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Worshipers Show Strain of Gulf Tensions : Religion: Sermons about war and peace monopolize weekend services as nations edge closer to a showdown.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A mood of helpless foreboding prevailed at a variety of Orange County church services Sunday as pastors and their congregations wrestled with understanding an impending war that has suddenly slipped from only possible to seemingly inevitable.

“You can see it written on their faces,” said Msgr. Bob McLaughlin, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Angels in Newport Beach, where several parishioners have relatives in the Persian Gulf. “You don’t hear any of the arrogance where everybody’s proclaiming they know what should be done. That’s fading as it becomes less of an argument and more of a possibility. It’s definitely a different tone from this day last week.”

In Garden Grove, the normally upbeat Rev. Robert H. Schuller told his congregation at the Crystal Cathedral that they should “be prepared to accept the worst"--a knock on the door heralding a message of death. He led the congregation in a “GI’s Prayer”: “No matter how far he’s forced to roam, just bring, I pray, my GI home.”

Churchgoers wiped away tears as musicians played “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while a 90-foot American flag was unfurled.

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Echoing the sentiments of many religious leaders, Schuller told his congregation that he felt torn over the crisis. “I don’t know how I would vote (in congressional hearings on whether to authorize war). I listened to one side and thought, ‘Boy, you’re right. Then I listened to the other side and thought, ‘Boy, you’re right.’ ”

Pastor John Huffman of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church of Newport Beach told his congregation that he had had some sleepless nights this week, pondering his love for his children and the prospect of young lives being affected on both sides. “They are the children of people just as significant in God’s eyes as we are.”

He asked them to consider the traditional criteria, most recently published by the Roman Catholic bishops, for a just war: Is the war engaged for a just cause? Is it authorized by the competent authorities? Is it undertaken with the right intention, that is, are the stated reasons the actual reasons? Is war the last resort? Is the probability of military success sufficient to justify the human costs? Are the costs of war proportional to the objectives to be achieved?

“It was a very sobered congregation,” said Huffman. “I saw people brushing away tears. I don’t remember anything comparable to this in my lifetime.”

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Rabbi Allen Krause of Temple Beth El, a reform Jewish congregation which meets in Laguna Niguel, said, “There’s a great deal of anxiety for everyone. No one wants to see Americans involved in a war . . . there’s a lot of pessimism--that there doesn’t seem to be any other way out.”

The rabbi devoted his Saturday Sabbath sermon to the Middle East situation. Afterward came a lively debate among congregants and a prayer for peace.

Hussein’s attempt to link the gulf crisis to a Palestinian homeland has made for a hot topic among the local rabbinic community for weeks. For his part, the rabbi said he believes that, unfortunately, war may be the only way to reduce the military threat of Iraq and, along with it, the danger to the existence of Israel.

Krause added that he sees wildly divergent viewpoints on the war-peace question and that he finds himself in a distinct minority on one related question: his position that the creation of a Palestinian state may be the only way to reduce tensions in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, worshipers at Holy Cross Melkite Catholic Church in Fullerton heard prayers that God enlighten “all leaders to stay away from war and work for peace,” said Nadia Saad Bettendorf, president of the Orange County Chapter of American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The congregation is composed of Catholics from countries in the Middle East, many of whom worry about family in the event of war. “They believe it won’t be located between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. They believe it will spread all over the place.”

However, she said there was more anger than tears after the service as worshipers discussed recent FBI announcements of investigations of some Arab-Americans to discourage domestic terrorism.

“No matter what the FBI says it is trying to do with this investigation, it does give the appearance that Arab-Americans are suspect,” she said.

In Garden Grove, a spokesman for the Islamic Center, attended by Muslims of various countries, said there was no anxiety, although everyone is concerned.

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“They are just on their guard,” he said. “They are just hoping some untoward action will not take place.”

The intense situation in the Persian Gulf may have pushed a few more people to religious services over the weekend. St. George Episcopal Church in Laguna Hills drew a “recognizably larger group of young men” to services, said the Rev. Bob Noble, associate rector.

Many churches have planned special events or prayer vigils related to the possibility of war.

Practitioners of the Church of Religious Science in Huntington Beach scheduled a 24-hour prayer vigil Sunday evening.

“Our basic prayer is sensing God not only within ourselves, but within all people,” said Roger Teel, associate pastor. “Ultimately, we have no adversaries. No enemies.”

Harbor Christian Church of Newport Beach will hold an Interfaith Prayer for Peace at 8 p.m. today, just hours before the U.N.-imposed deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.

The pastor, the Rev. Gene Swanson, said the service will include a number of leaders of faiths in the county.

Those participating include the Rev. Larry Young, pastor of Christ Church by the Sea, United Methodist, and the new president of the Newport Mesa Irvine Interfaith Council; Dr. Ebrahim Amanat, a representative of the Bahai Fellowship of Irvine; Father Gerardo Tanilong, of St. Joachim Catholic Church of Costa Mesa; Rabbi Mark Rubinstein of the Temple Isaiah, which shares facilities with Harbor Christian; Sherif Ahmed Mourad, president of the Muslim Fellowship of the UC Irvine Interfaith group, and Swanson.

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Times staff writer Eric Lichtblau contributed to this report.


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