journal Sojourners and an organizer of the statement.
Religious groups that back Bush's position toward Iraq already have picked up the challenge. After the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and some mainline Protestant groups first expressed opposition to war on Iraq last month, five evangelical Christian leaders wrote the White House Oct. 3 to say they would support a preemptive strike under the "just war" principles developed over the centuries by Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and other Christian theologians.
"In just-war theory only defensive war is defensible; and if military force is used against Saddam Hussein, it will be because he has attacked his neighbors, used weapons of mass destruction against his own people, and harbored terrorists from the al Qaeda terrorist network that attacked our nation so viciously and violently on Sept. 11, 2001," said the letter.
It was signed by Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries, D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ and Carl Herbster of the American Association of Christian Schools.
Yesterday's statement by church leaders in the United States and Britain also cited the traditional Christian criteria for a just war — and concluded that the Bush administration has not yet met them.
"We do not believe that preemptive war with Iraq is a last resort, could effectively guard against massive civilian casualties, would be waged with adequate international authority, and could predictably create a result proportionate to the cost," it said.
"Let there be no mistake: We regard Saddam Hussein and his regime in Iraq as a real threat to his own people, neighboring countries and to the world," the church leaders wrote. "The question is how to respond to that threat. ... Diplomatic cooperation with the United Nations in renewing rigorously effective and thoroughly comprehensive weapons inspections ... could achieve the disarmament of Iraq without the risks and costs of military attack."
The U.S. signers included the heads of the organizations Habitat for Humanity and Bread for the World, two Catholic bishops, deans of several schools of theology and representatives of the Quakers. The British signers included 17 bishops of the Church of England, the president of the Baptist Union and the head of the Scottish Episcopal Church.
John B. Shane, the Episcopal bishop of Washington and one of the signers, told reporters that just-war theory makes a distinction between "anticipatory self-defense, which is morally justified, and preventive war, which is morally prohibited." In this case, he said, "I don't see the threat from Iraq to the United States as an imminent threat, so ... military action against Iraq is inappropriate."
Shane and other church leaders also gave practical reasons for opposing military action, including the possibility that it will trigger more terrorism against the United States, harm the U.S. economy and shift government spending from education and anti-poverty programs to defense.
Some of the religious leaders lashed out at both the Republican administration for advocating war and Democrats in Congress for lacking the courage to oppose it.
"We are convinced that the current move towards war is generated by fear — fear that has been carefully nurtured by the present administration. Fear of another September 11th. Fear of not being reelected," said Sister Carole Shinnick, executive director of the Catholic Leadership Conference of Women Religious.www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A14640-2002Oct11.htmlE-mail this article