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Talk of war and peace in the air

Try as church leaders might to focus on ecclesiastical affairs at the Synod of Bishops, the dramatic world situation cannot be put in parentheses, and so talk of war and peace has been very much in the air.

In comments made largely outside the synod hall, some prelates have called for the West to make a limited response, the scope of which would be to bring those parties responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks to justice, preferably before an international tribunal. Others seem prepared to support a broader strike against terrorist networks and nations that support them.

Islamic leaders also had an unusual chance this week to address the West at an impromptu Muslim/Christian summit sponsored by the Sant’Egidio community. They called for less heated rhetoric, a limited military response, and above all a resolution to the Palestinian problem.

At a news conference Oct. 1, Cardinal Edward Egan of New York supported restraint.

“Vengeance, reprisals and retaliation are not the words of civilized people,” Egan said. “Certainly we want justice to be done if we can identify responsible groups and individuals, but we don’t want to make ourselves complicit in a series of injustices” by striking at people “who are not implicated.”

Egan expressed a preference that penalties be meted out by “the United Nations or other international organisms.”

“We must do what is just in a manner that is just,” Egan said.

At the Oct. 3 and 4 Muslim/Christian summit, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan took a similar approach.

“Legitimate self-defense must impede terrorism,” Martini said. “But it’s necessary to act without hasty responses, simplistic identifications of scapegoats and a search for immediate targets.”

“The terrorists must be identified and disarmed with energy and determination, but that cannot be done if an entire culture, religion or nation is held to be responsible,” Martini said.

Other prelates, however, seemed prepared to support a strike against at least one nation: Afghanistan and its Taliban regime.

“This is a very terrible government that doesn’t respect the human rights of its own people,” said Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican’s office for ecumenical relations, in response to a question from NCR.

“When a government shelters terrorists, the civilized world has a right to come to a conflict with this government,” Kasper said. “There is a network and it must be destroyed, but without shedding innocent blood, as much as possible.”

Egan, in response to a question from NCR about whether there should be a national examination of conscience, said the events of Sept. 11 should prompt the United States to reflect on whether its foreign policy might have helped create a climate of hate.

“To do so is not to say that there were necessarily errors committed, though there might have been,” Egan said.

“But we should ask, how do we account for what has happened? The National Catholic Reporter -- I hope they will put it on the front page -- is recommending to the archbishop of New York that there will be an examination of conscience. If they do that, I think it will be a big help to the Catholic world.”

Gregorio Rosa Chavez, auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, was more pointed.

“The United States must avoid the trap of war and seek instead the ultimate causes of terrorism,” Rosa Chavez said in a separate interview.

“This could be the occasion for a sharp change in international policy, for taking account of the fact that rich and poor all live on the same planet. The security of rich countries will be far higher to the extent they are capable of solidarity with poor nations,” he said.

At the Sant’Egidio conference, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi of Qatar took a tough line.

“The West must free itself from its superiority complex that looks at the rest of the world with the eyes of a master,” Al-Qaradawi said. “This cannot help but be a provocation.”

Al-Qaradawi emphasized the Palestinian problem.

“The true way to fight terrorism is to combat its causes … among which is the question of Palestine, whose sons are hunted and expelled unjustly from their homes,” he said.

Mohammed Salim El Awa, an Egyptian jurist, expressed frustration at the rhetoric coming from political circles.

“We have heard some politicians hark back to the wars known as the ‘Crusades,’ ” he said. “Others have described the glorious Islamic civilization as inferior to all others and undeserving of respect and consideration.”

The references appeared to be to President George Bush and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, respectively. Berlusconi recently made waves by referring to the West as a “superior civilization” in contrast with Islamic nations.

“Our hope is that those politicians listen to us today,” El Awa said. “Otherwise the world will no longer know the enjoyment of peace, and humanity will no longer savor the sweetness of human fellowship.”

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, October 12, 2001