e-mail us
Religious leaders divided on NATO air strikes

NCR Staff

As air strikes against Yugoslavia continued in late March, opinion from religious leaders was divided. Many, while emphasizing that intervention was needed to halt Serbian aggression against the population of Kosovo, expressed reservations about the consequences of military action.

A March 24 statement from the U.S. Catholic bishops struck a common note of ambivalence as it posed the “difficult moral and policy questions on which persons of good will may disagree.”

“What harm will Serb civilians suffer?” the statement asked. “Will bombing protect the civilian population in Kosovo against aggression or instead intensify these attacks and strengthen the Yugoslav regime’s resistance to a political settlement? What are the consequences of failing to act?”

More pointed criticism came from leaders of peace groups, who said that their predictions about these concerns had come true -- that the air strikes had increased hostilities, bolstered support for Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and exposed Kosovar civilians to more oppression and ethnic cleansing.

While short on details on how to force the warring sides back to the negotiating table, most religious and peace groups called for a return to negotiations. Some turned the U.S. concern for victims in Kosovo into a cry for investigations of genocide that has occurred in other parts of the world, such as Rwanda and Guatemala.

Solidly behind the NATO bombing strategy, however, were an array of Jewish and Muslim organizations claiming the resort to force was necessary to halt the violence against the population of Kosovo.

“One thing that’s been clear as things have escalated -- Milosevic is not deterred by violence,” said Nancy Small, national coordinator of Pax Christi USA.

The most common cry from the religious community was for a return to dialogue, “a dialogue that, in the end, offers the best and only hope for a new relationship between the peoples of the region,” the U.S. bishops said.

‘Never too late’

Pope John Paul II said at the end of Palm Sunday Mass March 28 that it is “never too late to meet and negotiate.” Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls said the Holy See was conducting an intense but quiet diplomatic campaign to bring all sides back to the negotiating table.

The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, said that successful mediation would first require an end to hostilities on both sides. “One cannot talk about peace and negotiations while the nightmare of bombs and massacres is going on,” Sodano said. “We all need to contribute to this peacekeeping effort so that the weapons are quieted and all sides return to dialogue.”

Even within the conflict-torn region, there was no consensus regarding the air strikes. Archbishop Franc Perko of Belgrade, Yugoslavia, said, “It would have been better if a solution could have been reached without military intervention. However, the main responsibility lies with Yugoslavia’s policies and, particularly, with the fact that Milosevic wants to maintain power at all costs.”

However, Bishop Joakim Herbut of Skopje-Prizren, the diocese that straddles Kosovo and Macedonia, said March 30 that the air strikes were “useless and damaging ... wounding many human lives and prejudicing the future of the people of Kosovo.”

The bombing campaign drew strong condemnation from religious leaders in Russia, where hundreds of Russians protested outside U.S. embassies and consulates. Patriarch Alexii II, leader of the Russian Orthodox church, called the NATO bombing “a sin before God and a crime from the point of view of international law.”

“It is perfectly clear that the Serbs will never agree with the estrangement of the Kosovo region, which is and was their spiritual center from time immemorial,” he said.

The Russian Christian Interconfessional Advisory Commission, including Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant church leaders, urged a return to negotiations and called the air strikes “an extremely dangerous precedent threatening the very principles of interstate relations.”

NATO’s failure to consult with the U.N. Security Council was a significant point of contention for many critics. Antonio Papisca, an Italian professor of international relations at the University of Padua and a frequent commentator for Vatican Radio, called the air strikes illegal under international law. “Once again the question arises: ‘Why, once and for all, can’t the United Nations be allowed to function?’ ” Papisca asked.

From bad to disastrous

According to Fellowship of Reconciliation, a U.S. peace group, the air strikes “have turned a very bad situation into a disastrous one ... establishing a precedent for circumventing the United Nations and dangerously expanding NATO’s mission.”

According to the leaders of U.S. Catholic religious orders, lack of consultation with the United Nations in this case is symptomatic of the U.S. government’s “patchwork approach” to the world’s conflicts.

“Innocent victims in a geographic zone covered by NATO are no more nor less worthy of the world’s attention and protection than genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda and Mayan Indians in Guatemala,” said a statement signed by Mercy Sr. Camille D’Arienzo, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and Marist Br. John Klein, president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.

They urged the United States to ratify the International Criminal Tribunal, support the United Nations’ peacekeeping and human rights enforcement and “cease its financial starving of the U.N. just when its institutions are most needed.”

The leaders of the conferences added, “We sincerely hope that the determination that the U.S. is showing in Kosovo will spill over into an assiduous internal and public investigation of the U.S. historical involvement in the genocide in Guatemala.”

Several peace activists accused the United States and NATO of inconsistency in its pursuit of human rights violators. War Resisters International, a network of over 70 pacifist groups in more than 30 countries, said, “NATO does not exist to protect populations condemned to live under criminal regimes. How can it when its own members include countries like Turkey, whose methods against Kurds are equally horrific?”

Jesuit Fr. John Dear, executive director of Fellowship of Reconciliation, said March 30 that he had returned from Iraq the previous week, where he had led a delegation of Nobel laureates to witness the effects of U.S. sanctions on Iraq. “I saw with my own eyes how the United States is inflicting genocide,” Dear told NCR. “I want to stop killing, violence, genocide, bombing everywhere on all sides, among all peoples.”

Dear said that bombing is not the way to end the killing. “I always believe that nonviolence never fails,” he said. “You can never exhaust the possibilities of nonviolent alternatives.”

Peace activists criticized the international community’s failure to support an eight-year nonviolent resistance waged by Kosovars. Since the early ’90s, Kosovars carried out a nonviolent campaign of boycotts, strikes and demonstrations, and had developed their own parallel government and educational institutions.

“Some said it was the largest scale, ongoing, massive nonviolent resistance since Gandhi,” said David Hartsough, executive director of the San Francisco-based Peaceworkers organization. Hartsough traveled to Kosovo several times in support of the nonviolent resistance. In March 1998, he was detained by Serbian authorities, jailed and later expelled from the country.

“If the international community had responded, it would have become the massive success story of this century,” Hartsough told NCR. “It would have averted the destruction happening now.”

Opportunity lost

But that opportunity was lost, observers say. “The international solidarity that was so important didn’t materialize,” said Stephen Zunes, associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco. When the Kosovo Liberation Army began to gain support from frustrated Kosovars, “only then did the international community take notice,” Zunes told NCR. “It gave the wrong message -- namely, if you want attention to your cause, take up a gun.”

By the same token, the international community has failed to encourage democratic forces within Serbia, Zunes said. “The trouble with military force is that it has just encouraged the hard-liners and marginalized the opposition,” he said.

In a March 29 statement, the Fellowship of Reconciliation called on the United States “to respond creatively and nonviolently” to the crisis in Kosovo “using wisdom and true strength rather than brute force.” The group suggested that the United States and other NATO members offer temporary political asylum to all Serb soldiers, policemen or potential inductees, as well as KLA soldiers.

The money spent on the bombing campaign -- over $1 billion after six days, the group said -- could be spent on educational scholarships or job training for Serb or KLA deserters. “This better use of American and European tax dollars would save the lives of many Serbs, Kosovars and Americans while furthering the education of a new generation of Yugoslav leadership to take the place of those who would be sitting in prison in The Hague,” said the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which brought to the United States 154 students driven from their homes during the war in Bosnia.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation joined those urging the arrest and indictment of Milosevic by the International War Crimes Tribunal.

According to Rose Berger, assistant editor of Sojourners magazine, leaders of Kosovo’s three main religious communities -- Islamic, Serbian Orthodox and Roman Catholic -- “lay the problems happening primarily at the feet of Milosevic. But they also hold the international community accountable for not recognizing the problem at Dayton. There will be no stabilization of the Balkans as long as Milosevic stays in power.”

The Washington-based Sojourners evangelical community urged that Kosovo’s religious leaders be immediately allowed a part in the peace process. “Religious leaders stress that each of their traditions holds the human being as the most valued part of God’s creation and that they must work together to protect the rights of all persons regardless of religious or national identity,” the group said in a March 25 statement. “All persons have a right to live together in Kosovo -- it does not belong to any single group.”

Opening up the peace process is an idea shared by other observers. “Accessible peace agreements have to come from interested parties themselves, rather than for outsiders to say, ‘Here is an agreement -- sign it or we’ll bomb you,’ ” Zunes said. He said that although he thinks the outline of the Rambouillet Agreement is a good one, “the way it was presented, I think it’s a nonstarter.”

Muslim, Jewish support

American Muslim and Jewish groups were among those who stepped forward to give unqualified support for the NATO bombings. The Kosova Task Force U.S.A., which includes more than a dozen American Muslim organizations, called the attacks “long overdue.”

Abdul Malik Mujahid, the group’s national coordinator, urged the military action to continue until Milosevic “agrees to stop his aggression and to allow freedom and independence for Kosova and its people.”

Several Jewish groups offered their support, harkening to the Jewish people’s own experience in the Holocaust. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, in a letter to President Clinton, said that “as a people who still live in the shadow of their own experience with genocide, we know all too well the cost of inaction in the face of ‘ethnic cleansing.’ ”

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel contrasted the NATO air strikes with the Allies’ inaction regarding the plight of Jews facing death at the hands of the Nazis. “I don’t like to compare anything to what we have been through, but if the world had reacted then the way we are reacting now, many tragedies would have been prevented,” he said.

The American Jewish Committee and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations also publicly stated their support for NATO’s military action.

Others struggled to reconcile the need to protect Kosovars from Serbian ethnic cleansing with their abhorrence of military violence and their doubts that the NATO action will succeed in its aim to protect innocent civilians.

“If Milosevic blinks, as some of us hoped he would, then maybe we’ll say the bombing was a good idea,” said Newark Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, president of the U.S. Catholic Conference’s International Policy Committee. “If he doesn’t, and he hasn’t so far, where do you go? It’s a mess.”

Religion News Service and Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 1999