U.S. Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox leaders spoke out early and persistently against a military solution to the Persian Gulf crisis, and despite the eruption of full-scale war many clerics continue to question its moral justification.
Although religious anti-war protests are continuing sporadically at the local level, church officials are also adopting a practical, compassionate attitude.
“Our task as churches in a time of war is fundamentally a pastoral one,” said a statement from the 32-denomination National Council of Churches after U.S. jets started bombing Baghdad. Council officials say they “will seek to bring solace” to families affected in the fighting and to channel contributions to the World and Middle East Councils of Churches for humanitarian aid.
“You can’t say we’ve accommodated to the war,” said Carol Fouke, a spokeswoman for the New York-based ecumenical body. "(But) we can’t ignore the refugees and casualties just because we disagree with the war. One reason we opposed the war was because of the refugees and casualties that we knew would result.”
The Very Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, president of the National Council, added in an interview that church people should decry on the home front “any dehumanization or demonization” of Arab-Americans. “They, or people who look Arabic, have been the object of inappropriate attitudes and hateful comments,” said Kishkovsky, a cleric in the Orthodox Church in America.
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, who explained his opposition to war personally to President Bush before Christmas and on Jan. 15, said he will continue exploring ways to suggest an early end to war. Bishop Edmond Browning also asked church members to keep Bush in their prayers--"that he and all the leaders of the nations may be guided in their decisions by the spirit of mercy and peace.”
Catholic Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, president of the U.S. bishops, said his church was disappointed by the outbreak of fighting. He said he joined with Pope John Paul II in praying for “a quick end to war” and a just peace.
“History will judge whether or when this war should have been launched,” Pilarczyk said, “but this day our hearts and prayers are focused on the lives at risk, the dangers still to be faced and the anxious families and communities we serve.”
Archbishop Roger M. Mahony, in a letter to pastors in his Los Angeles archdiocese written on the first full day of hostilities, said there was a “glimmer of hope” in the developments--"from the fact that weapons of unconscionable human annihilation have been destroyed, as well as the promise that the peoples of Kuwait will once again taste freedom and Iraqi citizens will experience human dignity fully.”
Mahony had outlined the U.S. bishops’ criteria for a “just war” to the Bush Administration in November, saying that war should be a last resort and urging the White House to “stay the course” in trying to make the U.N. economic embargo of Iraq work.
In last week’s letter, Mahony said that war became necessary. “As Christians we are sad that the resort to force became a necessary step in achieving full freedom” for Kuwaitis and Iraqis who have suffered human rights abuses.
Mahony sounded much sadder notes, however, in a commentary printed in The Times and the archdiocesan newspaper: “There are no real winners in war. Not only do suffering and destruction abound on all sides, but even more deeply, the human spirit grieves over one more failure to achieve alternatives to armed conflict.”
Religious peace activists who felt war was not justified say they plan to continue nonviolent protests even as they attempt to sympathize with people unavoidably caught up in war.
Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, president of the Catholic peace movement Pax Christi, said in Washington, D.C., this week that he was disappointed in the measured statements of fellow bishops. “I think that bishops, like every other person in the country, find it very, very difficult to confront our government,” Gumbleton said.
Pax Christi and Sojourners, an evangelical social justice group, took part in an anti-war protest Tuesday near the White House in which 62 protesters were arrested after they knelt on the sidewalk, violating conditions of a permit for a temporary vigil.
In a service before that vigil, Catholic Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, Va., noted that President Bush has called for a new world order. “But the means that have been chosen to pursue that end have all the semblances of the old world order, which says that might makes right,” Sullivan said.
In Los Angeles, the Religious Community Against War in the Persian Gulf is holding Sunday night prayer services at different locations and laying plans for some acts of civil disobedience, spokespersons said. This Sunday’s service will be at Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles.
About 900 people at last Sunday’s interfaith service in St. Vincent’s Catholic Church in Los Angeles heard Father Chris Ponnet deny that “we are obliged to silently surrender our allegiance to our President” just because war has commenced. At times, civil laws need to be “resisted for the sake of peace,” said Ponnet, an associate pastor at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in Claremont. About 60 people at the service pledged to take that step.
The group, which has more than 1,500 mainline Christians, Jews, Unitarians and Muslims associated with its efforts, is discussing “creative, nonviolent and gentle” ways to break laws in symbolic protests, said organizer George Regas, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. Those steps will not be taken lightly or without a consensus, he added.
“Certainly, we want to send a message . . . that we encourage a nonviolent process,” said the Rev. Kenneth Brown, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Society of the Verdugo Hills.
In contrast to the yellow ribbons of sympathetic support for troops, the coalition has urged in a statement that people wear black ribbons as a sign that “war in the modern era is no longer a moral and just option.”
The coalition is “very concerned” about the American servicemen and women in the Persian Gulf, Regas said. “We support them, but we do not support the policies that sent them there.”
In the meantime, many Catholic and Protestant clerics have expressed their dismay to their Jewish colleagues over the Iraqi missile bombings in Israel. Mahony and several Protestant officials in Los Angeles said they were in prayerful support of American Jews and Israeli citizens.
In San Francisco, a statement from the Interfaith Witness for Peace in the Middle East denounced both the missile attacks on Israel and the bombing runs by the allied forces against Iraq. In addition, the statement, endorsed by United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert and representatives of the Catholic archdiocese, criticized American news media coverage of the war.
“We call the media and all people away from a fascination with and glorification of a war machine, and we ask them to rather lament the lives that machine destroys,” the statement said.