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Head of churches’ council seeks to avert war

New York

Why is it, wonders the Rev. Robert Edgar, that he can meet a full hour with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, hand deliver a message from Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to former President Jimmy Carter, and prepare for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and yet “I can’t get in to talk to President Bush.”

Back from recent trips to Baghdad and Berlin and about to travel to Moscow in early March, Edgar pondered the question Feb. 14 at the Interchurch Center here, headquarters of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. A former six-term Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania and a United Methodist minister, Edgar has been general secretary of the council for three years.

The council represents some 140,000 U.S. congregations of Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican believers, numbering 50 million Christians. As a Christian body, its membership is second only to the Catholic church, which counts some 64 million adherents.

In a question-and-answer session with NCR and a dozen representatives of Protestant churches, he detailed the council’s opposition to a U.S.-launched preemptive strike against Iraq, designed to topple Saddam Hussein and rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. After a six-month effort to change hearts and minds in Congress and in congregations, council leaders have taken their campaign to European religious and political leaders.

On Feb. 17 a five-member delegation met with the new archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and on Feb. 18 took its concerns to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush’s chief ally in the struggle with Iraq. On Feb. 26 another NCC delegation, which was to have included a Catholic representative, hopes to meet with Pope John Paul II and to brief Vatican officials on the churches’ objections to war.

Each of the delegations has emphasized that America’s religious leaders -- including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- oppose war with Iraq, favor the continuation of the work of United Nations weapons inspectors and are committed to a peaceful solution to the crisis. The U.S. bishops’ Nov. 13 statement opposing the war is posted on the NCC Web site.

“Preemptive war is immoral and illegal,” Edgar said. “It is theologically illegitimate and profoundly violates our Christian beliefs and religious principles. As disciples of the Prince of Peace, we know that war is completely antithetical to Jesus’ teachings.”

In mid-February Fr. Stanley DeBoe of Silver Spring, Md., was part of the NCC’s five-person delegation to Paris. DeBoe’s Trinitarian order began in Paris in 1198, with its mission to facilitate the payment of ransoms and the return of prisoners, both Muslim and Christian, during the Crusades. DeBoe co-chairs the ecumenical group Churches for Middle East Peace.

The NCC delegation met with French Foreign Ministry officials, church leaders and the press and held an ecumenical prayer service for peace at the Madeleine Church in central Paris, which drew 500 worshipers.

Although Edgar was not part of the Feb. 10-11 delegation to Paris, he noted the group’s surprise that “the general impression in France is that the churches are all behind Bush.” What perplexes European church leaders is that Bush, a United Methodist, is a member of a church that’s a member of the NCC, Edgar noted. The United Methodists and the NCC are opposed to waging war against Iraq. Yet Bush is pushing ahead. How is that possible? asked European Christians and the French and German media.

Edgar, along with two other U.S. church leaders and 13 from Europe spent an hour with Schroeder at his Berlin office Feb. 5. The chancellor explained Germany’s outspokenness against the pending war as the actions of “a good ally.” A good friend doesn’t let a good friend make a big mistake, Edgar said, paraphrasing Schroeder.

On March 2 Edgar will meet in Washington with visiting European church leaders.

In the weeks prior to the Persian Gulf War, Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, an Episcopalian, met with his church’s presiding bishop, Edmund Browning, at the White House. President Clinton held frequent sessions with the Rev. Phillip Wogaman, pastor of Foundry United Methodist church in Washington, which the Clintons attended.

So why can’t Edgar see Bush or at least be given the courtesy of a reply to his letters requesting a meeting? Edgar suspects the president wants to “keep his own counsel.” Moreover, the White House is aware that Edgar and many in the religious community question the morality of a U.S. invasion of Iraq and of the half-million casualties that the World Health Organization estimates would result from such a war.

In late December Edgar led a 13-member NCC delegation to Iraq. “We came as humanitarian inspectors, not weapons inspectors,” he said. The group asked “pointed” questions of Tariq Aziz, Edgar said, regarding human rights in Iraq, and opportunities for dissent and criticism of the regime. “We wanted to be clear with the American people and the Iraqi government that we do not support authoritarian governments,” Edgar said.

The group focused its trip on the faces of children -- Syrian Orthodox, Chal-dean Catholic and Muslim. The delegation brought back photos of some 800 Iraqi children. In the birthplace of Abraham, the group worshiped with Iraqi Christians and prayed with Muslims. Members attended a New Year’s Eve Mass at a Catholic church.

Edgar said he left Baghdad convinced that a war against Iraq would make the United States less secure, not more secure, and would put both Israel and the United States more at risk of terrorism. “So-called smart bombs can do dumb things,” he said, such as missing their targets and destroying homes, water and sewage treatment plants, schools, churches and mosques.

“War is rarely the final solution. The unintended consequences are unknown and almost always graver than the war itself,” Edgar told NCR, referring to a key point made by Carter in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.

Edgar was one of 49 U.S. religious leaders who sent a letter to Bush Jan. 30 seeking “with the utmost urgency” a face-to-face meeting. When this request and many previous entreaties failed, Edgar launched a full-page ad in The New York Times, in an effort to rally “faith-based opposition” to this war. The ad showed the president bowed in prayer and carried the headline: “President Bush: Jesus Changed Your Heart. Now Let Him Change Your Mind.”

In addition, the NCC and United Methodist church launched a $1 million television campaign. In it United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert, the denomination’s top ecumenical officer, states that the administration’s proposed war “violates international law … God’s law and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Such a war will only create more terrorists,” said Talbert in 30-second spots that have aired on Fox Cable News and CNN.

Is the council’s campaign likely to deter the warriors in Washington? Edgar believes “war is not inevitable and can be averted, even at this moment.” He urged church people, especially those skilled in Old and New Testament studies to “be courageous” and speak out. “The Old Testament prophets never held a majority; they never took a vote; they simply raised their voices.”

Patricia Lefevere is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2003